My daughter is four years old and has questions. She always has questions. That’s the nature of being four. But now, she has more. We’ve had the same conversation after breakfast nearly every day for the past two weeks of self-quarantine. It happens after my wife goes to work in our home office, which was once my office, but now, because my wife can’t go to work, it’s hers.
“When can we play with our friends again?” my daughter says. She knows the answer by now but asks anyway.
“I don’t know. When this is all over,” I tell her. I don’t have an answer because there isn’t an answer. “We have to make sure no one is sick so we don’t get sick or get anyone else sick.”
“But what if we’re careful?” she says.
She’s been stuck with me for four years. I’m a stay-at-home dad to her and her little brother. I’m good at it at times, and sometimes I succumb to its stresses. It’s not easy in the best of times. But now? Now she’s getting extra tired of me. Usually we spend a few days a week with friends at the library or the playground. Sometimes we go to reading group. Other times we go to play group at the Head Start building. My wife urges me, rightfully, to get out of the house with the kids. I begrudgingly go. I’m the only dad there most of the time. At home, I’m in charge even when I’m overwhelmed. When we leave, I have to be more focused; I’m no longer in control. During these times of COVID-19 and self-isolation, my daughter wants to go outside more than ever. She needs and deserves to leave. She wants to see her friends, who are the children of my wife’s and my friends. If she wants to play games at home, her nearly two year-old brother ruins them in an instant with one swipe of his hand, crashing Shoots and Ladders to the ground. I want to get out too, but I can’t let her know that.
Self-isolation is hard for a four year old. It’s impossible to grasp the severity of the situation and it’s even harder for a parent to explain it. She has a personality and independence and wants to revel in that. She can understand what is happening, but she doesn’t have the experience or vocabulary to comprehend. My son is in his own world. He’s fine with cars and chasing the chickens in our backyard, but he also needs space and socialization. We’re all tired of each other. We want to see someone new. We want to see the world.
“What kind of sick is it?” she asks. She wants to know if coronavirus is like the stomach bug she and her brother have got the last two winters. This year, my wife was at the casino with her friends in Boston celebrating. Her friend was nearly done with his undergrad that he put off until his late 30s. I told her to go out. It was important. It was January and cold. I put a movie on for the kids so I could close my eyes for a few minutes while my kids sat silent. I needed a rest before bedtime. I don’t sleep well when my wife is away, so I needed that moment. She goes to bed first, usually, so it feels strange to go to bed when she’s not home. My son stood up and puked a mix of dairy products all over the ottoman. He threw up in three pairs of pajamas. He took four baths. He vomited in my sweatshirt. Nothing stayed down. He was sick for five days. My wife got sick when she got home from the casino. Three days later as my wife took our son to the doctor, my daughter puked all over her mid-morning snack. The year before, my wife went to Vegas with a friend in February and the kids got sick. It snowed there. My son vomited all over me and the kitchen floor. My daughter slipped in it and her blue eyes cried. My mother came to help. My daughter threw up in her bed and on her floor and slept with me. I fought it both times. I had stomach pains for weeks. My body knows if I get sick all hell will break loose. But this sick isn’t that.
That’s the sick my daughter thought was ravaging the world. She’s smart, but there’s no way to tell her this is something different. People are dying. Lots of them. Too many to seem real. It feels like a dream. It feels hopeless. I only sleep after hours of reading or video games. I need to escape. I can barely write or concentrate. My eyes are glassy at all times. The world is sepia toned and I’m stuck trying to keep everyone alive. My mother got on a plane two weeks ago. My father-in-law kept getting his lottery ticket until then, too. No one seems to understand. How can I make a four year old understand?
My wife has more work than ever. She left her job as an eighth grade math teacher last summer to work for a nonprofit that created an online teaching tool. She’s lucky. Now, as schools close and stay closed and more and more teachers sign up to use the program she has more work. They’ve doubled the number of users in the last few weeks. She’s become an essential employee, teaching teachers how to use the tool, leading webinars and discussions. She’s answering emails at all hours. She’s on her phone, working. She needs to work. Kids need to learn. She sets a schedule for us most days because I’m not good at that. But I can follow them at least. I can’t create something from nothing like that. My wife thinks accents are funny and asks me to do them. She asked me last night and on command I blanked. Same with jokes. Can’t tell jokes. Can’t remember names of songs or words. But ask me what shoes my wife wore the day we met 12 years ago and I could tell you that (Saucony’s).
On her off days we walk. The other day she took our daughter to pick up trash in our neighborhood. We live near an animal sanctuary in New England’s second largest city and people dump their trash along its borders.
Our neighbors across the street love our kids like their own grandchildren. They buy them gifts and give them hugs and kisses. Both of them are old and sick. When we moved in ten years ago, only she was sick. He worked at his barber shop or in his garden. He used to cut my hair. I went during his special hours on Sunday mornings when the blinds were drawn and his regulars called for appointments. Fewer started showing up. Time collected them, including me: I cut my own hair now. He can’t cut hair anymore, anyway. His eyesight is gone. He’s in his mid-80s. He used to watch his wife walk past the barbershop before they were married. Their oldest daughter runs the shop now. She cuts my daughter’s bangs for free. My daughter loves going and sitting in the now unused chair and waiting her turn. She looks at the pictures he taped to the mirror. He still gets dressed in a shirt and tie everyday. He used to work for the local Democratic Party, getting people from the neighborhood elected. Now he watches Fox News. My wife took my daughter over to their house the other day to draw pictures in their walkway with chalk. We told our daughter no hugs and kisses. Stay away.
“Why?” she said
“We don’t want to get them sick,” I said.
When they came out to say hi my wife reminds our daughter, “no hugs and kisses.” Our neighbor doesn’t understand. He thinks this isn’t a big deal. “The President is doing a great job,” he tells my wife. “I can’t imagine anyone else taking care of this.” He’s been going out nearly every day. He gets picked up by friends, also old and in danger, to go to the grocery store. It’s scary to think of life without them across the street. And it’s tough to explain to a four year old that we can’t show love to someone she loves. She named a doll after him. She asks about his wife all the time. When she was little she’d stand in the front door or in my bedroom and talk to them for hours. She’d wait for them to come outside and sit in the sun like they did, under the wind chimes of their front patio. She loves picking their raspberries and blackberries to share. They’re too old to pick them these days. She wants to bring them eggs from our chickens. We keep our son away because he doesn’t comprehend at all. He would run over and hug and kiss them and rub boogers on their clothes and furniture. He’s a lovable monster and that’s dangerous.
Every morning the same routine. She asks if we can go to the playground. She asks if we can see our friends. She’s tired of being cooped up. I don’t blame her. I’m tired. Exhausted. We all are. She’s heard the word “die” more times in the past month than in her entire life. She kind of knows what it means. One of our cats died on the kitchen floor, heart attack, when she was barely a year old. She saw him and tried to pet him. “Kitty,” she said as my wife cried and tried to save Jim, the cat. Her favorite chicken, named after Princess Sophia, was eaten by a fox. I had to pick up the remains of the other two he killed. She knows death, but it’s hard to explain to a four-year-old that death comes from a virus.
“How come there’s no medicine?” she asks.
“This is new,” I say. “It takes time.”
We FaceTime, call friends and family. She spends an hour talking to her friend. They show each other toys. My wife sits with our son while I nap. I had a headache. I go to bed early and wake up more tired than I’ve ever been. I fall asleep on top of the blankets, fully clothed, my arms crossed across my chest and my pit bull curled up behind my knees to keep me warm. She knows when I need her.
My wife keeps the kids busy. She’s makes crafts for our daughter. Our son won’t sit still for that. He still tries to eat markers and crayons and I can only imagine what he’d do with scissors or glue. We’ve find famous people reading stories on Youtube because I’m not in the mood to read stories. She and her brother watch them while I shower and my wife works. It’s supposed to keep them occupied. The baby gates are supposed to keep them in. It hasn’t worked yet. I take long showers. It’s the most quiet place in the world. It’s the best place to think. I need the warm water to open up my chest and sinuses.
This morning, before showers and stories but right after breakfast, she asks me again when this will be over.
“I don’t know,” I say.
I don’t have an answer. There is no answer. “We just need to wait until everyone is safe. If everyone stays safe, maybe soon we can see people.”
“When’s your birthday?” she asks.
It’s soon, which she knows. She loves birthdays. She gets two birthday parties because our family can’t all fit in our house at once in the winter. It’s a small house and a small kitchen. Two dinner celebrations. She loves to see her family. She loves to eat cake. I hate my birthday. I have for a long time. My wife throws great birthday parties. When I turned 30 she surprised me with a family dinner at a restaurant. Both our families were there. Then she told me to go out to my favorite bar with my brothers. When we arrived, she was there with all of my friends and family. I think of that night and cry sometimes. It was beautiful. My favorite birthday ever. No presents. No pressure. Friends and family. That bar closed last year.
“Who will come to your birthday?” my daughter wants to know.
“No one,” I say. “And that’s okay.”