Fifteenth in an ongoing series, “Notes from a Plague-Time”
The following email exchange was instigated by a young mother — I will call her “D.” — who wrote me on New Year’s Eve. Family friends, we live on opposite coasts, D. on the East, I on the West. She reached out to me because of my series, “Notes from a Plague-Time,” asking a plague-related question — and now, later, reports a nice surprise. D. is the mother of two sons, aged 10 and 8. As of this posting, 450,000 Americans have died of COVID-19, with experts telling us the worst of the pandemic is yet to come.
I have wondered if you might tackle, in your writing: Why so many of us have let our friends down during pandemic?
On Christmas Eve my best friend called to tell me one of the families in their three-family pod had willfully exposed the other two families to COVID, because “they didn’t think it was enough of an exposure to matter.” That family now all have COVID. My friend’s family and the other one spent the Holiday week listening for every little cough, checking temperatures, and waiting on COVID test results. As of yesterday, thankfully, they are all negative.
Families in our elementary school community have headed to Florida or the ski slopes, all while our governor begged us to stay home.
Earlier in the fall, as families were quarantined due to COVID exposures at school, they decided against following the rules, because “no one was showing any symptoms and the risk to kids is so small.”
Many of my husband’s friends have “had it with quarantine” and have already gotten the virus, so they are out socializing, going to bars, etc.
They are not bad Americans. They love their children, as we love ours. They pay their taxes (maybe not happily). They go to church. (We are the heathens, having abandoned the church when the church abandoned our gay community by withdrawing their funding to the local AIDS clinic over gay marriage.) They preach love of country. They help their neighbors.
And they have tested my faith in humanity.
So many of our friends and community members have disappointed us with reckless choices — rejecting science, flouting public health guidelines, traveling for holidays, questioning quarantine directives. This is something I think many of us are grieving.
As a family, I think we are looking at another two to three months of remote learning. I cannot understand why we prioritize bars, sports, and social venues — indeed, individualism — over the collective education of our youth. Perhaps this experience will help my boys’ generation to be the first one that actually does.
It is the children under the age of twelve that give me hope. They are the foot soldiers of this pandemic. They are dutiful in their schoolwork and tasks, self-organizing and doing their best to be self-sufficient. They deal with all the imperfect moves of exhausted, stressed-out, working parents. They deplore online learning (it is after all developmentally inappropriate for their age) and they still choose to do their best. When they do get to be in school, they follow the rules. “Wear your mask, wash your hands, keep your distance.” They comply, even though their hearts long to be right next to their friends. There are no complaints about their masks and the new normal. They are grateful, resilient, and brave. There are so many of us that could follow their example.
I’ve taken far too much of your time. These are the wonderings and observations of a mom on the New Year’s Eve of a year like no other.
Thanks for your thought-provoking bulletin from your trenches. Your question — “Why so many of us have let our friends down during pandemic?” — is one I personally am not experiencing. I have experienced the opposite: that old friendships have deepened and yield even more love and caring and deep knowledge about each other.
I am not a psychologist, nor a mother, but I will guess your take comes from the deepest part of yourself: that of the mother lion ferociously engaged in protecting her young. You deplore any behavior that puts your beloved children in danger, and understandably you deplore it as something they might emulate. That bad behavior, as you say, comes not from people demonstrably bad — yes, they love their children and mean well. But I do think this behavior reflects the power of ideology. While the Polar Ice Cap is melting, our political polarization has grown miles deep, with the conservative mindset freezing into — tragically — anti-science. This is something else we are grieving: the capacity for our conservative friends to ignore common sense, science and knowledge, and, yes, close friendships. I hate to say this, but I think it is going to take more death to pierce that ideological carapace. Sad to say, that great teacher — Death — also stalks your own beloved children, as well as those of the badly behaved. We can only adhere to best practices in fighting this terrible pandemic, and pray.
Too late, but in future when this terrible era is recounted in film or drama or literature, maybe then the badly behaved will truly see how dangerous, and selfish, their behavior was. As I say, a little late.
Good point of yours, D., about why the priority on keeping bars open, instead of working at a solution to keep schools open. (And no, “quarantine fatigue” doesn’t cut it for rationalizing bad behavior.) I think you, D., ever the educationist, can see your children are acquiring another, perhaps even more valuable education: In addition to the three Rs, they are learning about Life in its more important aspects — about human nature and behavior, responsibility, ethics, morality. No doubt you can see them developing their Philosophy of Life, and gaining depths of Character to boot — the really important things that get capitalized. The trick is keeping this new and better young American safe, until we get to a better day.
I always wondered what it would take for the yuk-yuk in America to get serious — where America needs to go if we are to mature. I think you, the mother lion, are seeing it come into being before your very eyes.
Which is why I love-love-love your paean to kids, not just your own, but to all kids, as the ones who, in this deadly crisis, are the ones showing the real wisdom and the real resilience and the real steadfastness. Somewhere in all this chaos, there is the Holy Grail, the Elixir, and the kids are finding it. It is the kids who are adhering to the pandemic’s best practices and also looking out for each other — unlike some adults they know. It is the kids who will help detach us from our extreme and destructive individualism and reintroduce us to a greater sense of the collective (and no, that’s not socialism). Again, we just have to shepherd them, the kids, to that better day. Let’s make that Better Day.
Hang on, D. The vaccines are enroute, and so are the kids. Carry on, o Valiant Mother Lion!
Very best, Carla
A month later, this busy young mother responds:
Your email brought tears to my eyes. I simply hadn’t realized how much of this I hold in my mother identity. Good noticing!
The delay in my response comes as a New Year dawns with hope, but also apprehension. I refer to the insurrection at the Capitol. Still hard to believe: an armed insurrection? At the U.S. Capitol? Also more sorrow: This past month (January), my family, friends, and I have all lost dear ones to the pandemic.
I wanted to share this. On New Year’s Eve, as a family we reflected on what we have learned this year. Among the many entertaining observations from our boys, were these words: “We can do hard things.” It took my breath away. “We can do hard things.”
The hard things are not wearing masks, staying home, or washing our hands. The hard things are missing physical connection and grieving our losses — people, experiences, what we thought we “knew.” The bottom line, in a 24/7, digitally connected, distracted world, is learning to be with ourselves. The discomfort of our emotions is hard work. I think if we are all being honest, this is what we’ve rejected with our tossing of masks and flouting of health directives — the pain of emotional growth.
As you point out, young people are learning loads. In the end, they will not have fallen behind but surpassed us, exponentially growing in character, maturity, and wisdom. They are my greatest hope. Yes, maybe the kids have found the Elixir!
Love to you always,