Yesterday, exactly five weeks into this COVID-19 quarantine, I had a meltdown after dinner that ended with me abruptly turning off the cooking challenge we were all watching on TV and sending everyone to bed. Two-thirds of my kids didn’t want to eat their dinner but were trying to negotiate dessert with the child version of psychological warfare: repeating something over and over and over and over again. A leaning tower of dishes loomed behind me in the kitchen sink, and a mysterious perfume odor lingered in the air with all signs pointing to Peter Jack as the culprit. All I should have done that day was call it quits before lunch, when I had already had more than enough trying to battle whiny children who no longer want to do their school work. I should have loafed around without guilt to rejuvenate my energy, but that’s not what happened. I kept pushing. Kept working. Kept cooking. Kept serving. Kept berating myself for not squeezing in a second workout for the day. Kept second-guessing what I ate. Kept chastising myself for not having more energy to do more work. Kept feeling like I probably deserved this kind of hell.
After a while it grates on you– the doing everything. The repetitiveness. The thanklessness. The desire to drop down on your knees and cry out to the world, “What did I ever do to deserve this?”
I continued a series of mistakes that day by giving in to my fatigue with mindless social media, where people without small children post pictures of themselves lounging around like they are on vacation, and others fill their stream with devotionals to lovely partners and children and happy lives. I looked around at the stack of dishes in my own house, the crumbs on the floor, the work I still had to do, and I felt nothing but guilt for yelling at my children and hating my life. I had no energy left. Nothing. Completely empty.
A few days after Easter, Vanessa Bryant posted a video of Kobe and wrote about how her husband only got three years of retirement before his untimely death. This was supposed to be his opportunity to make up for lost time with his family since he sacrificed so much for his 20-year career. She talked about life being unfair. She called it “senseless.” I nodded, knowing the feeling of having to watch the rest of the world keep spinning while your life screeches to a standstill.
I think a lot about how much my grief has prepared me for a pandemic. This quarantine feels like my second rodeo, because so much of being in the throes of grief also felt like a type of quarantine.
And to be honest, I’m not sure I ever fully got out of that first quarantine.
It’s a lot of figuring out what to do when your life doesn’t go as planned. Adapting and grappling with senselessness. Learning how to navigate an unrecognizable world.
My husband died when our children were 13-months, 3-years-old, and 6-years old. The oldest hadn’t even graduated from kindergarten. I was nursing the youngest. The middle child was a daddy’s girl who couldn’t talk yet. I got thrust into survival mode every single day. Moving on felt like a distant place on the horizon, somewhere I’ve never been fully convinced I will ever reach. It is difficult to reconcile the life you thought you should have with the life you get stuck with.
Yet somehow I became adept at getting through a day. I can barely remember doing it, but I learned what I needed to do, even if it meant dragging myself to the finish line of bed each night. To this day I am riddled with feelings of inadequacy. But somehow we marched onward. I know this only because I have photographic evidence: four years ago Peter Jack was a baby sitting in his high chair with food smeared on his face, and now he is a proper boy ready to go to kindergarten and memorizing sight words and explaining metamorphosis to us…sometimes with food smeared on his face. I didn’t think it was possible, but we survived. I’m still standing. I did not give up.
Anne Lamott said, “Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait, and watch and work: you don’t give up.”
My throat tightens at the thought of my life at a standstill again– just when I thought there wasn’t any other way to lock me up. It turns out there most definitely was.
This pandemic will likely continue up to another two years, stripping away the lives we once knew and took for granted. It will forever alter who we are, yet I know that I can survive this too.
I’ve had to do a lot of work in the last several years working on my expectations.
In the article Our Pandemic Summer published in The Atlantic, Vietnam War POW James Stockdale– who was in prison and tortured for over 7 years– is referenced in the context of mindset. Stockdale said that the ones who had faith that they’d be home by a certain date were the ones who didn’t survive. These were the people who were so sure they’d be out by Christmas or some other specific date, only to have to deal with crushing disappointment when it didn’t happen. That takes a substantial toll on the human psyche. Stockdale explained that the POWs who made it out were the ones who had faith that they would be inevitably released, but they accepted the reality of their situation and didn’t pin all of their hope on a particular timeline.
I call this flexible expectations.
Flexible expectations are about trying to do what you can to impact your future in a positive way, but rolling with the punches even if those plans don’t materialize. And they often don’t happen the way we envision.
You know what they say about best-laid plans.
I’ve tried my darndest to live with flexible expectations after Kenneth died, but sometimes I still get mired in them. It’s not hard to understand this foolish propensity when we have been raised with Disney happily-ever-afters and live in a society that glorifies false realities. We’re basically conditioned from the womb to project fake happiness and to buy into societal definitions of success.
I’m not sure why it took widowhood to make me start believing in flexible expectations. Maybe the emotional stakes were the highest for me, but we all experience our lives not going as planned. It seems like we should start training for the psychological battle against ourselves at an early age– not have this become an epiphany during a mid-life crisis. We experience so many disappointments in a lifetime. When we don’t get into a particular school. When certain people won’t be our friends. When we don’t get the parents we want, job we want, house we want, partner we want, children we want, car we want. When we get an illness. The list goes on and on. We start to experience disappointment from the beginning of life until we take our last breath.
It’s the price we pay being human, yet somehow we internalize disappointment as failure.
I’ve been reading many articles about what will happen next for us after the pandemic is over, and there is a lot of advice out there about being intentional moving forward. We are all realizing that there were many aspects of modern society that were toxic. These articles talk about not just going back to normal, but re-defining a new normal. I like it. This quarantine made me realize that we almost never opened the blinds in our house because we were so busy. Imagine never being home in time to see your backyard during daylight. I bet many of you can.
This quarantine has also reminded me about the inner battle required to prevail over a change in reality. It might be too early to talk about our new normal when we haven’t even gotten out of ground zero yet.
This is the part where our resilience is both made and tested.
I should have gotten my hair done two weeks ago but instead I stood in front of my mirror during yet another day of social distancing. I inspected the shocking number of gray hairs wondering how it all snuck up on me. There could only be one suspect responsible for accelerating my aging process: Peter Jack.
It had to be him.
Two days ago he put a coin in a glass of leftover smoothie that inevitably got dumped into the sink and then jammed the garbage disposal.
He sprayed foot deodorizer into the electric pencil sharpener.
I found a pile of his dirty clothes stuffed under his bed.
He painted his bedroom wall with green nail polish.
It’s so much. Every single day I’m constantly playing a game of whack-a-mole that I can never win. My Peter Jack is a smaller version of life: constantly surprising me with something to knock me down. Cut my ego. Squash my confidence. He’s always forcing me to find a new strategy. Maybe he’s my training for combat.
I learned to cope with my single parenthood with help from sitters and cleaning people and daycare. I leaned into work and other commitments that allowed me to interact with people outside of my home. I held on to the hope that one day I would run into someone just as exceptional as my husband was and that this widowhood exile wouldn’t last forever. But right now, I’m stuck at home with my frizzy hair and yoga pants washing dishes for the 500th time and acting like I run a 24/7 cafe with customers who don’t tip. I am a prisoner of my circumstances. All of the things I used to get through a day are no longer available. My hope feels extinguished; the tediousness of it all suffocates me.
Stockdale pops into my head.
All of the uplifting quotes pop into my head.
I know them all.
Make lemonade out of lemons.
Appreciate right now.
It could be worse.
I know! I know! But sometimes I just want to wallow in my grief and have a magic fairy appear to console me with reassurance that yes, the universe has screwed me over and it’s totally justifiable to cry again as I’m washing the dishes and hating it all.
I started to keep notes about what worked and what didn’t work in a day. I am determined to outsmart these current circumstances. I also made a list of questions in my bullet journal and I made them bold and eye-catching:
What can I reach for?
What is the next right thing?
What is my battlefield?
What is important?
I have answers for them all, but it still doesn’t feel good enough.
Two days ago life in quarantine felt efficient and peaceful. We got things done and I felt balanced and rested. Yesterday I was stressed, irritable, feeling behind-in-everything and lacking energy. Just when I thought I mastered the quarantine life, I was reminded that I don’t have control at all.
Maybe that’s the problem. Control. It’s an illusion. Maybe all we’re ever supposed to be good at is chaos management.
A new book got delivered. Why Fish Don’t Exist. I wiped down the cover with my last Clorox wipe and waited for Peter Jack to take a nap so I could read it. Right in the middle of the first page, Lulu Miller wrote, “Chaos is the only sure thing in this world. The master that rules us all.” She had my attention. Maybe there is something buried in this book that will give me a new perspective about chaos, because I’ve been desperate to slay that motherf—-r for years now.
Online shopping for groceries has become a part-time job. I’m sick of it– paying more money than I should because I can’t go into a grocery store right now with three kids, not being able to choose exactly what I want to purchase, the lack of control. It’s more than groceries. It’s not listening to music in my car anymore. No summer trip to look forward to. Nowhere to escape from the 24/7 racket of children finking on each other and hitting each other and asking for something to eat and what their passwords are to websites I can’t keep track of and can they have one more ice cream? I’m tired of implementing boring, soul-crushing activities assigned to my kids and fighting their resistance in between trying to juggle my own professional obligations and personal responsibilities. I’m getting stir crazy. My walks and runs and bike rides around the neighborhood aren’t cutting it anymore. I need more. More of something that does not exist.
Some people are talking about how peaceful this is to read their books and binge Netflix, but my days are as stressful as they were when we were running all over town for piano lessons and softball and baseball and the thousand other things we used to do. But in this exhausting reality, I don’t get even the tiniest of reprieves. These children interrupt me even when I go to the bathroom. It’s like I’m in an insane asylum and my every move is monitored. If I went outside right now to sneak an ice cream drumstick in the garage, I guarantee you their little sensors would start beeping and they’d be right there to catch me red-handed.
My stepson used to live with us. Those days now feel like a blur of problems we once dealt with– particularly with his mother– but I remember when he moved back to where she lived 8 hours away. Kenneth and I only had one child together at the time, and in theory life should have gotten easier. But I remember my husband commenting about how stressful everything still felt even with one less kid.
The stress follows you no matter what your circumstances are. I remind myself of that when I’m having a mental breakdown washing dishes at 10PM. It doesn’t make me hate my life any less, but it does remind me that this is all just the cost of doing business.
Eloise turned 7 in quarantine. I managed to buy her presents online right when the pandemic first hit, but I had to make up the rest. I dug into the plastic bin of leftover party supplies and hung crepe paper and blew up balloons until I was blue in the face. I made her a crown out of a cereal box. We ordered a heart-shaped pizza and I baked her the carrot cake she requested from scratch. She had a lovely day. This, I think, is that future reality the articles are alluding to. Choosing homemade and intentional over everything else. Time and experiences over money and prestige.
Stockdale had a point about accepting reality, but I find myself craving more in the way of an explanation for my suffering. Something more inspiring.
I need to get the complaining out of my system, and then I reach for Viktor Frankl, who once said, “Each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”
We choose how to respond.
We are responsible for how we react to the uncontrollable.
That is our power in life. Possibly our only power.
I am responsible.
I literally have this tattooed on my left arm. My husband’s favorite affirmation: I am responsible.
Yet sometimes I still forget.
Maybe right now we don’t try to plan the rest of our lives. Maybe we slow down in the darkness to find our bearings, observe, reflect, and figure out what kind of life we want right now. Not our yesterday life. Not our future life, but today’s life. Then we start doing and being all of those things– right now. We create our life out of what we have right now.
There is no light without darkness.
No day without night.
No joy without suffering.
As Thich Nhat Hanh once said, “This is it.”
We have to start now.
Perhaps all of this isn’t something happening to us, but rather windows of opportunity– challenges– to look inward and evolve into wiser and stronger and better versions of who we are. If we accept Frankl’s assertion that searching for meaning helps us overcome our suffering, then we realize that none of our experiences–good or bad– were ever wasted. This is what turns us into the kind of people who learn to appreciate the value and gift of another day.
This, I suspect, is gratitude.