My Name was Supposed to be Elizabeth Ann

— Stories from the Roads (Not) Taken

Spring 1999, my two-year-old daughter awakened from her nap with a painful limp. Hoping perhaps she’d slept awkwardly, I changed her diaper and took her and my son outside to play. Rationality warred with fear. Then, we had no Google. No WebMD or its equivalent with which to quickly search for answers. I thumbed the index of a pediatric medical guide I’d bought on a whim when her older brother was born and read a warning that confirmed what fear had shouted: Get your child to an emergency room immediately.

*****

Spring 2020, I finished my first week of virtual teaching, packed my suitcase, laptop, and Lysol wipes, and drove six hours northwest to my husband’s childhood home, where he has been since March 19. His mother, a ninety-year-old widow, had fallen in her kitchen and was briefly hospitalized. She needed care, which the two of us would provide in shifts as she recovered at home. For several hours, I worked bedside and tried encouraging her to eat and drink. To wake up to take her medicine.

By nightfall, she was back in the emergency room.

*****

According to the medical guide, the sudden onset of my daughter’s symptoms suggested either a viral or bacterial infection, one of which would resolve on its own with no lasting damage, the other of which would destroy her hip joint and leave her permanently disabled if not treated. Only a blood test could determine the difference, hence the trip to the ER.

Fortunately, my daughter’s condition was benign, and I went to work on two hours’ sleep after spending nearly twelve hours in the emergency room. Marking period grades were due, and in 1999 we had to manually bubble them on Scantron sheets that Guidance would magic into paper report cards. No one else could do that for me.

See, when you’re a teacher, taking a day off for illness or personal reasons is typically more trouble than it’s worth. Unlike other professions, you can’t just close your door and work longer hours playing catch up when you return. You must do all of that, of course, but you must also leave seating charts and plans in advance. Detailed instructions about the layout of your schedule, your students’ needs. You must be specific about your expectations, else your students behave like children left home unsupervised, ignoring the rules and eating candy for breakfast, leaving their messes for you to clean up. And you can do all that prep, then return to find the substitute hired to mimic you for just one day instead spent it swiveling in your chair or reading a paperback, and you’ve lost not only the one day out but the second day playing catch-up.

That day, my children stayed home with my husband while I went to work, and while my daughter experienced residual pain and mobility issues for a week or so, she eventually recovered with no lasting damage.

I don’t know yet whether the same can be said for my mother-in-law. She is still hospitalized, and my husband and I are still six hours away from home. There is no Internet here, so Monday through Friday, we each power up our laptops and sync them to our phones’ hotspots. He has a work phone. I do not. I have burned through a month’s worth of plan access in one week.

But I’m okay with that.

If I can find one bright spot among the daily barrage of bad news, it’s this: At least we can be here together for each other and for her. We can continue to work, and the hospital staff allows us to see his mother every day. We must Purell our hands first, then don masks while apologetic nurses take our temperatures to verify we are healthy. Bedside, we hold her hands and tell her about our days. We tell her we are looking after her home for her, and we tell her we love her. She squeezes our hands in return.

I miss my own children, though. Now 23 and 24, they remain near Philadelphia working and looking after the home we all share. Both are helping to combat the ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic. He, in IT for a company supplying medical goods to hospitals and nursing homes. She, as a night RN at a local hospital. My husband and I love them so much and are tremendously proud of them both.

*****

Sunday my daughter texted me she that may have been exposed to the virus at work.

Monday, my son began a fourteen-day quarantine, which means we can’t go home anytime soon.

This too shall pass, yes.

Until then, hold each other’s (virtual) hand and squeeze.

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