My Name was Supposed to be Elizabeth Ann

— Stories from the Roads (Not) Taken

I have misplaced my ability to discern time. I left it back home on the table next to my spot on the living room couch where every morning I drink my coffee and watch the sun rise while I clear the sleep from my brain and plan my day. Or used to. Here, an hour south of Erie PA, I still have my coffee but the couch is different, the light is different, the view is different. The seasons and sun cycles are different. When I left home, spring blossomed, tree branches hazy with pink and green buds, flower mounds poking their fingers through the soil. Here, nature teeters on the precipice of winter. Even sunny days can bite. 

Here, the sun rises and sets about twenty minutes later than it does back home. At night I awaken in the dark convinced it’s time to rise but it’s not, so I pad along a hallway that is not mine and down steps that belong to another and try to fall back asleep on a couch that although different, is thankfully firm and comfortable. I may have forgotten time, but I have my own pillow and my own blanket. I remembered to pack those at least.

Today is Palm Sunday. I feel like I have been here forever, though as I write it has been exactly fifteen days. The hours have swollen and slowed like ice, freezing everything in its place and leaving me struggling to tell Monday from Wednesday, Sunday from…Sunday. What does any day look like shorn of its routines?

Meanwhile, my mother-in-law is out of the hospital and in a rehabilitation facility. We don’t know for how long. They won’t let us see her. No one except medical personnel is permitted access to hospitals and nursing facilities. We were allowed in to see her at the hospital last week only because no one expected her to pull through. Thankfully—miraculously?—they were wrong.

Meanwhile, I’m still teaching classes from my mother-in-law’s kitchen table and hoping my hotspot won’t boot me offline while I’m in the middle of a Google Meet with my students. Knock on wood, that’s only happened once. 

Knock on wood, my kids are still healthy. Although their rooms back home sit across the hall from each other, they have not talked face to face in a week. They use two different bathrooms and communicate through text and closed doors. I talk to them every day. I need to. They need me to, as well, though I am amazed by and proud of the ways in which they do not need me. I read somewhere once that a parent’s ultimate job is to raise our kids so that they don’t need us. When I cry, my husband hugs me tight and tells me I’ve raised them right, our two awesome no-longer children. My husband is awesome, too. His mother raised him right.

I think about that when I think about how our lives have changed, not only because of the pandemic but after. Because after, my mother-in-law will most likely not be able to return to the home in which she’s lived since the late 1950’s. My husband and I will become her caregivers, just as someday our children may become ours. I think about that and I once again become unmoored from time, propelled by forces I can sense but not see. It feels like vertigo, like the loops and lulls of a roller coaster.

I used to love roller coasters.

I used to be a lifeguard, and when I took my Red Cross certification test I had to swim four laps of each of the four strokes, dive to the bottom of a twelve-foot pool and retrieve a coin, rescue a “drowning” classmate and perform CPR. I also had to float, first on my back and then on my front. The dead man’s float, it’s called. Your face is submerged, your limbs limp and pointing toward the bottom. And you must hold your breath for at least four minutes. First, you force all the air from your lungs, then you gulp and hold. The trick is the timing. You count ten seconds, then ten seconds more, mouth closed and exhaling a trail of bubbles through your nose until someone taps you on the shoulder and tells you to breathe once more. I prefer the back float, my body a cross, the sun drawing pictures on my closed lids. I can doze while I float. The lapping waves hum like a lullabye.

When I was a lifeguard, I learned that sometimes you have to swim. Sometimes you have to float. Sometimes you have to save people, and sometimes you sit on your stand and scan the water, wishing you could dive in and play like the children who laugh and splash and holler Marco Polo. It’s all part of the job.

According to one of the women in my online writers’ group, part of our job now is figuring out our new normal. Because although I am physically in a new space, I am not the only one unmoored from the familiar. We are all exiles. We all want to go home.

This too shall pass, yes. 

Until then, we needn’t always fight the current. We can let ourselves float.

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