My Name was Supposed to be Elizabeth Ann

— Stories from the Roads (Not) Taken

Save the children. Save the world.

Start with one child. That child.

The invisible one.

Or the loud one.

The awkward one.

The one whose smirk and sneer builds walls.

The one whose smile bends like a question at your Good Morning.

That one.

And then that one.

Give them a book.

Give them a voice.

Give them a chance.

Give them No and Yes and Maybe.

Give them a choice.

Choices.

And a scale.

Teach them to read: themselves in a mirror. A stranger’s challenge. A map. All maps.

Time.

Teach them to believe: in themselves.

Each other.

Magic.

Fail.

Let them see you.

Let them see you wipe your eyes and speak loudly the language of your fall.

            Then let them help you rise, and in so doing save yourself.

(*WARNING: the following contains spoilers for Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner)

By now you should have read through chapter twelve of The Kite Runner. And please don’t tell me you’ve read when you haven’t. I’ve been doing this a long time and I can tell, especially with this book which contains so many deftly plotted twists it’s like riding a roller coaster. The only way to miss those scenes is if you’re not riding the coaster.

So let’s review. When our first-person narrator Amir begins speaking to us in chapter one, December 2001, he is 38 and living in San Francisco. Earlier that summer, family friend Rahim Khan called from Pakistan, ending with a peculiar invocation that “there is a way to be good again” (2). We know neither what that “way” is, nor what Amir references as his “past of unatoned sins” (1). However, Rahim’s comment suggests he knows Amir’s secret,  and is therefore offering Amir a way to vanquish the guilt he’s carried since childhood. Within this brief exchange lies Amir’s central conflict–The sin he committed at age twelve–and his central goal–The opportunity to atone for it.  Amir’s struggle with both influences events and determines his character arc, which is the process through which characters change in response to events and decisions. 

As readers, we can learn from characters’ struggles much the same way we learn from observing people in the real world. Those lessons are themes: messages or understandings about human experience that transcend literature. It’s why we can find works written centuries ago relevant today. We discussed that idea Week 5. Week 6, we discussed the concept of ghosts: experiences and observations that shape real and fictional people, determining, in part, how and why they react to external stimuli. Amir’s ghost is his fraught relationship with Baba, his father. He longs for Baba’s respect and notice, and will do almost anything to earn it. Don’t remember? Please check your notes before we move on.

No questions? 

Good. 

Because if you missed any of our earlier discussions, you won’t understand Amir’s betrayal of Hassan in chapter seven and why it matters–not only in the book but in the real world you and I occupy. This betrayal is the sin to which Amir alludes in chapter one: In March 1975, twelve-year-old Amir wins the kite tournament by cutting the string of his final competitor. Eleven-year-old Hassan, who earlier defended Amir from a trio of vicious bullies with his slingshot, is his partner and a remarkably skilled kite runner. He promises to retrieve the trophy kite but takes far too long to return, leading Amir to search for him among the streets of their Kabul neighborhood. Assef and his thugs, the trio from years past, have trapped Hassan in an alleyway and demand he hand over the blue kite or pay a price. When he refuses, Assef decides to teach “the Hazara” a lesson, payback for his perceived humiliation at Hassan’s hand. Assef is a pedophile and a sociopath and “not entirely sane” (38), and he rapes Hassan while Wali and Kamal hold him down and Amir watches, paralyzed, before deciding to run away.

Did you get that last bit? 

Amir decides to run away. He recognizes he has a choice: He can defend Hassan as Hassan has always defended him, or he can run.  He chooses to run. Amir is a coward, you see, and Amir really wants the kite. He wants to parade it before his father as evidence of his worth. He longs for Baba’s love and respect. And although Hassan calls Amir friend, he calls “Hassan…the price [he has] to pay, the lamb [he has ] to slay, to win Baba” (77). 

When I read The Kite Runner  for the first time, this is the point at which I really wanted to throw the book. This is the scene that kept me from sleeping. How could Amir do such a thing? Yes, Amir. I was more troubled by Amir than Assef because Amir knows better, Amir knows he should do something to help Hassan, yet Amir does nothing–not even console the traumatized Hassan when the two reunite shortly after the attack. He pretends it never happened, walks home with the kite, and allows Baba’s congratulatory embrace to wipe his conscience and memory clean.

Except it doesn’t. 

Shame and guilt continue to clamor, and in chapter nine  a desperate Amir tells a series of lies that causes Hassan and Ali to leave Baba’s employ forever. However, neither absence nor time nor emigrating to the US keeps the memory of that day buried. Remember the first line of the book? “I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day at the age of twelve…. Looking back now, I realize I’ve been peeking into that deserted alley for the past twenty-six years” (1).

Hindsight, Amir reminds us, is twenty-twenty. 

Just ask my 90-year-old mother-in-law. 

March 19, she decided to clean the top of her fridge. 

By standing on a wood chair. 

In nylon socks. 

She lost her balance, fell, hit her head on the kitchen floor, and was hospitalized for a month. Doctors did not expect her to survive, but she did. Now, instead of an independent life in her own home, she lives in what used to be our guest room, six hours away from everything familiar except us.

Every day, she relieves the moments leading up to her fall and curses herself for a fool.

She’s not a fool, but her choice was foolish. Her choice not only changed her life forever, it changed ours. Her memory is spotty, her hearing worse.  She needs help with steps, with bathing, with dressing. She can’t prepare meals, and eats and sleeps on a schedule vastly different from our own. Much of that care falls to me because she is a woman and only feels comfortable with a woman’s care. 

I understand, and I want her to be comfortable. However, my daily to-do list grows impossibly long,  solitude increasingly scarce. I am cranky and tired and nearly out of patience, but my husband–who I’ve said sometimes knows me better than I know myself–sees me struggle and boots me from the house with instructions to take a long, meandering walk. So I do, and when I return my equilibrium has been restored.

So what’s the point of my story, you ask? What does my life have to do with Amir’s?

And what does any of this have to do with your lives right here, right now?

This: 

No choice exists in a vacuum. 

Often, when we choose for ourselves, we choose for others. Sometimes with disastrous, irrevocable consequences. None of us chose to incite a pandemic, to lose our jobs, to be trapped in our homes, stripped of milestones and the comforts of physical community.  Yet here we all are–same storm, different boats–because someone somewhere set these events in motion. Just imagine our right-now world had that “someone” chose differently. 

Would our world be better? Or worse? What about our individual lives?

We don’t know. We can’t know. 

And therein lies a significant part of the novel’s theme: Making decisions based on the perspective that our choices have no impact on others is not merely selfish but dangerous. When Amir chooses Baba over Hassan, cowardice over action, he sets into motion a series of events with profound implications for characters we’ve met and characters we have yet to meet–including those yet to be born. When my husband and I chose to move his mother into our home, we changed our son and daughter’s lives. I know what I want to teach them through this experience, but I wonder, What exactly will they learn?  

I don’t know. I can’t know.

But I can try to choose wisely.

I think Baba would agree. Shortly after twenty-year-old Amir meets the woman who will become his wife, he recalls snippets of gossip circulating like a virus and asks Baba what he knows of her. Baba explains she had a prior relationship after which no suitors would call, adding, “It may be unfair, but what happens in a few days, sometimes even a single day, can change the course of a whole lifetime” (142). Here Baba refers to negative choices. However, the same can be said for positive choices, even seemingly random ones, yes? 

Yes.

Eventually Amir’s story will end. So too will our quarantine and its merciless barrage of bad news. But every day, one choice at a time, you and I write its story. You and I create the world our children’s children will inherit.

What do you want that world to look like when this one passes?

Think about that as you continue reading. Next week, chapters 13-17. And you might want to buckle up–the ride’s about to get even more intense.

I’m excited to announce my latest short story, “Bring Me Your Yearning,” received Honorable Mention in Dreamers Creative Writing’s 2020 Stories of Migration, Sense of Place and Home Contest and is featured on their website.

You can read it here: https://www.dreamerswriting.com/michele-reisinger/

I hope you like it!

My least favorite chore used to be  grocery shopping. All those hours spent moving items from the shelves to my cart to the belt to the bags to the car to the house to the kitchen, only to hear several hours later, There’s nothing to eat. 

A minor thing to complain about, then.

Not so much now. 

Early March, as China’s crisis became global and Americans prepared for its invasion here, panicked shoppers began hoarding toilet paper and sanitizer, and normally well-stocked grocery shelves stood bare. March 13, I stopped at one of my three local grocery stores after work because I needed a few things and that’s what moms (used to?) do–run errands on their way home from work. By the time I finished and headed to the registers, the check-out line extended across the front of the store and up the farthermost aisle to the dairy section in the back. Harried managers directed customer traffic toward open lanes, and accidental line-jumpers maneuvered apologetically toward the line’s end. I waited nearly an hour for my turn, but the wait passed quickly as I chatted with those waiting with me, each of us theorizing and predicting what’s next.

Two months later, the once mundane chore requires girding myself as if for battle, donning my face mask and gloves, and tucking Clorox wipes in a pocket. (An aside–Who knew locating Clorox wipes in a store would become as rare and magical as spotting a unicorn in the wild?) Along the store’s sidewalk, I wait the mandatory six feet apart from my fellow shoppers as store employees record customers’ entrances and exits on iPads, signalling permission to enter one supplicant at a time. The orderliness of the line, the clear and sensible restrictions–they settle my jitters. They assure me that we can navigate this disaster. We can defeat our invisible enemy with planning and patience and rationality.

Then it’s finally my turn to cross the threshold, and my hopefulness morphs into anger, then despair.

We’re not getting out of this thing anytime soon, and it will be our own damn fault.

*****

Did you do your homework last week?

Good.

In chapter three of Khalid Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, fifth-grader Amir sits with Baba’s smoking room and watches as his father pours and drinks a whiskey, which Islam forbids. Baba, a physically and psychologically imposing character, is an extremely successful businessman and philanthropist whom Afghans revere. With the exception of kite-flying, Baba and Amir are nothing alike, and Amir’s repeatedly unsuccessful attempts to earn his father’s notice dominate his childhood. Baba, the adult Amir explains, “saw the world in black and white. And he got to decide what was black and what was white. You can’t love a person who lives that way without fearing him too. Maybe even hating him a little” (15). This ambivalence forms the core of Amir’s relationship with his father and informs nearly every action the child takes in the opening chapters.

On that day in particular, Amir tells Baba about his teacher Mullah Khan’s insistence that drinking is a “terrible sin” for which Baba must answer on Judgment Day (16).  Baba settles Amir on his lap, then explains, “No matter what the mullah teaches, there is only one sin…theft. Every other sin is a variation of theft. When you kill a man, you steal a life…. When you tell a lie, you steal someone’s right to the truth. When you cheat, you steal the right to fairness…. A man who takes what’s not his to take, be it a life or a loaf of naan…I spit on such a man” (18).

Amir is both exhilarated and frightened by Baba’s vehemence, not only because of the rare moment of notice, but also because the approximately ten-year-old child believes Baba directs that disgust toward Amir, whose birth resulted in his mother’s death.  “[The] truth of it was, I always felt like Baba hated me a little…. After all, I had killed his beloved wife…hadn’t I? The least I could have done was turn out a little more like him. But I hadn’t turned out like him. Not at all” (19). Consequently, Amir feels both compelled to atone for that sin and helpless to live up to Baba’s expectations, a conflict that explains Amir’s eventual betrayal of the younger Hassan, his servant and unacknowledged friend.

That conflicted father-son  relationship also functions as Amir’s “ghost,” which writer K.M. Weiland explains is the observed or experienced event that first, defines a character’s core understanding of himself and his place in the world, and second, shapes a character’s false perception of what he must do to achieve happiness. This ghost arises in the character’s developmental years and becomes hard-wired in his psyche until he actively confronts the ghost’s legacy and works to exorcise it.

Amir’s ghost haunts him for over 26 years.

*****

Inside the grocery store, blue arrows mark a pathway on the floor. Signs written in Spanish and English hang on endcaps and remind shoppers of the CDC’s social distancing requirements.  Yet hardly anyone obeys. They push past me while I lag six-feet away from those ahead. Reach around me for items. Navigate the aisles willy-nilly, ignoring the arrows, their masks yanked beneath their noses or dangling about their necks. These are easy accommodations, requiring a modicum of sacrifice, yet hardly anyone obeys. Before a recent expedition, I ventured to a drugstore and saw behind the pharmacy counter a tech without a mask and a nurse with only his chin covered–both men working and walking and talking near a row of  signs announcing the wearing of masks in ALL businesses is required by Pennsylvania law.

Over one hundred years ago, the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919 infected approximately 500,000,000, one-third of the world’s then-population. Medical providers had neither treatments nor vaccines, and the mobilization of troops heading overseas to fight in World War I incited the virus’ spread. Large gatherings were prohibited; schools and theaters closed, retail outlets encouraged to stagger openings, citizens urged to wear masks. According to the CDC website, these recommendations were unevenly enforced, partly because of the war’s demands, partly because of citizens’ aversion to restrictions that they deemed extreme and unnecessary. Ultimately, the flu struck in three waves that killed over 50,000,000 people worldwide, about 675,000 of whom lived  in the United States.

Any of that sound familiar?

In 2020, mandatory stay-at-home orders, social distancing practices, and requiring the wearing of masks are helping to flatten Covid’s infection curve. However, weary Americans and the politicians who pander to them demand an immediate reopening of businesses and schools so we can return to a pre-pandemic normal.

Newsflash: that normal is dead and buried, and most researchers predict a second wave of the virus will hit this fall. In 1918,most deaths occurred in that second wave.

In his 1905 work The Life of Reason: The Phases of Human Progress, George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” a saying often misattributed to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. In 2020, we’ve not only forgotten the lessons of the last pandemic, many of us are willfully repeating its mistakes.  That’s why I see ghosts when I grocery shop: I see the ghosts of those long gone, and the ghosts we’re bequeathing our children.

Like Amir, children watch and learn from their significant adults. And what lessons are we teaching them? That our actions lack consequences? That the rules apply only to others? That our rights take precedence over others’ well-being? 

That only some people matter? 

That’s what twelve-year-old Amir thinks when he betrays Hassan in chapter 7: “Maybe Hassan was the price I had to pay, the lamb I had to slay, to win Baba. Was it a fair price? The answer floated to my conscious mind before I could thwart it: He was just a Hazara, wasn’t he” (77). Twenty-six years later, that event–and the fact that he never atoned for his betrayal–haunts Amir as vividly as when he was a fearful child yearning for his father’s love and respect.

I’ve read The Kite Runner at least fifteen times, so I can tell you whether Amir defeats his ghost. However, neither I nor anyone else can tell the outcome of the story we’re currently living, the story history will record for those not yet born.

This too shall pass, yes.

But the more self-centered and ill-informed our response, the longer–and more deadly–the passing.

Think about that the next time you head to the grocery store.

Still not convinced? Read through chapter twelve next week so we can chat some more.

One of my all-time favorite novels is Khalid Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, which I believe contains one of the most engaging and efficient first chapters I’ve ever read. In it, 38-year-old Amir lives in San Francisco and reflects on an unexpected phone call from Rahim Khan, a family friend in Pakistan who offers Amir “a way to be good again” (2).  Readers don’t know what happened or why, but we are immediately hooked, immediately vested in Amir’s struggle to understand how he “became what [he is] today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975” (1). 

I distinctly remember reading Amir’s story for the first time, shortly after its 2003 publication. A colleague whose reading tastes mirror my own recommended it as a fantastic read. It’s wrenching, she said, but so worth it. I raced through the first several chapters…and then I arrived at the scene she’d referenced. I never throw books. I wanted to throw this book. How could anyone do such a thing? How could anyone betray a friend in such a horrific way? That night, I lay awake on my couch for hours reliving that scene, so distraught I refused to continue reading.

And then I remembered Amir’s realization in chapter one– “It’s wrong what they say about the past…about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out. … I knew it wasn’t just Rahim Khan on the line. It was my past of unatoned sins….There is a way to be good again” (1-2). Okay, Amir, I thought. Grudgingly. I’ll give you another chance to prove yourself.

I finished the rest of the book the next day. Amir did not let me down.

The following spring, I introduced the novel to my AP Lit students. The year after that, I introduced it as a One Book, One Class end of year unit for all of my senior English classes, and I’ve taught it every year since. Every year students ask, When are we reading Kite Runner? When are we flying our kites? They’ve heard about it from their friends and siblings. They want to read this book. After spring break, I say. Promise.

But this year, I worried I might have to break that promise.

*****

In my district, spring break is typically scheduled Good Friday through the week following Easter. Last year, Easter fell the end of April, and, except for a few intermittent rainy days, the weather was perfect for another of my favorites, gardening. Over the ten-day break, I cleaned and prepped my shade and butterfly gardens, dug out and replaced several overgrown shrubs, and outlined my front flower beds with close to fifty purple and yellow violas. Then we mulched, three square yards of rich, dark brown bark that took us all day to spread. Beautiful, our neighbors said as they stopped to chat during their nightly walks.

This year, I could barely even get outside for a walk, let alone chat with neighbors because of Covid restrictions. I spent the first part of the week preparing the guest room and the house for my mother-in-law’s move, the second half lesson planning. When NJ’s governor closed schools in March, intending to reopen April 20, my classes were all mid-way through units whose foundational lessons and skill practice we had already completed together. Thus, transitioning my content from classroom to online formats wasn’t terribly difficult. But then Gov. Murphy extended school closures through at least May 15. 

I foundered like a first-year teacher.

Twenty-nine years ago, my then-principal handed me a list of books and said, Go teach. I had neither answer keys nor annotated books. No mentor, no curriculum, no unit outlines, no tests or quizzes or lesson plans. Nothing. Twenty-nine years later, I have a file drawer full of self-annotated books and a closet full of binders, each of which contains units I’ve created for the books, essays and projects I use within my rotating teaching assignments, each of which is backed up on three different computers and two different Google drives. Among them are two, three-inch binders filled with my Kite Runner resources, none of which would work in an online learning environment.

I had to redo everything. Not only for The Kite Runner, but for my elective courses’ poetry and drama units. I could have shortcut the process. I could have gone online to one of the many valuable, wonderful resources available to thousands of other educators in similar circumstances and merely copied their units. It would have certainly been easier and less time-consuming. But I couldn’t do it, particularly with my beloved Kite Runner.

Why, you wonder. What’s the big deal about a book? About any book, in fact? 

Great questions. My students often ask me the same. And honestly, sometimes the answer is absolutely nothing. Sometimes students refuse to read for one of the millions of reasons any of us give for refusing to do what we don’t want to do. And sometimes stories that resonate with one reader leave another reader unmoved.

But this book is one of those marvelous exceptions. Although it is an AP Lit-approved title, The Kite Runner is an engrossing page-turner that even struggling readers enjoy. Sure, I’ve encountered students who read the book and just don’t like it: Amir’s central conflict is intense. But they are the minority. Instead, the majority congregates in the nurse’s office during lunch and read, comparing how much they hate Amir. I’ve had kids tell me it’s the first book they ever read all the way through, the first book they’ve ever loved, the first book they’ve ever reread. Some kids race ahead of our schedule and pop in my room because they cannot wait until class to chat. Once, a PE teacher told me he had to break up an argument in the boys’ locker room that became pretty loud–they couldn’t agree on who was the bigger jerkface, Amir or his father, Baba. 

So what is it about this book that speaks to my kids? Like Amir in 1975, they are young people navigating a world whose rules were set long before their birth and input. Rules over which they have minimal control. Soon, they will exit their childhood and become adults, an exciting transition but as nerve-wracking as crossing a minefield. What if they screw it up? And how can they impact a world increasingly determined to define the human experience as Us versus Them?  Amir’s struggle to find “a way to be good again” provides a road map of sorts toward the world they hope one day to create. 

I want my kids to have that map. Considering how much they’ve already lost of senior year, I didn’t want to take away one more thing. I wanted to keep my promise.

Maybe one book isn’t that important.

But maybe it can be. That’s why I spent much of the break redoing my unit plan, recreating materials and writing lessons before heading upstate once more.

This time through a snowstorm.

The normally six-hour trip became nearly eight Friday as we inched across icy roads. One ten-mile, unplowed stretch snaked along steep, mountainous drops. Emergency workers extracted two people pinned when their mini-van flipped on its roof. Farther down, police and firefighters uprighted a jack-knifed tractor trailer, its driver mercifully unhurt. At least three cars slid into ditches, warning flares blood-red against the snow. Thanks all to my husband, we arrived safely. Saturday, we repeated the trip eastward, his mother cushioned by pillows and dozing up front.

Pathetic fallacy notwithstanding, I hope the weather does not foreshadow the next chapter of our lives.

*****

After Rahim Khan’s phone call in chapter one, Amir ventures to a nearby park and contemplates his childhood. Blue and red kites soar against a brilliant summer sky, and Hassan’s voice rises like a ghost from the past: “For you, a thousand times over” (2).

And therein lies the heart and soul of this remarkable story: What obligations and responsibilities do we have toward our families and friends?

Neighbors?

Those whose paths may never cross our own?

Hmmm. Do you see where I’m headed with this?

Good.

Our right-now normal exists in a strange and unsettling world, but this too shall pass.

And there IS a way to be good again.

Now go read chapters 1-4 so we can chat about how next week.

Recently, I was invited by StoryADay.org founder Julie Duffy to be a guest on her weekly podcast. I was honored, thrilled, and honestly quite a bit nervous about the interview. However, I needn’t have worried. Julie is a warm and welcoming host in whose care I felt immediately at ease. Chatting with her was like chatting with a long-lost friend–invigorating, fun, and over much too soon. I’m so glad I had the opportunity!

To listen to the interview and learn more about all things StoryADay (including the upcoming May short story writing challenge), click here:

https://storyaday.org/episode164/

I hope you like it! And I hope to see you in May.

I packed books when I left home mid-March, but I have not been able to read them. They require an emotional energy I cannot muster, so they remain unopened in my bag. However, I can still read poetry. Mornings as I drink my coffee, I read my daily poems from Poets.org and The Paris Review. I owe my love of poetry to my senior and AP English teacher Mr. Oberholtzer. Poetry, he explained, is the soul’s soundtrack, articulating experiences for which we have no words and in the process creating a language of shared understanding. 

And sometimes, the universe conspires to play the exact song we need to hear.

One such gift arrived in my inbox April 4 and changed the way I think about my upstate exile.

In Fenton Johnson’s “The Miracle,” the unnamed persona lives confined in a prison house but lets his soul wander free of its walls. On his sojourn, he meets a “browneyed child” from whom he pleads “a flower/That [he] might bear it to [his] lonely cell.” The child picks a common dandelion, “an ugly bloom” that the persona hesitates to accept until he sees in the child’s eyes the love with which the gift is offered, a love that immediately transforms the dandelion into a rose, the poem’s final, joyful image. Therein lies the miracle–the power of love to invoke change and create hope in even the most dire of circumstances.

Week three was tough. Week four, I gathered my dandelions:

  • Jamie, my fifth period team teacher, is the lighthouse in the middle of my virtual storm, and I wish I had a teaspoonful of her patience. The quintessential professional and all-around top-notch human being, she is unfailingly compassionate, hard-working, and cheerful, and she treats every student with dignity and respect regardless of ability or disposition. She runs our class Remind, texting kids to wake up and join our Google Meet, to get help on assignments, and to submit check-ins–all the while teaching her own virtual classes, mediating her three children’s squabbles, overseeing their morning meetings, and coordinating our lessons and grading. Come to think of it, I also wish I had her energy!
  • When my mother-in-law fell, her neighbor Beth stayed with her until the ambulance arrived, texting me updates as my husband drove the seven-plus hours to the Erie PA hospital to which she’d been transported. Beth stayed with her until my husband finally arrived at midnight, her own husband waiting hours in the parking lot because of Covid-19 restrictions. In the days and weeks that followed, she checked in daily, offering food, a shoulder, and a glimpse into her similarly upended life. A teacher’s aide, she became her grandkids’ remote teacher and caregiver so her daughter and son-in-law, both medical professionals, could continue to work. Her many kindnesses made a difficult situation more bearable, and for that my husband and I are grateful. 
  • We are equally grateful to the nurses caring for his mother, first in the hospital and now at the rehab facility. People who see her as more than a patient. Who cry with us and share their stories of loss and upheaval. Who help her place calls when she’s upset and crack her window so we can chat six-feet away through the glass. Nurses who remind us of our daughter. I should be there with you and Dad, Miss told me over the phone. But you are, I said. In everything you do for your patients and their loved ones, you are with us in these remarkable women.
  • Mark, my best friend and husband of over thirty years, sometimes sees me more clearly than I see myself. Every night as we returned from window-visiting his mother, he detoured us through back roads and neighboring towns, telling me fascinating stories about the region’s history and his own, helping me feel grounded in a place to which I never before felt connected and in the process creating treasured new memories we can share. True story–when you find a good one, you hold on tight.
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

As I write, it’s Easter Sunday. Yesterday afternoon, we buckled into our two vehicles and crisscrossed the nearly deserted state back home. His mom continues to improve under the facility’s excellent supervision, and we need to tend our own lives and determine our next steps for her care. Soon, we’ll cross the state once more and bring her here with us. 

Meanwhile, the sun shines on an extraordinary ordinary day. I’ve been waiting over three weeks to do this, I said as I hugged my kids. Healthy, thank heavens, and glad of a mom-cooked meal. For dinner I prepared not the traditional ham but homemade spaghetti and meatballs, a family favorite, after which the four of us played Apples to Apples and took turns making each other laugh. However, our moods grew somber as we watched the news and debated the extent to which people will learn and grow from our global crisis.

I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know the answer to this one: What difference can any of us make in the life of another? 

Everything, when we love.

Corny? Maybe. Each of those I mentioned above would say they were just ordinary souls living ordinary lives and doing what needed to be done in that moment.

But isn’t that the point?

Every minute of every day, we face an infinite variety of choices, each a stone whose toss ripples through those around us in ways we cannot always fathom. Imagine if love were the only force guiding our decisions. Imagine the tiny miracles we could sow in each other’s gardens. 

That’s the world I want to live in when all this too shall pass.

(You can read the full text of Fenton Johnson’s “The Miracle” here: https://poets.org/poem/miracle-0 .)

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.

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.