As the pandemic continues to unfold, I will be spending the next months reflecting on the lessons we have learned in the past year and a half. Lessons such as 1) there is no such thing as buying too much toilet paper and 2) it doesn’t matter how much you love your family, you will wish you lived alone after only a few days of quarantine. Also, deeper and harder lessons like what it means to go from being a normal parent to being a Pandemic Parent. What will we take away from this experience? What will we leave behind?
When I was ten years old I got stuck in a hotel elevator with my siblings and without our parents. When the elevator stopped between floors, a thought flew into my brain: “We are stuck in here.” I felt panic rising within me like a tidal wave. There was a big red button in the elevator. I pressed it over and over again while my siblings tried to stop me. “Don’t panic!” they implored, laughing and grabbing my hands. But I couldn’t stop. The panic had already started to rise within me and I couldn’t do anything to stop it. The elevator suddenly lurched forward. The doors opened into a lobby bustling with tourists. My siblings thought the whole thing was hilarious. It is a story we have told over and over again. A story about my tendency to panic and my claustrophobia. But it is always on my mind. Every time I’m in an elevator this memory is with me. Unconsciously, like background music. When I’m in an elevator or in any tight space, part of me is always telling another part of me: “don’t panic.” I have to consciously turn the panic button down like a dimmer switch. It never turns off until the doors are open and I’m free.
I’m claustrophobic. I avoid tight spaces, escape rooms, Ferris wheels, roller coasters. The claustrophobia will wash over me at other times that don’t have anything to do with being stuck inside. People sometimes make me feel claustrophobic. Expectations will induce this same feeling of panic. I have run from relationships, from jobs, from parties and cars. It starts with a question, “how do I get out of here?” and then the panic sets in. I press the panic button over and over again, or run, or throw open the doors, or make an excuse until I’m outside and free. “Don’t panic,” I tell my brain. And sometimes my brain listens but most of the time, I just quietly panic until I’m out.
The weeks before March 14th, 2020 the panic begins to grow and boil inside of me. It happened not as a slow flow but in small, sudden jolts.
The nurse I supervise comes to my desk one day at work and shows me a news article about the virus. “Remember how I said I wasn’t worried about this? Well, now I’m worried.”
My Inbox fills with emails from everyone from my daughter’s swim school to my local Walgreens stating that they are “closely monitoring the situation and using enhanced cleaning techniques.”
Driving through nearly empty San Francisco streets, I pass three different people wearing N92 masks.
The panic starts to rise within me and I tell myself, “Don’t panic. Don’t panic.” But it is useless. Another deeper part of me is pressing the big red button over and over again. But the doors aren’t opening. It isn’t stopping, it is getting worse and worse and worse.
One morning, I get an email from our school district. Schools are shutting down for two weeks, “possibly longer.” On March 14th, the Stay at Home order is released. Only “essential businesses” can remain open. I pick my kids up from school and stop by our local bakery. The only thing I can think is, “Sugar. Maybe sugar will help.” It is eerie. The bakery staff silently helps us, fear plastered on their faces.
The sugar doesn’t help the rising panic so we stop by the hardware store to find some small toys. An older woman sees me with two kids, reads the expression of rising panic on my face, and reassures me, “don’t worry. It’s going to be okay.” I murmur my thanks. But in the meantime, I am thinking: “NO, IT IS NOT GOING TO BE OKAY?! HOW IS THIS GOING TO BE OKAY???!” Tears well in my eyes. Don’t panic, I tell myself. Don’t panic.
My husband goes to the grocery store and returns like a conquering hero with enough sustenance to last us weeks “until this whole thing is over.” “I can’t believe I have to stay at home with them for two weeks! How are we going to get through this?” I ask him.
“Oh, it’s going to be much longer than two weeks!” He tells me cheerfully. “This could go on for months!”
The panic rises within me. The panic knocks against my insides.
That night, I close myself into my closet and cry. I think every terrifying thought I spent all day trying to un-think. What the hell am I going to do with these two little people all day every day for two weeks? With nowhere to go and nothing to do? With just me to entertain them? What is happening with our world? Do we have enough food? Do we have enough toilet paper? How do I stay sane enough to parent them? Is this the apocalypse?
My daughter Hazel barges into the closet. “What’s wrong, mom? Are you okay?” I wipe my tears and smile, “I’m fine. I was just a little bit worried that’s all.”
“Because of coronavirus?” she asks, “Is that why?”
“Yes,” I tell her, “I was worried but it is okay. It’s going to be just fine. Actually even better than fine because you don’t have to go to school and I don’t have to go to work for two whole weeks! We just get to be home together all the time! It’s going to be so fun to be together!”
Hazel hugs me.
“Can I have a snack?”
“What do you want? How about some cereal?”
“What kind do we have?”
“Yes, but only if it’s Dinosaur Oatmeal.”
“It’s Dinosaur Oatmeal.”
“Okay. Make me dinosaur oatmeal.”
So I don’t panic. Instead, I make dinosaur oatmeal.
18 months later, I am riding the new Golden Gate Park Ferris Wheel with my husband and kids. As the Ferris Wheel hits its highest point, my husband cheerfully jokes, “how crazy would it be if we got stuck in here?” I imagine being stuck inside a tiny box, rocking back and forth for hours until someone could get us out. The panic swells inside of me. I tell myself “don’t panic. Don’t panic.” But just as I’m about to panic, my son jumps on top of me. “Look, mommy! Look, mommy! I think I can see our house!” I peer out the window with him, into the distance beyond the park and into the foggy hills. “Oh yeah . . . I think I see it right over there!” I tell him, pointing at a spot on the horizon. Pretending that it’s our home in Pacifica. The panic subsides. Together we stare into the distance beyond the wheel we can see. Me, pretending I can see our home. Him, believing that he can and also just happy to be stuck up here, at this moment with him.
Here is the lesson this pandemic has taught us: don’t panic. And when you do panic: make oatmeal, imagine, and play along. Take care of those little things inside the box with you. We don’t know where this is going. But here we are with them. Ans they are hungry and endlessly curious.