My husband, two kids and I are at the beach. Because of the coronavirus, it's the first time this summer we've been in the water together. I swim a few strokes beyond them - making my body the barrier between them and what I deem the infinite danger behind me. It's hubris to believe I can protect them if only I keep my body here, treading in this space between the shallows - where they splash and dive - and the depths beneath and behind me. And yet, as a momentary reprieve from the helplessness and loss of control the pandemic has forced upon me, I allow myself to believe, just this once, that it is this simple to protect my children.
"Stop! Mamma, come back! I'm scared!"
My daughter, Magnolia, is a week away from 6 years old; her face and eyes are screwed up with worry - dramatized, though sincere - her head tilting to the side as she implores me to return to her, her dad and her 7-year-old brother.
"I'm a strong swimmer! I'll be okay," I reassure her. "Do you think I can make it all the way out there?"
I point to the line of buoys, maybe 50 yards out, that separates the swimmers from the boats.
"No, Mamma. It's too far."
"Teach me to be brave, Magnolia."
Earlier that day, as we entered a clearing in the woods, she told me that's what she wants to be when she grows up - someone who teaches people to be brave.
"How will you do that?"
"When they're scared, I will show them to do things anyway."
The hierarchy of risks
A day hasn't gone by in the past three months when fear in one form or another hasn't slipped into some part of my daily consciousness. I am not the first to observe it's not normal to live like this - afraid every day for our lives, our children and parents, our essential workers, our ill, impoverished and marginalized, our communities and country; afraid to go to the grocery store, to go to work, to get too close to other people.
There has always been risk in that, the understanding that to get too close to someone else is to risk getting hurt. And yet now the physical threat has usurped the emotional: Instead of risking broken hearts, we are risking broken bodies - theirs, ours and others - when we choose to allow other people into our orbits. And so to protect our bodies, we are collectively sacrificing our hearts, and they break a little every day we do.
Heartbreak is what the pandemic has given my children, and while I know many are suffering far worse, this too is painful, and I can't protect them from it.
“I just want everything to be the way it was”
"No one even knows me any more, Mamma! It's like, they know me - but they don't know me," my daughter sobbed one day. She is grieving the twin losses of friends from preschool who "knew her too good" but went to different primary schools last August, and of fledgling kindergarten friends she had just started bonding with in her new school when the pandemic abruptly severed their ties.
"I didn't even get to say goodbye!" she said another day, remembering her third-grade reading buddy, who had shepherded her into her new school.
"I won't even remember how to play those games any more!" she cried another time, remembering a group of first-graders she used to chase around the schoolyard.
"Everything is different! I want it to be the way it was!" she said through tears another day.
This abnormal new normal
My husband and I try to figure out what's best for her and her brother in this abnormal new normal where so much has changed so suddenly and to such an extreme: We give their grief the space it needs, let them feel their feelings, empathize with what they are going through, foster in whatever ways are possible and safe the connections and friendships that remain.
"This won't be forever," I've been saying since March 12, though there have been times I have questioned whether it's true.
"You're wrong, Mamma," Magnolia finally told me, some time in early May.
We are all brave, I think, just for living through this. Life is hard, and right now it is hard for many of us in many different ways. It is an act of courage to salvage joy from trauma. To stay close to those we can, hold fast to the parts of life that remain intact and rebuild something different from them and the opportunities that have surfaced from upheaval.
As people and parents Sean and I are working hard to protect and nurture our kids - to define the line between recklessness and bravery, and make the best decisions we can on the right side of that line for ourselves, our kids and our fellow residents. Ultimately, we decide to risk doing something we love together - swimming has been a routine part of every summer we've shared as a family so far - and go to the beach.
Choosing bravery over fear
We splay our umbrella and towels to ensure six feet of distance on either side of us. In the water we find a spot that is safely set apart from other pods of people. And it's there in the water that I again ask Magnolia if she thinks I can make it all the way out to the buoys.
"Okay, Mummy. You can do it."
I am not sure I can, but I nod, turn and start swimming. After a few strokes, I can't touch the ground any more, and I am out of everyone else's reach. There is no one who can help me if I start to fatigue or falter. It is unsettling, and I tell myself to relax and trust that I can do it. I am a strong swimmer. I will be okay. I look to Magnolia, who is looking to me. She raises her fists, shakes them up and down, and urges me on.
"Go, Mummy, go! You can do it!"
Her fortitude transplants her fear. Her fortitude transplants my fear, and I swim on.