My daughter is excited because my hair is growing out. She’s always hated my short hair. She’s been begging me to grow it into a bob for years, since she was a little girl, sidling up beside me on the couch, asking if she could do my hair, then getting frustrated because there was nothing to work with. She couldn’t gather it, or run a brush through it with long, comforting strokes, or secure it with bands or barrettes. Braiding was out of the question.
So, with the pandemic, she is elated now that my “sideburns” are growing out. Last night, she asked me to tuck the shaggy tufts of hair behind my ears. She actually shrieked with joy when I was able to, and they stayed.
She said, “Mom! Now you look like a woman!”
My daughter is 18 now, a senior at Berkeley High School.
Of course, she is more of a floater now. She no longer attends school. There is no school. There is supposedly online school, but after a naked man zoom-bombed her first online class, there have been no more. She gets some assignments via email — a few worksheets and things to turn in from time to time.
But, there is no school. No cadence of school, no dressing for school, no applying eyeliner, no doing of the hair, no gathering of things. No lunches out with friends, no senior pranks. No last day of school. No graduation. Her sparkly red prom dress hangs quietly on her closet door. Occasionally, she puts it on, does her makeup, and takes selfies. Then, she takes it off and hangs it up again.
She claims, though, that, while she’s somewhat sad about all this, she is, on balance, happier to have the freedom, a sort of vacation, a much more relaxed life than she had before. She wakes up when she likes. She pads downstairs where her mother is in the kitchen, asking her if she’d like a cafe au lait. She does. Her mother makes an espresso with the Italian Biagi espresso maker and whisks warm milk in the saucepan. Her mother pours first the steaming milk into the bone ceramic mug, then the coffee, to which she adds a half-teaspoon of brown sugar.
The daughter invariably asks for more sugar.
She spends about an hour a day on school work. It’s not clear to me what else she’s doing in her room for the first part of the day (mind you, she wakes up at 11 or so, so the first part of her day takes her to about 1 p.m.). At some point, Karen, the best friend who lives next door, appears. (We are enmeshed with their family.) The girls drift in and out, back and forth, from one house to the other, like schooling fish.
In the afternoons, they settle in the Adirondack chairs in the driveway, with the brown market umbrella shading them from the California sun. There, they paint their toenails. They make whipped coffee drinks. They take pictures of each other and listen to music. Sometimes they read. Sometimes they read to each other (!).
Eventually, they look for lunch, which is usually leftovers from dinner the night before. Sometimes, we all lunch together.
We are four living in the house now. My son Bo, who is 22; my daughter Nina, 18, and their father B., who is 57.
B. doesn’t usually live here. I picked him up seven weeks ago when shelter-in-place was ordered. I felt that if we didn’t take him into our home, we wouldn’t see him at all. I didn’t want to expose us to his five housemates, all with different lives and orbits, each time we visited. I was also worried for him. I didn’t want him getting this nasty virus.
B. is fragile and vulnerable. He has bi-polar disorder and has been severely depressed since last September. For months, he was catatonic and paranoid, afraid to leave his room, afraid of the stove, subsisting exclusively on peanut butter and bananas, lying on his bed staring at the ceiling for hours, growing willow-thin.
He’s getting better here. Just in the last two weeks, he’s managed to leave the house on his own to walk the dog, which is monumental. He won’t leave by the front door, but he’s willing to slip out the back. He’s helping more. He’s no longer afraid of the stove. He’s making his own tea. Last night, he made a pasta sauce and served dinner.
This was quite incredible.
Wonder of wonders, he is also taking his medication, Lithium, on his own volition. This, after months, nay years, of begging, cajoling, and even trying to force him to do so.
I’m not sure what precipitated this breakthrough. Maybe it was my conversation with Robert, one of his housemates, a few weeks ago. He said the household doesn’t want B. back unless he’s taking his meds. He said it’s not just the mania that’s the problem (though that is admittedly untenable), but that the depression poses its own set of problems.
“He won’t do his chores. He’s strange. He’s a downer. It scares people,” Robert said.
Then, he said, “If he won’t take his medication, we think he should be in assisted living.”
I told B. that.
But, I had said so many things akin to that in the months since September, and the last time this happened, and the time before that.
Nothing has ever made any impression.
So, it’s quite arresting, this taking-of-the-medicine. It’s significant.
Tonight, we were playing cards, Nina, Karen, B., and I, when B. slipped away. I paid no attention, but then, as he made his way back from the living room, I saw him cupping something in his palm. He popped it in his mouth before re-entering the dining room, and I realized he’d taken it from a drawer of the buffet. I surmised it was his medicine. He returned to the table, took a swig of milky tea, and swallowed. I of course pretended not to notice any of this.
We’ve endured three breakdowns now. Each has been worse than the last.
This time, there’s a new element. As he slowly emerges from this depression, B.’s brain is different, slightly impaired. He’s slow in some ways. It’s peculiar. He’s a little odd. For example, after our card game tonight, he began watching “simulations of the Earth 30 trillion years from now” on YouTube. Or, maybe he’s always been this way. I’m not sure.
B. is dear. We love him.
He is strange and tender, sensitive and vulnerable. He’s mystifying. For example, out of the blue a few days ago, he began doing card tricks. Magic. And he’s good at it. Really good.
I said, “What the…? Where did you learn to do this? And when?”
He said, “A long time ago… at the club in Caracas where my brother used to swim.” So, about 40 years ago.
I said, “What? You’ve known these tricks all this time? Why did you never do them for the kids?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I guess I forgot them.”
Tonight, my daughter said, “Mom, can I cut your tail off?” She says the tail at the back of my once-short haircut needs to go.
I said, “Sure.”
Two weekends ago, I filmed her cutting B.’s hair in the back garden. She seated him in the teak chair in the late afternoon sun. He closed his eyes. She circled round and round him, trimming, standing back, gazing critically at her handiwork, resuming.
He is also bathing now. That’s a nice change.
Yes, B. is definitely getting better.
In fact, he is thriving here during the pandemic.
He says frequently, “You saved my life. When you came and got me that day. Remember? You called, and I said, no, don’t come, and you came anyway, and you took me with you. You saved my life.”
I scoff, “No, I didn’t. Don’t be silly. You would have been fine.”
But, I think maybe we did save his life. Nina says we did.
What has been good for B. has been good for all of us. We are closer together. We share at least one meal a day together, often two, sometimes three. We make coffees and teas for one another. My son and I are incredibly fortunate to be able to work from home. My daughter, after working exceedingly hard in school for years, has a rare break. We are more relaxed.
My son and I have each filled our gas tanks ONCE in the last six weeks as opposed to the nine times which would have been normal, as we both commute to the South Bay for work. To no longer endure what was sometimes a three-hour round-trip commute is heaven.
We cook a lot. We have picnics. We eat in the garden. We make lemon cake. And tiramisu. And pies.
The children in our neighborhood are coming out of the woodwork, biking and skating all over the place. Every afternoon, a socially-distanced posse of them riding bikes roughly six feet from one another snakes through the neighborhood. I see kids clambering up hills, scaling trees, hopping rocks at the creek.
Before the pandemic, I saw none of this. It didn’t happen. Parents were at work. Kids were at school and then at soccer, art, tennis, carpentry, theater, after-school care and programs of all kinds. Around 6:30, they’d straggle home with their exhausted parents to sit at the kitchen table doing hours of homework while said exhausted parents cooked or warmed up or defrosted or set on the table some semblance of dinner.
It was a marathon, and it happened every single day.
We feel better. We have more of our lives back.
I’m more productive at work than ever. The three hours a day I used to spend in the car I can now spend on work, as needed. I stretch or leave for walks when I can. I take meetings on the phone and walk.
Spring this year in the San Francisco Bay Area is pristine. Flowers of all kinds are exploding in the hills.
My hair is growing.
My daughter is happy and relaxed. B. is stirring to life.
My son is more ambivalent, however. He’s lonely. He doesn’t have a best friend next door, and he likes working onsite. The shelter-in-place order is hardest on him.
But, it’s been good for him to have his dad here. I can see the two of them fumbling toward each other. They make mistakes, get prickly. Something is difficult between them. But they’re sorting it out.
At the end of all this, I will have a bob, finally, to my daughter’s delight. B. has an opportunity again to rebuild a life. Nina and Bo have exciting college prospects in the fall, assuming school happens in the fall.
We don’t know what comes next. None of us do. We worry of course that nothing has really changed. With no contact tracing and no vaccine, we will likely be back where we started when the shelter-in-place orders are lifted.
We don’t want to get sick, and we certainly don’t want to spread a deadly virus to others, especially our friends, neighbors, and relatives who may be more vulnerable. The fear is real.
And I don’t want to sound (or be) callous or cavalier.
But, I have to say, I believe the pandemic has had a distinct silver lining. It’s allowed the world to stop and reflect a minute. To take a collective pause.
I hope we can re-enter life in a different capacity. Stop shopping, stop driving, stop the marathon of busy-ness. Turn inward. Notice and care for nature a little bit. Notice and care for each other a little bit. Stop careening around in our own orbits. Work in tandem, work in concert, support our communities, our local bookstores, our local markets, our local farms.