Coming to terms with a new reality

Most women don’t look pregnant when they discover a plus sign on a pregnancy test and, for those who don’t instantly get morning sickness, they don’t feel pregnant either. Each knows she is, but it’s surreal. And then, maybe 10 to 12 weeks into gestation, it becomes very real.

And so it’s been with the coronavirus pandemic.

In January of this year, the first coronavirus death was reported in China where healthcare workers who hit the alarm bells early on were not just ignored, they were often silenced and punished for doing so. Had the Chinese government heeded those first warnings, perhaps the virus would not have developed into a pandemic.

As I write this, my second son, Hugo, is driving my minivan back to Rochester, New York to collect his belongings. We had discussed heading there this weekend, but as the pace of confirmed cases of coronavirus has increased exponentially, Hugo pointed out that there might soon be an all-out lockdown, à la Italy and Spain.

While I’m passionate about many things from parenting to politics, I rarely get worked up over what I cannot control. For one thing, it’s hard to be effective when consumed with fear or anger. If faced with an emergency, I’m your gal. I don’t freak out at the site of blood, bones or crushed cars. Instead, I calmly assess what needs to be done.

However, like many, I was slow to recognize the coronavirus’ potential to become the once-in-a-lifetime pandemic epidemiologists have been predicting for years. Complacency was the lesson of recent epidemics. Consider the outbreak of Ebola in 2014 — it stayed mostly in Africa and when it did arrive in the US, only a few people who’d had first-hand contact with carriers contracted it.

The coronavirus did not stay put in China. And it quickly became a community-spread virus, meaning many people who caught it had no direct connection to someone who’d recently traveled to any of the virus’ hotspots.

The second week of March, my sons Hugo and Jules were home from their respective colleges for spring break. I felt bad because I was scheduled to conference all week, six to eight hours a day, with my University of Akron students.

And then everything shifted late on Tuesday. Like many universities, by day’s end all three of our universities had suspended face-to-face instruction.

From there it cascaded. On Thursday, Ohio Gov. DeWine announced that all public and private K-12 schools would be closed for the next three weeks, if not longer. At the same time that I was losing the ability to meet with my students, my house became infested with my own children.

This past week, things got real, as they say. Restaurants, bars, museums, libraries, community centers and more were closed for the foreseeable future.

All of Hugo and Jules’s college jobs were suspended and Jules, along with all Ohio State University students, was ordered to move out of his dorm. Hugo has an apartment and, for now, no way to earn money for rent. Our fingers are crossed for a resident-hall refugee to sublet.

Where Italy and Spain are now, the US will likely be in a couple of weeks. I’m grateful that Gov. DeWine has shown true leadership by making sweeping declarations based upon the advice of scientific experts. While inconvenient, the extensive closures of public facilities will save lives and hopefully prevent things from becoming as severe as they are in Italy and Spain.

My 10-year-old son, Leif, recently told me he was afraid of the coronavirus. Of course he is. Usually I gauge what I tell young children by first asking them what they think, such as when they ask, “Where do babies come from?”

But I didn’t do that this time. Instead, I gave Leif the facts he needs to know for now. I explained the closures and social distancing were important so everyone doesn’t get sick at the same time, which would overwhelm our hospitals.

I also said that children like him are less likely to contract coronavirus (close to 1% of confirmed cases according to recent statistics in “U.S. News and World Report”) and have fewer complications if they do. Thank heavens.

At first, life felt like we were on summer break, when I try to work in my home office and constantly tell my noisy kids to go outside. But it’s a lot harder. We can’t reward ourselves at the end of the day by going to a favorite restaurant or promising a museum visit in the days ahead. And there are no camps to send kids to.

But we will adjust. A new normal will temporarily take hold.

When expecting my first child, I took an adaptive swim class at Ohio State, where I was in graduate school. A man with multiple sclerosis and I had individualized instruction based upon our conditions.

On my way to the showers after class, I’d pass a floor-to-ceiling mirror that was as wide as it was tall. Like bread dough rising in a bowl, I watched my belly grow from week to week. When the class ended less than a month before Claude was born, my reflection alarmed me. I thought, “That watermelon will soon come out of me!”

And he did. Not without some pain and hard work, but in the end we were all fine and my world expanded immeasurably.

The next several weeks things are going to get harder before they get easier. Please work diligently to keep each other safe. We truly are all in this together. And when we no longer need to practice social distancing, our worlds will feel like they, too, have expanded immeasurably.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, March 22, 2020.


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