Underneath her white satin graduation gown, Virginia wore lavender. That morning, I had driven her through armies of dump trucks to the Navy Yard, where the building of luxury condos marches on and svelte restaurants sparkle beside gravelly lots.
Outside the D.C. United stadium, 18-year-olds emerged from blinking cars. Parents adjusted sashes and tugged at hems. Virginia slunk down into the passenger seat and said, “This is so humiliating.”
After her senior year spent entirely at home, we are being given a classic graduation ceremony. The first scheduled date was rained out, but today we would soon be gathering under an imperial sunny sky to celebrate a high school career, a lifetime in grade school, and a child ready to leave home.
Diana carried lavender hydrangeas. With only 3 seats for each family, Mark and Luke had to stay home. Jumbotrons emblazoned with “Wilson High School: 2021 Commencement” were flanked by the school’s mascot, roaring cartoon tigers. As we climbed one of the staircases in the 20,000-seat stadium, “Pomp and Circumstance” played over and over. We walked past families we knew and didn’t know, pods sprinkled among empty aisles for social distancing, and I felt a massive gratitude for the institutions and people that made this happen. Thank you for paying for this stadium. Thank you for knowing this was important.
One by one, each of the 412 students in Virginia’s graduating class were called to the stage to receive their high school diploma. Black and White, Asian and Latino, with names from cultures that span the world. All wearing white satin, all receiving the same blessing, a rite both affirming and breaking a tie.
After the photos and the lunching, the hugging and the squinting, I felt dazzled and disjointed, as if I had been holding an armful of stained glass. Yellow, blue, teal, magenta: sun shimmered through the colors, but there were pieces missing. The glass clanked, the edges bit. And I couldn’t see what design it was all making.
Grandiose ceremonies. I always want more than they can give. What is it that I seek —certainty, completion, wholeness?
No ritual could resolve the paradoxes of this year. How the pandemic broke us apart and brought us together. How some were shunted into homelessness and others into luxe vacation homes. Some were lost, some were found, and no one emerged unscathed.
Rising like a miracle after the city was leveled, this commencement was for me a celebration and a mourning of our return to society. Knowing that we must be different, and walking with trepidation and desire into the bold bright world again.
We watch the Super Bowl for the homemade guacamole and chicken wings that we get to eat in front of the TV once a year. I like the half-time show and the fireworks and the chance to have a feast on a Sunday night.
When I was growing up, I would watch Brady Bunch reruns on a TV that my mother covered with a Navajo rug when it was not in use. French lace hung from the windows and botanical paintings from the walls. In between scenes of Gilligan’s Island and The Six Million Dollar Man, the commercials kept me in touch with an America that bought Stretch Armstrongs and Baby Alives from Toys ‘R Us, and Ford tough trucks and Dodge Rams with 0% down. Where dads grilled and slapped each other on the back, and girls made cookies in Hasbro Easy Bake Ovens.
I never really knew if ads imitated life or life imitated ads. I was both attracted to the sharp-focus slickness, and wary of it, as if it were a supermarket cake that tasted better than it made you feel.
Last night we passed around yucca fries and ginger beer with lime in front of Super Bowl 55, where helmets were engraved with ‘End Racism’ and seats were filled with cardboard cut-outs of people who paid $100 to not be there. And in between the tackles and interceptions, we got a taste of what America is doing, or what corporate America wants us to do, this year, 2021, a year that once rang futuristic, now the second year of the pandemic:
Keep ordering grub from neighborhood restaurants via DoorDash and Uber Eats because, as Stephen Colbert said in a public service announcement for small businesses, “when all this is over, we want them to still be there.”
Get Amazon’s new sexy robot Alexa, because it’s like having a hot cyborg be your servant.
Because social distancing is still necessary, keep ‘the backyard thing going’ with Scott Miracle-Gro (and John Travolta).
Subscribe to new streaming empires like Paramount+ where you can bypass terrestrial television and order up whatever you want through the Internet, including Beavis and Butthead, The Jersey Shore, and Star Trek.
Eat a lot of the new puffy Doritos.
Win a chance to ride on a spaceship in the first all-civilian mission on SpaceX’s Falcon rocket, brought to you by a tech billionaire who bought extra seats.
Pay people anywhere in the world to do digital jobs on Fiverr.com, the 5 & Dime marketplace for virtual freelance gigs.
Get out and trample trails and catch fish with Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s because when everyone is feeling cooped up, “we need nature more than ever.”
Invest in the American Dream with smartphone apps like Rocket Mortgage and Robinhood, because anyone should be able to buy and sell stocks, not just the rich.
The multi-million dollar, celebrity-studded commercials were sprinkled with ‘80s and ‘90s nostalgia, including cameos by Pacman, the guys from Wayne’s World, and Sylvester Stallone. Each was styled like a video game or a movie made with a hand-held camera or a heart-tugging documentary featuring everyday people. Each like a cut in a multi-faceted diamond showing all the different-colored faces, all the power and glitz, celebrating and mocking our diversity, our troubled land, our beautiful powerful broken country.
I’m still not sure whether the blitz of video clips that studded the Super Bowl is a set of mirrors or a collection of mesmerizing pictures. But if you held it all in your hands, you would see an America soaring to the stars in technology, but dreaming of the past. Pandering to its celebrities, yet wanting to elevate the common man. Ashamed of its past, and trying to airbrush equality. Giving the people control of the levers, but keeping the gold in the same old places.
It was the afternoon of December 24 and the smell of toasting pecans was mixing with peppermint from the aromatherapy diffuser Virginia had set on the kitchen counter. I was arranging pink and green bon-bons on top of doilies to give away, because anything you do the night before Christmas is blessed with the most special kind of magic. The teens’ Christmas playlists of songs by Ariana Grande and Gwen Stefani flooded the house with a cocktail of cheer and longing. And when I put on my coat to deliver the cookies, I detected the perfume of butternut squash roasting in the oven. Sofia was preparing pumpkin ravioli for tomorrow’s Christmas dinner.
That morning I had crossed off the last gifts on each of the children’s lists. In the wrapping room, I enclosed each one with silvery paper, attached a card, and wrote something to the person who would tug at its ribbon.
At lunch we had debated the evening activities during this holiday without grandparents — games or caroling or a Christmas show — and although it was contentious, everyone would agree because it was Christmas Eve. After dinner we would sift powdered sugar over the Italian pandoro cake we had warmed in the oven until it was soft and buttery. After the kids were tucked in, I would stay up late to hang the stockings, and then climb in to bed next to my husband, setting my alarm for early the next morning so I could light the tree, make coffee, and warm the cranberry cake before everyone came down the stairs.
The greatest paradox of Christmas is that the heart of it — the giving and receiving of gifts — is the beginning of the end. Mothers prepare for months, children wait all year, and then dawn turns to dusk on December 25 as swiftly as any other day in the relentless march of time.
After all the presents had been unwrapped and the grandparents called, I lay down and felt that familiar sadness come again. Everything had gone so well: everyone got what they wanted, no one was sick, hugs had been plenty. But when the tumbling, light-making gaiety of the holiday no longer held me in its grip, I was freed. I was lost. It’s as if I didn’t remember that night falls, parties end, youth fades.
When the sun began setting on Christmas Day, I found Virginia painting a self-portrait with her new acrylics and Sofia reading her new book by Madeline Miller. The artichokes needed to be cleaned and the potatoes scrubbed, so Virginia and I worked and talked about star constellations and Rome and the vaccine while I watched Sofia roll out the pasta and make ravioli for the first time. When it was time, I pulled out the roast and placed Sofia’s warm pecan pie at the center of the table. There were more dirty pots and pans, whisks and wooden spoons than you might find in the back room of a small restaurant, but it was better than anything we had made before.
“Christmas is almost over,” Diana said when I tucked her in that night, her eyebrows coming together as if in prayer. “I wish I was still opening the presents,” she said. Anticipation sweeter than getting what you asked for.
For me the days after Christmas are always sad. It’s a sadness that equals the joy that was held. And a sadness that tells of a dream that was always more than what was real.
But at the moment when the emptiness seemed to swallow me, I felt a glimmer. Every thing contains its opposite. Every void is an opening. This stillness is the black earth where seeds soften. This is the night where rest comes. This is the ignorance where understanding is born.
It happened again. I have settled into a cradle I once thought was strange and prickly. Now I don’t want to leave.
Last Monday the chancellor of schools made an unexpected announcement that some elementary school kids could start going back on November 9. I immediately thought of how I would miss walking down the hall and seeing Diana working at her desk, lamplight outlining her pug nose, pixie hair slanting forward, feet dangling from the swivel chair.
How I’d miss seeing my pre-teen son Mark reading on the couch on a Wednesday morning, looking at me with wonder when, for the first time, the cat had lain purring on his lap.
I’ll miss waking from a nap to the sound of feet pounding down the stairs, when dad’s car rolling onto the gravel driveway signals the end of quiet time.
Last week for a schoolday screen break, Luke, 10, and Diana, 7, were bored of everything — bike riding, soccer, scootering — so we took a walk around the block. “This is so boring,” Luke said. I know, I said, but this is what we can do. And that was when we heard meowing in our neighbor’s yard. A black cat looked stuck, but when he jumped the fence like a horse over a hogsback, I realized he was probably Nick, the cat that is occasionally discussed on the neighborhood listserv — is he lost? Do his owners know where he is?
We watched him trot across the street, slide under a fence to another yard, and another, places we couldn’t go. Watching him from the sidewalk, wondering what he’d do next, hoping we could be friends.
He jumped on pillars, he chewed on grass, he crawled under bushes, he let me pick him up, purring and spreading his paw-toes and eating the cat treats out of our hands that Diana ran home to get. Before he wanted to get down, and we followed him across the alley to a parked car where he retired, I felt the muscles in his back and pondered his adventurous days, his lone strength.
This Saturday I helped clean up the city park on the corner. The kids wanted to go with me. We put on blue plastic gloves and picked up candy wrappers and plastic forks. The homeless man who had made an exuberant living space here was gone. All that seemed to be left of his decorations were paint swirls on the tree trunk and zig-zag flourishes along the benches.
“Look what I found!” Diana said. She held a gold and teal iridescent pom-pom the size of a pea between her thumb and forefinger. I didn’t know how to tell her whose it was; I didn’t know how to express both relief to not see him here and sadness that he was gone.
He was caught on neighborhood security cameras draped with plastic necklaces and pushing around a baby buggy and it was debated whether he was a thief or a charity case. He must be mentally ill, people said, but it seemed perfectly sane to me to scatter glitter everywhere when the world you inhabit feels bleak and forbidding.
When I was depressed in my mid-20s, I would collect ordinary things at thrift stores and bedazzle them with jewels and sequins until nothing dull was left. I gave them out as gifts, thinking I was spreading sparks of light.
When I thought I had found all the trash, even skinny little glucose test strips, vape pens, and cigarette butts, I kept seeing copper-colored confetti disks and assorted beads among the October leaves, and I wondered, where did he go? Is he happy now? Is he safe, is he warm? Does he have a place where he can spread sparkle? A place of his own.
On schoolday screen breaks, our new activity became looking for Nick. In a high voice I would call, “Here, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty!” the same way I called my childhood pet Pepper, when most cats were outdoor cats. To adopt a cat these days, you have to promise that you won’t let it out. The out of doors is like a deathwish — vicious dogs and tomcat fights, ticks and fleas, fast cars and feline AIDS.
We couldn’t find Nick anywhere. We wandered the streets, thinking there would be nothing else worth seeing, but at the Armenian church we stopped to admire zinnias in shades of coral and hot pink and persimmon. Then we noticed the bees. Dozens of carpenter bees climbing over mounds of Durango red marigolds. There were big bees and “little kid” bees, as Diana called them, with one black dot on their fuzzy yellow backs, plates of black armor covering their abdomens. They let us watch and watch them, not minding how close we got, not caring about us at all.
Diana lay in bed with me today, touching my face, massaging my scalp, patting my nose, gazing at my eyes until I opened them.
She kissed me three times — left cheek, right cheek, left cheek. “That’s the Italian way of greeting,” she said. “And mama, elephants greet each other by holding their trunks like this,” showing me her arms intertwined at the elbows.
How rich I am — even in this poverty of human contact and touch — I have all these human beings around me, hugging me, lying on me, kissing me and looking into my eyes. I think about how I need this touch to survive, and then I think about the man who used to live in the park. Does anyone touch his arm, his face? Does anyone touch him at all?
“It’s Nick!” Luke yelled one morning after having gone out on the porch to eat his bowl of breakfast cereal.
Diana and Mark ran outside too. When they came back, I asked, “What was he doing?” wanting to picture a cat with no collar or curfews. He meowed and liked to be scratched, they said, and he walked around everyone’s yard and smelled things.
In our old life, this cat would have offered nothing more than a passing curiosity. Now that we are confined to a restricted radius and barred from our normal diversions, finding him has been like discovering a wild pony.
But were we really free when we had everything? Were we really free with all those parties and meetings, appointments and dinners, ceremonies and plays and sports?
Maybe it is not he who we are really looking for, but a part of ourselves. A part that is forever roaming. A part that is strong and lean, that doesn’t need a collar or a tag, doesn’t need doors or fences. That knows where to go and how to get back home. A part of ourselves that is, and always has been, free.
Outside the Neiman Marcus department store, guys in hoodies and jeans were loading metal racks and leather lounge chairs into black pickup trucks. Hand-written signs taped to the door said, “Auction Winners Only.”
“All the stores have closed, except for TJMaxx and Sak’s,” my friend said about Mazza Gallerie, the 4-story mall where my family and I used to go to the movies on Saturday nights. “The whole mall was sold,” she said. “I heard they got a really good price because it was in foreclosure.”
We walked through the darkened hallways past all the gutted stores, because I wanted to go inside and look at the corpse, and when we opened the back door, there was the Lord & Taylor building across the way with a huge yellow banner spanning the entire top floor saying, “GOING OUT OF BUSINESS. EVERYTHING MUST GO.”
My friend and I used to be writing partners, meeting for lunch, exchanging chapters, working on novels together at the library. She tells me that they’re thinking of moving. Her husband has been working long hours for his law firm in their basement since March. “Why stay here,” she said, “when you can work from anywhere?”
We pause at the corner to say ‘see you later’ through our masks. Across the street, four 123JUNK trucks are being filled to the top with desks, wooden tables, and cabinets from an office building on Wisconsin. I think of all the offices downtown that no one is going to, and the places that are dying without them: suit shops, sandwich joints, gyms, even the Metro.
We part ways without touching each other at all, and I have the feeling of being in a place where the sand is shifting underneath me.
This fall, the kids — now in 2nd, 5th, 7th, and 12th grade — are schooling in an enclosed world, a circuit of screen, headphone and wire, where I am largely not needed except to adjust the connection, to drag them into the sun, to instigate something that resembles recess.
It’s been half a year since schools closed on March 13, a week after D.C.’s first covid case was confirmed. Everyone thought the kids would go back in 2 weeks, but the re-open date kept getting pushed back as the virus ripped into cities and hospitals around the world like a real-life horror show.
What seemed to be an unsurmountable challenge then — managing my grief and terror while trying to project an aura of calm for the kids, mapping the foreign landscape of remote learning at 3 different schools, navigating capsized social norms and nebulous lockdown rules — now feels like a hurricane that has dissipated into light rain.
I acutely feel the presence of my children’s teachers in my life, even though I’ve never been so far away from them. Doctors and nurses, grocery store workers, mail carriers and garbagemen are as essential and appreciated as ever, but for me, teachers are the new foot soldiers — protecting us, carrying my children, holding this world together.
I have heard the patience in their voices, and felt the difficulty. I know about the sadness, but I feel the love. I see how they band together in the pixelated quilts of Teams meetings, supporting classes that are not their own, gathering every child in this strange new container, persevering. They have become my teachers too.
When the pandemic hit, magnolias were exploding into obscene shows of magenta and rose, daffodils were blanketing the ground with newborn yellow, and cherry trees were unfurling sinful layers of crinoline and lace. Nature was creating an extravagant backdrop for an opera about loss.
When the air softened and the days became lighter, the kids and I found new purpose in the garden that had once seemed dull compared to cross-country or novel-writing or high school musicals. We dug up the weeds by the street and planted sunflowers, bee balm, and crayon-colored zinnias. One morning we woke to find 2 tomato plants on our stoop, and just as we were saying we needed basil for our herb garden, the lady across the street walked over with handfuls of sprouts, and we watered them until they grew big enough to make pesto to ladle over slippery hot linguine.
After the stay-at-home order was lifted at the end of May, restaurants were allowed to serve people outdoors, and over the summer the familiar sounds of people laughing and communing returned. Tables spilled onto sidewalks, squares, parking lanes, alleys, and even streets, creating pockets of joviality in this now subdued city.
But while anxiety about the outbreak has declined from a raging blaze to a crackling fire, other problems have flamed up. The run-up to the presidential election has heightened the feeling of living in two Americas, as if we’ve clung to opposite ends of a schooner, certain that if the other side wins, we’re all going down. Wildfires in California, Oregon, and Washington state have burned through millions of acres of forests and neighborhoods, turning skies in San Francisco and Portland from blue to orange, and creating smoke clouds so massive they have traveled all the way to us on the East Coast. And recent violent acts against Black people have cut deep gashes, exposing a race-based hierarchy so intransigent that it will take a complete teardown of American society to build it back right.
The sunflowers that once brought smiles to people passing by the sidewalk are now headless stalks and the basil is bitter, and I feel the imminent loss of the handful of social interactions that have been made possible by the open air, one of the few things that prevent us from infecting each other. Fall has always brought with it a dose of melancholy, but this year in particular, I see my world getting smaller, like the tightening aperture in a mirrorless camera.
During a particularly difficult week of distance learning last spring, a friend brought over a puppy and a playmate for Diana. Another day I found a bouquet of red tulips and a Russian novel on my porch. Six months later I am still reading that novel.
“All the old ways of doing things were abandoned,” the main character tells his daughter about how it was to live through the communist revolution. “But the new ways of doing things had yet to be established.” I wanted to tell him through the pages, through time, through imagination and space, I have been there too. In the pliant dark between one place and another.
I’m afraid of losing my voice. I’m afraid it will vanish in the rush of the world turned back on.
I’m afraid of entering society’s maze again. Maybe I’ll shrink back into a titmouse, when for a time I felt as explosive as a volcano, as wild as a dragon, solid as a pyramid, serene as a falcon.
I’m afraid we will return to chit-chat and patter talk, and it will be hard to know anyone’s soul when the expected response to ‘How are you?’ is ‘Fine.’ It’s so hard to get a foothold, I feel like I’m just clinging on.
When I was growing up, before I started thinking my body wasn’t skinny enough, I would spend all summer at the pool.
I remember how quiet it was under the water. When you are completely surrounded by blue, everything is connected. The water presses into you — heavy and complete — bending the sun into rippling diamonds, making waves every time someone would jump in, scattering crystalline bubbles everywhere.
We graduate to the world of air. It’s easier to get things accomplished here. Easier to move around, so light and transparent, but hard to feel the waves that connect me and you.
I’ve been so cradled in our shelter that I am not afraid of the virus anymore, I’m afraid of people. I’d like to add in one friend at a time. I’d like to vet people for trustworthiness and sensitivity.
I get overwhelmed by all the messages: the facial expressions, the look in the eyes, the tones of voice, and sleights of phrase. My mind gets noisier and noisier until its motor overheats with the task of interpreting it all, running over and over that it’s all my fault.
I’ve had emotional breakdowns over how I handled children’s party invitations. I’ve based my self-esteem on whether a handful of people I don’t know likes me. I’ve emptied myself trying to smooth out the rough parts until I was hollow.
Outside the bedroom that Mark, Luke, and Diana cuddle up in every night, I sing lullabies into the hallway. The floorboards of heart pine shimmer from the light of the neighbor’s window across the way.
I see the squared doorframes, the slanted lines of light, and each room looks separate. One door is closed, one room is open, one space holds clothing and one holds a bath, one room is suffused with lamplight and one is dark.
They seem separate, but they’re all attached. To the same hall, the same story. They’re part of the same house, built by the same man for his one family.
The notes of Edelweiss — E-G-C-B-G — travel through the air whether someone is listening or not. And even if that musical alphabet means nothing, I am still connected to my children, whether they are awake or asleep, in the house or on the street, pleasing me or making me angry.
When everyone seems scattered, I want to be the glue. Melting into the cracks, filling in the empty spaces, supplying the missing notes.
I need to remember how to be the swimmer, instead of the water. To dive in and play, no matter what my body looks like, where the lanes markings are, or what anyone else is doing. Plunging and swirling and flipping upside down, until I’m tired and it’s time to ride my bike back home.
For me, the coronavirus outbreak was both a horrendous tragedy and a once-in-a-lifetime gift. It was a calamity that threatened everyone on earth and melted away the hierarchies that separate us. We were just human beings for a while.
In the blackness of quarantine, I became invisible. Free from the constant daily interactions that always seemed to lead me to think I somehow wasn’t doing things right. From the self-consciousness that plagued me: how I was perceived, how I was judged, how I measured up according to the rules of the arena I found myself in.
The quiet darkness hid it all. I was simply a soul. A human being in a family of human beings.
This is why I am not eager to go back to the way things were.
I don’t want to try to fight my way into society’s detailed ranking, its tight grid. I don’t want to be aware of how I do or don’t fit in, where I stand in the graph — high or low, left or right.
I don’t want to look at everything I do through the lens of the groupthink to decide whether I am good or bad, worthy or worthless.
“I am a man.” I love this declaration that I see on t-shirts in Black Lives Matters marches. It helps me rewrite the limiting scripts in my mind. When I see a Black person I don’t know, I feel the assumptions my mind is making, and then I say over it, “Man.” Or “Woman.” Or “Child.”
This is the way I want to be seen. I want to see others this way too. Greeting each person as a human being makes me feel part of a One, not a fragment among many. When I see someone and “human” is all I need to know about them, my heart speaks, not my mind, and compassion flows out.
Every country, every society has a unique hierarchy. People not born with the qualities that are valued at the top will most likely struggle to feel loved and accepted, always feeling they are on the verge of being kicked out.
I love people. I need people. I crave connection and soul-to-soul communion. People cooperate, lift each other up, make each other feel less alone, become the safety net. We help each other survive and thrive.
But there is something about large groups that leads us to categorize and place value on people based on what they do, what they look like, how much they earn, or how assertive, outgoing, or fashionable they are.
Perhaps this is why I am not heartbroken that our world will stay small and that our house will become a school this fall. School — even as a parent who only is involved with fundraisers and drop-offs, field days, plays, and graduations — brings back the same feelings I had as a child: I’m different and I’m afraid of what I have to do to belong.
I feel sad for my children, missing all the happy nurturing things about school and playing with friends in the sunshine. I feel sad for my daughter who will start her senior year on a computer. The suffering inflicted because schools are not opening is devastating. It’s a sign of massive dysfunction, and I feel a sense of dread as I witness the institutions and economies that support the livelihoods of so many people continue to deteriorate.
This is why it is so hard to reckon with the fact that I am okay with keeping the social, busy, public part of my life in the dark for a while longer, and clinging to the peculiar warm light I have found in the wreckage. Because as much as I grieve our losses, there was something unhealthy about the way we were, and something healing about what is now.
“Everything is happening good before my birthday!” said my 6-year-old daughter.
”I learned how to blow bubbles with gum,
“Frankie went on me when I whispered into here,” pointing to the cat’s ribs, “‘Please go on my lap, Frankie’ and he did!
“And my tooth fell out — and now I have one grown-up tooth and 3 wiggly teeth — and only 2 days ’til my birthday!”
And today, the day she turned 7, she put on a blue party dress with yellow flowers and a big ribbon in her hair, and it was raining, so her friend wore a mask, and they ate pizza in an empty restaurant.
“I have to wait ’til Saturday so my dad can see me open my presents,” she told her aunt on the phone, and after dinner she shared the remains of her Birthday Cake gelato with her brothers and they took turns taking spoonfuls until it was all gone.
The first time we went to the pool this summer, we could only stay 20 minutes. Mark had math class on the living room computer, and I thought we’d hop in the car right after and make it for most of our slot, but he had a quiz and said it was going to take him a long time, but we said, of course we’ll wait.
Luke and Diana and I sat on the porch in our bathing suits with sunscreen on, listening to the crows caw and distant lawnmowers rove, and after a while we opened up the pool bag and looked at the hotdogs all wrapped in foil, and then we unwrapped them one by one and the mustard was so tangy, the buns so soft, and then we opened the box of carrots, and then the container of potato chips, and when Mark came out, he looked white and said there was no point, but we piled in the car and got there just in time.
But this morning Mark doesn’t have math, and we got a 2-hour reservation, and the water is sparkling like turquoise gold. The kids throw off their shorts and pull on their goggles and fast-walk to the deep end, and they’re so happy, and Sofia is coming home today, and everything is fine. So why do I feel like sitting on this vinyl lounge chair and crying?
Was it the email that came in this morning declining the invitation to celebrate Luke’s 10th birthday at an amusement park, or the shame I felt for having even asked? Is it because the thing he really wants is a bike and I can’t find a single 24-inch bike in stock to give him?
Maybe it’s because of all the money we lost on the canceled trip to Florida, or that yesterday the mayor was supposed to announce how schools would re-open but then called off the press conference, and Houston and Atlanta and L.A. and Montgomery County have already announced that school will be online this fall.
Or was it that when Virginia said she didn’t mind if her senior year was all virtual because she’s over high school, I saw a black computer screen replace her life and my redemption, my last chance to be the mom she wanted me to be, to trust her, to let her do more when high school was still high school and kids still loitered around the convenience store and rode buses and bought dresses for dances and roamed around looking for parties after football games.
“When are you going to get in?” the kids ask me, the tips of their noses dripping, their eyelashes like star points, and I tell them, “Later, I’m not hot enough yet,” but what I really mean is I’m not happy enough.
Maybe it’s because today is the day we would have flown back from Italy, bleary from too many nights out and visits to cousins and early morning cappuccinos and our suitcases would be jammed with stained sink-washed clothing and plastic bags of shells, brochures, and tiny bottles of Italian shampoo swiped from hotels.
Is it because my children have each other, but I spend my days alone, and even though I am consuming this solitude like one wide-open mouth, I feel that somewhere people are hugging and laughing and locking eyes and I’m here caught in a wind tunnel of air, so much air, fresh non-human air.
At the diving boards, kids line up to do can-openers and back dives, and I feel like a traitor, dry and motionless on my chair. I don’t know what to do with this sadness. It makes me feel soft, rich, babylike. To mourn the loss of things that others have never held.
But how does it help to not let myself cry? I become a steel drum with a welded top, my precious dangerous stuff kept in. And everyone else kept out.
After the whistle blows the long looping whine that means “get out,” lifeguards block the main entrance and masked bathers file out of the side exit by the chain link fence. I too am wet — the kids convinced me to stop wrestling with my sorrow and jump in. Near the snack bar, an enormous stack of pool chairs has been constructed, hundreds of different types and sizes that once made this a place to gather have been fitted together into one giant mass, as if ready to make a bonfire.
The remaining few set sparsely around the pool. So I couldn’t sit near anyone and pretend that I was happy. Spaced apart so that the air would fill with silence instead of chatter. So that sadness had a way to spill out and join with the rest and finally be washed away.
Sofia’s graduation ceremony happened last night on our TV. The basement carpet received my sister’s pink tablecloth as if it were a concert lawn. Big bowls of guacamole that Virginia had just made were set on it, plus a platter of fried pumpkin flowers her little brothers and sister had picked from the garden that morning. With her laptop logged into Microsoft Teams, Sofia broadcast the ceremony in her just-ironed white gown, with its tape-on collar and pine green sash, WWHS printed down the front in gold lettering.
The opening procession was like turning the pages of a scrapbook, every slide bearing 9 photos of 9 different kids standing in 9 different places, each posing with the “Wilson Grad 2020” yard signs that a band of mothers had sunk into the ground at each graduating senior’s house or apartment building. In the background was the tinny sound of the high school band, orchestra, and choir singing “Fantasy” by Earth Wind & Fire, a concert from another era, a time when people could sing next to each other and parents could sit in the audience.
I look at Sofia’s face under her satin cap, her features still those of a child. The baby photo that we placed in the yearbook shows her bald head and monkey face, curiosity drawing out the only wrinkle in her brow, and her body launching from her grandfather’s arms in front of the Italian country church. How much love we felt for this baby, this wondrous act of nature — the only one of her that will ever exist in all of time.
She is sitting with us now, instead of with her friends, surrounded by her siblings who are dressed in tie-dye t-shirts, Under Armour shorts, and bikini tops, while she is draped in white satin, a mortarboard hat on her head, green tassel hanging down, like a master of ceremony, an angel, a sage from another realm.
“I know this was not the graduation or senior year you expected,” the mayor says in a pre-recorded greeting in front of a hedge on a sunny day, “but don’t let that take away from how proud you should feel in this moment.”
“Our nation is hungry for change,” she says. “The pandemic set the stage for creating a new normal, and as cities across the country begin to open up, including our own, people don’t want to go back to how things used to be.”
I had bled so much for all that was lost, without knowing that only three months later I would no longer grasp for the way things were. Going back would be like returning to the school where you learned how to read and where you played kiss and catch. Seeing how tiny the chairs and desks are, how spare the playground that you once thought was a wonderland.
It took 45 minutes to announce all of the graduates. Senior portraits rise up and dissolve away. Hundreds of names, hundreds of faces, each one so different, each expression, hairstyle, every shape and color of every face. I wish somehow that I had met them all. I only knew a handful. Now it’s too late.
When Sofia appears, it was like the screen radiated with a thousand watts and the image of her face came toward me, glowing and hovering there, and then it was gone. A new face appears, a new name is pronounced, another college is listed underneath in italics, and the violins keeping playing “Pomp and Circumstance” over and over, as name after name, and face after face is honored.
Soon it will be over. Even though we made two dozen cupcakes with buttercream icing and gold and black sprinkles, even though we lit handfuls of sparkly candles, even though there were homemade gifts and cards and a call from the grandparents, the silence will come. I will get the kids tucked in bed, and my husband will finish all the dishes, and her sister will turn on the TV, and Sofia will be alone on the couch again. I don’t want the silence to swallow her up.
It’s the endings before any beginnings that are the hardest to bear.