Black Belt Mind or Notes From the Front Lines of COVID-19

March 10th

On what seems to be, in retrospect, my last normal evening, I meet a friend at a restaurant. Under dim lights, we eat noodles and drink white wine. My friend has a cold, and I’m surprised that she’s out. My husband (I’m going to borrow from maternity chat groups of yesteryear and call him DH, or Dear Husband) has already told me that COVID-19 can be asymptomatic – but most people don’t know it yet.

We discuss whether she should cancel her teenage son’s March break trip to the U.S. I want to tell her to cancel it, but I balk. For the first time – but not the last – I weigh the pros and cons of giving someone advice against the need to preserve someone’s right to autonomous decision-making. For two weeks after this moment, I will constantly revisit the ethics of speaking up versus remaining silent. As time passes, I speak up more frequently, even knowing that I’m alienating relatives and friends.

At the end of the evening, we jokingly refrain from hugging each other, blowing each other kisses instead. I take the subway for what will end up being the last time in several weeks – possibly several months.

March 12th

Another friend emails me to say that she’s starting to get anxious. In the days that follow, people reach out to ask DH his opinion on social isolation. People also commend him for his work. I feel a sense of pride, even while being anxious for his safety.

My daughter has a bad cold and we tell her she can’t see her friends until she’s symptom-free. She cries.

Schools close. Even before we get the official word, we parents at my son’s middle school start to make plans. Social isolation is still a foreign concept and we don’t know what’s permitted. How large can groups be? Is contact even allowed? I volunteer to host small groups of my son’s friends a couple times a week so that other parents can work. Friends create a roster of parents who have volunteered to provide childcare.

March 13th

Several weeks ago, I booked a shiatsu massage for a hip injury. As an athlete, I consider massage a regular and necessary part of my routine. I also adore massages. Now I send my shiatsu therapist a text confirming my appointment. “With kids off school, I’ll really need it,” I write, and add a smiley face. ☺

March 14th

My daughter has planned to visit one of her best friends who lives outside Toronto who’s celebrating her birthday. After much discussion around the meaning of social isolation, my husband and I decide that she can’t attend the party. I text the friend’s parent, letting them know that if the party remains small, we’ll allow my daughter to attend. There will be 10 girls; our daughter is not allowed to go.

DH and I are out driving, and by the time we return, our daughter’s friend has called her and given her the bad news. Devastated, she cries.

I think I can imagine the other parent’s perspective: the party is to be a bulwark in the face of what has been, for that family, a very difficult year. I feel terrible for them and for my daughter and keep trying to come up with solutions. I start a plot to call the other parents to ensure that everyone is healthy, in which case I could allow my daughter to attend – knowing that this plan is a dead end. For the sake of my daughter, I start to hope that the party will be cancelled.

March 15th

We’ve concluded that we can’t meet or see anyone at all. Responding to several inquiries from other parents, DH sends an email explaining what he thinks is the science behind the concept of social isolation. We can no longer share childcare with other parents. One by one, parents (including myself) take their names off the volunteer roster. My friend, a writer who, like me, has three children, texts “Fuuuuuuck. Can we day drink.”

For the rest of the day, we struggle to explain the concept to our children. “What about meeting outside, in the ravine?” we ask.

I turn to DH. “Is that okay?”

“With one metre apart, maybe.”

But by the end of the week we’ve already abandoned the idea, only to take up new ones, which we take to be creative solutions to an untenable situation. These solutions are eventually discarded, too. I start to understand that we’re going through the early stages of grief. The denial goes on and on.

March 16th

I call my littlest son’s caregiver and tell her to take two (paid) weeks off – I’m still thinking our current situation might blow over. She’s been with us since my son’s birth and we consider her to be part of our family, but we feel it unethical to ask her to take the TTC to and from our house, especially since we’ve decided to stop taking public transit ourselves.

A few hours later, I text her to see if she would feel comfortable being picked up for work, as my in-laws have offered me their car. She tells me that she wants to take a leave of absence. We dance around her reason for staying away for a few seconds and then I ask her, “do you want to stay away from children?” After all, children are, as my DH calls them, “germ factories.”

“Yes,” she says.

As soon as I let her go I feel my world closing in. I don’t want to lose my childcare. At heart I know this situation is not going to change anytime soon, and I’m afraid. I love my children; as an introvert, I also love my solitude. Childcare has permitted me to write; now I’ll have to slot my writing into minuscule pockets of time. I remind myself that Carol Shields wrote while raising four children. Then I remember that she wrote while her kids were in school, between “picking up their socks” [sic] and preparing her kids’ lunches. School is done for the month, and possibly for the year.

I cancel my family members’ appointments, including my daughter’s orthodontic appointment. She was supposed to get her braces fitted, which I’d already delayed by two years. I cancel and hope that a long delay won’t result in crooked teeth.

I abandon my treasured shiatsu massage. My therapist has a private practice but also works at Body Blitz. Once I get the news that the spa is shutting down, I text her to ask if they’re paying her. A few hours later, she confirms that they are. “They’re good people,” she texts. I begin to think that the pandemic will compel us to categorize people as either “good” or “bad.”

The river cruise company my parents booked change their mind about accommodating their customers who want to cancel. Until now they have stuck to their usual cancellation policies. Hoping that the virus will have run its course by September, my parents decide not get a full refund, but rather to postpone the cruise until autumn. I tell them what DH told me, which is that these types of viruses usually peak twice – he expects a summer lull, followed by a resurgence. My mother is reluctant to cancel it completely, and wants to play it by ear.

My daughter’s friend cancels her party. I text “Great news” to the parent and immediately feel like a jerk. I backpedal: “But not great of course.” I write that she’s made the right decision “from my perspective.” She doesn’t answer, so in the evening, I reach out again: “I know it was a difficult decision and I’m sorry you had to make it.” She doesn’t reply.

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