My jaw clenches as he yells at me from less than two feet away about a video game character’s ability to perform some amazing feat I immediately tune out, despite the loudness of the words being drilled into my head. He’s woken up far earlier than usual, and the things I needed to do to make sure that I am taking care of myself before he gets up are forcefully blown into the wind, like someone else’s heartfelt desires against dandelion seeds.
“Please lower your voice. I’m standing right here.”
“I’M NOT YELLING.”
He says this genuinely; without guile or sarcasm.
“I know you don’t think you’re yelling, but trust me when I tell you, it sounds way louder out here than it does in there. And you have to remember that there are other people in this house; we’re not home alone anymore. Please lower your volume.”
He scowls, takes in a breath, and then proceeds to say the exact same thing at the exact same volume, except now in a deeply exasperated tone. He will make a fine Shakespearean actor in a Roman amphitheater one day. It takes at least two more times of my asking him to please lower his voice for the volume on the bull horn in his throat to go down precisely one and a half levels. At this point he’s convinced I don’t care about what he has to say, which I assure him is not the case. He stomps away over to the dog to get him jacketed and harnessed for the morning walk. Everyone is annoyed and cranky. The day follows suit.
This is happening before my morning meditation. Before coffee. Before I can get any semblance of my own bearings. My nerves feel exposed and raw, as if the sound of his booming voice grates me skinless from the inside. Already the day seemed an interminably long hall of mirrors. Already I feel the pull to run far away. I feel guilty for wishing I could run away from the one person I love most in the world. I know in that moment that I am doing absolutely nothing right.
We are lucky to have left the city early, to be quarantined at my mother’s house far away in the mountains, but most of my New York City family and friends don’t have that luck and are in the belly of the pandemic. I am scared for them all of the time. I miss my apartment. I miss my neighborhood and the people in it. I read the news and I watch my city gasp for breath. I mourn. I spend the days helping the boy with his schoolwork, and crying. The school work gets done at my mother’s living room table. I keep the same exact schedule he had before the quarantine and he does not miss a beat. I help manage his twice-weekly guitar lessons with his instructor back in New York via Zoom. We take short walks with the dog three times a day. He is only minus his swim lessons; very little has changed for him. I have done all I can to maintain his equilibrium. My own equilibrium is a far more tenuous thing. The crying parts of my day get done during bathroom breaks, during “work calls” I go upstairs to take, and in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep, and neither can the thoughts of love and loss and death that crowd my brain and dance in the moonlit shadows of a room that feels both safe and terribly lonely.
I wake up in the guest room at my mother’s house. He’s elbowed me hard in the neck. It’s been many years since he was small enough for us to co-sleep. It’s 2:38 am. I lie there thinking about the science of microscopic murderers, about lost love, and of all the ways that I’m not enough. He rolls over and knees me in my tired, aching back. I clench my jaw. I resent his smaller body taking up most of the queen-sized bed. I resent the fact that my anxiety already made it almost impossible to sleep, and that when I finally did get some rest, I got assaulted. When I almost fall off of the bed two nights later, I angrily shove him back to his side of the bed. He doesn’t even wake up. I wonder if that was violence. I cry because I’m clearly a shitty mother. I know in those moments that I’m doing absolutely nothing right.
Two weeks into quarantine. He offers me half of his uneaten, soggy Cap’n Crunch. I politely decline and ask him if he’s full.
“No. It’s just… When was the last time you ate something?”
“What? What do you mean?”
“It’s just… I noticed you’re not eating anything. I’m concerned for your health.”
I put my hand over my solar plexus. The sudden heaviness that roils there makes me feel as if I need to sit down.
“Can you please start eating again by spring? Oh, wait, we’re already in spring now. By summer, then, at least?”
I hug him and somehow manage to will the tears to wait. I tell him that he’s right, that I haven’t been eating much, that the anxiety over what has been happening had stripped me of an appetite. I promise him I will eat more that day. He smiles and seems relieved. I spend the next two weeks eating only when I’m in front of him; the rest of the time the knot in my stomach makes me completely forget my promise to him. I don’t always get that part right. But now, even when I’m being verbally assaulted by thundering anime facts that make me wish one could self-select being a hearing person, I remind myself that a 12-year-old kid who spends most of his free time in the basement playing video games with his friends online somehow noticed his mom wasn’t the same, and he had the love and the courage to tell her that she had to take better care of herself. For herself. For him. And when I think of that, of his kindness and his care and his concern, I acknowledge that those are all things I’ve modeled for him in his life, and I know, in those fleeting moments, that I’m absolutely doing something right.