April 26, 2020
March 13. We shut down most of Chicago, the city of Big Shoulders shaking off the weight of industry and shuttering the doors, except for St Patrick’s Day barhoppers gulping green beer as our politicians beg for sober heads. My nine-year-old studies the revelers on TV: “Why are they out when they shouldn’t be?” he asks. “They’re young,” I say wistfully. A few more days, and the bars and restaurants are closed but parks are not, so my unessential family and I stake out a patchy field and kick around a partially inflated soccer ball. My husband and I try to inject the outing with a sense of fun it doesn’t quite earn. Our children know school is pandemically postponed; they watch us with a mix of cheer and wariness, ready to take our leads. We try not to screech—hold on! hold on!—whenever the ball rolls near other humans, other germs. I reach into my coat pocket. Why the fuck do I never have hand sanitizer? I’m not the kind of parent to remember snack packs or handwipes. There has never been a helicopter element to my parenting; my mothering is more of a frazzled standby passenger variety. This is not a good quality during a pandemic.
The park is packed with people in groups of under ten—playing tennis, walking dogs, lapping up the mild sun. There is a grim intensity to the day. A droplet of sweat trickles down my back. “Time to get home,” I announce for no reason—we have nothing to do. My five-year-old’s small, damp hand wriggles into mine, and she tests the possibility of a trip to Dairy Queen. “They’re closed,” I say. “Why?” “For the same reason that we’re in the park on a school day,” I say.
March 25. Schools close in Chicago. I begin making lists of things I will do “during the Pandemic.” I’ll learn Spanish with the kids, teach them how to knit; do service for neighbors, unpack puzzles, and clean out the house—like, really clean it, not just rearrange piles. I’ll learn to make bread and read all the stiff-spined books that crowd my bedside table. My daughter and I regularly escape to the “garden,” our pocket-sized yard that perhaps this year I will landscape, if one uses the term very loosely. We play fairies for hours, choosing magical names and powers. One evening I suggest that I am the Fairy of Lost Children—it feels appropriately romantic for this nighttime ramble. “I help them get home,” I say. “We don’t help children,” she replies seriously. “We taunt them.” I gain a renewed appreciation of little-girl malice.
April 7. I introduce my son to Agatha Christie, and we set about reading every one of the ancient, foxed paperbacks I’ve owned since I was his age. Books are meat and medicine, Gwendolyn Brooks wrote, and it’s true. But my brain seems unable to take on much that’s new. I reread The Executioner’s Song and Martian Chronicles and the Thomas Cromwell trilogy by Hilary Mantel. And then I reread them. My husband, bedrock solid, pulls me aside for the occasional hug. We treat each other with the rejuvenated politeness of two people who will be in close quarters for a very long time.
April 14. My frantic busyness grinds to a halt, replaced by the stillness that takes over much of the world. In Chicago we watch New York City and wait.
April 26. We #stayhomestaysafe. We are heroes for doing nothing. The Greatest Generation stormed the beaches of Normandy; women built rockets. I’m a Gen Xer, the Generation that Didn’t; this is the crisis we were made for. We do what we can—we write cheerful letters, draw pictures for relatives, donate money, shop locally. It feels incredibly unimpressive. It’s hard to feel heroic by inactivity and absence. We rise to the occasion by sitting on the couch. I watch old Columbo and Quincy, M. E. episodes, Law & Order marathons. Bingeing sounds too aggressive for what I do: I intake. We wander about the house in pajamas till noon, our socks fuzzed with dust bunnies, our interest failing to be aroused in much of anything, end-of-summer-bored-kid syndrome. “We are not complaining about this,” I insist. “We have no right.” Life is heartbreaking for some, but we experience the despair by proxy. We are not a family of doctors and nurses and first responders; we have suffered no pure awful luck. We experience the pain from behind glass. And the near-desperate kindness: one night I am moved to tears by a zoo that’s streaming a warthog’s forced march to the meerkats, an ode to The Lion King. Good god, they are really, really, really trying to give kids a nice moment.
End of April. My son catches me trimming my pubic hair with the kitchen scissors. I can’t remember why I thought the timing was correct. Or the place, as I am actually standing in the middle of the kitchen with my hands down the front of my yoga pants. My son sees only that I smile a bit too brightly at him and ask him how he’s doing. He smiles back at me and says, “Mom, one really bright side of this pandemic is getting to know each other better.”
And soon we’ll be on to May.
In lieu of payment, our friends and contributors to the Corona Correspondences are dedicating donations to nonprofits and independent businesses in their communities. Flynn’s contribution will be directed to Greater Chicago Food Depository.