Breaking out of Shawshank

Dear Willow:

My 79-year and 363-day-old mother had had enough. After being quarantined in her apartment since mid-March, pretty much leaving only to walk her garbage down the hall, accepting no visitors, June 23rd was the day she broke out of Shawshank.

Okay, she lives in a very nice retirement complex in the Chicago ‘burbs, so it’s more like breaking out of the Ritz than a prison, but she’d reached her limit of pandemic-mandated isolation and separation. For a year we’d planned a gathering at our family’s cabin in south central Michigan to celebrate her 80th birthday. Kathy and I would fly up from South Carolina. My brother and his wife would drive mom from Chicago, and we’d spend a week together in the little place we’d been going to as a family since 1985.

(It’s also where Kathy and I got married.)

Well, the whole family gathering was obviously cancelled, because we’re not getting on a plane and the time off we’d set aside couldn’t accommodate the extra days required for driving. But as it became clear that it would be safe for mom and my brother and sister-in-law to go up, it was decided that during the week before her Saturday birthday, my mom would drive into the city, after which my brother would drive them the rest of the way to the cabin.

Through no one’s fault, there was a miscommunication. Mom had it down that they were leaving Wednesday, my brother Thursday, so when she called him to say she was on her way, he said, “Nope, it’s tomorrow,” and she said, “The hell it is,” and drove all the way to the cabin by herself.

My mother is a smart and prudent person, so she was not being reckless. She’s still a highly capable driver and has driven herself back and forth to the cabin by herself many times over the years, including last year.

Also, she had her Depends on so she wouldn’t have to stop.

(Mom asked that I make it clear that she did not need them.)

It is a funny story that we enjoyed telling others over the surprise Zoom birthday we held for her on Saturday, but I think it’s illustrative of the kinds of struggles everyone is facing as we try to figure out what kind of life is livable in a world in which a deadly virus remains present.

We have all been looking forward to “re-opening,” but seeing what’s happening in the states that were first to re-open, it seems clear we should stop using the term. There is no re-opening. There is something else.

In the grand scheme of things, my mom is extraordinarily lucky. She lives in a nice apartment that gets lots of light and has a balcony. Her meals are brought to her. She can order groceries in. She is financially secure. She is safe. All the residents of her community have even been given coronavirus tests, so we know definitively she was negative as of a couple weeks ago. She is a big reader who is content to spend time alone, while also having a wide network of friends and family who are checking in on her frequently.

She is cared for in every sense of the word. She is not someone we need to worry about, yet of course I worry, which is why she did not tell me that she drove herself to the cabin until she had arrived. (Ask forgiveness, not permission.)

I feel as though we’re entering a new phase of dealing with the pandemic. The initial shock has worn off and people are clearly itching to return to the things that constitute their lives, but as the case counts increase in more than half the country, it seems clear that the impulse and desire to return to normal is going to come with costs too heavy to bear.

It is easy to judge the people going to bars and getting infected, but I understand it. We are not built for what we’ve been asked to do, and people are going to tolerate or even ignore risks when they feel like they can’t take it anymore.

In earlier journal entries, I mused about adjusting to the “new normal,” but I’m now wondering if we can expect any status to last long enough for it to begin to feel “normal.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about what parents are going to be facing in the fall if kids aren’t in school. The American Academy of Pediatrics came out strongly in favor of getting kids back in the classroom where it can be done “safely.” In their view, the potential consequences to child and adolescent development due to loss of socialization are greater than the risks of the virus.

The AAP argues children are less likely to contract the virus (and therefore pass it on), while also being less likely to be severely affected by the virus.

But of course teachers aren’t children. Are we going to force them into situations which put them at risk because the children have to go to school? How are we accommodating them? What say do they have?

What I see in many different sectors of society is insufficient support to properly manage the public health crisis of the pandemic. This includes, but goes well beyond, our medical infrastructure.

Colleges seem to be heading towards trying to hold in-person classes in order to protect the revenue of tuition and room and board, because there is apparently no appetite to support them through this crisis. This despite already seeing waves of infection among the students who are currently on campus (primarily student athletes). I think schools that cannot test, trace, and isolate their students, faculty, and staff (and that’s the vast majority of them) are courting disaster.

Bars and restaurants have to attempt to open, because there’s no more PPP money coming. Employees have to take the risk of exposing themselves to the public, because if they refuse, they’re ineligible for unemployment.

I do not see how we can consume our way through this crisis, but that’s what we’re being asked to do. I wrote about this a few weeks ago in my Chicago Tribune column, and I think it’s even clearer now. I said:

“Consume” is an interesting word.

To consume something is to eat it up and can have positive connotations. We might say, “I absolutely consumed Margaret Atwood’s sequel to ‘The Handmaid’s Tale!‘ I couldn’t put it down.”

But it also means to destroy and use up. “The fire consumed the house. The blaze could not be stopped.”

“Consumption” was also the common term for tuberculosis, a bacterial respiratory infection transmitted through speaking, coughing and sneezing.

My mom had consumed all of her patience, so she Thelma-and-Louised herself out of there. She clearly needed it, and she is extraordinarily fortunate to have access to this other place.

How do we provide the necessary support and slack for everyone so the country isn’t burned up? What do we need to know, what do we need to do to make this possible?

Yours in worry,


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