Tuesday, May 26, 2020
Our street organized a COVID-style, Memorial Day barbeque last night: bring out your own chairs to the sidewalk, sit at least six feet apart from your neighbors, slap on a mask, and remove it only long enough to eat the food you brought from your own home.
I was so excited about this I looked forward to it all day. But as with many things lockdown-related, the anticipation and the experience itself were hardly universal in my household.
I first sensed trouble when it was time to grab dinner. Bill, the boys and I had set up our chairs; Sarah was still inside, doing a dance class on Zoom. As the boys headed in to get the falafel boxes I’d picked up for them earlier in the day, I asked if they could also bring out one for their father. He looked so relaxed and happy sitting there in that chair. His life — treating COVID patients, worrying about treating COVID patients — has been so stressful these last few months. Wouldn’t it be nice, I thought, not to break this spell?
But the boys, striding up the walk, refused.
“It’s okay, Con,” my husband said, getting up. “I can do it.”
But all I could think, watching Liam walk away, was this was the same kid who rode Bill’s bike every day high up into the mountains and down by the ocean and along city streets while his father, who cherishes his bike rides to work, drove his car instead. So I strode after him, yelling that this would not do, that he needed to show respect, that he’d better not, or… or…
Soon I had Bill enraged as well. The younger brother, Eli — an expert at evading responsibility — scooped up his food and slipped back outside. Meanwhile, Liam and Bill and I hollered at each other in the kitchen. Sarah, trying to dance in the next room, slammed the adjoining door, but not before whisper-yelling at us that we were humiliating her in front of her studio.
Finally, I told Liam please, please, please go to your room.
He did so, after throwing a few choice words at us on his way out.
“Oh my God,” Sarah said, sticking her head through the door. “You guys have to stop. Now.”
We didn’t see Liam for the next three hours. He missed the “barbeque,” and another one of our neighborhood, COVID birthday celebrations afterward.
As Bill and I loaded up the dishwasher at the end of the night, I reminded him of how I’d gotten so incensed with our younger son on Mother’s Day. Eli has turned my home office in the garage into his music studio. This is no small transformation either — he practices jazz trombone day and night. I’d asked for the space back for Mother’s Day, and when the time came, I requested that he move my chair back in for me. But he said he was too busy, and anyway, it was enough he’d cleaned up and vacated for the day.
What is wrong, I said, with both these boys, taking our precious possessions as if they were their birthright, not even pausing once to thank us or even remark upon our sacrifice?
This was a parenting fail, we agreed. And it was ending tonight. We started plotting a meeting of the four of us (Sarah being full of her own righteous indignation at her interrupted dance session, deflecting apologies with a blink and a mutter). You defend me to the younger son, I suggested to Bill, and I’ll defend you to the older one.
Then the older one walked in the kitchen.
“I don’t think I was treated fairly,” he said, plopping down on the banquette.
I thought he was treated more than fairly, but I was also glad he was talking and not yelling or cursing at me anymore. I took a deep breath. “Okay,” I said. “Why?”
We started again, around and around. At some juncture — many of the finer points of the argument having become a blur, just 12 hours later — Liam said that Bill and I couldn’t possibly understand what he was going through because our lives haven’t changed at all in the last few weeks.
“I lost my office!” I said.
Okay, he said, he would give me that. But Dad — look at him, the same work routine, nothing changed one iota.
I could hear my voice rising as I reminded Liam about how the very nature of his father’s work had transformed, from a job where he was helping patients in need to one in which every person who walked through his door was a potential lethal threat.
“But he still goes to work every day,” Liam insisted.
“I don’t know why I’m giving my bike up for this,” Bill said, his words clipped and sharp.
“Look,” Liam said. “I lost Africa. I lost my summer internship in D.C. The bike is all I have.”
Oh, I thought.
And the office-cum-studio is all Eli has. And the dancing classes are one of Sarah’s only reprieves from the hellscape that is 10th grade online.
The boys have watched junior year abroad vanish and spring of freshman year evaporate. Liam doesn’t get that summer in the nation’s capital that he’s talked about since high school. Eli’s valiant attempts to learn guitar won’t bear fruit this summer because there’s no sleep away camp, so he won’t be a song leader. And Sarah… well, this isn’t what 16 is supposed to be like. Or should be like, for that matter.
The bike is all he has, I thought. And I started to cry.
“Mom?” Liam shifted in his seat.
“Aww, no, here she goes,” my husband said. “Honey?”
I could really have let loose. All I had to do was think about how a few months, or even a year, lost in your 50s is easily replicable, later on down the line. But the same time lost at my kids’ iconic ages — 21, 19 and 16 — is time gone forever.
At 21, I spent the entire spring semester in Oxford, England, during which I memorized granular details about 19th Century English parliamentary dramas; fell in love and got my heart broken; traveled across Europe and the Soviet Union on my spring break; and made one of the best friends of my life (hello, Orley).
At 19, I walked hand in hand with my first boyfriend across the Berkeley campus, and cemented new friendships at my sorority, and reveled in huge lecture classes where no one knew my name.
At 16, I loved attending my A.P. Euro History classes and writing articles for the school paper and hanging out with friends on the lawn at Westlake Girls School. I hated just about everything else that year, but at least I got to hate it in person.
Meanwhile, my three are home. And though I despair at the thought of what they’re missing, I have to admit to a greedy satisfaction at having them all under our roof again.
My gain. But surely, their loss.
I stopped crying after a sob or two. Liam apologized for his behavior, and thanked Bill for the ongoing loan of the bike. We both told Liam how sorry we are for his losses.
Then he headed back to his room. Time for another phone call with another buddy, who’s somewhere that isn’t here.
I’ve heard from so many friends these days who say their kids are sulking, or angry, or just plain rude. And I know we all know this, but still, it bears repeating: they are grieving. And they have more to grieve than we do.
I hope the five of us can make something beautiful out of this time together, something we will even cherish when we look back on it, years from now. But that’s tomorrow’s judgement. Today we have to muddle through, remembering what should have been, knowing it would have been great.