Day 34: Housework

April 30, 2020

It’s that time of the week, closing in on Saturday, when I’m going to feel compelled to turn to my family and bring up the dreaded topic of …. housecleaning.

As much as certain members might prefer it, I cannot cheerily allow this abode to disintegrate under a film of grime. I’m also not willing to call my housekeepers back into action, for their health as well as ours.

So. How to divide up the duties?

Obviously, I come into this at a great disadvantage because we’re all spoiled. For years we’ve paid people to mop our floors and wipe down our counters. There were about seven months there, during the Great Recession, when we did it ourselves, and I’m still recovering from the trauma of strong-arming my three children into helping me clean the bathrooms.

Just kidding.

Sort of.

Now here I find myself again, much to my surprise. You really can never predict what life will have in store for you.

Granted, it’s much easier this time. I’m not running childcare as I’m sweeping. I’m not trying to make a game out of Windex and a mirror. And to a certain extent, I don’t mind the work. Unlike in 2010, when I had an 11-year-old, a 9-year-old and a 6-year-old, I’m not always on my feet. I now spend long stretches every day at my computer. I love that — but everything has its limits.

So Friday night, when I’m setting the dining room table for Shabbat dinner (we eat at the kitchen table the rest of the week), I clear away my office chair and my keyboard and mouse and laptop on a stand and the books underneath the laptop to prop the screen up to eye-level and the slanted footstool on the floor to promote good posture and all the cords that come with the apparatus — all of it moves to the side. That’s where it stays until Sunday morning.

In the Jewish tradition, the sabbath lasts from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, and during that time you’re not supposed to work. We almost always have a family dinner on Friday night, but that’s where our observance usually stops. However, these days — these long, faceless, blending-all-together quarantine days — I’ve felt a need to delineate. Work for me is sitting. So on Shabbat, instead, I move, a spray bottle in one hand, a rag in the other.

The only part that’s unpleasant is when I walk by my family members lounging, screen in hand, a smile on their lips, not even aware the hausfrau is passing by.

In case you were wondering — you probably were — my husband does his part on the cleaning front. But there are five of us living in this house, and watching others not participate burns a small, hot fire in the center of my chest.

I’ve gotten an offer this week from the trombone player, newly liberated from schoolwork, to do 30 minutes of housework every day. I just need to come up with a project and ask, and he will get it done on his schedule. That’s 3 1/2 hours a week, if he’s really game for it — nothing to sneeze at there!

The other two…. in all fairness, the oldest child does the bulk of our grocery shopping around here, and shops for my mother and her boyfriend as well, every other week. And the youngest is still deep in school work.

Still. Saturday, and the dirty house, looms. I’m going to try to cut a deal with them tonight. Wish me luck.

How do you handle the housework in your house? Chore charts? Yelling? Just give up and do it yourself? Please feel free to add a comment !

Sunday interview: Ashley

April 26, 2020

Photo by Natalia Sobolivska on Unsplash

Note: This is a true story, but names have been changed to preserve the subjects’ privacy

Ten months ago, a cancer diagnosis transformed the lives of Ashley and her family. They learned that Karenna, then 11 years old and the youngest of their four girls, had an advanced case of bone cancer.

Since then, Ashley and her daughter have driven 30 miles, from their home in the western suburbs of Los Angeles, to UCLA every other week for five straight days of chemo treatment, followed by nine days of recovery. Long before the coronavirus drove America out of the workplace, Ashley put her career as a landscape designer on hold to tend to her daughter, whose condition requires round-the-clock care. The two of them have also been basically on lockdown, since Karenna’s immune system is so fragile.

Then, in March, the pandemic hit. Soon, the rest of the world – plus the rest of their family – joined them in unexpected quarantine.

Ashley:  Cancer comes with many questions. Now you have COVID, which is very similar, in terms of how do you get it? Could be this way, could be that way. How long does it last? How does it manifest in each person? Cancer is the same way. How long is treatment? When will this be over? When will we know that it’s not going to come back? So it was like, is there yet another thing now that we have to worry about? 

In the very beginning, I was in a state of complete – I mean, you go from this busy life, lots of distractions, very busy work, everyone’s got their full schedule, and then you find out one day your kid has cancer.

Since I’ve now surrendered to cancer, it was easier for me to surrender to COVID. I wasn’t working any more. I had no social life that wasn’t phone calls or walks.

Her doctor at UCLA told us, “I really doubt Karenna’s going to get this (based the way scientists believe the virus interacts with the body, and evidence from Italy and New York City).” He’s more worried about me getting it, or (her husband) Charles getting it. Karenna can’t bear the thought of me getting sick.

For instance, if I was to have a fever, she would have to get chemo alone. Now, anyone 13 or older is getting chemo alone. The kids are sitting there bawling behind other curtains in the chemo clinic. One parent is allowed, but if that one parent is sick, the kid has to get it alone, which is super-traumatic.

Also, Karenna had planned this big trip post-chemo, which was supposed to be in June – she wanted to go to Italy. Now we can’t go anywhere for God knows how long.

But you know what? As awful as it has been, there has been so much beauty. The amount of support! There was this woman who organized 75 people in our neighborhood to bring Karenna a gift every single day. Every single morning there’s a beautiful wrapped gift outside our door. And we don’t even know these people. It’s all anonymous. 

There’s something really beautiful about community and the simplicity of our family now.  I never played Monopoly with the girls their entire childhoods, and we played Monopoly. Before, we were always going in different directions. It was kind of a big deal after we played, because I thought, Wow, we never do anything like that.  The amount of family dinners we’ve had, cooking meals, sitting outside by the pool. We never cleared our schedules in 20 years. Now it’s like, what are we doing for breakfast? What are we doing for lunch? Elizabeth (the oldest girl) gets up and makes coffee for everyone. She takes orders. Anything that you would have gotten at any matcha bar. She’s trying to find boba. That’s all we don’t have.

I’ve always believed in God, but there’s something really different now. I’ve had to accept that I’m not really 100 percent in control. Things are going to happen and I’m going to have to roll with it.

I used to sit down every night and make my list and it was like, Okay, I’m going to get through this list tomorrow. Everything will be done on this list. There is no list anymore. And I don’t even care. I’m telling you I care about nothing anymore but health and family.

Now, with this pandemic, the entire world is worried about health. Every single person knows that health is at risk. There’s a unity.

This is a long-term quarantine, which is very much parallel to what we’ve experienced. It feels like saying, “Do you get what we’ve been going through?” and everyone in the world is like, “Yes!”

Day 26: Gulp

April 20, 2020

For a family under lockdown, we’ve had our share of drama around here.

We’ve discovered we were running a spider nursery; inadvertently got our labradoodle stoned; and held a pots-and-pans-banging birthday celebration on our driveway.

I got sick with something that laid me low for the better part of a month — but I tested negative for the coronavirus. My husband, a physician, had confirmed COVID-19 exposure and just completed 14 days of wearing a mask everywhere he went (he’s fine now). Our 16-year-old daughter has been coughing for eight straight weeks, a round of antibiotics and a clear X-ray notwithstanding.

Every few days, I ask my brother how the family business is doing. My dad started a manufacturing business nearly 50 years ago, and my brother still runs that company today out of a plant in Valencia. Without getting into details, let’s just say things are quieter than in 2008 — and those weren’t exactly the best of times. To round things out, my mom’s partner of 15 years has metastatic renal cancer that may or may not be responding to the latest treatment (scan coming up on Friday — fingers crossed).

So I’ve been keeping my eye on our kids, the dog, my husband, my mom and her partner, the family business, etc. etc. I thought I had it all covered.

Whoops — forgot about my dad.

My father, who is 85 and lives in the Pacific Palisades, had a minor stroke on Friday and landed in a bed at St. John’s Medical Center in Santa Monica. This shouldn’t be a shocking turn of events, given his age. But he does push-ups and sit-ups every day, hikes in the mountains with a gaggle of lady friends twenty years his junior every weekend, and jets off on ski trips to Whistler and the Alps. He still works, at the business I mentioned above, and until the virus forced planes out of the skies, regularly traveled abroad for his job.

As you might imagine, it took some convincing to get him to stop driving up to Valencia every day. He and his wife have continued to avoid both delivery services and asking grandchildren for help buying groceries. Instead, he’s been hitting senior hour at Gelson’s every other week to stock up for the household.

The stroke shook him a little off balance, and more alarmingly, partially paralyzed his throat so that he struggled to swallow. He seems nearly back to normal now, but on Saturday, the hospital staff was sufficiently alarmed to limit him to a saline drip, no foods.

But here’s how indestructible my dad believes himself to be. On Saturday night, when no one was watching, he fished a pack of crackers out of some private stash of his, and ate the contraband in the dark. “I was hungry,” he said the next day. “And it was fine.”

Before he was admitted to the hospital on Friday, he and my stepmother got tested for COVID-19, thanks to my resourceful sister-in-law who set it up through the City of L.A. We don’t have the results back yet. Neither do we know what caused the stroke, thought not for lack of testing (although my husband is an internist, he works at Kaiser, a closed medical system, and so hasn’t been a part of my father’s care at St. John’s).

As I was writing this, I called my dad and found out — no surprise there — that he’s skipping the three days at the rehab home that he was offered, and is heading to his house tonight instead. His balance is back, he said, and as for his swallowing, “I only have to be told something once. They (the therapist) told me what to do, and I did it at lunch today.”

Oy.

Of course, part of the reason he’s not going to rehab is he wants to avoid more viral exposure. And he is meeting tomorrow with his internist.

To listen to him, his health is once again under control and chugging nicely forward. And it’s not like I can do much about anything, stuck here in my house, unable to even visit him when he was alone for four days at the hospital. The nice thing about him going home is I’ll be able to stand on his front lawn and wave at him, which I’ve learned is not nothing.

I’ve also remembered how much I love the sound of his voice on the other end of the phone. It wasn’t available on Friday. It sounded like a truck had dumped a load of gravel on it on Saturday. It was still scratchy on Sunday, but I knew my engineer father was back when he started explaining to me the physics of how blood flows through the heart.

I hated physics in high school. I hated that the only tutor on offer to me was my dad, and that he insisted on explaining physics with calculus, even though I was barely passing calculus and my physics course didn’t include it anyway.

But I’ll take it these days. Crackers and hubris and physics and all.

Day 14: Jody

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

The pandemic lockdown has introduced me to a new breed of nightmare – one that thankfully, can never actually come to pass. It’s me, stuck by myself in the house for weeks, with my three young children, simultaneously their mother, their teacher and their primary source of entertainment.

These days, my kids pointedly do their own thing. As I write this in the dining room, for instance, my daughter is a pebble’s throw away in the living room, staring at her phone, silent.

But every time I log onto Facebook, there is Jody, enacting my alternate reality. Jody lives in New Jersey, and is married to Matt, one of my husband’s first cousins. They have two boys, Brennan, age 6, and Finn, age 4 (Jody has allowed me to use the family’s first names). Every weekday, Jody posts an update like this one, from March 30:

Kickin’ off week 3 and day 10 of COVID chronicles. MONYAY! MONSLAY! More like – MONCRAYCRAY! So, we started with yoga and some ‘dance and freeze’. Then moved onto schoolwork. A bestie had a birthday today so we made cards and delivered them. I still remember how to drive. #winning. After lunch we did arts and crafts , puzzles and attempted Mousetrap (I hate that game). Snacking. Lots of snacking. Then I decided it was time to add “The History of Micheal Jackson Music” to our curriculum. We ended the lesson with the FULL Thriller video. #covidchronicles#homeschool#socialdistancing#stayhome#washyourhands#doyourpart#dirtydiana

Just reading all that makes me sleepy. Then I scan through the pictures of the two adorable little boys stretching and earnestly filling in worksheets and coloring cards and making puzzles and playing board games and finally, a video of them jumping up and down to Michael Jackson, and I’m exhausted by proxy.

How does she do it, I wondered? How does she get up each day with a smile on her lips and the world outside her doors inaccessible, and, like so many parents across America these days, face her children — again?

So, I called her up and asked her. Here’s what she said, in an edited, condensed form.

There are two totally different kind of things that I feel I’m living through. I’m living through being the wife and mom stuck at home with her kids, and then I’m living through the pandemic.  Who ever thought, we’d be faced with the statement, “Get ready, in the next week, a lot of people are going to die.” You are almost like waiting to hear who you know, who you love, is going to be diagnosed with coronavirus.

The kids are getting sick of, “Okay, it’s time to sit down and do xeroxed copies.” I try to give teachers benefit of the doubt. No one knows what they are doing. It almost feels like the first time you become a parent, in a way. You’re out of control, you don’t feel prepared. I worry, Am I doing okay by them? Are they learning enough that they can substitute what they would be getting at school?

It’s hard to be in your house, with your four- and your six-year-old, all day, every day. Like, there are the screens. There are games that are appropriate for Brennan at six.  Where he can be online at the same time as friends and they can play together. And of course, all he wants to do is check if Luke is playing, or Brian is playing. So there’s always this begging, begging, begging to be on screens. That has to be controlled. I’m not the type of person that can say, okay, today’s a screen day, and let them be on screens for eight hours. I don’t judge anybody who does it. That’s not me. It’s just — that would really mess with my head.

We still follow my schedule. Brennan has it memorized. He gets up in the morning and he knows. He’s like, “Okay, we start Healthy Body and Soul right after breakfast.” He helps me stay on task. Now when I say it’s time for learning time, he may complain. He may ask for ten more minutes. But he expects the schedule. It’s the same thing at school, the same thing every day. That’s how they operate the best.

Still, when he says, “I can’t do another worksheet,” I say, “Okay, you’ve done enough for today.”

The hard part is never being able to be alone. That’s the hard part.  We have carefully worked out a deal with our regular babysitter who still comes a couple of afternoons and one evening a week so I can get work done. I struggle with this, bringing someone into the house right now, but I honestly can’t work without her and she is making safety her top priority. But, because I’m just upstairs, I can’t really completely disengage.  The boys are constantly running into my room, or I hear them fighting or misbehaving. 

Matt takes over on Wednesday mornings because he starts late in the office. He also helps when he gets home. But still, he gets to get up and go into the office all day when I rarely get a break. I find myself thinking, about him and his work, “Lucky, lucky you. Everybody else’s life has been turned on its head. How lucky are you?”

If we were in this quarantine when I was single with no kids, I would be like, this is awesome. But right now, there is nothing about this that is easy.