August 18, 2020
I cannot get used to this time we are living through. I’m trying to refocus and recalibrate and reconfigure — my life, my expectations, all of it. But 2020 keeps throwing me off balance, no matter how flexible I attempt to be.
Tomorrow, we are supposed to take Liam, our 21-year-old, back to his fraternity house in Berkeley (I would say back to college, but the campus is closed). That plan is intact. I can’t imagine what would cause that to change, short of a literal earthquake. The guy is determined to return to his friends and whatever semblance of a collegiate existence he can muster.
The following week, Eli was supposed to return to Michigan State, which had opened the dorms and was planning on a hybrid learning experience. Then, at around 3 p.m. today, the university’s president sent an email that announced:
It has become evident to me that, despite our best efforts and strong planning, it is unlikely we can prevent widespread transmission of COVID-19 between students if our undergraduates return to campus. So, effective immediately, we are asking undergraduate students who planned to live in our residence halls this fall to stay home and continue their education with MSU remotely.
He ran into my bedroom, where I was about to take a nap, yelling that it was all off, he would be home, school was over. Kind of with a wild look in his eyes, hair ruffled, glasses askew. I sat there for a few minutes, absorbing that news, wondering if my fall was about to get emotional in ways I hadn’t managed to predict despite all my attempts to predict every possible fall scenario. I mean, I’d figured he’d at least get a few weeks in the dorms before they kicked them all out, you know? I guess the news about UNC yesterday did it.
Anyway, I sat there for a few minutes, thinking all this, then I went down the hall to find him. He shooed me away, on the phone with his friends. I went back to my room, locked the door and tried to fall asleep, because I was really very tired. It’s been a long week around here, helping my mother process her grief and planning a Zoom memorial service for her longtime partner, Richard, who died of cancer a week ago. We still don’t have a funeral date, because he was a veteran and will be buried at the National Cemetery, on Wilshire Boulevard, and they appear to be backed up. But everything connected with the funeral business seems backed up these days. The mortuary can’t even cremate the body for ten days. There’s much that’s unsettled, and it has a wearing effect. Plus, Richard’s gone, and we all miss him.
So despite the drama, I fell asleep. When I woke up a half hour later, Eli was buzzing about a new plan. He and three other friends would head out to Michigan anyway, and rent a place off-campus. There’s Emma, the bass player from Sacramento, and Andrew, the pianist from South Dakota, and Juan, the sax player from Florida, and Eli, who plays trombone. They are all finding it increasingly challenging to focus on their music after months of being disconnected from each other and their music program. At least, they thought, if they were together in Michigan, they could feed off of and encourage each other.
Students are vacating East Lansing apartments right and left today, opting to stay home rather than take their chances with a pandemic. But a household of four musicians would not make great apartment neighbors. They wouldn’t even make great townhome, or duplex neighbors. To ensure they don’t get banned from practicing at all hours, they need a house.
There are exactly two houses left that fit their need. One has 23 other applicants on it. The other one … well, they’re crossing their fingers.
I thought I had mastered this pandemic thing. But that’s an absurd idea. It’s the nature of this time to throw us curve ball after curve ball.
Meanwhile, I’m nervous about this road trip tomorrow. I also went to college at Cal, and the campus and its surroundings are one of my favorite places on Earth. One of the things I’ve always loved about Berkeley is the people — so many people. A crush of people. A cascade of characters. Berkeley is fun, exciting, invigorating, always fascinating. But I’m scared that tomorrow, I’ll just find it depressing.
Eli was supposed to come up with us, mostly so I didn’t have to drive home on I-5 alone on Thursday. Now he’s too busy trying to figure out housing 2,500 miles away. But it’ll be okay. I have an audiobook downloaded to my phone, plus an endless supply of podcasts. I figure as long as I don’t stop in the Central Valley, a Trump zone where the residents apparently don’t believe in masks and the virus is running rampant, I should be fine.
I just wish I could make this year okay for Eli. I wish I could make a house appear out of the ether. I wish I could do something as simple as providing him the tools he needed — at this point, money for tuition and rent — and let him use them to build a bridge from childhood to adulthood. But thanks to the coronavirus, I may not be able to do that.
Twenty-four hours ago, I had two sons going away to school this month. Now I have one son going and the other in limbo. Oh, and my daughter started 11th grade today, online. Then promptly got a migraine and lost hours of the afternoon to it. We’re all kind of reeling around here. At least we’re not alone. It feels the rest of the nation is spinning right along with us.