This essay was first published in our semi-weekly newsletter, Climate in the Time of Coronavirus, which you can subscribe to here.
It’s Sunday evening, eight hours before my daughter is scheduled to fly home for spring break, and we’ve just received notification from the small east coast college she attends that a dining services worker has tested positive for COVID-19.
Cue my personal parenting apocalypse.
I jump off the couch and tell my husband to pack a bag. We can’t get sick at the same time, so I inform him he will be staying two blocks away at her grandparents’ house for the duration of our quarantine. In the kitchen, I turn on the kettle for tea, a fitting soundtrack for the pressure building inside my own head.
Neither of us sleep that night. I manage to wait until my daughter’s plane is in the air before firing off a text to her. OK fine, several texts: Wear your mask. Use your hand sanitizer. I make an infographic out of a map of her layover airport and send it over. Go straight to your gate. Stay away from restaurants. Seriously, wear your mask!
The plane lands for her layover and she’s silent. My husband calls her. She’s fine, he says, stop texting her. He’s too late, my maternal instincts have given way to full-blown insanity. “Should we hang plastic over her door?” I ask my husband. He looks at me like I have six heads. I want to explain myself but there isn’t time — her plane has almost landed. I gather wipes and gloves. I run out to one car (it doesn’t start! Really cue the apocalypse!) then the other. My husband readies the disinfectant supplies we’ll need when we get back as I drive down the road.
The wait at the airport is an interminable fifteen minutes. And then, at last … I see her. She walks up the sidewalk, head lowered against the rain. Our eyes meet and she smiles. I tell her hot soup is waiting at home, and so is her dad. When we drive up to the house, he waves and doesn’t move until she is finally inside.
I know I can’t protect my daughter from all of the bad things in life, but I get angry thinking about the countless actions — including my own — that have helped contribute to the current, chaotic state of the world. It’s not just the slow public health response by national leaders. The coronavirus crisis also exacerbates my frustration with my wishy-washy approach to our household’s use of plastic, our too-easy reliance on things like paper towels. In some ways, fixating on our environmental shortcomings feels ridiculous in this pandemic, but our actions aren’t insignificant.
Also, I like this anger. It grounds me. It will get me through whatever happens next.
A week after my daughter arrives back home, I raid my pantry and make chocolate lava cakes for her sheltered-in-place birthday. Luckily the recipe only takes two tablespoons of flour. She likes them so much, she wants to make them again — but with a little less cake and more lava. She’s taking all of this alone time indoors better than I thought she would, but at 19 she’s no longer a kid. Especially not after these sobering months.
We’ve fallen into a pattern of long conversations at night, and I share many articles, including one by my colleague, Shannon Osaka, on the zoonotic origins of the coronavirus, in which she talks about cross-species disease jump as a consequence of habitat destruction and ecosystems thrown out of balance. My daughter’s frustration grows as she wrestles with the idea that until we have real change, the crisis we’re in will certainly happen again. But then it’s Saturday night, and Julia Roberts in Mystic Pizza will keep this pandemic at bay for a couple of hours.
Slowly but surely, we have settled into our not-quite-normal routine. Online school began Monday, and she’s already grousing about having to get up early. I stitch cloth masks after work to send to a hospital. And we claim a small, silly victory over the virus with a pan of unbaked brownies for her grandparents that goes right into their waiting oven.
Grandpa calls to say they’re the best coronavirus brownies he’s ever had.