My daughter and I were out for a bike ride the other day. We’ve been biking a lot during the quarantine, which is something I’ll miss later when the world gets busy again. Angie is thirteen, and soon she will have better things to do than go on a bike ride with her mom.
We were riding past the local high school when we spotted two house finches stuck inside the chest-high metal cage covering a network of valves for the sprinkler system. The birds flew frantically back and forth, from one side of the enclosure to the other, trying to find the crack where they must have flown in and gotten stuck. A third finch flew around the outside of the cage as though it were trying to help its friends, as though it were trying to show them the way out.
We stopped our bikes on the sidewalk and watched, feeling something odd in the air – a different kind of energy, brassy and electric, like the drop in air pressure that comes right before a storm. We looked around. Was this really happening? Had anyone else seen? How would the birds ever get out?
The only time Angie has cried during the pandemic was early on, after a sleepover at her friend’s house got cancelled. For her it was the last straw in an avalanche of straws. In the span of one week, she lost school and swim team. All the pools in southern California closed. Parks and playgrounds, too. She couldn’t see her classmates, her teammates, her friends or any of her extended family members. Her life was essentially erased.
We try not to think about all the things she should be doing right now, but how can we not? She’s supposed to be going to the movies, going to the mall, finding her independence and having adventures. Instead, she and I are in the house all day, every day, trying our best to stick to a schedule. Wake up, eat, brush teeth, do homework. Read a book, go outside, get some exercise. All to make ourselves feel normal, to keep from slipping under.
On the sidewalk, my first instinct was to protect my daughter, to get her away from the finches so she wouldn’t see them die. The two inside the cage continued slamming into the metal parts of the sprinkler valves, their small bodies falling to the ground. Over and over they got up and flew again, desperate to escape their situation. The one outside the cage flapped its wings, its call becoming frantic, all high notes, a rising cadence.
Angie is a teenager, but her heart is fragile. She falls in love with every animal she meets. Once we woke up and found a raccoon sleeping in our garden. We spent the rest of the day missing him, looking to see if maybe he’d returned.
Come on, I said. Let’s go. I wanted to leave before she witnessed the inevitable – two birds beating themselves to death, the other hovering in its bereavement, in its complete failure to make a difference of any kind.
The news reads like a shitty science fiction novel. Rising death counts, hospitals filling up, hours-long lines for a COVID test. The sick die alone. No funerals, no ceremony. Family members press their faces to the glass windows of nursing homes. I scan the headlines, ignore the stories. The stories are just too hard.
My husband, James, and I are among the forty million who have lost their jobs. I want to donate to first responders, to food banks and coalitions for the homeless. But we don’t know where our next paycheck is coming from, so instead I wait. I give blood to the American Red Cross and write encouraging notes to those nursing home residents who can’t have visitors. What else can I do?
Psychologists say too much social change in too short a time leads to anxiety, that those of us struggling to adapt may feel helpless, forgetful or inadequate.
Every morning, I make coffee, make breakfast, make my bed, still trying to stick to that schedule. But by afternoon, usually around 3, an overwhelming restlessness hits and I don’t know what to do with myself. Read a book? Fold the laundry? Go for a walk or bake some muffins? I want to do everything all at once. I want to fix and do and make. I bargain with the universe. If I am productive, if I can get everything done, then maybe we’ll be all right. Maybe this thing will go away. Maybe we’ll all come out the other side, not just alive but accomplished. Better than we were before.
In the end, though, I do nothing. No muffins, no laundry. I lie on the couch with my book open on my chest, not reading, just wishing. Wishing none of this had happened. Wishing it would all go away. Wishing that wishes even mattered.
My daughter connects with friends through technology, but it’s not the same. She wants to laugh with them in the same room. She wants to stay up late sharing secrets and playing games. I want to see my friends too. I want to hug them, have drinks with them. I want to complain about sports schedules and traffic jams, all our old problems, right where we left them, back on that afternoon in March.
Now our days are broken and uncertain, which fills me with a kind of anger I’ve never known before. The anger is a giant tornado moving through an open field, gathering everything in its path – every negative thought, every fear, emotions I don’t even know how to name. It twists and builds, then dumps itself on top of me.
Each day, each hour, is another tornado.
I used to have panic attacks, back in the early days of my divorce from Angie’s father. The first time it happened I was cutting cheese for her lunch when suddenly my heart raced, my hands shook, and my face began to sweat. My brain sent messages of imminent danger to every corner of my body. I thought I was having a heart attack, that I was going to die, even though there was nothing physically wrong with me. A few minutes later, the feeling subsided. I finished making lunch, happy to be alive but bewildered by the state of things.
The fear is back now, but it’s different – less intense but more sustained, a slow burn instead of a flare. Something out there is killing people. Young people, old people, healthy people. When and where does the dying stop? Will it kill me? What about my daughter? Will I ever see my mother again? She’s 66. She has asthma and lives alone on the East coast. Is she wearing her mask? Is she staying inside?
Will we ever stop asking these questions?
I look at my phone just to know what day it is. Wednesday, halfway through the week. But what is a week anymore? What is a day? Time stretches long and thin. It’s a thread that could break without warning.
I walk into a room and can’t remember why I went there. To make my bed? To find my phone? In the kitchen, I fill a glass of water and then forget to drink it. I set it down someplace, but where? I go back to the kitchen and get another. And another and another until finally the water glass cabinet is empty.
And I am still thirsty.
I haven’t told Angie much about the virus. She knows people are dying, but she doesn’t know the scope. She doesn’t know millions have been sick, or that it kills children too. A 12-year-old boy in Chicago. A 13-year-old girl in Oklahoma. We don’t watch the news anymore because I don’t want her to hear it and because I don’t know what to do with all that sadness. I don’t know where to put it in my mind. Instead we turn away.
Once, when I was around twelve or thirteen, my father ran over a bird in the road. In my memory, it’s a partridge but it was probably a wild turkey. Wild turkeys roam freely in rural Maine, where I grew up. We were riding along, on our way to visit my aunt and uncle, when suddenly we heard a thump beneath the tire. My father pulled over. He got out of the car and walked back to the place where the bird lay on the asphalt, not quite dead but not alive either.
Look away, my mother said. I turned my glance to the road ahead.
A few minutes later, my father returned. He got behind the wheel and wordlessly drove off, but I knew what he had done. He did not want the bird to suffer. He broke its neck, then dragged its limp body out of sight, into the ditch.
I carry around a notebook to collect the thoughts that keep falling out of my head, things I need to do but can’t remember. Clean the downstairs bathroom. Order sunscreen and olive oil. Vacuum that spot behind the reading chair. After five days I make a new list, carrying over most things from the old list.
Psychologists say procrastinating is a form of self-harm, that those of us who procrastinate have high stress and low self-compassion. I say fuck the vacuuming. Fuck the downstairs bath. Fuck all the small, stupid things. We are surviving a pandemic. We are living through hell.
And yet, those small things persist. They matter. Some days they are the only way I know I’m still alive.
It hurts to watch helplessly as something dies. The hardest part about COVID is there’s nothing you can do. You can stay home and wear your mask and wash your hands, but that’s about it. There’s no way out of this cage.
James and I go to the grocery store wearing masks and disposable rubber gloves. Beneath the layers, I feel claustrophobic and detached, like I’m not really here.
We go aisle by aisle, avoiding people and gathering items as quickly as possible. Apples, butter, macaroni and cheese. We don’t need eggs, but we buy them anyway. Same with milk. Same with beans. Who knows what tomorrow will bring? Or if tomorrow will come at all?
In the cookie aisle, a ponytailed girl waits while I put the Oreos into my cart. I try to move faster to get out of her way, but I can’t. I’m underwater, heavy-limbed and slow. Her eyes watch mine from behind her mask, which is pink and decorated with flowers. Where is her mother? Is she scared or just being patient? I can’t tell. Her eyes are wide and blue. Like my daughter’s. Like my own. I move aside and let her pass, an unspoken apology floating between us.
James and I stay up late watching TV. We start The Americans, a show about spies during the Cold War. When I was a kid in the early 80s, Russians were the scariest thing imaginable. We worried about nuclear bombs and practiced duck-and-cover drills in school. My father made us sleep with gas masks beneath our beds.
These days, I don’t sleep much at all. I watch three or four episodes, then go up to bed, only to lie there in the dark, worrying. Will things get better or will they get worse? Is the pandemic almost over or is it only getting started?
I wish we were still fretting about Russians.
In one episode, the spies deliver brownies to the family next door. As they step inside the house, my whole body tenses up. My shoulders, my neck, my arms. I shout at the screen—Don’t go in there! Where are your masks? Later, the same two characters sit on a train, surrounded by a dozen other passengers. Maskless, all of them. I shake my head at the risks we used to take.
How many years will go by before we can think normal thoughts again, before everything won’t be corrupted by the fear of catching a virus? What neural pathways are being created? What habits are taking form?
I’ve read about people who survived the Depression, how they felt poor and hungry for the rest of their lives even though they weren’t anymore. Even though they had plenty of money, plenty of food. Will we ever let our guard down? Will we ever hug anyone again or bring baked goods to the neighbors?
If not, then maybe they should count us all among the infected.
My daughter and I did not leave the finches that day. Riding away without at least trying to help felt worse than watching them die. We climbed off our bikes and walked across the grass to get a closer look, then pulled at the metal edges of the cage, hoping to separate the bars just enough for the birds to fly out. The bars moved a bit, but the finches couldn’t find the opening. They continued to slam into the valves and fall to the ground. We called James. He came, and together the three of us lifted the cage off its base. The birds flew out in a flash. Just like that, they were gone. They were free.
I don’t think about my feelings. I don’t talk about them or write about them for three months straight. Then when I do, the words fly out of my pen onto the paper, so fast and so hard that my wrist hurts for days.
The act of writing does nothing to assuage my fear, nothing to erase the dread. But at least I know what I’m working with. Disappointment, terror, hopelessness, grief. How do you stop a tornado? I guess you don’t. I guess you just figure out where it is and get out of the way. Then when it’s gone, you come out of hiding and take a look around. You say, this is what we have survived. This is what we have left.
And then you start picking up the pieces.
Sometimes I wonder what Angie will remember from this time. She’ll probably think of doing school from home, missing her friends, missing her swim practices and competitions.
I hope she remembers those birds. I hope she remembers how quiet the world was the moment they flew free.
Wendy Fontaine’s work has appeared in dozens of literary journals and magazines including Crab Orchard Review, Entropy, Hippocampus, Longridge Review, Readers Digest and River Teeth. Most recently, her essay, “An Embarrassment of Riches,” won the 2020 Creative Nonfiction Prize at Hunger Mountain. She lives in southern California and holds a master’s degree in creative writing from Antioch University in Los Angeles.