Love in the Time of Corona
“I want to play that game again..”
I look up from my phone, lost in scanning the latest messages from Whatsapp. A group of friends of mine from around the country are connecting on the latest with COVID-19. I’ve made the mistake of clicking a YouTube link from one friend in Brooklyn. The video shows the state of hospitals in Italy during the height of COVID-19, stretchers and gurneys everywhere, in hallways, in waiting rooms, nurses and doctors scrambling, navigating past respirators, unable to attend to every patient, outnumbered. Losing myself in the video, I didn’t even hear my son, though he is sitting in the family room with me.
“Can we play that game again?”
“No……...not now, I have to straighten up the bedrooms upstairs. They’re a total mess.”
This is a lie. I just cannot bring myself to play the game again. It’s been 12 days of self-isolation and the walls of our house are closing in on me. Heading upstairs, I pretend to straighten up the bedrooms, meandering meaninglessly from room to room, and retreat to the master bedroom, shutting the door. It’s a symbolic gesture to barricade myself from the demands of the inner world of the house and the outer world of COVID-19. Most importantly, I’m hoping to drown out the echoing pleas from my son. They’ve reverberated throughout the house all day.
“Daddy, I want to play the game again…”
“Daddy, let’s play the Wii. I want to play Sketchy Situation…….”
“Daddy, let’s play wiffleball in the driveway……”
“Daddy, let’s play Mario Kart…”
“Daddy, you can make my lunch now….”
“DADDY!....WHERE ARE YOU?”
Sitting on the bed, I take a deep breath, purse my lips and expel it out of my lungs with force. How many more weeks of this? It’s only been 12 days. Soon, I’ll need to help Vaughn transition to online classes. More change to deal with.
“Daddy! Where are you? I want to play that game again!”.
I pause before ensuring my response has an affected neutral tone – “I’ll be down in a minute. Just finishing straighten up…….” continuing my lie.
As I descend the stairs, I mask my face with one of pretend interest and curiosity.
“So how many more games do you want to play?
The game is simple. I invented it myself, and now I want to completely destroy it. The goal is to guess what the other person is thinking of for dinner: pizza, roast chicken, macaroni & cheese. The other player is only allowed to ask questions that elicit either a yes or no response. Vaughn caught on to the game so quickly that he added in some of his own unique rules: the guesser can ask if the selection is easy, medium, hard, or expert level before starting the game. In other words, an easy choice would be fennel chicken, a common dinner in our household. A hard choice would be something we had rarely, like seafood salad. Vaughn upped the level of the game to expert, which would consist only of unique food you only get at a restaurant, such as Beijing Duck. I loved the idea of this game initially because it would pull my son away from his tablet, video games, YouTube videos. “A really good social interaction game” I thought to myself, smugly applauding my ingenuity. Now after 170 times of playing this game, I wanna shoot myself in the head. I’m amazed at how much Vaughn enjoys the game, given that we are running out of dinner ideas, and resorting to “re-runs”: teriyaki chicken wings, spaghetti & meatballs, chili dogs.
“Is it something Mommy makes?”
“Can you get it at a restaurant?”
“Is it vegetarian?”
The game goes on three more times, amazed that I can actually play the game and simultaneously drift my thoughts away to other items: work deadlines, upcoming meetings, infection rates of COVID-19 in Rhode Island.
“Okay Daddy, we can take a break from playing the game, although I want to play again after dinner, right after wiffleball”
“Do you know what day it is?”
“What day is it?”
“Right - it’s Friday. It’s boys’ night. I want you to sleep in my room with me tonight”
Another idea of mine, borne out of good intentions and ultimately completely misguided in its actual execution. I’d invented boys’ night about two months ago. “Wow, this will be a good idea” – I thought to myself. It would give Vaughn and me some special Daddy-son time. Even better, giving Jen some much needed down time from being a Mom. The boys’ night ritual was consistent in its routine. I’d come home from work, the family would enjoy a “fun food Friday” dinner, then the boys go off on their own for the rest of the night. Sometimes it was video games, sometimes wiffleball, basketball, or football in the yard, and then ultimately ending with “the boys” in Vaughn’s bedroom, ceremoniously closing the door and having extended “chat time”. The chats were almost always about sports: Brady being traded to the Buccaneers, Chris Sale’s Tommy John surgery, the recent trade of Mookie Betts. Occasionally, I’d steal some snacks and bring them up to the bedroom, pretending that Jen had no idea of a house-rule misdemeanor- no food outside the kitchen or dining room , but of course, she knew. Looking up at me as I rifled through our pantry, she’d side-grin as she glanced away from an immersive marathon of Netflix viewing. I can tell she’s already mid-season into the Santa Clarita Diet, so I don’t interrupt her.
Boys’ night is pretty fun with one crucial exception – the actual sleeping arrangement. To sleep in Vaughn’s room, I have to drag a futon sleep-chair from another bedroom onto his floor. The support from the 6 inches of padding is so minimal that I don’t sleep at all, fitfully tossing and turning all night. The one saving grace is that the next day is Saturday, so there’s no need to drag myself to work.
After our extended chat, it’s lights out at 9:30. The fresh air and outdoor play from wiffleball has done Vaughn some good – he falls asleep quickly. I am not so lucky. Rolling over onto my left shoulder, I sling the blankets over my right shoulder like a heavy bag of potatoes so that they’ll stay on the mattress. “This is going to be a long night” I think to myself. Worse, my neurons are firing on all cylinders. On the floor of Vaughn’s bedroom with nothing but my thoughts, removed from any distractions, anxiety quietly opens the door and tip-toes in. Everything, everything has changed so quickly. Things that seemed important just 12 days ago seem petty and inconsequential. Why did I let all of those things pollute my thinking? Things that I thought mattered, things that catered to my ego, my sense of self-worth, no longer seemed important – my fastidious need for order and organization and control, borne out of a habit of perceived lack, of a feeling of shortage, of misguided priorities. I’ve strayed very quickly from things that truly matter: my family, my faith, myself. As I swim a little deeper into this pond, a soft voice emerges from the bed behind me.
“Daddy, spoon me” Vaughn whispers as he rolls over onto his right side, still half-asleep.
Obedient to the Dad core, I slide under the blankets of his bed, curl my left arm into his chest snugly, and tilt my chin behind his neck. I can smell the fabric softener on his pajamas when I’m this close, and gently kiss the nape of his neck. With the self-inflicted mental torment I’ve subjected myself to, this is a welcome respite. Just as Vaughn appreciates the sensory comfort from a tight Dad spooning, I appreciate this moment of pure affection, of him still wanting his Dad in his bed, as I marvel at how much he’s grown the past year, how long his legs are, his feet are now just inches from the foot of the bed.
The stillness of this moment is quiet and sobering, reminiscent me of how you can hike to the summit of a mountain and stop just to survey all of the views in silence. I feel shame at the impatience I carried throughout the day and gratitude for this moment. My eyes start to get heavy as I drift. Love in the time of corona. Your world shrinks, the breadth of your domain reduced to the four walls of your home, your family fenced in, there’s nothing but you spooning your son in his bed, but is this all bad? Love in the time of corona strips away all the artificial layers of your world. You are left naked with just the bare essentials, standing in front of a mirror under a bright fluorescent bulb. You can’t look away. You can only learn from it, what it’s trying to teach you, the virus stripping away every distraction so you’re forced to look hard into that brightly-lit mirror, whether you want to or not, at what really matters - the present moment, the “is-ness” of now; that’s all we have. Love in the time of corona, this is what matters.