I have a daughter who is 37, which is a remarkable fact in itself, since I seem to harbor a misty belief, floating crazily in the back of my mind, that I am only 39 years old. I have another daughter who is 33 years old, which of course makes her younger than me. It’s funny how your kids grow up and we always see them as kids. And we can’t have aged that much, or do we?
A mere three months ago, which now seems like very many months ago, when there was talk of a mysterious virus devastating Wuhan, China, the thought that I had grown children living in cities like Boston and Buffalo did not give me any real cause for concern, except that the Buffalo girl was not at our dinner table as often as I would like. But life moves on, kids move away, and parents learn to adjust.
But now, the word “adjust” has taken on a whole new meaning for parents all over the globe. As soon as this mysterious virus began its unstoppable and frightening death march from China to Europe, to Seattle, to New York City, and into the upper reaches of New York state and then, falling like a dark shadow onto Boston, having loved ones living in these places became a source of constant worry. When would we see our families again? When would we hold them, make them a meal? Unwrap the presents together at Christmas? Would there be a Christmas? What if we, who really are no longer 39, became sick with the virus?
Suddenly, my husband and I found ourselves facing a New Reality. The grocery store became a perilous place. We couldn’t see our friends or go to the dentist. We were buying Clorox wipes. Honestly, I have no memory of having a particularly clean house, but now I had surrounded myself with bottles of Purell, I was cleaning doorknobs. I was at my sewing machine, stitching up a fair quantity of protective masks. Masks! I spent two days on my computer canceling events I had been planning for years. And then, I went into a kind of foggy state of shock, where making dinner seemed to take all afternoon, and some days, around 3 p.m., I suddenly needed to take a nap. I would wake up and watch the news, hoping some miracle would appear and give me my life back. It was all too much.
In the midst of this mayhem, it started to dawn on me that I needed to form a plan. I had to adjust. The sorrow I was feeling was too much to bear. Life had become painful, in shocking ways I could not explain. No one could explain, or dismiss, or find any pleasant way to give me or anyone I knew real comfort.
Some years ago, I lost a beloved dog to old age. There’s something about losing a faithful pet that goes deep in your heart, and the depth of this kind of grief is hard to admit. I received a card from our vet, expressing sympathy, saying how my Max had been a Really Good Boy, and now, he was “Over the Rainbow Bridge.” I felt unabashedly chagrined upon reading this little note, because, as childlike as it was, I let it bring me some degree of comfort. My vet had reached out to me with some form of sweet denial, and I took it, not willingly, but because I needed comfort.
So step one, to face this pandemic and isolation, this unreal and new reality, I realized that I needed to find a way to comfort these feelings of loss. I challenged myself. I canceled the naps, put on a pink mask with a bright animal print, and replaced the naps with walks. I learned how to order food online. OK, I went a little overboard and found a 25-pound bag of flour through Amazon that I couldn’t lift when it arrived, and had no place to store it. After a bit of fluffing around and a lot of flour on the countertops, I scooped some up and delivered a few bags to friends who love to bake. I started making really good soups. I started to feel a small sense of control, although that is not precisely the correct word. I was learning to adjust and do what people do when confronted with the unthinkable: make the best of it.
But my real concern was this: How in the world could I make a safe place here, where my grown kids could come and visit us this summer? I knew I couldn’t hug them, but I needed to know I would be able to see them, and not on ZOOM. I set my sights on our old rickety mini-barn, which is really a large garden shed, and by the next day, with the help of my husband, I was furiously tossing things out and sweeping it clean. Soon enough, the fishing poles and turtle shells and rakes had found new homes, and I had made a passable outhouse, complete with an old portable camping toilet I found hidden in the cellar under mounds of camping gear. The old pop-up camper —which no longer pops up but sits somewhat listlessly in the back yard in an eternal state of popped-upness since we long ago lost interest in winding it up and down — got cleaned out too, and made up with fresh bedding. I called our gallant plumber Matt, who arrived within a day and installed an outdoor shower on the back of my studio. We had some large wood panels from an old solar camping shower, and my husband set them up to form an enclosure.
I called the Boston daughter (the one closest to me in age), and said, "Oh please come home, we really, really need to see you.” As I write this, she is asleep in the camper, safe and sound, at least for now. We took a walk with our masks on. We ate dinner outside with paper plates, sitting six feet apart. We told funny stories and laughed about the camping toilet. We are adjusting. For today, life seems about as good as we can make it. I may even get Buffalo girl here this summer, and then, maybe, my heart will be at ease.
So, for me, the one way I have found to adjust to our new reality is to find some semblance of hope, and then act on it. What our vet gave me the day she sent me her dear note was her compassion, and through that gesture she helped me adjust to my loss.
We are all facing terrible losses now, we want our lives back, we want to hold our children and loved ones. How we find our strength will be our road to recovery, piecing our lives back together, making soup, we adjust.
Liz Perry is an artist who lives in Brewster. You can find her work at www.bluejacketstudios.com. She occasionally proofreads and answers the phones at The Chronicle.