We are rebels charging down a two-lane highway. We are free. The radio blares. Kids buckled snugly in the back ask every few minutes where we’re going. We don’t answer. We’re just driving, and it feels good.
This current crash course in introversion has been rough. We’ve found our share of bright spots – little boys painting birdhouses while dressed in nothing but underwear and smiles; a basement swallowed in the bright red of a too-big, too-loud bounce house; a washing machine box turned cardboard fortress where little boys read to a resting Mama. Moments, sometimes hours of this time together, have been pure magic.
This magic sneaks in when no one is looking, wraps us in love and contentment and gratitude, then without warning, it slips away. This magic is fleeting, and each time it evaporates, its absence is felt stronger than its presence. I’m not sure we’ve made it through a single day unscathed. By what, though? What can be so dark and daunting inside this cozy home? I’m not sure I even know – but it smells a lot like fear. It looks a lot like sadness.
Neither myself nor my husband is deemed “essential” in this crisis, so we are asked to stay home, be still, be safe. Our income remains steady, though, as my husband works long hours from his basement office while the economy shuts down all around us. We are lucky here. Our home and yard offer room to run and play. We are spared the struggle that so many are not.
Still, there is a low rumbling fear, an uncertainty that colors each day. We worry about the little boys inside this house. We worry about family and friends outside in the trenches – in hospitals and nursing homes, in grocery stores and gas stations, in firehouses, ambulances, power plants and oil fields – that is to say anywhere that is not the inside of one’s own home. This worry about ourselves, the people we love, and the people we don’t even know, takes its toll on each of us.
I stuff my feelings into tightly compacted little boxes. I ignore them but feel the strain each day, yelling for no sound reason one minute, hiding behind the pantry door to retrieve my sanity the next. My husband converts his feelings into action, double-checking everyone’s sanitized hands and making sure we are prepared to wait this thing out. My babies, the littlest ones, are happily reveling in the extra attention, but the two bigger boys have poured their emotions all over this house. Frustration and tears come easily right now, and my genuinely joyful boys seem troubled. One will not let me out of his sight, the other all of a sudden asking for things he hasn’t wanted in years.
“Mama, will you sleep with me?” Nearly every night since the world has come to a screeching halt, my independent red-head begs for me to “please just stay.” So I do, thinking maybe both of us will sleep better that way.
I snuggle into a twin upper bunk, pressing my back into the cool of the wall behind me as his little body radiates heat and sweat. As my son sleeps, my brain replays the missteps of the day, jumps to what might be waiting for us tomorrow or next week. Will we still be bedded down in this house a month from now? Will I still be crawling up the rickety ladder onto my son’s top bunk, my body posing as his safe place in these uncertain days?
I finally settle, falling toward sleep when a vision jolts me back to the bedroom. The golden glow of nightlight illuminates a man, dark hair, darker eyes, standing next to the bed. His face peers over the rail of the bunk and stares straight at my child, at me. I gasp for breath, muffle a shout because just as I am watching this figure in absolute horror, I am simultaneously aware that he is not actually there. This threatening stranger is a night terror, something I’ve had since I was a child, something that returns in times of stress. This mirage, silently creeping into my son’s room to disturb our peaceful slumber, fades as I pull air into my lungs and right my mind. The fear I have shoved down, down, down has broken out of its box tonight. It will not be ignored any longer.
The next morning, I decide we have to leave this house. We need a dose of normalcy if only for a little while. We pile into the car and drive deep into the country, cruising past fields drenched in late-night rains. It looks like any other day out there, and I wonder who is holed up inside those shuttered farmhouses, their sturdy barns leaning toward the setting sun. It is an odd, unsettling vibe that all is well while it is not. It feels like maybe if we just keep driving, we will simply outrun this thing.
But there is nowhere to go that it doesn’t threaten to touch. Stay home and you’ll be safe – but how safe do you feel protected by your mountains of toilet paper and cupboard of canned corn? It is a false sense of safety, one that says to me, “Let’s cuddle in our pajamas and eat ice cream for lunch and play the day away. This will be fun!” Then 6:30 hits, the news clicks on and we are reminded the world is in flames. This is not fun. People are dying. There are not enough beds or masks, doctors or nurses. Our medical personnel cannot protect themselves. They are getting sick. They are dying. We are not safe. But we are home, and we are having fun. And that feels like shit.
So, I want to leave. I’m not looking to socialize or gather in groups, coughing on one another with reckless abandon. I just want to feel boundless for a moment. A road and a car and a sense that we are going somewhere even if it’s just in circles, bigger circles than the ones we’ve been cycling through in the Groundhog’s Day existence back home. Our life stays the exact same while the numbers of the sick, the dead, compound on the television screen every evening. What does it mean that we survive, we have fun, while others die at random?
We drive away from all that, flipping from station to station, old country then obnoxious pop to keep the kids happy. We sing along, off-key and unbothered, gazing out the window. I search for another song when the DJ comes on, landing at a news station instead. We listen to high-paid officials talk numbers and spin propaganda, promise weeks when we know it will be months. The mood in the car shifts. I feel like we are back at our dining room table in four-day old pajamas and unwashed hair.
“Can we change the station?” asks one of the boys.
His question shakes off the fading sense of freedom, and I punch the dial until Pearl Jam growls “I’m still alive.” I turn it up, loud. We head north.
We see few cars, adding to the illusion that the world is actually ours. Leafless trees open the horizon, transforming our Midwest nearsightedness into a sky offering more potential than an everyday Tuesday.
The kids whine that they need to get out and run. “Mom, I want to be there!” But where? There is no destination which means there is nothing to signal when this ride is half over. There is no “return trip.” We can just go until we stop. But that will not do for restless boys.
I scan the phone to find a place where they can stretch their legs and suck evening air as they run off the stillness. We locate an abandoned county park, its playground roped off with yellow caution tape. The boys jump out and run toward the lake. I watch, holding my breath, praying they don’t veer off to the plastic slide which I am certain is covered in virus. I follow close behind shouting reminders not to touch the benches.
I thought this would be freeing. I thought we could call forth the magic, but interacting with the outside world is putting me on edge. My youngest picks up a stick, and I wonder who else’s hands have held that same stick. How long ago might it have been? Did this stick-touching person wake up with a sore throat this morning? Are they in their home now, layered in thick blankets fighting a fever as we stand in this park, touching the same stick they threw to their dog only hours before?
I enter into illogical patterns of thought, difficult to shut down. I urge our family back inside the known universe of our car. This field trip has gone on long enough. I do not like this mother I’m becoming, paranoid and scared, haunted by the manifestation of my own fears at night and now, here in broad daylight, at the edge of a glassy lake.
We climb back in the vehicle, and I take the wheel this time, navigating toward home. I accelerate and tell my children that Mommy is no longer taking radio requests. This drive to nowhere has just become a return trip. I settle on Metallica as we race toward home. Enter Sandman plays, “It’s just the beast under your bed, in your closet, in your head,” and I recall the vision of the man staring at my son over the top of his bunk. He felt so real and yet was not, much like the safety waiting behind the doors of our home, the home that I am now charging back to as quickly as possible because there is nowhere else to go.