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By Miranda Featherstone
Ms. Featherstone is a writer and social worker. She has written about how to raise children without fear, even during the pandemic, and about how to talk to children about grief.
The penguins at the New England Aquarium seemed relaxed. Some stood on the rocks, crowing into the humid air above them. Others answered these squawks. They seemed to engage playfully and intimately with one another. The same could not be said of my family and the other guests at the aquarium. Everyone seemed aware of everyone else’s personal space. A mother apologized for her toddler son who stared at me (and my French fries) with rapt interest in the cafe. “He doesn’t get out much,” she said with a laugh.
After a tour of marine life, my sister and I emerged into the icy light that passes for sunshine in a Boston March. We each held the hand of a preschooler: my son, 4, and my niece, 3. We were both a little rattled. It had been a long time since any of us had been in such a crowded, child-centric space for fun. A building full of strangers had been overwhelming for all of us, and it felt reassuring and safe to be apart, just the four of us again.
Outside, I wondered how long I would gaze with mistrust at other people, wondering if they were a source of germs (the coronavirus, or the run-of-the-mill colds that still keep my children out of school until PCR results return). I wondered when this would all be over, and I worried that the answer was never. I wondered how long it would be before I felt less angry.
My sister and I speculated about where we could buy a cup of tea. As we wondered, a middle-aged woman who sat nearby with her adult son overheard and shared that she wanted some, too; where could she find some? Then: Where were we from? She and I had both recently moved from the Greater Philadelphia area to Rhode Island. Do you like it? she wanted to know.
I mentioned, because it is hard for me to stop myself from doing so, that my mother had died the week before my move. And so she told us about her mother’s death four years ago and her father’s death in December of 2021.
She leaned her head back, absorbing the light, and told us how she had spoken to her mother every single day before she lost her, and that putting her father, who suffered from dementia, in assisted living during the pandemic had been wrenching. And now he was gone. My sister and I nodded. We all wanted tea, and the sun. We all wanted our mothers.
My sister and I long for normalcy, but we see our elderly and immune-compromised father regularly. My sister’s wife has a chronic illness, and our preschoolers are unvaccinated. We are more Covid cautious than some, and less cautious than others. How easy it is to feel that people who are not just like us are paranoid on the one hand or reckless on the other.
Such characterizations might briefly soothe the hurts that we have all accumulated: the casual eugenics present in the dismissals of deaths of people with pre-existing conditions; the reckless sexism present in the indifference to the availability of in-person school; the cruel uncompensated loss of paychecks, customers and clients; the intimate-partner violence and substance abuse that has swelled behind closed doors; the crushing loneliness that comes from working behind a mask or seeing few people outside of your home. People have split themselves into warring factions over measures like mask mandates and school closures, with each side minimizing the harms about which the other is concerned. Many of us feel abandoned.
In that moment, with that stranger — she never told us her name — it was easy to remember that the past two years have been brutal for so many, for so many reasons.
Both in my work as a social worker and in my own network of friends and relatives, I have observed the wreckage of the past 25 months. Women have asked me, with terrifying urgency, how they can continue to live their lives entirely in their homes when a violent family member renders the home unsafe. I have watched people turn toward substances to ease the pressures of the pandemic, and then enter rehab reluctantly or hopefully; I have listened to their family members and friends recount relapses, the shame and fear making their words all but inaudible.
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