I do not know how to explain to my children what a global pandemic means. And it’s because I don’t know how to explain it to myself. I thought I understood. If you could get an A in pandemic preparedness, I would have gotten it. Two weeks before the governor announced the statewide emergency, I went and got two weeks’ worth of supplies. I’ve been making soup and freezing it. I’ve bought seed packets and planned lessons for my children. I bought art supplies and crafting kits.
I’ve checked in with friends and family members, urging them to take this seriously. I read advice from professionals about how to explain this to your children. Then, I sat my kids down and explained coronavirus to them, using the calm and measured words provided by the experts.
“But what about hugs?” my daughter asked.
I told her she could always hug me, her brother, her father and her father’s girlfriend — the fractured unit of our family, and the people who comprise her physical world for the foreseeable future.
“But I want to hug everyone,” she said. “I never want to stop hugging everyone.” And then she cried.
I understand what she means. My daughter and I are alike in so many ways. We are both people people. We love parties and thrive in large groups. Our souls are fed by hand holding, playdates and snuggles. We are both terrified of loneliness.
I grew up the second oldest of eight children. I went to college and when I was placed in a single room, I went to the housing office and begged for a roommate. I married right out of college. And then, I began having kids at 25. I don’t even know what isolation really means.
But on Tuesday, while my kids were with their father, I asked a friend who lives in another city to visit me. He told me, gently, that we had to stay apart. I had forgotten the pandemic the isolation. And like my daughter, in that moment, I cried about hugs.
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It feels so silly to admit that I cried about hugs. I think all of us Iowans think we should be better than this — better than our fear, better than our terror, better than our loneliness. We think that somehow we can just bootstrap out of it, swallow our feelings and get through. Or worse, just ignore it and pretend it’s not happening. Carry on like usual, which in this case, is exactly what we should not be doing. To quote a Dar Williams song, Iowans, “We never mean to bother. We don’t like to make our passions other people’s concern. And we walk in the world of safe people. And at night we walk into our houses and burn.”
Right now, it feels like all we can do is walk into our houses and burn.
Like everyone, I am still struggling with the depth and meaning of this pandemic. I am frustrated. I’m angry. I’m scared. I miss going to my favorite restaurants and getting a beer and a burger, I hope they are there when we can touch again. And I am struggling everyday with what to write. I don’t know how to be funny in a time of pandemic. And I don’t want to always be negative. But I also don’t want us to turn away from the realities of the situation.
There is a theory that tradition of saying “bless you” after someone sneezes started when the Bubonic Plague was devastating Europe. One of the symptoms of the plague was sneezing and so, the legend goes, that Pope Gregory encouraged people to pray “Bless you” after every sneeze to ensure against certain death. Another theory, posits that the tradition of “bless you” began because ancient people believed sneezes expelled evil spirits. A “bless you” was a prayer of protection from the evil to the sneezer and those around them.
I keep thinking about tradition of “bless you,” because it’s one of the things I miss about sitting in the office. I now work from home. But I miss talking with reporters while we make coffee. I miss making fun of the flavored coffee that Kat Russell makes, like “Jamaican Me Crazy” and “Cookie Doodle.” I miss shouting “bless you” out the door of the editorial office every time someone in sports sneezes.
Each one a small wish to those around us, “Don’t die.”
Yesterday, I went for a run and waved at everyone I saw. We all stepped aside from each other, maintaining that 6 foot distance. Sometimes people crossed the street to avoid each other. Some friends of mine, left me a margarita on their porch. I drank it and waved at their baby, careful not to touch, not to hug.
Each of those small moments felt like a “bless you” — a hug of another kind. And it won’t always be this way, but for now, it’s enough.