My three-year-old calls it “the sickness.” I guess that’s my fault. I introduced Covid-19 as such and didn’t realize how ominous it sounded until he started saying it himself. Like the title of a melodramatic apocalyptic film. Like an unmentionable disease, as if superstitiously I have been unwilling to call it by its actual name, lest we summon it upon our house.
It started when I tried to explain why our vacation was canceled. “There is a sickness going around, and the leaders have asked us not to travel,” I told him. It was the early days of the pandemic and the government of Canada had just advised against air travel. That morning I took him and the baby to the local library connected to the farmer’s market connected to the downtown mall. Without thinking I lifted him to the drinking fountain where he pressed his mouth against the spray guard. The library had put away the train tables, relieving me of the argument over why we couldn’t play with them. In the mall a woman glared at me when he coughed on a cracker. “He’s not sick – he’s just choking!” I wanted to call to her.
The first week or two he cried regularly about all the places we usually go and could no longer visit. He grieved the play dates and visits from Grandpa, the library, park, coffee shop, and Early Years drop-in center. Then one day he stopped asking.
I tried to explain that I am not the one sick, but how do you explain social distancing, flattening the curve, and stopping the spread to a three-year-old? You try, and then you regret it later.
The requests for activities today turned into longing for what will be. “When you are better from the sickness, can we go on a train?” So for the last month, it was for me he had been making these sacrifices. I tried to explain that I am not the one sick, but how do you explain social distancing, flattening the curve, and stopping the spread to a three-year-old? You try, and then you regret it later. All these phrases and concepts are still new in our adult minds and vocabularies. A month or two ago we were almost as naïve as he is in our understanding of pandemic and its effects on our society.
I’ve resigned myself to leaning into the language. At the park I tell him, “We can’t touch the fence because of the sickness.” “Don’t climb up the neighbor’s porch to pet the cat, because of the sickness.” “Remember to not get too close to people on the sidewalk because of the sickness.” He recognizes we are in a waiting period, a liminal space of limited contact until “the sickness is over.” “Mommy, when the sickness is over, can we go to the beach?” “When the sickness is over, can we go to the pool?”
Instead he rolls in the grass, lies face-first on the goose-feces-strewn walking trail, grounds his boots into mud so sticky he can’t pull them out. Now, having been denied the opportunity to climb on the playground and explore our familiar stomping grounds, he throws his body into whatever physical spaces he can.
My son loves being in the dirt. We go to the park and he pours sand into his hair. He finds the bald places around the trees and pulls handfuls of soil into his lap. Children remind us to connect with the dirt from which we were formed. I have to remember there is a holiness in his messy play, as he breathes life into the ground, finding Love in the ordinary things I avoid. “I love this flower,” he says, rubbing the black, prickly center of a dried Black-eyed Susan across his cheek. The next day he says, “I got this flower because of the sickness.” “Why because of the sickness?” “Because we can’t go anywhere. The flower says, ‘It’s okay if you can’t go somewhere.’”
I’ve been thinking of the theological concept of already, not yet. This phrase, coined by early-twentieth-century theologian Geerhardus Vos, indicates that while God’s kingdom is here now, it is not fully here. Christ has already come into the world and redeemed it through his death and resurrection. And yet we wait for the full redemption of things, brought with the second coming.
My family is free from the sickness and walking in health. And yet our world is on hold as we wait for whatever freedom will arrive in the form of new protective measures that allow society to reopen, and, we hope, ultimately a vaccine.
Already we are enjoying the gifts of spring, the uninterrupted time we have together, while we look forward to not yet when the sickness is over. As we walk we look for daffodils in the garden, new leaves on the trees, robins pecking the ground. The dirt bares its treasures. My son is learning the names of flowers. This newness reminds us of redemption seeping into the world around us, signs of life amongst last year’s dead brush.
As if channeling all the lack of human connection into physical contact, my son has been clingier than usual. I bend down to pick something off the ground and he has climbed on my back. I nurse the baby and he wedges his body between mine and the couch. Everything is a game in how close he can be to me. I cherish it, and it gets under my skin. I reach to pull bread out of the oven and he has clung to my leg.
In our lack of physical connection with people, we find other means of tactile experience. We knead dough instead of shaking hands.
Apparently bread-making is on the rise. People have been buying more flour since we started self-isolating. Domesticity makes us feel we can better handle the potential apocalypse, or at least an economic crash. We can give ourselves our daily bread, or at least cut a few financial corners. Or perhaps, in our lack of physical connection with people, we find other means of tactile experience. We knead dough instead of shaking hands.
Over each day hangs the fear of getting “the sickness.” My husband and I talk in hushed tones about how we would cope with the children if we fall ill. But perhaps even heavier is the specter of the postpartum depression that stole so much joy during the first year of my first child’s life. With our second child, I felt that I was able to stay just ahead of it by following all the recommendations: resting enough, getting out, seeing others, asking for help, relying on my support network. But now that so many of those supports have been snatched away, how long can I last?
I am one of the lucky ones. I am grateful to live in a country where I can take a year-long paid parental leave. I am fortunate to have a supportive spouse working from home in this time. Even so, I recognize my limitations and the risks that confinement plays on my mental health. If depression sets in again, I can no longer call on others to come and help.
To cope we walk. I strap both children into the stroller and we walk and walk and walk. Is it safe? I see diagrams of how spittle might fly through the air from a person to another, have heard the words “aerosol” and “moistly” used to describe speech in ways I’ve never heard before. But we need to get out. This is our way of surviving. This is our limited means of communing. I see other mothers with strollers, and we smile knowingly as we dance between which one of us will leave the sidewalk and step into the street to provide a large berth. I run into the father of another boy in my son’s daycare, and we, barely acquaintances, stand apart chatting for twenty minutes because, for once, we are able to talk and look someone in the eye. A father strapping his son into the car seat lifts his hand to me with a peace sign and says, “Strength. Strength.” I breathe in his words, hoping I’ve avoided the aerosol that comes with them.
We find ways to be together in the already: virtual play-dates, even messier and noisier than those in person; sending meal-delivery gift certificates to a loved one who seems to have “the sickness”; porch visits on my birthday where my friend’s children dance on the lawn; sidewalk chalk encouragement notes from neighbors. And we long for the not yet, the time when we will once again shake hands, enter each other’s homes, brush shoulders as we pass in the street, when friends can hold my rapidly growing baby, when my child can reach out and hand a toy train to another child at the library.
The body, which shows itself to be so vulnerable to this disease, an unaware vehicle for the rapid spread. The body, created good and redeemed by a God who thought it worthwhile to dwell among us in body.
Our bodies long for other bodies, to see, to hold, to interact with. The body, so often written off as dirty, wrong, detestable, indecent. Dismissed by Gnosticism as base and vile, cast by Plato as unimportant, reduced by asceticism as something to punish, written off by shallow mysticism as a shell to escape. The body, which shows itself to be so vulnerable to this disease, an unaware vehicle for the rapid spread, each body we pass in the street posing a potential threat of contamination. Hands dried out and cracking from incessant washing. The body, created good and redeemed by a God who thought it worthwhile to dwell among us in body.
This week our church keeps its scheduled celebration of the Lord’s Supper. We gather together for communion, bodies behind computer screens, and take Christ’s body into our vulnerable ones, starved for contact, edified by this remembrance. The bells from the empty cathedral across the street still ring out, reminding us of what can’t be today, but what will be yet. My husband, son, and I take the bread I have made in our hands as the minister says, “This is the body of Christ, broken for you.” “Thanks be to God,” we say into our home, and eat it.