When the college where my husband and I both teach English announces virtual meetings, we know there’s only one way to make it: strap our children into their car seats and drive. When this begins, our daughter is not quite two years, and our son is 2 months old, and even when we’re parked, they trust that we’re going somewhere.
We live in what could be called ‘the middle of nowhere’ in Midland, TX, a desert on top of reserves, where every other person’s employment depends on oil and gas and the price of a barrel defines the local economy. I don’t yet know the trade price of WTI crude will drop into negative numbers, that so many neighbors will lose jobs. I’ve only the foresight for immediate survival, a state I’ve been living in all year.
Before COVID shut everything down, we were already struggling. Our son was the city’s New Year’s baby. We took a week off and then started trading him between teaching and tutoring while our daughter attended daycare. We live in a state without paid parental leave, and though we’d each saved PTO, we didn’t want to use all our sick leave, and frankly, it would’ve been difficult for our department to find coverage. Now, faced without childcare indefinitely, we’re about to learn how blurred work and life can become.
In the car, I nurse the baby during the meeting’s Q&A, and my daughter starts crying because she wants my hand. I give her a doll, and when that doesn’t work, I give her Goldfish crackers. On my phone, I check email and realize I’ve forgotten to write a letter of recommendation. We have ten weeks left of teaching, and that may as well be forever.
Meeting complete, I change the baby in the grass, and my husband unpacks our daughter and sandwiches. We picnic on the campus, typically filled with students playing soccer or huddled in groups by the fountain, staring at cell phones or reading; it’s all empty now. Our daughter gravitates towards glass doors with peanut butter and jelly hands. We encourage her to run, take turns cleaning, and talk about the halt of the world. It’s not the end, but it resembles one.
My mind is a blur of news articles and ABC’s, of worries about how far underwater the oil bust will put us on our mortgage and the lyrics to “The Party Freeze Game,” a minute and a half song we dance to fifteen times a day.
Naptime and recommendation letter finished, we load the car again and head to the nature preserve, one of two outdoor spaces. The cats woke us up before 6 AM by breaking a glass, and in the car, I realize I have a small piece lodged in my heel. My husband asks if we should skip, but it’s only a mile, and my daughter is thrilled, asking for “more ducks” the entire time. I leave my phone in the car and with it my access to updated death counts, testing statistics, and quarantine orders, to the tally of unemployment claims.
I limp around the trail, use a blanket to keep the sun off the baby. My husband carries our daughter on his shoulders, tells me that anti-malarial medication did nothing but give two patients in the trial liver problems.
“Liver,” our daughter repeats.
“What sound do ducks make?” We both ask too enthusiastically, but she’s too young to notice.
“Quack,” she tells us proudly. “Quack, quack, quack.”
My husband reminds me to keep an eye on my foot, so it doesn’t become infected. “You don’t want to have to go to the E.R.,” he says.
We stop to point out purple wildflowers to our daughter, to distract her from wanting to push her brother’s stroller.
“We don’t want to have to go anywhere,” I agree, not yet knowing even this trail will soon close.
There are no more trips to the playground, but we have an inflatable bounce house that takes up most of our yard, a kiddie pool shaded by the desert willow my husband planted, a plastic swing on the porch, a sandbox shaped like a pirate ship, and a sprinkler. We take turns entertaining our daughter and holding the baby with a laptop balanced on a knee while commenting on essay proposals.
You would think thirty minutes of jumping would be enough to exhaust a twenty-six-pound person, but you would be wrong. “More hunt!” Our daughter exclaims, asking for her favorite song. We run around pretending to go through a wheat field, across a bridge, over a river, and into a cave, until we’ve “found a bear,” and we all dash screaming from the dining room, down the hallway, through the kitchen, and into the living room. Our daughter shrieks in delight. The baby doesn’t know what’s happening, but he’s happy too.
“They’ll never remember this,” I tell my husband, breathless. If we’re lucky, they won’t have a reason to, and I can’t let myself think about what if we’re not.
We update each other on which cities are running out of supplies while perfectly executing the moves to Elmo’s “Happy, Happy, Dance, Dance.” Midland has its first COVID death. This is before the infection at the nursing home, which leads to ten percent of Midland’s COVID positive patients dying.
My husband’s parents are in Connecticut, two thousand miles away. We worry about their proximity to the outbreak, about my husband’s grandfather on hospice and oxygen due to emphysema. On this day, we don’t know that his other grandfather will break his hip, contract COVID in the rehab facility, and pass away having only seen family through a window. On this day, we’re seeing our parents the only way we can: via Facetime and talking about ideas for keeping our toddler occupied. My mother-in-law suggests a sensory activity with rice and beans, but my husband reminds her we have to save our dried food in case it comes to that; I try not to think of what that implies.
We focus on what needs to be done: clean up song, dinner, and a bath for our daughter, then “Pajama Song” and teeth brushing, giving in to pleas for “more books,” even the ones we’re sick of, singing a song about how that’s it, that’s really all the books we’re going to read and another dance called “Llama, Llama, Red Pajama.” After lights out, there will be at least four rounds of “Ba-Ba-Black Sheep.” I hold to the baby’s play, nurse, nap schedule because, in it, I know what’s next.
I nurse while looking over scholarship essays. At dinner, we talk about how we won’t look back and laugh.
Since the beginning, I’ve had this idea that, after the babies are asleep, we’ll turn on the bounce house, bring the monitors outside, lay out and look at stars until we get that scary feeling that we’re so small and that is surpassed by the comfort that we’re so small. Ten weeks in, it still hasn’t happened because it’s cloudy or the neighbors left their lights on or the baby is fussy or it’s the only time to check email or because I need the possibility more than the experience itself. I need to think well, that’s something for tomorrow, to tell myself that we’re not waiting only for disaster, but for a cloudless night and a dark neighborhood, for a baby that’ll sleep long enough so we can see the stars.