One of the ordinary challenges of being an ER doctor and a single mother is finding childcare for my kids when I work overnight. Luckily, my parents live nearby and will often watch my children. In pre-Covid days, my folks and I had an early morning, post-ER shift ritual: after dropping my kids off at school, my mom and dad would head to a favorite restaurant. A few minutes later I’d stumble in, puffy-eyed and foul-mouthed from being up all night. Over egg sandwiches and pastries, we would catch up on family news and current events. At the last breakfast before Covid, we told stories about my paternal grandfather and talked about the impending pandemic.
Until a few weeks ago, I had not eaten at an indoor, sit-down restaurant since. But late last month, I got a call from my dad just as I was dropping my kids off at school. “There’s no one here,” he said, telling me the name of our favorite breakfast spot. “Your mom and I came for take-out and then realized the place was empty. We’ve been vaccinated,” my dad continued, almost giddy. “So we came in. Wanna join us?”
In the past year, our pandemic bubble has been small, every decision calibrated to manage my increased risk as an ER physician and the health of my 80-year-old parents. So at first, the proposal sounded outrageous — like I was a teenager being told to skip school — or even worse, church. But after taking a second to let the invitation sink in, I flipped a U-turn and headed for the restaurant, tulips and budding trees greening-up the view as I drove.
When I arrived, my parents and I hugged each other and then tucked into breakfast, acting like we were starving. And we were — at least for the ordinary pleasure of dining in again. We laughed and told stories, grateful for falling Covid case counts in my hometown, even as we worried about people still afflicted in other parts of the world.
A couple days later I took my kids to Target to pick up some clothes. They have been such good company for me through the long winter that I sometimes forget they are also growing children. But as snow melted and days got longer, I saw that the knees on my son’s pants were threadbare and my daughter’s wrists and ankles had spent the winter wriggling out of cuffs and hems.
In the Target parking lot we strategized how to get in and out of the store quickly, and within 30 minutes had found a few items that looked more like spring than the rehabilitated winter clothes they had been wearing. “Team!” my kids and I shouted and high-fived each other.
Passing the pharmacy on the way out of the store, I noticed two young men waiting in an observation area after having received their Covid immunizations. I walked past them and then walked back. “I know this is none of my business and that you don’t even know me,” I blurted out, almost in spite of myself, “but I’m an ER doctor and just wanted to thank you for getting the vaccine.”
The faces on these two twenty-somethings — strangers until I lumped them together — lit up under their masks. “For my mother and grandfather,” one of them said, and pointed to the bandaid on his deltoid.
“My second dose!” the other chimed in and raised his arms over his head in triumph, his celebration diminished only just a little by the necessity of living in a world where a vaccine for a virus like Covid is necessary.
“Come on, Mom,” my kids said, grabbing my hands and the shopping bags. And then we walked out of the store and into the pale spring light.
One of the soundtracks of the pandemic has been my children’s online Zoom meetings for school. The teachers’ cheerful, animated voices have served as an antidote for the isolation of grey winter days — and not just for my children.
Over the last few months, my daughter’s 6th grade class has worked their way through Andy Weir’s The Martian — the science fiction novel about a plucky astronaut stranded on Mars that was made into a 2015 movie starring Matt Damon. The class read the book out loud and talked about it from a literary perspective. But they also used it to learn about the science the book explores — including watching the Perseverance rover land on Mars on February 18th — and to discuss the psychology of facing challenges. Brilliant curriculum anytime, but especially during a pandemic.
Ever since her class finished the book, my daughter has been asking to watch the movie. On a recent Sunday afternoon, we finally did. I had seen it before, but watching it with my kids I became emotional. The three of us had not spent the last year on Mars, but surviving the pandemic as part of an ER-doctoring-single-parent family had been its own senior seminar in isolation and doing hard things.
And I couldn’t keep myself from pausing the movie to editorialize. “Do you see what he’s doing?” I would say, pointing at the television, attempting to make an analogy between the astronaut and my children’s own resilience. “How he found a solution to that seemingly impossible problem?”
“Yes, Mom,” they said, humoring me — and growing very tired of my interruptions.
“But that’s what you did this year, too,” I insisted, trying to use the astronaut’s story to make a point about their own resilience.
“We know, Mom,” they responded, giggling and rolling their eyes at me before sighing and giving each other the here-goes-mom-again-look. “Now can we get back to the movie?”
I pushed the “Play” button and as the movie started again, I hoped they did know their own strength.
A few days later, I took my son to his first practice for a spring soccer league. He had been excited about getting dressed and putting on his socks and cleats, but when we got to the soccer field he was afraid to get out of the car. “It’s okay, bud,” I said, trying to reassure myself as much as him. “I know it’s been a while since we’ve played sports, but I think it will be okay.”
Then this kid, who has worn a mask and social-distanced for almost one fifth of his life, grabbed his ball and hopped out of the car. Soon he was lost in a tangle of other boys, laughing and chasing a soccer ball down the field, jerseys billowing out behind them. When his laces came untied, his coach bent down and tied his shoe.
Later that night I texted a friend. “Took my son to his first outdoor soccer practice,” I wrote. “He played and played, ran and ran, like he’d been locked inside all winter — which he has.”
“Sounds like he had a great time after he got going,” the friend responded. And I thought: yes. Yes. Maybe having a great time after we get going is what a lot of us are doing this spring.
The winter my daughter’s father and I got divorced was long. All the snow made for great skiing but was a particularly bleak backdrop to the dissolution of a marriage. That spring had felt like the current one, with green grass and lengthening days calling me from a winter marked by hardship I had endured but barely understood.
One day that spring, I had found myself wandering around the supermarket on a pre-dinner grocery run realizing I felt more hopeful than I had in a long time. Back at home, chopping vegetables and making dinner for my daughter, I was overwhelmed with gratitude: that winter was over, that spring had come, that one day the heartache would end.
I felt a similar hope while eating breakfast with my parents that morning a few weeks ago. As we measured grief at rising Covid death-counts in India against the tally of family members who had been vaccinated and the number of patients I was still seeing in hospital, we ventured a wish that maybe our part of the world had turned a corner and that the rest of the world was not too far behind. That someday the pandemic would end.
But mostly we talked about spring — about planting flowers, mowing lawns, and the pleasure of after-dinner walks on warmer, lighter evenings. “We’re thinking about taking a drive,” my dad mentioned, naming their closest friends — another 80-year old couple who had also recently been immunized. “Might be fun to drive over the mountain with them for dinner,” he added. And then, for just a second, I saw my elderly parents and their friends in my mind’s eye, pulling into a drive-in, laughing and joking, gleeful as teenagers, celebrating immunizations and the coming of spring with milkshakes and a double-date.
That year I got divorced, there were days when the sun shone so brightly, when the grass smelled so green, when I felt so singularly sustained by the change of seasons that I wondered if, perhaps, spring might have come just for me.
I feel that way this year, too. Perhaps all of us do.
Marion Bishop is an emergency medicine physician who works in northern Utah. Her views are her own. You can find more of her writing and learn about her ER experience during the pandemic at marioncbishop.com.