This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
“Mama, I’m afraid of the dark.”
My son whispers this to me. He is curled up in his race car bed, his Indigo blue plaid blanket tucked up around his chin. He clings to his Dalmatian stuffy. His face is suffused with fear.
My bike had been stolen a few days before. I didn’t react well when I found out. I spewed some expletives when I spotted the jagged cracked lock and wire. I blurted that I thought I knew who stole it, that I saw someone lingering outside the house. Did I? I’m not sure now.
My son caught all of this. Ever since, my attempts to assuage his fears have been unsuccessful. He is convinced we are in danger. He is terrified to go to sleep.
Around 4 p.m. every day, he says, “Mama, Dada, this is the scary time.” All through dinner he tells us he is afraid. I make whatever meal I can from the leftovers in our fridge, from the canned goods I have diligently stacked up. Even his favourite foods don’t help. His eyes widen as the sun goes down.
As night approaches, I lie with him in his bed as I comb my fingers through his hair. He pushes on my fingers, asking me without words to press harder on his forehead. I recite a poem to him that we both love, over and over. A verse includes the phrase secret hope, a safe goodnight. I say a small prayer in Arabic with him. But the words don’t help. He is still so frightened. He is worried about his dreams. When they come, they leave him shivering.
“Mama, I’m not afraid of the coronavirus. I’m afraid of the dream virus.”
Doomscrolling, I spot a New York Times headline: “Why are we having weird dreams lately?”
We don’t need a newspaper article to figure that out.
To escape the apartment, I take a ride on my neighbour’s bike. The city feels deserted, so quiet. Stores are boarded up. I pass my son’s school playground. I wonder how the steel feels, not being touched by little hands for so long. I imagine it must miss it.
My stomach hurts. I am cramping and it’s not my time of the month. I become convinced it’s ovarian cancer, cervical cancer. But I can’t get it checked. Not now, not during the pandemic. All my little hypochondria routines are disrupted. I resign myself to the inevitable: I am dying. When I let that settle in, it feels almost liberating to accept it.
I look for ways to blow up my life during the pandemic. I easily resort to my OCD tendencies, consider wilfully scratching my face like I did as a teenager. I pick fights with my husband. I suddenly start to fantasize about abandoning him and my son, giving up everything, leaving my bank accounts for them to access, discarding my things, my clothes; I dream about starting up a new life, moving into a new apartment, to a new city, alone. I will get a new job doing something totally different. I will leave right now. Right this second! I will never look back. Because I can control that when I can control nothing else.
I go for a run, and listen to an interview with the novelist Jenny Offill on my phone. She has just written a book about the apocalypse. It debuted mere months before the pandemic. I devoured it at the time, but am now obsessed with re-reading it, revisiting it, looking for clues that I missed. How did she know, I wonder. Did she?
In the podcast, the interviewer asks Offill a question that begins with a quote from Paul Kingsnorth, the environmentalist who walked away from civilization to form an organization called “Dark Mountain.” I listen carefully as I draw another jagged breath, panting on the sidewalk, attempting to avoid strangers.
The interviewer states in a dry monotone voice: “Those who witness extreme social collapse firsthand seldom describe any deep revelation about the truth of human existence. What they do mention, if asked, is their surprise at how easy it is to die. The pattern of ordinary life, in which so much stays the same from one day to the next, disguises the fragility of its fabric. How many of our activities are made possible by the impression of stability that pattern gives? So long as it repeats, or varies steadily enough, we are able to plan for tomorrow, as if all the things we rely on, and don’t think about too carefully will still be there. When the pattern is broken…many of those activities become impossible or meaningless… What war correspondents…report is not the fragility of the fabric but the speed through which it can unravel.”
I think about all our careless patterns that took us through our days and nights in the before time, the ease through which we performed our roles every evening. What we took for granted. Dinner piano practice bathtime storytime bed now turned upside down, the nighttime now a menacing space for not just my son, but all of us, as we wait to see what dreams await him that evening.
“Mama, what is foreshadowing?”
“It’s when a story shares with you what might happen next.”
Somehow I know this isn’t the right description, but it’s what feels right to say in the moment.
Our son is screaming in his bed. I bolt from the sofa. The Cheezies I’ve been mindlessly eating flutter out of the Tupperware container and fly into the air. I upend my second gin and tonic. I run to my son’s side. The ice cubes begin to melt, pooling on my mother’s prized Persian rug.
My son cowers, shaking. “The bad guys are coming! They shot me four times!”
My husband is right beside me, holding his hand.
We hold our son and tell him everything is all right.
I can’t tell him that everything will be all right.
My son says hopefully, “Maybe a book will help?”
We all shuffle into our bedroom. My husband wearily goes to our son’s room. We can hear him riffling through myriad books. He comes back with Mo Willems. Perfect_._ Don’t Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late! is the title of the book. You probably know it if you have a kid. The story is a riff on his earlier book, Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!
In it, a bus driver tells the reader something like, “Hey, I gotta go away for a minute. Can you make sure no one drives my bus for me? Thanks!” And a lone pigeon arrives, begging to let the reader let him drive the bus. He’ll do anything—anything!—only if you let him drive the bus. He’ll be your best friend! He’ll give you five bucks! Anything!
But the reader has to hold his ground, and say no at every turn.
I read somewhere that Mo Willems thinks that the pigeon series works because kids finally have some control in a world where they have none.
Even though it is 3 a.m., my blessed husband puts a dramatic flair into performing all the voices, except when our son dictates the terms of engagement.
“No! No! No!” my son instructs the pigeon. “You can’t stay up late!”
His laughter grows more raucous, delighted.
“Ssssh,” I say, laughing. “You’ll wake our sweet neighbour; the walls are paper-thin.”
We giggle under the sheets.
“Thank you Dada, I feel much better,” my son says sleepily. “But you know what will make me feel even better? Another story.” He yawns.
Why hasn’t X called? Why hasn’t Y written? It’s the end of the world. Why haven’t I heard from him/her/them/the person I loved? Why haven’t I called the person I love? Why haven’t I called the friend with whom I had a spat, the former beloved employee with whom things ended so badly?
Who I do hear from:
The ex-boyfriend whom I haven’t heard from in 14 years
Who I do write:
My massage therapist/my acquaintance at work with the sad eyes/my co-worker who just lost her mother
“Are you OK?”
As if I don’t know the answer.
There’s a large house across the street from us. I admit I peer into it more often than I probably should. In the lower window sits an elderly woman who stares out the window all day, every day, from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. She has wiry light brown hair, and kind eyes. We used to wave at her as we walked by the window every weekday as I dropped my son off to school. She would wave back, sometimes blow a kiss.
I know her name is Johanna. I know this because after a long trip, a taxi driver dropped me off at my house and took a look across the street. He spotted the woman in the window, and told me that his ex-girlfriend was a tenant in her house. He told me that the elderly woman was Greek and didn’t speak much English.
I tucked that piece of information away and naively made some orzo for her one summer’s day last year, handing it to her in a recycled Whole Foods plastic container. She didn’t say anything, just smiled as she took it from me behind the red wooden fence. I don’t know if she ate it and it doesn’t matter if she did.
I notice that the back door is busier now. Two health care workers drop by every day, once at 9 a.m., wearing a mask and scrubs, and another at 5 p.m. She still looks out the window but doesn’t wave at me anymore when I go for my daily run. I notice that her tomato garden, typically beginning to sprout seedlings this time every year, is in disarray, unkempt. Instead, on the garden grounds, remnants of used masks and tissues that she has used dot the soil.
Every day my son and I walk to the water. I’m under no illusion how fortunate I am to have the seaside so close. These are the spoils of privilege. As we stumble along the barnacled rocks, my son tells me a story. In the story, there’s a worldwide storm. But his main characters are on a train! They are on the train, so they are safe.
We spend the entire hour detailing the things we can do on this particular train. There’s a ski slope, a luxurious restaurant, a music shop. Every time I suggest getting off the train, my son halts on the rocks and reminds me, “No, there’s a worldwide storm! We can’t get out!” The train travels to the Himalayas, to Rome, to Austin, to Olympia. All over the globe! But no one can get off the train; it’s not safe.
Every day, we spend an hour on that train. But we can never get off.
Follow Minelle Mahtani on Twitter.