Every day after lunch, my son and I go for a walk. It’s one of the pleasant parts of our new routine during this weird, difficult time of staying home.
Forrest is almost 9. We talk a lot about Fortnite, the online game where roving mercenaries battle one another. He gives me prompts: If you could design your own Fortnite game, what would it be? Then he talks for 30 minutes about how he’d design his game.
The walks are nice. The days can be long. It’s been a month since schools closed in Wausau, about three weeks since the governor issued Wisconsin’s stay-home order. My wife, Laura, is a health educator with the Marathon County Health Department, very much an essential worker in this time. She goes in to the office every day; I work from home. I try to keep Forrest on track with his online school lessons and to come up with enough activities for him so that he spends only a few hours per day watching video gamers on YouTube, as opposed to his preference, which would be to spend every waking hour watching video gamers on YouTube.
I have a comfortable house, a job I can do from home. I have an adaptable kid. I know exactly how fortunate I am. I have friends who have toddlers or new babies in this time. I have friends among the millions of people who’ve lost their jobs. I have no standing to complain, and I’m not complaining.
But there are times when it’s a strain. I have a feeling that I think everyone who is working with kids at home has: I have days where I feel like I’ve done a pretty good job at my job. I have days where I feel like I’ve done at least an okay job of parenting. But it’s impossible to have both on the same day, and on a lot of days, I have neither.
In my job as a reporter, especially in the early weeks of the stay-home order, I heard from a lot of people who had all sorts of questions. They all amounted to variations on two themes: 1) Can I really not do this thing I want to do?, and 2) How long is this going to last? The answers, my public-health-professional wife tells me, are “no” and “we just don’t know.”
On the radio, I listened to an interview with a 22-year-old who had coronavirus. She said it’s the sickest she has ever felt in her life. Her case was “mild,” in the sense that she was young, not high-risk. And of course, not all the cases are mild.
In the afternoon, Forrest is outside in the backyard at the same time as his friend, Henry, is outside a couple houses down. They call across to each other, awkwardly. Forrest tries to share his latest victory in Fortnite. Henry can’t really hear what him. Someone is running a leaf blower. The two boys try talking that way for a little bit and then give up. The whole exchange kind of breaks my heart.
That evening, Laura and I break the news to him that it seems unlikely that he’ll be returning to third grade this year. It’s a tough conversation. The next day, I sit down and talk with him about it.
Q. You were upset when we were thinking that school might not start back up again. What about that made you sad or upset?
I could barely get to talk with my friends. I don’t get to see my teacher. And, well that’s the first couple reasons that come into mind.
Q. Do you feel like you know why we’re doing this right now?
The government is trying to keep kids safe from COVID-19.
Q. And not just kids, right?
I say that for me, the uncertainty is one of the hardest parts of all this. Not knowing how long life will be like this. “That is one of the worst things,” he says. “I agree.”
One day, when we take our walk, he decides the conversation topic will be how he and his friends would survive in a zombie apocalypse. In the scenario he sketches, all the parents in the neighborhood are away on a cruise, having left their 9-year-old sons and daughters home to fend for themselves, completely unaware of the plague of zombies breaking out. I worry he’s spinning this scenario because he feels like the world is ending around him. But it’s mainly a chance for him to cheerfully imagine the ways he’d fashion various household items into weapons, and the amazing times he’d have together with his friends.
“Do you feel like we’re in a zombie apocalypse now?” I ask.
“Not really,” he says. “Maybe just a regular apocalypse.”
On Saturday, we go for a bike ride along the Wisconsin River. It’s sunny. People are out, but not too many. It’s easy to keep our distance. We stop and climb down on some rocks on the water. There’s not a good way across, so we get back on our bikes.
These are not normal times. But it was a very normal Saturday. It feels like we are figuring out a way to do this. We’re like everyone else: All of us, together, are trying to do the right thing.
SONG: “Doctor Worm” by They Might Be Giants