Journal of Our Plague Year: Coronavirus Chronicles, Part 34

It’s been a year now. It was kind of hard for me to pinpoint the date on which I’d say the covid era started for us as a family. Was it the Friday in early March when Noah came home for spring break, a stay we thought would last a week, but which has stretched out to over a year (and will last five months more, assuming he goes back in August)? Or was the first inkling five days later, when Ithaca announced it was extending spring break for a week and then conducting classes online for two weeks after that? Or was it North’s last day of in-person classes at their middle school a couple days later? They remember telling their friends, as they all cleaned out their lockers that Friday in mid-March, that they might not be coming back to the building ever and no one believed them. But they were right. (They were virtually promoted from eighth grade in June.)

I think the real beginning for us was the first weekday with the four of all at home together in what’s been our normal configuration ever since then. That was Monday, March 16. This was the day I chose to count from when I was doing my quarantine reports at forty, eighty, and one hundred sixty days, so it seemed the best choice for an anniversary. (I actually meant to do a three hundred and twenty-day report, but I forgot, so here we are with a year-in-review post instead.)

Here’s what I had to say about covid just before our year at home started. 

How has our year been? We’ve been very fortunate. Beth and I have been able to work from home, we haven’t lost any income, and the kids have been able to take their classes online. None of us got the virus. North has faced a lot of health challenges, however, starting in July and these are not completely resolved, but they are much, much better. North experimented a lot in the kitchen, learning to make Mushroom Wellington and many new kinds of desserts. (My favorite was the toffee.) Noah developed a new hobby (drone photography) that’s been a lot of fun for him. We took five road trips, all of them just moving our pod of four from one place to another, not visiting anyone. We haven’t seen anyone from our extended families since 2019, and we miss them dearly.

I coped by reading a lot of books about pandemics, mostly about bubonic plague, but one about polio. I started with Albert Camus’ The Plague in the spring, moved on to Philip Roth’s Nemesis in the summer, read Geraldine Brook’s Year of Wonders this winter and I’m currently reading Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year. I have a couple more on my list, though I imagine I’ll stop or at least give it a break if covid’s done before I am.

Meanwhile, here’s our covid year in review:

March: Our second weekday all at home together, Ithaca announced it was going online for the rest of the semester. A week later North turned fourteen and the Billie Eilish concert that was supposed to be their main present was cancelled so we had a virtual concert at home, with videos, glow sticks, and a concession stand. North had a slow motion birthday party, with guests coming one at a time for a visit on the porch and a slice of cake. The Tidal Basin was closed to visitors when the cherry blossoms bloomed, so we saw them at the more spacious National Arboretum instead. Near the end of the month, I got my first refund for summer camp, the first of several. It felt like a harbinger of things to come and it certainly was.

April: We started wearing homemade cloth masks that first North and then Beth made. I took a lot of pictures of flowers on my daily walk and came up with names for neighbors I don’t know (e.g. Red and Blue Plaid Pajama Bottoms Man). We made masks for our Easter eggs. We started playing a lot of games. At first it was mostly Cards Against Humanity, by summer it was Clue, and eventually Beth, Noah, and I established a running date to play Settlers of Cataan. (It started off every other week, but now it’s about once a month.)

May: We made a May Pole and danced around it. Noah turned nineteen and got a drone. Over the spring and early summer we took to visiting parks in Maryland so he could fly it. We went almost every weekend at first and continued less frequently through fall and early winter. (I think his last flight was in January, but I expect we’ll go more frequently again when the weather warms up and his semester ends.) Our school district announced the rest of the year would be virtual. I turned fifty-three. North organized a one-day pop-up café in our house. The adults served the kids at lunch and the kids served the adults at dinner. There was a car accident in front of our house and a car crashed through our fence. George Floyd was murdered by police, leading to nationwide protests that lasted throughout the summer.

June: North was promoted from middle school and shaved their head to mark the occasion. They organized a Pride-themed family scavenger hunt. (We had to find little pieces of paper in all the colors of the rainbow.) We went to two Black Lives Matter protests. I thought we’d go to more, but events overtook us in July. The death toll for covid reached 100,000.

July: Our cat Matthew died, after developing circulatory problems that paralyzed his back legs. North attended a two-week outdoor drama camp (their only camp that didn’t cancel) and played Frederick and one of the Major’s daughters in a revue of songs and scenes from Pirates of Penzance. We drove to Ithaca to collect Noah’s belongings in the middle of the month. We visited a lot of waterfalls and lakes. While we were swimming in one of these lakes, in a freaky echo of what happened to Matthew, North lost control of their legs. We drove back to Maryland and they were admitted to Children’s National Medical Center, in what would be their first of three hospitalizations between July and September. Shortly after the first one, we left for Rehoboth and spent a week figuring out how to navigate the beach, boardwalk, and (a nearly empty) Funland in a wheelchair, and how to get a partly-paralyzed kid into the surf in an inflatable ring. By the end of the month, North had learned to stand with support in physical therapy.

August: I had a friend over for a backyard visit for the first time during covid times, and served iced tea made with mint from my herb garden. Once I did it I realized how much I’d needed it and I had another friend over soon after. North learned to stand unsupported and to walk with a walker. This was encouraging, but around this same time, they started having frequent seizures, dozens in a day. We ended up in the ER when they had one that lasted an hour and a half. North was admitted to the hospital for a second time for an overnight EEG, which determined their seizures were non-epileptic in nature. They were diagnosed with Functional Neurological Disorder, which means their symptoms have no organic cause but are a somatization of stress. Shortly before the fall semester was supposed to start, Ithaca announced it would stay online until the spring.

September: Both kids resumed school online. North’s first week of school was interrupted with a new medical problem, the inability to urinate without a catheter, and they were hospitalized again. They had several MRIs to determine if anything was impinging on their urethra, but they seized during the first two and they needed to have a sedated one. By the end of the month, North’s walking had returned to almost normal. They had several friends over at the same time for a backyard/front porch half-birthday party.  Ruth Bader Ginsburg died and we were heartbroken. We finally got the fence (where the car crashed through it) fixed and then the kids and I painted it. The death toll for covid reached 200,000.

October: North had a final MRI, of their brain, as a precaution to rule out any possible physical cause for their continuing neurological symptoms. As expected, there was none. We got the columns, steps, and floor of our porch painted pale green. Noah helped a local filmmaker shoot and edit a short movie called Hugo Cabret’s Big Fix and when we went to the outdoor showing we got to hear the filmmaker, director, and actors gush about his skills and work ethic. There was no Halloween parade or costume contest, but we put out candy for trick-or-treaters on a table in front of the house and North was able to navigate Zoë’s neighborhood with a walker and the two of them were able to find enough candy from neighbors who’d also put out offerings.

November: North spontaneously regained the ability to urinate on their own and developed some verbal and facial tics. Joe Biden won the Presidential election and we rejoiced. Ithaca announced it would re-open for the spring semester, but Noah opted to spend it at home because three of the four classes he wanted to take were online, the cafeterias were operating on a grab-n-go basis, and his best friend wasn’t going back. His decision made sense, but it also made me sad he’s lost so much of his college experience to this virus. North stopped shaving their head, but decided to start wearing their hair covered when in public as part of their observation of modest paganism (so you can’t see that after four and a half months, it’s grown long enough to curl a little). We spent Thanksgiving week in Rehoboth and celebrated Beth’s fifty-fourth birthday there. There was no holiday sing-along, but I spent a lot of time on the beach and Noah used his drone to take the holiday card photo from the air

December: I wrote my one thousandth voter turnout postcard since September 2018. The last batch was for the Senate runoffs in Georgia. We made gingerbread, pizzelles, and buckeyes and delivered some of them to friends’ houses and served some to friends who came to visit on the porch. We spent Christmas at Blackwater Falls State Park, where we enjoyed many walks in the woods. The death toll for covid reached 300,000.

January: Noah took a winter term class in Philosophy and Cinema. It was fun watching some of the movies with him. The Democrats flipped the Senate and there was an attempted coup in which rioters tried to prevent Congress from certifying the results of the Presidential election. A week later, the President was impeached for a second time, for inciting the riot. We spent MLK weekend in Ocean City, where we walked on the beach and boardwalk and went to Assateague to see the wild ponies. Joe Biden was inaugurated and we rejoiced. The death toll for covid reached 400,000.

February: Sadly but predictably, the ex-President was not convicted. We got each other record amounts of chocolate for Valentine’s Day. Our school district announced plans for a slow reopening, with different groups of students returning from early March to mid or late April, (depending on how well the early phases go). Ninth graders are near the end of the line, so if all goes as planned and we decide to send them, North should be back in school (four days out of every ten) by mid-April. The death toll for covid reached 500,000, but vaccinations started to pick up speed. We decided to gamble on renting a beach house that can sleep ten for a week in mid-July. We hope to see both our mothers, my sister, brother-in-law, and niece there. We might even meet my mother’s boyfriend.

March: A year later, we are still all in the house together every day. It’s not a big house and sometimes it feels cramped and crowded, but sometimes it feels cozy. Over the past year, we’ve played a lot of games, watched a lot of movies and television, and baked a lot in this house. It’s been a safe harbor. There are reasons for hope, both for our family and the country. North’s physical symptoms are much better. Their seizures are infrequent now. It’s been over three weeks since I’ve seen one. They still have the tics and chronic pain, so they use forearm crutches when they leave the house, but they’ve recently started exercising daily on our stationary bike. We don’t know how much longer the pandemic will last. 533,463 Americans have died of covid, but 109,081,860 doses of the vaccine have been administered. There’s real leadership in the White House. The end isn’t right around the corner, but it’s imaginable now.

How was your year?

By the Numbers: Coronavirus Chronicles, Part 31

So…. there’s certainly been a lot going on, but as you can probably get all the political analysis you need elsewhere, I’ll stick to our domestic goings-on for the most part. In between the shocking assault on the Capitol and the inauguration, we had a small celebration and a weekend getaway.

Anniversary: 01-11-21

On the second Monday of January, North looked up from their computer screen and asked me why I was so dressed up. For the record, I was wearing a white button-down shirt and tan corduroys. That’s what passes for dressed up around here. “It’s a special day,” I said, and gestured for them to turn their attention back to their English class.

Around lunchtime, they asked again. Apparently, my first answer wasn’t good enough. It was Beth’s and my winter anniversary, the double one, twenty-nine years since our commitment ceremony and eight years since our legal marriage. I didn’t notice this until after the fact, but the date, 01-11-21, makes a pleasing pattern.

But as North pointed out, we weren’t going anywhere. Beth and I would be working in separate rooms and she “would barely see” me.

Anniversaries during covid are tricky, or they have been for us. This was our second one as we celebrate our dating anniversary in July. (Not wanting to have three anniversaries was part of the reason we got married on an existing one.) During that last one, North was hospitalized (the first hospitalization of three last summer) and we basically skipped it, exchanging gifts well after the fact. All we had planned for this one was cake—I make the spice cake we had at our commitment ceremony every year—and presents, but at least these would be exchanged on the actual day.

I made sautéed Brussels sprouts and white beans for dinner because these are two of Beth’s favorite foods. North helped me with the cake frosting and in between dinner and cake, we opened gifts. I got Beth a mortar and pestle because she’d recently said the one we had is too shallow and she got me Red Hot and Blue, an album we used to have that wasn’t available until recently on Apple Music. It’s a thirty-year old collection of Cole Porter remakes that was an AIDS benefit. I’d been missing Annie Lennox’s version of “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” for years. I played part of the album while I did the dishes, and then we all played a text adventure. Normally, we’d go to dinner or a movie (or both) to celebrate our anniversary, but as we got married in our living room, maybe that was an appropriate place to end the day, with everyone who was there (minus the officiant).

Ocean City

Friday: 21842

Four days later we were on the road and the reason was indirectly related to North’s aforementioned health troubles. In August, my friend Megan offered us a three-day, off-season stay in an oceanfront condo in Ocean City she’d won at a school fundraising auction. She said we deserved a get-away after all we’d been through last summer—North’s paralysis and seizures, the car that crashed through our fence, our cat’s death. Beth was a little reluctant to accept such an extravagant gift, but she said it was up to me, and my answer to Megan was “Hell yeah!”

Speaking of North’s health, I haven’t done an update in a while, so here’s the current situation in a nutshell: They’ve been able to walk normally for a few months, but have pain that was recently diagnosed as fibromyalgia, so on longer walks they sometimes use crutches or the walker. They are trying to exercise every day for a half hour. The urinary issues have been cleared up since early November. They still have non-epileptic seizures, sometimes several a day, but often none for several days in a row. Overall, they seem to be getting less frequent. For the past couple months, they’ve also had some verbal tics, in which they involuntarily say things like “woo hoo” “hello there,” or “good morning.”

So, back to the beach. We arrived at the condo a little after six and after we’d explored it, admiring the stunning ocean views in the upstairs bedroom and the living room and bay views in the kids’ bedroom, Beth went out to get some groceries and pick up pizza for dinner. While we were trying to figure out if we in a delivery area for Grotto we needed the zip code and had to look it up. Only later did we notice Ocean City’s zip code—21842—was on a piece of art on the kitchen wall. I found this amusing.

I unpacked food and distributed linens while Beth was procuring more food. After we ate, I sat on the balcony, nineteen stories up in the air, and watched the waves crash on the shore for a half hour until I got chilled and had to come in and watch the ocean from my bedroom window instead. While I was doing this, Beth and North watched The Fosters.

Saturday: 99th to 119th & Inlet to 3rd 

The next morning all I had to do was reach out and part the drapes to see the ocean. I didn’t even need to get out of bed. I did eventually, though, and ate breakfast and went down to the beach for an almost two-hour walk. It had been foggy when I first woke up, but eventually the sun broke through the clouds. When it hit the sea foam on the sand it turned it opalescent with pinks, purples, and greens. I watched a seagull hunt and eat a fish, or part of a fish, as it set it down too close to the water and its meal was swept away before it could finish. I actually saw this exact same thing happen twice. It made me wonder why they don’t take their prey to the dunes the way I often see osprey do.

Ocean City is a lot different than Rehoboth, architecturally speaking. It’s high rise after high rise, with the occasional smaller building tucked between or in front of the mammoth ones. When I set out on my walk, I studied our building, so I wouldn’t miss it on my way back, but this turned out to be an overabundance of caution, because 1) there are regular signs that tell you what intersection you’re at, and 2) the buildings are more different than I thought, both in height (ours at twenty-five stories was one of the taller ones), color, and materials, but also shape. Most are rectangular, but one was in a horseshoe shape and a couple were wedge-shaped, to allow for units with side views. At one point while I was looking at the buildings and comparing them, I did something I would have told the kids never to do, at least not in January. I turned my back on the ocean while quite close to it and got soaked almost to my knees. I considered going home at that point, but it wasn’t that cold—mid-forties and sunny—so I kept going.

I discovered a path that ran for a long stretch parallel to the ocean, between the dunes and the high rises, with regular intersecting paths for beach access. I found a snack bar and public restrooms (both closed) and various playgrounds and empty swimming pools, most of which wasn’t visible from the beach. It was like a little secret world and I was pleased to discover it. At one point the path rose slightly and you could see over the dunes. I noticed a surfer in a wetsuit, so I stayed and watched him ride the waves for a while. By this point I’d come twenty (very short) blocks, from 99th street to 119th, so I turned back.

At home I changed into dry pants and socks and left my wet things on the balcony and had an early lunch since my walk had left me hungry.

In the afternoon, Beth, North, and I went to the boardwalk. Noah had a paper to write for his film and philosophy winter term course, so he stayed at the condo. We weren’t sure what, if anything, would be open, as we’ve only been to Ocean City twice before, both times in the spring. The answer was, surprisingly, a lot of indoor entertainment (arcades, Ripley’s Believe it or Not Odditorium, and the mirror maze), but not much food. I would have guessed the other way around since many of the stalls are open air and seem safer. Anyway, we didn’t go into any arcades or Ripley’s, though North said wistfully they would like to go back there someday.

Thrasher’s was one of the few food vendors open and I could have gone for some hot, vinegary fries, as I’d put my still-damp shoes back on and I was feeling chilly. Also, we didn’t get fries on the boardwalk when we were at the beach over Thanksgiving and it felt like a missed opportunity. But I have never seen such a long line for Thrasher’s, maybe half a city block long, and I didn’t want fries that badly. We did find a funnel cake place and North got one.  There was an open Candy Kitchen, too, and I popped in to get some treats for everyone, after waiting in line outside because only ten customers could be inside at once. Beth was hoping to find ice cream and for some reason (it was a cool, cloudy afternoon in January perhaps?) no ice cream stalls were open, so we stopped on the way home at an ice cream place on the highway and she got a sundae. There were at least two signs near the window where you order that said “No profanity” which made us wonder what had happened to make that necessary. Beth joked about ordering “fucking coffee ice cream with god-dammed Oreos.” 

The whole time we were on the boardwalk, I kept remembering the time the kids got lost there, when they were six and almost eleven. Everything reminded me of it—the benches where we sat and ate ice cream right beforehand, all the sunken restaurant patios where I looked for them in a blind panic. This was a less eventful visit and I did not mind that one bit.

At home, Noah continued to write his paper and North did a little homework and drew Harry Potter characters with a drawing program they like while Beth read The New Yorker and I read The Winter Soldier, which my book club is discussing tomorrow. It takes place in WWI field hospital and does a good job of making you really glad you never worked in a WWI field hospital.  We ordered Italian takeout for dinner and then Noah and I finished I, Robot and after that Beth, North, and I watched an episode of The Gilmore Girls.

Sunday: 99th to 79th & 40 Feet 

It was clearer when the sun rose the next day and the light that came through the gap at the top of the curtains threw a vivid orange triangle on the wall, near the ceiling and filled the room with a rosy glow. I pushed the fabric aside and saw orange-red ball that seemed to rise out of the water.  Beth and I were both awake by seven-thirty but we lazed in bed for a while before we got up. I made myself a hearty breakfast—a broccoli and Monterrey Jack omelet, veggie bacon, grapefruit, and orange juice. Fortified, I went for another long walk on the beach.

Since I’d gone twenty blocks north the day before, I decided to go twenty blocks south this time, down to 79th Street. Noah said he was going to follow me with the drone and I wasn’t sure if he was joking or not, but I didn’t see it. Later he told me by the time he got it set up it was too windy to fly it as far away as I’d gotten.

On my walk I saw a building that looked like a Mayan pyramid and one that looked like a spaceship, also a Little Free Library at a dune crossing, which is about the most delightful location for a Little Free Library I have ever seen. In the last five blocks or so of my walk the high rises petered out and there were more two and three-story buildings. Coming back, I found a beach chair someone had left around 84th Street and sat in it for ten minutes or so, watching the ocean.

Back at the house, Noah and I read the first seven chapters of Trail of Lightning, a story about a Navajo monster hunter operating in a post-apocalyptic landscape. (Psst, Allison, I think this might be up your alley.) Beth made a Chipotle run because North wanted a burrito, but everyone else ate leftovers or other food we had in the condo. 

A little before two, we left for Assateauge Island National Seashore in search of the famed wild horses and some pretty trails to hike. We’ve been to this park twice before (the last time on the same trip when the kids got lost on the Ocean City boardwalk) so I was confident we’d find both. There were plenty of signs forbidding feeding the horses or getting closer than forty feet to them, but we saw people doing both. Some people were throwing apples out their car windows and we saw a half-eaten pumpkin and some stubs of carrots left along one of the trails.

We hiked the marsh, forest, and dune trails. North only felt up to one and chose the forest trail, waiting for us in the car while we were on the other trails. They chose wisely as it was the only trail where we saw a horse. Or more likely, they just got lucky because based on the presence of horse poop, the horses roam all three trails, and the roads, and the parking lots and pretty much everywhere in the park. The horse in question was reddish-brown with a shaggy coat and a flaxen mane. It was grazing in a marshy area just outside the forest.

Even though we didn’t see horses on the other trails, we saw some very lovely landscapes. As we drove across the narrow bridge off the island, looking at the late afternoon light on the water, I felt a little drunk with the beauty of the world.

We picked up Starbucks on the drive home. At the condo, North worked on Japanese, and then we watched Locke and Key, while Beth made Pad Thai for dinner. This was the first installment in what qualifies for me as tv/movie bingeing. After dinner, Beth, Noah, and I watched Predestination, which he needed to watch for class. The professor is on a time-travel movie kick. They’re also studying The Time Traveler’s Wife, Back to the Future, and Time Crimes. It’s enough to make me wonder if she wrote her dissertation on time travel films. Anyway, have you seen Predestination? It’s something else and I can’t explain why without major spoilers. We rounded out the evening with an episode of Buffy because it’s our Sunday show and Noah didn’t want to skip a week.

Monday: Countless Gulls & 21 Waves 

The next morning when I pulled aside the curtain to peek at the sunrise, there was a band of dark clouds on the horizon, but you could see where the rising sun was because threads of reddish orange light leaked through cracks in the clouds. It looked like molten lava under black rock.

Usually on the morning we leave a beach house, it’s all hustle bustle, but we had no set checkout time, so we were more relaxed. After breakfast, Noah flew his drone off the balcony again and then we read a chapter of our monster-hunter book. We packed up everything but the kitchen, since we’d be eating lunch at the condo, and then Noah and I took a walk through a bayside neighborhood intersected with canals. There was no beach access except through private property, but we were able to get pretty close to the water and we saw an egret in a marshy area. There was a huge flock of seagulls floating on the water and we could hear their cries, even from far away. As we were walking back the sound changed to a loud rustling. We both turned around to see the whole flock rising into the air. Noah was quick with his camera and got a shot of them.

We ate lunch and finished packing up and moving out. (North was quite taken with the building’s garbage chute.) We drove to the boardwalk and found the line for Thrasher’s much shorter so I got in it, while Beth went to get funnel cake and some dark chocolate almond bark, and we sat on a bench and ate our treats. Beth walked on the boardwalk and along the edge of the closed-for-the-season amusement park while North and I went down to the water. We’d had a long discussion about whether the kids should put their feet in the water, per the Lovelady-Allen Goodbye-to-the-Ocean ritual, because none of us was sure whether this was just a Rehoboth tradition or if it applied to other beaches. I think we might have come to a different conclusion if it wasn’t January and if had been able to locate my rainboots before this trip, but North and I decided we’d stand at the shore and count twenty-one waves without actually standing in them, and I put my hand in the water for the first and last one, thinking more than that would pretty much guarantee I’d soak the shoes that had just dried out.

Around three o’clock, we left the boardwalk and drove home. We crossed the Bay Bridge around 5:25, just as the sunset was starting to fade. I felt very content. But there was more happiness just two days later, because of course, the number that has most of our attention now is forty-six.

Inauguration: 46

Beth, North, and I watched the inauguration together. North had an early dismissal and was finished with classes around 11:25, but Noah’s 11:30 class went on as scheduled, so he had to miss it. We turned on the television during Amy Klobuchar’s speech and we watched the rest of the ceremony: Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, and Garth Brooks singing the national anthem, “This Land is My Land,” and “Amazing Grace” and the startling youthful and talented Amanda Gorman reciting “The Hill We Climb.” We spotted many former Presidents in the audience. We watched Justice Sotomayor swear in Vice President Kamala Harris and Chief Justice Roberts swear in President Joe Biden.

Let’s just pause and take in those last three words—President Joe Biden. It was an unusual inauguration, even more heavily guarded than usual, sparsely attended as these things go, with the audience all masked and on the lawn at least, seated in distanced clumps. The parade was tiny. There will be no inaugural balls tonight. But in the end, the pomp of an inauguration isn’t the point, it’s the peaceful transfer of power from one President to another. And after January 6, I was not taking the peaceful part for granted.

In other ways, it was a completely normal inauguration. In his address, our new President sounded hopeful and determined, coherent and rational. He sounded like a President. That’s something we haven’t heard in a long time. I was more than ready for it.

Tonight Beth and I watched the inaugural concert on the mall on television, eating chocolate-peanut butter ice cream because we read somewhere that’s Biden’s favorite flavor. At the very end, when Katy Perry sang “Firework,” we could actually hear the fireworks that were going off behind the Washington Monument. The broadcast must have been on a delay because we heard them start before they did on tv. It reminded me that on January 6, we could hear the helicopters heading for the Capitol. That’s the distance we’ve travelled in two weeks.

 

Go Beach: Coronavirus Chronicles, Part 27

Saturday

When we passed the statue of Jesus with his arms raised at the intersection of Piney Branch and New Hampshire Avenues, I said softly to Beth, “Go beach.” We pass that statue just five or ten minutes in the trip to the beach and North always said that when they were little and we’d drive by it, even though most of the times we passed it we were not in fact headed for the beach but on some more mundane errand.

It had been stressful for Beth getting out of the house, figuring out how to fit everything we’d need for a week in the car around the wheelchair, walker, and shower chair. She wasn’t in the best mood, but she gave me a little smile anyway.

But as the kids disappeared into their headphones, she and I listened to a playlist of 60s hits from a podcast she listens to and by the time we got to the Taco Bell and Dairy Queen just past the Bay Bridge around 2:15, she seemed more cheerful. We got a late lunch from the drive-through windows and ate it at the picnic tables outside the DQ. This is our new pandemic beach drive tradition. I guess it’s a tradition, as we’ve done it twice now and as a family we form traditions easily. Noah and I got pumpkin pie-flavored confections because this was a Thanksgiving trip. (Though the kids both had classes through Tuesday and Beth and I were going to work, too, so it was going to be something of a busman’s holiday.)

We rolled into Rehoboth about 4:45, picked up the keys for the house in a box outside the realty, and drove to the house. It’s the same one where we stayed in July, so the wood-paneled walls and soaring ceiling in the dining room were a familiar and welcome sight. I knew just where the hook was to hang my mask when I walked in the front door.

After we’d unpacked, North and I walked down to the beach for a quick hello. I stood briefly with the toes of my rain boots in the foamy water, but stepped back so I wouldn’t end up with soaked feet, as they were ankle boots. It was cloudy but we could still see a lot of stars and something golden in the sky that might have been a planet.

Beth went out to pick up some groceries for breakfast and Grandpa Mac’s for dinner. I got the mac-n-cheese with broccoli, celery, and mushrooms mixed in; I never get anything else, though I vary the vegetables. We watched the middle third of The Castle of Cagliostro, an anime film we’d started the night before at home.

Sunday

The next morning we ate breakfast and menu planned for the week so Beth could go on the main grocery shopping trip of the week. She wanted to try out their curbside delivery system but after she’d filled out the form it said there were no pickup slots available, so that was disappointing. Before she left to go shopping, she went for a walk on the boardwalk.

North and I took also took a walk around the same time. It was a nice day, mild and sunny. North wore a sweater and I was wearing jeans and a wool shirt; neither of us needed a jacket. It’s a short walk from our house to the beach, only a block, but I was still encouraged they’d made it down there twice without any mobility device because they’ve had some setbacks with pain recently, which is why we had to bring the wheelchair and the walker. Beth’s making an appointment at the pain clinic soon. I have a feeling a new round of physical therapy may be in their future.

When North was ready to go back to the house, I walked them there and then turned back to the beach because I wanted a longer walk. I spent almost two hours rambling down the beach and boardwalk and then sitting on the sand with my back resting against the fence the divides the beach from the beach grass. It wasn’t too crowded and virtually everyone on the boardwalk was wearing a mask—it’s required there. On the beach, where it’s not, it was more like half and half.

I was particularly charmed by two little girls who winter hats on but were barefoot and barelegged up to the knees, wearing matching flowered capris. They were running up to the water, getting their feet wet, running back to the sand and jumping in a big puddle the tide left there. Their joy (and constant movement) reminded me of my own kids when they were small and on the beach and made me a bit nostalgic for those days.

I went back to the house to eat lunch and read three chapters of The Fated Sky and watch a couple episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale with Noah. By 4:15, I was ready to hit the beach again and North wanted to come, too. This time we took the walker and went further down the boardwalk. And again, when they wanted to go home, I walked them home and went right back. I was out until well after dark, sitting on a bench on a stretch of boardwalk where the dry grass was short enough to see over and watching the white tops of the waves shining in the glow the streetlights cast on the beach.

Beth made chili and cornbread for dinner, then we finally finished The Castle of Cagliostro. My favorite thing about it was the setting of the castle, which is very well realized. Then we watched a couple episodes of Blackish. We’re at the end of season 3, just about up to the part where Zoey goes to college.

And speaking of college, the day before we left for the beach, Noah had to decide whether to go back to Ithaca in the spring. Three of the four classes he registered for are meeting entirely online, the cafeterias are going to operate on a grab-and-go basis, and his best friend is not going to be on campus, so he decided to stay home. One thing that made the decision hard was the one in-person class was Cinema Production II, which can be hard to get into and which is important for his course of study. Still, it didn’t seem worth a semester of taking classes and eating meals mostly in his dorm room when he could be taking classes from his room at home, where the food’s better and he’d at least have his family to keep him company.

I’m really sad for him, not being on campus for a quarter of his first year of college and the whole second year. I just hope with two (or is it three now?) new vaccines on the horizon and the promise of real leadership at the federal level, he’ll be able to go back for his junior year next fall. He’s already decided if he goes abroad it will be in his senior year so he can have a whole, uninterrupted year on campus. And I hope he gets into CP II again, so he can get more use out of the film studios that drew him to Ithaca in the first place.

Birthday

Monday was Beth’s birthday and it was such a complicated day we needed to write down the schedule. Everyone had work or school, but in addition, North wanted to go out for bagels for breakfast, I had to pick up the birthday cake I’d ordered for Beth’s birthday from the bakery, we were going to get takeout Italian for lunch and have a picnic, plus go to Starbucks for Beth’s birthday reward. In the afternoon, we had a virtual teacher-parent conference with North’s new English teacher (the original one quit early in the school year and they had a medium-term sub until a long-term sub was hired). After that, we were going to do a Christmas card photo shoot on the beach. Finally, I was making breaded tofu sticks and applesauce for dinner, which Beth had requested for her birthday dinner, followed by cake and presents.

So the day went more or less like that, with some minor variations. North and I left the house for the bagel place at eight, shortly after I rolled out of bed, so they could be home by nine for their English class. But it turns out it’s only open Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays during the off season, so we came home without bagels. I can’t say I minded much as a morning walk on the boardwalk is never amiss and I was just as happy to eat cranberry granola at home.

I worked on a technical sales sheet for a blood pressure supplement on the screened porch in the morning and then Beth drove me to the bakery to get her cake—a chocolate cake with cookies-and-cream frosting and mini Oreos on top. I might have gone to get it in a sneakier fashion, but while we were still in Takoma the bakery returned my call and she’d picked up the phone, so there wasn’t much point in secrecy after that. Soon after Beth and Noah went to pick up the Italian takeout, which took longer than we expected to be ready so there wasn’t time for a picnic before our parent-teacher conference. We’d requested one because the teacher was new and we wanted to explain more about the accommodations in North’s 504 plan. He seemed very nice and was impressively fluent with North’s pronouns.

After that, Beth and North walked to Starbucks and brought home treats for everyone. I got a latte and a doughnut. I worked some more and then took a walk on the beach and Noah and I read a little before I started cooking dinner. (We didn’t do our Christmas card photo shoot that afternoon because Noah wanted to use his drone to take some of the pictures and it was windy.)

After we’d eaten dinner, we had cake and ice cream and Beth opened her presents. I got her a pair of pajama bottoms with Peanuts characters on them, Noah got her a bottle of fancy olive oil, and North got her some French drinking chocolate. She seemed pleased with the cake and presents. She just turned fifty-four, so I’m hoping her fifty-fifth year will be better than this past one (on many fronts). I’m feeling optimistic that it will be.

The birthday girl chose the evening’s entertainment, so we watched The Animaniacs before splitting up to watch The Handmaid’s Tale (Noah and me) and The Crown (Beth). Beth and North also took a walk down to the beach to look at the stars in a clearer sky than when North and I took our night walk.

Tuesday

Beth, North, and I went on another breakfast expedition at eight, this time to Café a-Go-Go, where we got takeout coffee, hot chocolate, and pastries and had a nice walk on the boardwalk. It was well past sunrise when we set out, but the light still looked new and golden and where it touched the swelling waves it turned them a translucent green.

We ate at home, supplementing our sweets with eggs, yogurt, and banana. I settled into my corner-of-the-porch office again to work. North’s last class for the week was over around eleven and Noah’s just before three, which was around the time I finished the sales sheet. The kids still had homework, but I was finished with work for the week, and happy about it.

It was less windy, so once North woke from an afternoon nap, we headed down to the beach and Beth and Noah took turns taking pictures of us in pairs or all together (using the drone for the group shots). It was a sunny day and the sea was a brilliant blue. I’d told the kids to pack red or green clothes but I hadn’t said anything to Beth because often the photos on the card are just the kids. When I decided it would be nice to have all of us, I was pleased that I happened to have a red flannel shirt and Beth had a green sweater, so we made a festive mix. We did some photos with masks because I thought it said something about the past year, but in the end we decided not to use any of those. After we were finished, Noah and I strolled up the boardwalk to Funland so he could fly the drone over it because North wanted to know what it looked like in the off season.

North made Mushroom Wellington for dinner, which other than Thanksgiving, was the fanciest dinner we had all week. After dinner we looked at the drone footage and noted with interest which rides at Funland have been stored off the premises and which are still there but partly disassembled. The drone is really the gift that keeps on giving. Beth made a fire and we roasted marshmallows for S’mores and watched the last episode of season 3 of Blackish, the one in which DeVante is born. Sorry for the spoiler if you, like us, are three and a half years behind in this show.

Wednesday

Wednesday was a little less busy than the last two days. We ordered takeout from Egg for breakfast (I got pumpkin praline French toast) and Japanese for lunch (I got seaweed salad and udon noodles with vegetables and tofu). While we were still at home and planning the trip, Beth and I decided we’d only get takeout for dinner two nights and cook all the other nights, but we failed to specify how many times we’d get takeout for breakfast and lunch and once we were there everyone had favorites they wanted to have, so we ended up getting takeout more days than not and sometimes twice in a day. It might have been because we weren’t going to do a lot of the things we often do on this trip, like going to the holiday sing-along or shopping in the downtown stores on Black Friday, so this was something we could do.

In between breakfast and lunch, Noah and I read a couple chapters of our book, and after lunch and a conference call Beth had to attend, we made a foray into downtown Rehoboth. Beth, Noah, and I got pumpkin-cinnamon frozen custard at Kohr’s stand and North got ice cream on a some kind of European pancake-like confection. We made stops at several stores we decided we would visit: 1) Candy Kitchen where I went in alone with a list of what everyone wanted, 2) the bookstore, where Noah and I had placed orders for Christmas gifts online ahead of time and picked them up at the counter, and 3) a store or maybe two North wanted to visit and could not identify because it was to get something for me, but Beth approved and accompanied them.

I was in and out of the bookstore pretty quickly, but I was there long enough to see the store had gone all in for its native son President-elect. As I stood at the counter which also had a big display of President Obama’s new book and some RBG merchandise, I heard one harried sounding staff member tell another she had to go to the “Biden table” to see if they had sold out of “I’m a Biden Girl” hats. I also spied Biden earrings (in case you wanted his face dangling from your earlobes) and—I swear I am not making this up—Joe Biden scented candles. I was trying not to touch things I wasn’t buying so I didn’t find out what it smelled like, but the label said it was “just like that weird dream you had.” Later I read this article in the Post about how Rehoboth, where Biden has a vacation house, has gone kind of Biden-crazy and I learned the candle smells like orange Gatorade, which I’m guessing is a favorite of his. Anyway, if you’re fond of Rehoboth or Biden, the article is worth a read. It was fun to hear the owners of so many businesses we frequent (Browseabout, Egg, the soap store) talk about him.

Noah and I headed back to the house, laden with candy and books, and he did some homework while I puttered about for a while, attending to the three loads of laundry I had going, and just before dark headed down to the beach to watch the sunset. It was a cloudy afternoon and when I got there the sky was white and light gray, gradually darkening to slate with a smudge of pink at the horizon. I sat on the sand for about a half hour and then walked a little on the boardwalk, watching the moon’s bright edge occasionally slip out from behind the clouds and then slide back.

Noah made pasta for dinner and afterward he needed to work on an assignment for his audio production class that was due that evening, so Beth and North watched The Fosters while I curled up on the couch with a comforter and some escapist fiction. I’ve been reading this rather long book for two months and I’m only about two-thirds of the way through it so maybe I will still be reading it at Christmas.

Thanksgiving

North made pumpkin cinnamon rolls with maple-cream cheese frosting for breakfast, which we ate with veggie sausage. The morning and early afternoon were rainy and Noah was taking a day off from homework, so we spent a few hours reading our book and watching The Handmaid’s Tale. We are close to the end of the third season and if you’ve seen it you know some episodes are almost unbearably suspenseful. When we finish it’s going to be hard to wait for the new season, which doesn’t even have a release date yet, though it’s supposed to be sometime next year, maybe spring.

I went down to the beach to sit and watch the ocean for a bit before it was time to cook. In the space of about forty-five minutes, I saw a family, and then a lone woman get into the ocean and swim (albeit briefly). It was a very warm day for late November, in the high sixties, but I can’t imagine the water was warm, so that was surprising. On the way back to the house I was noticing all the footprints in the sand—human, canine, and avian—and how the afternoon shadows filled them.

Back at the house, we made our traditional turkey centerpieces out of apples, toothpicks, raisins, dried cranberries, and olives and everyone pitched in to make a feast of tofu roast, gravy, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, cranberry sauce, and rolls. Before we ate we shared our gratitudes and there was a lot of overlap—family, the ocean, and the changing of the political tide.

After dinner, Beth, North, and I took a walk down to the beach. The light reflecting off the undersides of the cresting waves was so bright that at first North thought it was phosphorescent seaweed. Then we came home and watched A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and Mayflower Voyagers.

Black Friday

I knew Black Friday was going to seem strange because we had no plans to shop or to attend Rehoboth’s holiday sing-along and tree lighting. The origin of this traditional off-season beach trip was an annual Christmas-shopping-and-see-Santa-on-the-boardwalk weekend in early to mid-December we used to take when the kids were small. Then, six years ago it became a long weekend over Thanksgiving, so we could have a little longer at the beach, and we’ve come at Thanksgiving every year since then except one. This year’s week-long trip is probably a one-time thing, made possible by the fact that no-one has to go to work or school anymore to do work or school.

But ironically, even though we probably had time to most or all of our shopping, we only did the very little we did on Wednesday.  Instead of shopping on Friday, we took three walks.

In the morning North and I walked to Dave & Skippy’s to get a bagel and an iced tea for them and to Greene Man to get an apple-beet-carrot-ginger juice for me. Or rather, I walked and North wheeled. Over the course of the week, they ended up using the wheelchair for all trips that were more than a few blocks long. We ate and drank on a boardwalk pavilion right next to the tent under which television news reporters had been camped out since Wednesday. Beth suspected they were using the boardwalk as a background for stories about Joe Biden, who was in town for Thanksgiving, though they weren’t broadcasting while we were there.

When we got back, I hung the laundry up on the clothesline behind the house and Noah and I read. Then we had a lunch of Thanksgiving leftovers before Beth, Noah, and I headed out on the second walk of the day, Gordons Pond Trail, which goes through a salt marsh. The trail is just over three miles long. We walked about half of it and then turned back, stopping along the way at an observation platform. We usually see a lot of water birds here, but this time there weren’t any except ducks. Beth pointed out we usually come in the summer. Noah was going to fly his drone over the water, but the airspace was restricted, possibly because Biden’s house is quite close. In fact, we were hoping to drive by it on our way home, but the street was closed off. It made me think with some sympathy that it’s going to be harder for the President-elect to enjoy his favorite places in Rehoboth for the next several years, though I hear that shortly after the election he did manage to take a bike ride on the same trail we’d just hiked.

The combination of a big lunch and a long walk made me sleepy so when we returned to the house, I had a nap and surprised myself by sleeping pretty deeply for almost an hour.  We got pizza delivered for dinner. The night of the holiday sing-along we usually have Grotto pizza and then wander through the restaurant, looking at little Christmas trees local charities decorate and deciding which ones to donate to, but not this year. It’s possible Grotto is open for inside dining and the trees are there. I didn’t check, but we noticed a lot of restaurants in town were serving people inside, though others were outdoor seating or takeout only. (Greene Man had someone taking orders on the porch and passing the food around a plexiglass divider.)

The sing-along was canceled, not that we would have gone if it was taking place. Scroll down to the color photo with the bandstand if you want a look at how crowded it often is. We are probably somewhere in this photo. We were there that year. For our third walk of the day, Beth, North, and I went to visit the lit up tree, sans singing crowds. They were playing recorded music from the Nutcracker in the vicinity of the tree. It was a little sad to be there without people singing or families lining up for a chance to visit Santa’s little house on the boardwalk, which was not there this year, not even the letterbox. The boardwalk lights were not up this year either, maybe to discourage crowds, though Beth and I have noticed the display seems to get smaller every year, so maybe they’re phasing it out by attrition as the lights break down.

Even so I wasn’t too sad to have a pizza dinner, a walk with my wife and youngest on the boardwalk with the moonlight glinting off the waves again, and a pretty tree to admire. One thing 2020 has taught us is how to appreciate what’s at hand, even when it’s not what we usually have. Back at the house, we watched our first Christmas specials of the year, A Charlie Brown Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Saturday

We packed up and left the house in the morning. The kids and I went down to the beach one last time while Beth returned the keys to the realty. They stood barefoot at the waterline and let twenty waves wash over their bare feet, while I stood a little behind them in my rubber boots, trying not to get my socks or jeans’ cuffs wet. The number of waves in this ritual is determined by the final digits of the year. The kids got into a discussion about whether it was the last two or the last three and if in 2100, they will need to stand barefoot in freezing cold water for one hundred waves or none. I pointed out that in 2100, they will be ninety-four and ninety-nine and, maybe, just maybe, it won’t be an issue. “We’ll still be coming to the beach,” North assured me. I guess they really are my kids.

I know if I’m still around when I’m ninety-nine, I will still want to go beach.

Sky Full of Stars: Coronavirus Chronicles, Part 26

Well, that was a wild ride, wasn’t it? I mean a four-day wait to find out who won the Election shouldn’t seem that long when I lived through five tense, stressful, and eventually heartbreaking weeks to see who won the 2000 election. But that was twenty years ago and while the stakes in the Bush/Gore contest seemed high at the time, we had no idea how high they could get.  It’s satisfying that the baby I was pregnant with back then just voted in his first Presidential election and that it was such a momentous one.

I had to think hard about what to serve for dinner on Election night. In 2016, we had tacos—because of the memes about taco trucks on every corner if Clinton won—and I have not eaten a taco since then, much to North’s distress because they really like tacos. (I did consent to make them on their birthday every year since, though I always ate something else.) North advised me not to make anything anyone particularly liked. Then I was listening to a podcast about the history of voting in the U.S. and I learned that George Washington, when he was running for local office in Virginia, used to throw big parties to sway his neighbors to vote for him. This was in the days of voice voting, so he’d know how his guests had voted after he fed them. Anyway, one of his favorite things to serve was barbequed beef and corn pudding. Now I do like barbequed seitan, but I thought since it was a food choice that wasn’t inspired by this particular election, if Biden lost, I wouldn’t have such a strong negative association so I chanced it. And corn pudding is not in my regular rotation, so there was no real risk there.

Dessert was more obvious. Tuesday was Noah’s half-birthday and we always have cupcakes on the kids’ half-birthdays. This year we had a selection of red velvet and cookies and cream cupcakes from the grocery store. We ate them separately because we ended up splitting into two groups on Election night. North and Beth chose not to watch the returns come in and watched The Fosters instead in hopes that it would be less anxiety-inducing. Noah and I watched MSNBC. He started while I was still doing the dishes and when I came into the living room at 7:20, two states had been called: Indiana for Trump and Vermont for Biden. I won’t go through the blow-by-blow because either you watched it or you didn’t, but either way, you know how it went. By eleven (an hour past my normal bedtime), it was clear it wasn’t going to be decided any time soon and probably not that night, so I went to bed, jittery but holding on to hope. Noah stayed up until 12:30. I woke up around the time Noah was going to bed and checked the count on my phone, but when I woke again at four, I resisted the urge. It was better than four years ago when I was waking up every hour, checking my phone and being sick in the bathroom.

In the morning I heard Beth telling North it wasn’t decided yet but she thought Trump might win a second term. I listened, considering the fact that because of her work, Beth knows on a more granular level than I do what the returns in various places mean, but also considering the fact that Beth has a tendency to catastrophize and trying to weigh these two facts about my wife.

Then something completely unexpected and unrelated to the election happened on Wednesday. North spontaneously regained the ability to urinate normally, after two months of only going through a catheter. We have no idea why it happened, but as North said, it was “a good thing about today.” It’s been five days now and so far, so good. We’re all very happy about this.

And then the days dragged on. We went to bed without knowing the outcome again on Wednesday and then again on Thursday. But as time passed, it began to look better and better. When Biden pulled ahead in Pennsylvania on Friday morning, Beth texted me “Ice Cream Time!!!!!!” This was because we’d saved the emergency/celebratory ice cream until we had an answer and she intended to eat some whatever time of day that happened. North had gone to the bathroom during their Japanese class and walked by our bedroom (where Beth works) and Beth called out to them that Biden had won.

North, still wearing their headset and carrying their laptop, came into the living room (where I work), crying and almost unable to speak, but when they did, they said, “He did it! He won!” This time I was the cautious one, saying the chances were very good but it wasn’t for sure yet.  Beth was on the phone a long time but eventually came down to the basement to fetch the ice cream from the chest freezer. I was on the exercise bike down there and we had a long hug.

We thought it might be called later that morning, but it wasn’t. North finished their Japanese class, and attended History and Biology, while Noah attended Computer Science, Ethnomathematics, and Philosophy and did some work for ICTV, and Beth and I worked and still nothing. North had a tempting one-day-only star offer on their Starbucks app and talked Beth into a Starbucks run. Noah was still in class, so he didn’t come, but we picked up an iced tea lemonade and a cake pop for him.  We got takeout pizza for dinner and watched the first half of Emma, after which Noah and I read a chapter and a half of Quichotte. We were close to finishing the book at ten, but I was exhausted and went to bed.

The next morning, while Beth was off for a long walk in Wheaton Regional Park (which has become a Saturday morning habit for her in recent weeks) and Noah and I were watching The Handmaid’s Tale, she texted me again, no words, just her bitmoji blowing a noisemaker, surrounded by confetti. I knew what it meant. The race had been called for Biden.

That afternoon, we went on a family outing. We went to Catoctin Creek Park in Frederick County, which is further from home than we usually go, but it had a couple things to recommend it. There was a paved loop trail, which was convenient because North’s been having more pain the past several days and wanted to use the wheelchair. And it’s near Catoctin Mountain Orchard, which has a farm market with a lot of baked goods. (We visited it once before, on our way home from a Unitarian retreat in Catoctin Mountain Park last fall.)

As we drove, we counted Biden/Harris signs and Trump/Pence signs. Frederick County is more purple than our home county, Montgomery. (It went 55% for Biden, versus 83%.) Eventually we lost track, as we passed back over some of the same roads, but I think it was pretty even. My main observation was that the Biden signs were somewhat more numerous, but tended to be smaller (and Beth added, not in all caps).

We’d gotten a later start than we intended so we could only spend about forty minutes in the park if we wanted to get to the market before it closed, but that was long enough for Noah to fly his drone, for Beth and me to amble down to a peaceful stretch of the creek surrounded by boulders covered with lichen and trees with yellow leaves glowing in the sunlight, and for everyone to draw joyful noise from the percussion instruments along the trail.

At the farm store we got three pies to freeze for Thanksgiving (pumpkin, pecan, and apple), and some treats to eat over the next few days (apple cider doughnuts, apple dumplings, apple caramel bread, and popcorn). We found a picnic table near a covered bridge and drank cider and ate doughnuts. Even though we’ve been exploring parks in the Maryland suburbs and exurbs ever since Noah got his drone, at first weekly, now more like once a month or so, this outing felt different, suffused with deep relief and joy.

We got home around seven, so dinner was on the late side, but no one was starving after those doughnuts. Noah and I made sauteed gnocchi with Brussels sprouts and brown butter. I think it was really good, but who knows? Anything might have tasted good that day. We’d hoped to finish Emma before watching Vice President Elect Kamala Harris and President Elect Joe Biden give their acceptance speeches, but there wasn’t time, and no one really minded. I don’t need to describe the speeches. You watched, right? You saw Harris looking radiantly happy in her white suit, telling people “While I may be the first woman in this office, I won’t be the last,” and you heard Biden sounding coherent and rational and compassionate.

After the speeches, we watched the sky over Wilmington, Delaware light up in red, white, and blue stars. The country is still in the midst of a pandemic that’s killed 237,618 Americans, economic uncertainty, and what I hope will be a true reckoning with systemic racism. There’s a lot of hard work ahead, and I do still have my worries and sorrows for my country, but at least right now, every now and then I feel as lit up as that sky. I hope you do, too.

Also, tomorrow we’re having tacos for dinner, with blue shells.

Once in a Very Blue Moon: Coronavirus Chronicles, Part 25

So in the end I wrote another twenty postcards to Michigan voters and seventeen to Iowa voters (that last number was how many stamps I had left). I mailed the Iowa batch Friday morning. Time’s up for getting things in the mail and I voted a week and a half ago (via drop box), so all I can do now is wait, but Beth is going to phone bank on Monday night.

We’ve been trying to decide what to do on Election night, as watching the returns come in and not watching the returns come in seem equally impossible. Beth bought “emergency ice cream” and when I asked her if that meant we couldn’t eat it if Biden won, she said then it would be “celebratory ice cream.” What I remember about snacking during the night of the 2018 midterms, though, was that I thought I’d overeat Halloween candy but when it came down to it I was too nervous to eat much at all.

Okay. That’s all I’m going to say about the election. The rest is all Halloween. Though we were all sad about the cancelled parade and costume contest, I think we salvaged a half decent holiday.

On Wednesday night I made soup in a pumpkin. The kids aren’t fans of this soup, which consists of evaporated milk, rye bread crumbs, swiss cheese, onion, mustard, and horseradish, served with chunks of the cooked pumpkin, but Beth and I like it so I make it most years around Halloween and feed the kids canned soup.

Around 5:45 Thursday afternoon, I was asking Noah about his evening plans when he remembered we’d all been invited to the outdoor premiere of the movie he’d been helping some local families make and it was going to start at 6:30. The film is based on The Invention of Hugo Cabret. There’s a group of families that traditionally put on a play around Halloween (not always Halloween-themed), but this year they decided to make it a film, so people could watch it remotely. Noah did some of the filming and lot of the editing. The gathering was just for people who were involved in making the film and their families. After some hurried consultation, we decided Beth and I would go and North would watch the film later. The screening took place on the deck of a house. There wasn’t room for people to stand six feet apart, but I managed at least three feet most of the time and everyone was masked. After the screening, there was carrot cake and a little awards ceremony. Noah got a statuette that said “Miracle Editor.” When the director presented him with it, she said he’d made “a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” working under tight deadlines without a lot of direction. It was a fun event and it’s always nice to see your kids recognized, so I’m glad we made it, even if I was little nervous about the contact.

Here’s the film, if you’d like to watch it. It’s thirteen minutes long.

When we got home, the cinematic fun continued.  We watched a series of vintage short horror films the city of Takoma Park was screening, while decorating paper bags with Halloween-themed stickers and filling them with candy, stickers, stamps, and temporary tattoos. The first film was from 1896 and consisted a thirty seconds of a dancing skeleton, whose pieces come apart and then reassemble. We watched a about an hour and fifteen minutes of films, ending with a 1912 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In that span of sixteen years there was a lot of innovation in how to tell a story on film, including the introduction of intertitles to provide dialogue or explanations of what’s going on. In the earlier films, it’s often a little hard to follow the plot. In a funny coincidence, a lot of the films were by George Méliès, who is character in Hugo’s Cabret’s Big Fix. When The House of the Devil (by Méliès) started, Noah said, “I’ve seen this.” When I asked when, he said in his sixth grade media class. It was this class that got Noah interested in silent film. (I remember one night when he was eleven, he showed us several of his favorites. I probably should have had an inkling then that he’d be a film buff.)

Friday night AFI was screening Nosferatu and that was also fun, especially since we’d just watched Dracula the week before and Beth and I had an interesting conversation comparing the two afterward. I have a soft spot for classic horror, so it was nice to watch so much of it this month.

In other Halloween observances, we did decide to enter the yard decoration photo contest and we didn’t win, but those are the breaks. Our letter carrier told me that we have the best yard on his route, so there’s that. On Halloween afternoon I had Noah set up his tripod so we could get a picture of all of us in the Halloween masks Beth made and we’ve all been wearing for the past few weeks, since they probably won’t be getting much more use (unless we still need them next year). North had a seizure during the mask photo shoot and fell to the grass, which seemed to encapsulate the year we’ve been having. (By the way, the brain MRI came back normal.)

Noah and I watched Rosemary’s Baby that same afternoon, which was fun. He decided not to accompany North (dressed as a galaxy) and Zoë (dressed as Hawaiian Punch—a Hawaiian shirt and a boxing glove) trick-or-treating, but North did fine with the walker and didn’t need the wheelchair.  They came home with just a little less candy than a usual year, though they had to walk a long way to get it because there were fewer houses giving out candy.

Back at home, Beth, Noah, and I set up our candy table and took turns supervising it from five to nine. We decided to have only six bags of candy out at a time in case anyone got the idea to grab it all. (One teenager did make off with four, which made me wonder, if you’re going to be greedy, why not just take them all? I mean, the karma wouldn’t be much worse.) After every group of trick-or-treaters, we’d restock the table. I didn’t expect anyone in the first hour, but we started getting customers pretty soon after we were set up. During my shifts, I saw a couple Power Rangers, skeletons, and kids in Scream masks, Bat Girl, a hunchback, a devil and angel, and a unicorn with a light-up rainbow horn. At least half the time, though, I couldn’t make out what the costumes were because it was dark and I was on the porch, probably about ten feet from the table. That was a little sad because seeing the kids’ costumes is one of my favorite parts of Halloween. Some of the kids were perplexed by the bags because they couldn’t see what was inside, and that led to their exasperated parents saying things like, “Just take the one you already touched.”

By 8:05, we were down to five bags of candy and I thought we might run out, so I bagged some more candy in undecorated sandwich baggies, but we didn’t need to put them on the table. There were only two more trick-or-treaters before we closed up shop a bit after nine.

North came home a little after nine and put a mason jar of water outside in the moonlight to make moon water because in addition to being Halloween, it was also a full moon, and a blue moon to boot. That hasn’t happened since 1944 and won’t happen again until 2039. This unique Halloween wasn’t all bad—it was actually pretty good considering—but given the reasons we were all avoiding crowded parades and close contact with dressed up neighbor children seeking candy, I wouldn’t mind not having another like it for a long time. Once in a very blue moon is plenty.

Moon photo credit: Gretchen Weigel Doughty

Things Frightful and Hopeful: Coronavirus Chronicles, Part 24

Do you need a little break from sickening dread about the coming election or is that just me? I mean the polls look good, both for the Presidential race and the Senate, but I can’t quite trust them after the last time.  I’ve been churning out postcards to voters, mailing one hundred to Pennsylvania, sixty to Florida, and twenty to South Carolina in just the past week. Noah and I watched the final debate on Thursday. Beth couldn’t bear to do it but I watched all but the dueling town halls, mostly with Noah (He skipped the vice presidential debate and missed the fly.) And I voted on Wednesday, so there’s not much else I can do, unless I find time for more postcards before they stop giving out addresses, which I imagine will be soon.

Well, if you do need that aforementioned break, this will be a post about our Halloween preparations and not much else, if I can help it. (I don’t even have any medical news to report, other than that North had the brain MRI a little over a week ago, but we haven’t gotten the results yet.)

It’s going to be a strange, somewhat austere Halloween, with no parade, no costume contest, and curtailed trick-or-treating. The city arranged some alternate activities but they are mostly online. There’s a Walk and Chalk event on the afternoon of Halloween which I think might be kind of like a parade, but more dispersed, with people in costume strolling down the street during a two-hour stretch but not all marching in the same direction at the same time. I’m a little less clear on the chalk part, but it involves drawing on the street.

I thought it might be fun to go and see other people’s costumes and if I had younger kids I might have pitched it harder, but North wasn’t interested, because they’d chosen a costume that will be covered in glow-in-the-dark paint and not that impressive in daylight. (They are going to be a galaxy.) Noah’s not making a costume this year. Without the contest it’s not the same. Well, he’s probably not. North and Zoë are planning to trick or treat, but only at houses where people have set candy out. They’ve been instructed not to knock on doors. I’m not sure how many people are going to do this, but it’s what we plan to do, and North’s trying to enlist Noah to push the wheelchair so if he goes with them he might come up with a costume or he might just go without one.

Anyway, this is what we have done this month to mark one of our favorite holidays: we made cookies with our Halloween cookie cutters and frosted them, we went to our usual farm to get pumpkins for our jack o’ lanterns, and we carved them.

We made the cookies about a week and a half ago on a Thursday, because that’s our designated family activity night. It couldn’t all be done in one evening, though, so earlier in the day North made the dough and cut most of the cookies, with Noah and me pitching in a little bit, too. North also made the frosting and then both kids tinkered with the food dye to get just the right shades of orange, green, purple, and gray, while I did the dinner and cookie dishes. The actual frosting and decorating was an all-hands-on-deck project. The cookies were a little brittle so we had a bunch of broken bits, but we frosted those, too.

When we finished making the cookies, I said to Noah, “It’s nice to have you here for this but I hope next year you’re not here.”

“Me, too,” he said. (I think we may have had the exact same exchange when we dyed Easter eggs.)

We got our pumpkins last Sunday. This was something else we never expected to do with Noah again, and it felt like a small, bittersweet gift. We drove out to Northern Virginia, to our traditional farm stand, making surprisingly good time. Apparently, when there’s almost no traffic it only takes a half hour to get there, though some years it’s taken us over an hour. There weren’t as many pumpkins on the pallets as usual, and some of them had moldy spots. Possibly this should have given us pause, but there seemed to be more than enough to find four good jack o’ lantern candidates and a big white pumpkin to cover with little metal spiders. We also got several little pumpkins for Noah’s, North’s and my desks, freshy pressed cider, pear butter, and pickled vegetables. For the past few years this outing has involved dinner at Sunflower, a vegetarian Chinese restaurant, and Dessert Story, where we’d get bubble tea or macarons or cheesecake or waffle sundaes. We did get a feast from Sunflower and ate it in a nearby park, but sadly, Dessert Story has gone out of business, a victim, perhaps, of the pandemic.

After eating we wandered around the park a bit. Behind the mansion we found some community garden plots where tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, and flowers were flourishing. Noah had brought his drone, but it turned out we were too close to D.C. or maybe the airport so it wouldn’t take off, just displayed a restricted message. It’s too bad because it would have been fun to see the little gardens from above.

We drove back to Takoma got dessert from Mark’s Kitchen and ate it at one of the picnic tables near the gazebo. I got my favorite early fall dessert, the gingerbread sundae. They were out of the ginger sauce, so it was just vanilla ice cream and whipped cream on gingerbread, but it was still good. The whole outing was highly satisfactory.

During the past few weeks, we’ve also watched Young Frankenstein, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, and Dracula (the 1931 Tod Browning version). The Peanuts special we watch every year. The films are special favorites of mine so it was treat to watch them this year. I’ve loved Young Frankenstein since I was younger than North (though I admit parts of it have not aged well). When I taught a college class on horror, I used to do a Frankenstein unit that consisted of the novel, the 1931 James Whale film, Bride of Frankenstein, and Young Frankenstein. We also read Dracula in that class and while I didn’t teach the film, I always had a few students writing research papers on it, so it was familiar and nostalgic as well.

Last night we carved pumpkins. We got takeout from Chipotle for dinner because there was  a fundraiser for North’s school that night and it made for a quick dinner before the carving. When we lifted them from the porch wall where they’d been waiting almost a week we were alarmed to discover three of the four had soft spots that weren’t there when we bought them, and two of them had rotten bottoms. But we persevered. My pumpkin is the political one. Beth’s is the flaming skull and the kids did the witches (Noah’s is on the left and North’s is on the right). As I said when I posted the picture on Facebook, they represent things frightful and hopeful.

As we were finishing up, Noah said cheerfully, “I hope I’m not here for this next year” and we discussed whether he could carve a jack o’ lantern in Australia, and decided probably not as it would be spring there and pumpkins would not be in season. Then I told the story of how the fall of my junior year of college I was studying abroad at the University of Córdoba and the Spanish students in my dorm got the idea to throw a Halloween party for the Americans, but as they weren’t that attached to the actual date of the holiday, it kept getting delayed and didn’t happen until mid-November. The kids thought this was pretty funny.

When we’d finished carving, Beth had the idea to slice the soft bottoms off her pumpkin and mine and replace them with foil so the rot wouldn’t spread as quickly. We also spread petroleum jelly on the cut surfaces to protect them. These are the tricks you learn when you live somewhere where it sometimes gets almost up to eighty degrees in late October, as it did several days last week. Fortunately, it’s not supposed to get warmer than the mid-sixties next week. Fingers crossed the jack o’ lanterns will last a week.

We are not finished celebrating. Friday night AFI is going to stream Nosferatu and we’re going to watch it. The yard decoration isn’t complete—the project stalled for a while but I’m hoping to work on it soon. The recreation department is having a photo contest for best yard. We could enter and given how over the top our yard usually is, it seems we should. I hesitate only because I’ve always found it hard to capture the overall effect in one photo and you can only enter one. I actually wrote the rec department to see if a short video panning the yard would be accepted. (I haven’t heard back yet.) One nice addition we have this year is the set of solar-powered colored lights we have to spotlight certain areas of the yard in purple, green, and red.

And of course, we’ll also be giving out and collecting candy (in a socially distanced fashion) on the big night. We’re going to set up a table at the front gate with little goody bags of candy so people don’t have to reach into a communal bowl. We’ll sit on the porch and watch so we can see the kids’ costumes (and so no one gets the idea to swipe all the candy at once). I hope you all have a very happy Halloween, with just the right amount of fright and hope.

Surprisingly Okay: Coronavirus Chronicles, Part 23

Medical Tidbits

Beth’s colleagues often ask how North’s doing at the beginning of phone calls and the other day I heard her answer, “Surprisingly okay” and for the most part, that’s true. Not much changed for a long while and we all adjusted to the new normal, as much as we still want the seizures and other symptoms to end.

The long-awaited urology appointment was the last Monday of September and it was kind of a bust. The doctor went over the results of the spinal MRI, noted there was no compression on the urethra contributing to North’s difficulty urinating and said she’d see North again in three months if nothing changed. We were all disappointed by the lack of a treatment plan. In the interim, though, Beth got a new diagnostic MRI scheduled, this time a brain MRI with a spinal tap. It’s happening later this week.

Then two days later, in dual setbacks, North was diagnosed with a second UTI and dropped a pasta sauce jar on their bare foot and bruised it badly. They were back to using the wheelchair to get around the house for a day or two. We got their foot x-rayed, but it was not broken, so their physical therapist gave them some exercises for it. It’s still bothering them, but it seems to be getting better.

Scholastic Snippets

On the upside, North’s interim grades (for the midpoint of the first quarter) were good, all As and Bs. This was a relief as the quarter got off to a rough start because they missed a lot of class, due to being in the hospital, and had trouble keeping up.

Noah’s doing well, too. His classes seem more challenging than last semester but he’s not overloaded with homework. His philosophy professor was so impressed with his work he suggested he consider majoring or minoring in the field, and Noah likes the class well enough to consider doing it. It would be a second minor, as he’s already declared one in computer science. He also attended an online informational session about study abroad programs and is seriously thinking of going to Australia next fall. He’s working as a video editor for several shows on ICTV and he’s also going to help a local filmmaker shoot and edit a play his neighbors are putting on, based on The Invention of Hugo Cabret. (It’s being filmed because there will be no live audience.) A friend of mine said he seems to be “flourishing” and he is, though of course I wish he could be back at school with his friends (and using the film studios that drew him to Ithaca in the first place).

An Outing

The first weekend in October we visited Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum, mainly because it’s adjacent to a trail we intended to hike and we thought it might offer a wheelchair accessible entrance to the trail, but we detoured into the park and it ended up being an interesting side trip. An educational one, too, as it turned out neither of the kids had heard of Banneker, a very famous Marylander. We walked up to the reconstructed Banneker family cabin as a Brownie troop was taking a tour and as Beth, Noah, and North waited at a distance outside, I explored the vegetable and herb gardens.  When the Brownies had left, the park ranger offered to let us in the cabin and give us her talk about it. We took her up on it and then we browsed through the little museum nearby before tackling the trail.

Trolley Trail #9 trail, as you might guess from the name, is built on the track bed of an old trolley line. It’s part boardwalk, part asphalt, and goes through a wooded area along a creek. Noah flew his drone to a little waterfall and over the tree canopy. The trail is sloped, so the whole mile and a half down, knowing we’d have to push the wheelchair back up, I was fretting a little, wondering if we were biting off more than we could chew. But with three of us to take turns, it wasn’t as bad as I feared and it was a pretty walk.

Home Decorating

The following week we got our porch painted a new color. When we moved into this house in 2002, the house was tan with gray trim, or at least I thought it was gray. I learned just this week that everyone else in my family perceived it as a sort of olive green. It’s amazing the things you don’t know about the people you live with, I swear.  Nine years later we painted most of the trim dark green but left the porch floor, columns, and steps gray/green. My first idea this time around was to match the porch to the trim again by having it painted dark green, but on consideration, we decided if it wasn’t quite matched it would look funny so we went with a very pale green we thought would complement the darker green. I think I like it. It reflects more light into the living room, which is nice, but it also shows dirt more. I am trying not to let the fact that we painted at this exact moment because we were cited by the city for peeling paint take the pleasure out of this little makeover.

Once the porch was painted we started decorating it and the lawn for Halloween, and if you know my family in person or through this blog, you know that’s cheering. We don’t have everything out yet, but we’ve made a good start. We all bought one new item this year and mine was the charming fellow in the third picture. I picked him because he looks like he’s wearing a plague mask and that seemed just perfect for 2020. I even violated my own no-more-Halloween-decorations-that-require-batteries to buy him.

In other seasonal news, this weekend we made pumpkin ravioli from scratch. I roasted two little pumpkins and made the filling and a pumpkin-walnut-sage sauce to go on top. Beth rolled out the dough in Noah’s pasta machine and he used the hand tools to fashion the ravioli out of the sheets. It was quite a project, but the results were delicious.

Visitation Day

Today was Columbus Day, or Dia de la Raza, or Indigenous People’s Day—take your pick. In normal times in our school district, parents are invited to observe their kids’ classes on this day (because a lot of parents have it off but the schools are still open). At some schools it’s called Visitation Day. I’ve always enjoyed watching the kids’ classes and the name is pretty amusing, too. It’s as if we’ve been invited to watch a séance.

This year there was no notification from the school about being invited to watch your kids’ classes on Zoom, but I know a lot of parents of younger kids are doing it every day and nothing was stopping us, so we decided to observe two of North’s classes—English and yoga. We chose English because it was kind of unorganized for a while when the teacher quit and we wanted to see if the sub had got her footing yet. I’ve been curious about yoga because North usually does it in their room and we’ve never seen or heard little bits of it, the way I have with most of their other classes.

On the morning of Visitation Day, North woke up with a new symptom. Their right hand was clenched in a loose fist and they were unable to open it. My first thought went to the two complex migraines North’s had that left their hands and feet paralyzed but this was just one hand and the affected hand was not cold to the touch the way their paralyzed extremities in past episodes.

This was discouraging, but we carried on with the day. English started at nine and at the beginning of class, the teacher instructed the class to read “The Lottery,” annotate it, and write a paragraph about it. She gave them thirty-five minutes to complete this task and said she’d take questions at that point. I was a little disappointed in this lesson plan because it seemed like discussion would be a better use of  scarce and precious class time (each class has two one-hour slots a week, if the teachers use all their allotted time). The reading and writing could have been done before or after class, as homework.

Anyway, there wasn’t much to watch, so while North worked I read the paper, checked my email and some blogs I read regularly, and eventually since it was an English class, picked up Beloved, which my book club will be discussing on Zoom later this week.  At 9:40, the class reconvened. There were no student questions so the teacher asked a few, mostly about setting, and then just as things could have gotten interesting, she dismissed them to finish other work. North took an online grammar quiz and aced it. And then class was over. The discussion of “The Lottery” took a little over five minutes of class time. The whole experience made me glad North had already read this excellent story in middle school and this wasn’t their whole exposure to it.

Since we watched so little of English, I asked North if we could watch sculpture but they were insistent the agreement was two classes, so I didn’t push it. I did come over to hold their head up during at least two seizures, and I saw the teacher holding up a polyhedron that seemed to be made of folded paper, but North was wearing their headset so I don’t know what she was saying about it. I’m guessing North might be making something similar some time. Sculpture wrapped up after twenty-five minutes.

Yoga started at twelve-thirty. The teacher showed the class a yoga video and had them follow along. The sequence started with tabletop and included (not in this order and with most poses repeated) cobra, extended side angle, lunge, plank, warrior one, and warrior two, ending with corpse pose. North said it was physically harder than usual. Often the class meditates instead of or in addition to doing yoga poses. The class lasted about a half hour. Usually North attends this class in their room, on their bed, but after watching them do it on our bed, noticing how it was hard to balance in the standing positions on a bed, we are reconsidering this set up. During yoga class, North’s hand unfurled. After class I told them, “See. Yoga is good for you,” and they laughed, but I meant it. I think it could be good for them, physically and mentally.

After yoga, Beth and I went on a little date, our first since before covid, probably since our anniversary in January. We were nudged into the realization that we should do this by the fact that we always have a lunch date on Visitation Day in between spying on the kid(s)’ classes. It was rainy and in the high fifties, so not the most inviting weather for a picnic, but not forbidding either if we had shelter.

We left before North’s last class of the day, algebra, which met during a gap between Noah’s ethnomathematics and philosophy classes so we left him in charge of sitting in the living room and making sure North was in a comfortable position if they had a seizure.

We got arepas, plantains, and teqeños from Arepas Pues in Silver Spring (highly recommended if you’re local) and ate them in a pavilion in Wheaton Regional Park. Afterward we took a little walk through the woods and down to a pond. The path was scattered with the first of the season’s fallen leaves and pine needles. We picked up coffee and hot chocolate on the way home. It was nice. It was better than okay.

Plateau: Coronavirus Chronicles, Part 22

After North’s last ER visit almost three weeks ago, things have plateaued. This is both good and bad. The good part is that no new symptoms cropped up, North didn’t need any emergency medical care, they were able to start attending class regularly, and life calmed down. We got to have two more low-key weekends than we’d had in a while.  During the first one I wrote postcards to voters in Colorado and Noah and I started watching The Handmaid’s Tale, which I’ve been wanting to do for a long time.

That weekend we all went for a walk at Font Hill Wetland Park in Howard County, which is apparently famous for its dragonflies. We did see some, but not a remarkable number. We also saw a heron, a deer, a bunch of turtles, and some ducks. Noah took some drone footage and when North wanted to throw sticks into an algae-covered pond, he filmed them splashing into the water from overhead. I thought of all the time I spent when the kids were younger watching both of them throw sticks and rocks into water or through ice. Minus the drone (and the masks and the wheelchair), the scene could have taken place a decade ago. It felt sweetly nostalgic to me.

 

The bad part of the plateau is that North’s two main problems, the seizures and the bladder issues, remain unchanged. The seizures are more dangerous now that North’s walking is almost back to normal.* Now that they can walk, they want to and we want them to, but this means they sometimes they fall if they seize while standing. They know it’s going to happen just a fraction of a second before it does and luckily they’ve been trained in stage falls, so they can usually manage not to hit their head, but some days they fall several times. If they are going to stand for an extended period (while cooking for example) they put the walker behind them in the locked position so they can fall into it. Outside they usually use the wheelchair, for safety.

Tuesday of last week was a good day, or what passes for one these days. We finally got the sedated MRI scheduled. Beth had been calling and calling about this for almost a week and a half. It wasn’t clear why it was so difficult, but Urology didn’t want to see us until spinal compression causing the bladder difficulties was ruled out, so having it on the calendar was a breakthrough. The same day, we had our second telemedicine appointment with the psychologist who’s doing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy with North. She spoke to us together, then alone with North, then alone with me and Beth. She seemed to be hearing what we were saying, which has not always been this case on this journey, so that was nice. North, who’s been having trouble concentrating in class some days, due to their chronic pain and fatigue from the seizures, had a focused and efficient school day. Finally, we’ve been having some home repairs done—because in the midst of all this, we got cited by the city during the summer for peeling paint on our porch and some other issues—and the stucco people finished on Tuesday, two days earlier than planned, which means I could schedule the painters.

Of course, things couldn’t go well forever so the very next day when Beth, having secured the MRI, got an appointment with Urology, it was for early November. That’s a really long time from now, so we were discouraged all over again.

We had another relatively calm weekend, though we were of course saddened by Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death and more than a little alarmed by the political implications. Honestly, I get more terrified about the election every day and this doesn’t help. I wrote postcards to voters in North Carolina and Pennsylvania and that helped a little. On Sunday, Noah painted part of the section of fence we had replaced after the car accident last spring (helping to continue to chip away at our home repair to-do list) and then we watched a couple episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale. We’re trying to finish it before our three-month Hulu subscription expires—we’re two-thirds of the way through the first season.  I’m enjoying it, but as I watch I do find my mind wandering to worst-case political scenarios, especially when we were at the part that covers the backstory of the Waterfords’ role in the coup that installs the theocracy.

On the positive side, that night Beth made a very satisfying late summer/early fall dinner of matzoh ball soup with fried green tomatoes and apple slices and then I watched the first half of the Emmys with Noah, while eating popcorn and writing more postcards, which was fun. Another nice thing about the weekend was that I slept in my own bed for the first time in about a month. North had been sleeping there with Beth, but we had them experiment with sleeping in their own bed Friday and Saturday night. They agreed, but wanted to return to sleeping with Beth for several nights after that. (On Thursday, with some encouragement from the psychologist, we all switched back to our own beds again, for good, I hope.)

Monday morning North went to Children’s for a covid test (#5 for them) which was required for their MRI on Wednesday. They continue not to have it. We all had to quarantine for two days after the test, which wasn’t a big change, though we did have to postpone some errands and Beth and I skipped our morning walks. The MRI itself went smoothly, though we don’t have the results yet. I was sad, but not surprised of course, to see the total of covid deaths in the U.S. hit 200,000 that day.

Wednesday was also North’s half-birthday, so we had cupcakes after dinner. This is a family tradition. There was a virtual Back to School Night for their school that night. The beginning of the evening was extremely glitchy, but eventually we got to hear from all of North’s teachers, except for their English teacher because she’d resigned earlier in the week. She’d found trying to teach and keep her own two elementary school-age kids on task unworkable. And really, who can blame her? Instead of the teacher, the chair of the English department explained the course objectives but it seemed she would not have mentioned the missing teacher except a mother brought it up during the Q&A. (Class the next day consisted of a screen saying to keep working on a personal essay the students are writing.) It was good to see the rest of the teachers and get a feel for their classes, though. I always enjoy Back to School Night. It turns out North’s history teacher is six months pregnant, so there will be a lot of subs in North’s near future.

Thursday was “a great day” in North’s words. They got an A on an algebra quiz and got completely caught up on homework. (Noah has been helping them with algebra when they get stuck and it seems to be paying off.) North’s friend Charlotte unexpectedly dropped off twenty-three homemade cupcakes, with a note that said they were for their half-birthday. Charlotte bakes for Bakers Against Racism and we’d ordered a dozen, so I wondered if the exact number of the extra ones were because the half-birthday was on the twenty-third. I’m still not sure. In addition to all that, North’s case manager at Children’s—we have one now—secured an earlier urology appointment for North in mid-October, out in Howard County, which is a schlep but it was an improvement over November, so we took it. Finally, we got takeout from Italian Kitchen for dinner, at North’s instigation.

Friday Noah and I spent over an hour moving furniture off the porch and stripping ivy from it so the painter could come power wash it in preparation for painting and North had a little backyard party. (Well it started in the yard and then rain moved it to the porch.) Back in March, when the lockdowns were startling and new and half of humanity hadn’t already had a scaled-back birthday, North turned fourteen and we let them see several friends one at a time on the porch to eat cake and promised them a proper birthday party when it was feasible. Three months later, I asked if they’d rather have a small, outdoor party instead of holding out for a sleepover and they said no. When I made the same offer recently, to my surprise, they said yes.  I guess sleepovers are seeming impossibly far away. So they invited four friends over, all at the same time, to drink root beer and eat Cheetos, pizza, and cupcakes. Three of the guests had celebrated with North six months ago, but one was a friend whose mom has been very strict about seeing friends so North hadn’t seen her since March. Norma even brought a present, which North wasn’t expecting.

And in another bit of good mojo, on that day the urology appointment got moved to next week.

 

*Bolded after the fact. As Nicole picked up in the comments, I seem to have buried the lede.

Back at the Hospital: Coronavirus Chronicles, Part 21

In the past nine days, North’s been to an urgent care once, the ER twice, and admitted to the hospital for two days and three nights. It’s gotten to the point where when discussing some mundane family plans, like when Beth, Noah, and I will finish our currently-in-progress game of Settlers of Catan, we’ll append things like “assuming North’s not in the hospital.” 

Before the Hospital: Wednesday

North’s online classes meet Monday, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. Wednesday is supposed to be a day to do homework and go to teachers’ office hours. The first week of school, North didn’t have much work, so they used Wednesday to finish the last of their summer homework assignments. We also had a 504 meeting for seizure-related accommodations, with the ninth grade counselor and several of  North’s teachers. It went surprisingly well. We tried to get a 504 plan for Noah’s ADHD twice, once in elementary school and once in high school, but were denied both times. We thought this accommodation would be easier to get, but not to have it granted in the meeting. I didn’t even know that could happen.

ER Visit: Wednesday Night to Thursday Morning

I was feeling happy both about that and the summer homework finally being done, so of course on Wednesday evening, things went sideways. Beth was at the grocery store when North told me they needed to pee, but they couldn’t. They’d already tried running the faucet in the bathroom, so I suggested a warm bath. By the time Beth got home, North was very distressed, so we decided they’d go to Children’s. I stayed home because there’s still a one-parent rule in the ER, but Beth and I were texting through the evening.  Apparently it was a strange night at Children’s, very crowded in the ER and there was a group of twenty-somethings who seemed to be having a tailgate party, playing music and smoking pot in the garage.

It took a while to get seen because of the crowd, and when they finally were, the doctors wanted to do a bladder ultrasound. If you’ve ever been pregnant, you know that means your bladder needs to be full, so it was 1:30 in the morning before North finally got a catheter to empty their bladder. They didn’t feel as if was completely empty, though, so they went to the bathroom and were able to go on their own. Because of that and because the urine sample and ultrasound didn’t show anything unusual, North wasn’t admitted and they came home.

Back to the Hospital: Thursday Night to Sunday Afternoon

However, the next morning when North woke up they were unable to go again. Beth called our pediatrician for advice. We tried another bath, this one with candles and rose petals (from our rosebush) floating in the water. I was trying to make it as relaxing as possible, but no go. It was dinner time before we got a call back from the pediatrician, who sent us back to the hospital, calling ahead to let them know we were coming and recommending admission.

This time Beth drove us there and dropped me and North off at the ER. One of the intake people recognized North from the night before. (This reminded me of the paramedic who came both times we called 911 this summer. And then sometime during the hospitalization I’m writing about now, one of the neurologists actually remembered North from the complex migraine that paralyzed their hands and feet in fifth grade). What can I say? North is well-known in greater metropolitan Washington area medical circles.

While we were talking to the triage nurse, North seized and all of a sudden all kinds of people rushed in offering oxygen and asking if we had rescue medicine on us, so I had to explain it wasn’t epilepsy so there is no rescue medicine and this wasn’t the problem that brought us here. It wasn’t even a very long seizure, something we’d pretty much shrug off at this point.

Once we got in an exam room, they wanted to do another ultrasound, so again, there was a long wait for the catheter. By this point it had been something like twenty-one hours since North had peed.

Now something I haven’t mentioned yet is that North had been feeling sick to their stomach since Sunday morning after breakfast and it was now Thursday evening. During this whole time they hadn’t eaten except to suck on some candy Sunday afternoon. They were drinking but probably not as much as usual. Still, they were very uncomfortable and as the doctors and nurses discussed whether or not they were dehydrated and needed iv fluids—opinions on this issue were divided—I kept asking everyone who came in the room, over and over, if they could get a catheter. Finally, they did. They also got some anti-nausea medicine and then they were hungry for the first time in days, so I asked a nurse if we could get something to eat. She came back with apple juice and an assortment of crackers. North ate a bag of goldfish and some saltines.

After the ultrasound, two different medical personnel told me North did not have a tumor blocking their urethra—that was something I hadn’t even thought to worry about yet. North got their fourth covid test of the summer, and we got a room. It was one a.m. before we got to bed. Then North was being examined and catheterized again with the lights on from four to five a.m. and a med student came in and woke us up at seven-thirty, so neither of us got much sleep.

Friday was kind of blur, honestly, as I was really tired, but there was a parade of medical personnel who came by, nurses, a physical therapist, an occupational therapist, neurologist(s), urologist(s), etc. Beth came by in the late morning and we overlapped for a couple hours and listened to doctors and played Clue with North. I left for home in the early afternoon. Once home, I put in a load of laundry, slept, and updated my mom on the situation. I’d hoped to work but I was just too wiped out, even with the nap, so Noah and I ordered pizza and watched The Witch.

Back at the hospital, North had an MRI but seized during it, so they didn’t get the images they wanted. The doctors wanted to do a test to see if going an extended period of time without using the catheter would cause North to be able to pee, but it only caused them a lot of pain, so we never repeated the experiment.

I slept nine hours Friday night and stayed at home long enough Saturday to keep doing laundry, menu plan for the next week, make Beth a grocery list, and to work some—with a nifty new two-monitor setup Noah made for me—and I went back to the hospital in the late afternoon. While I was gone, they tried another MRI, with Valium, but it didn’t keep North from seizing. Apparently it’s harder to get slots for the MRIs with an intravenous sedative scheduled because you need a different kind of tech to do it. In their down moments, North tried to watch some of the classes they’d missed Thursday and Friday and do homework.

Beth and I overlapped again for several hours that evening during which we watched an episode of Gilmore Girls with North. Beth needed to stay at the hospital because a nurse was going to show her how to use the catheter. If she could do it successfully that night and the next morning, North could be discharged. She got it on the first try and went home. I spent another night at the hospital with North and then Beth came back in the morning, used the catheter successfully again and North was discharged. We had lunch in the hospital cafeteria– which, strangely, is a treat for North– and went home.

Back Home (Mostly): Sunday Afternoon to Thursday

We were all very glad to be at home together, but frustrated that the new problem had not actually been resolved. North still needs to have the MRI, which is supposed to rule out any spinal compression from their herniated disk, and we need to secure appointments with neurology and urology.

We had most of Sunday and nearly all of Monday at home. North got caught up on schoolwork, Beth grocery shopped, I wrote a batch of postcards to Florida voters and Noah and I made dinner (pasta with basil-mint pesto and fresh mozzarella) on Sunday. Then we went out for frozen yogurt, which we’d meant to do the Sunday prior. Ice cream or frozen yogurt the night before the first day of school is a family tradition, but North had been either sick or in the hospital for a week and we are not people to skip something like that just because it’s a week late.

Monday, Beth made homemade waffles for breakfast because she always does that on three-day weekends and I made a peach-berry cobbler to celebrate the end of the first week of school. Noah and I watched the series finale of The Magicians. Zoë came over for a three-hour porch visit with North and had some of the cobbler with us. We had a backyard picnic for dinner and then went out for Noah’s last-night-of-summer vacation ice cream at Ben and Jerry’s.

On the way home I said something about everyone getting to sleep at home two nights in a row. I should not have said that. North suddenly developed symptoms of a painful UTI shortly after we got home. She and Beth tried an urgent care but they couldn’t handle a catheter, so they had to go back to the ER. It was “uneventful” in North’s words because they were diagnosed with a clear-cut ailment and treated for it. It did keep both Beth and North up late, though. It was two-thirty before they got home.

Meanwhile, in news of the other kid, Tuesday was Noah’s first day of the semester. He only had one class, Audio Production II. On Wednesday he had the remaining three: a computer science class, Ethnomathematics, and Intro to Philosophy. We weren’t able to get much information about his classes out of him. They are all “fine.” They’re all small, roughly twenty-five students each, except for Audio Production, which is about ten. He thinks this audio class might be more hands-on than the one he took last spring, which he would like. He declined to take Cinema Production II this semester because he’d rather have it in person. This makes sense, as the excellent film studios are a big part of what drew him to Ithaca.

North says their favorite class is Japanese because it’s interesting learning such a different language. But they also appreciate that yoga is the only class they are allowed to attend in bed. One day in sculpture class they were assigned to make an assemblage of items that represented their morning. North chose Sunday morning, the day they were discharged, and arranged their mask and some medical debris around their stuffed monkey Muffin, who always goes to the hospital when they do.

Tuesday we also had our first appointment with North’s new psychologist. She seems nice and she does Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which has been recommended to us for Functional Neurological Disorder by more than one person, so for now, we’re hanging our hopes on it.

Wednesday morning we couldn’t wake North for their first or second class, despite repeated efforts. They slept fourteen hours, from ten p.m. until noon. This was worrying, but when Beth called the pediatrician she thought it could just be fatigue from fighting off the UTI. This would be less of a problem if all of North’s teachers posted video of their classes for students who’ve missed them, as they are supposed to do. But not all of the teachers are doing it and North has been missing a lot of class.

Wednesday at dinner North said high school is hard, but I told them not to judge it based on two weeks full of medical drama. We trust it will get better—we just don’t know when. And in small sign of normalcy, North was able to attend all their classes on Thursday. (Only three out of the four met because their algebra teacher’s house flooded in the torrential rain and he had to cancel class.) It was the first time they’d been to all their classes since Tuesday of the previous week. I’m taking it as a win.

Spells: Coronavirus Chronicles, Part 20

North’s in high school now. In a sign that this was coming, Tuesday of last week instead of attending the virtual trans kids support group for middle school students, they went to the high school one. They said they only knew one other kid, a ninth grader who’d moved up with them, and the rest were seniors. Apparently college was a big topic of discussion and North felt a little out of place. There have always been a lot of kids moving in and out of group, so I imagine they’ll get used to it, especially if some more ninth and tenth graders they know from their two years in the middle school group come to future meetings.

Two days later North had a two-hour virtual high school orientation. There were speeches from administrators and older students and even a performance from the marching band. Beth guessed it was filmed in the Before Times and repurposed, because of the lack of masks and distancing. Then all the kids broke out into ten-minute sessions with each of their teachers. The teachers had been given a speech to read a different one for each period so everyone would hear all of them, but only some of the teachers read them, and one of them got the periods wrong so North heard it twice. Anyway, it was nice to see the teachers and hear the non-scripted parts of their presentations and learn a bit more about each class. It wasn’t how I imagined North’s high school orientation would be, not until recently anyway, but it still felt like a milestone.

Around 3:40 that afternoon, North started having more and more frequent seizures. There was about twenty-five minutes between the first and second one and about ten between the second and third and after that they were coming every few minutes for the rest of the afternoon and all evening. North was afraid they wouldn’t be able to get to sleep, but they did and they slept normally. However, in the morning, the seizures picked up right where they’d left off, so around ten o’clock, after consulting with a neurologist at Georgetown who’d seen North recently, Beth took North to the ER at Children’s. It’s our preferred hospital, but we’d basically been told not to come back to the Holy Cross ER, so that wasn’t an option.

Around eleven-thirty, Beth texted to say they were in an exam room (the same one North was in the night they had breathing trouble) and the seizures were somewhat less frequent. By one o’ clock, a neurologist had examined North and ordered an EEG. Remember how we had one scheduled for the first week of September at Children’s and we were trying to see if we could get one earlier that than through Georgetown? Well, when that one was scheduled it was two days after the Children’s one, but it was an at-home EEG that North would be hooked up to for twenty-four hours. We’d been trying to decide which one to cancel and which to keep, as there were pros and cons to each, but now that decision was out of our hands. We were all glad because the sooner we got the EEG data, the sooner we’d have a diagnosis for North’s 504 meeting.

By this time, North was seizing about six times an hour, which was a notable reduction, but often enough for all the relevant medical personnel to see it. North had yet another covid test (the third in a little over six weeks) and it was negative so they could be admitted into a non-covid room. Their room was smaller than the last one because it was designed as a single and the view was not as full of iconic Washington architecture, but you could see the Basilica at Catholic University and the McMillan reservoir, so it wasn’t too shabby either. Better yet, there was a couch that expanded into a bed in the room, so Beth didn’t have to sleep in a chair. She even got sheets.

One thing Beth noticed about the neurologists was that they didn’t want to use the word “seizure” for what was happening to North, preferring words like “episodes,” or “spells.” I said if someone had cast a spell on them, it was probably outside the doctors’ purview. Beth said we might need to go to Hogwarts Hospital. That evening Beth also learned that Children’s is now allowing more than one parent to visit at a time, so we made plans for me to come the next morning.

It was 8:45 by the time North got hooked up to the EEG, which was going to run continuously overnight and most of the next morning. The EEG specialist did some tests, inducing seizures with a strobe light and by having North hyperventilate. Beth later said she really hated that part.

Back at home, Noah and I ordered a pizza and mozzarella sticks and two slices of cheesecake and we watched The Lighthouse, which was even stranger than what I expected, but also very good and thought-provoking. Noah told me later he liked the way the film used sound and explained the difference between diegetic and non-diegetic sound to me. I felt kind of guilty about having a fun evening with him while Beth and North were at the hospital, but Beth said, “It’s good to get a break. And it’s good for him to have quality time with you.”

Saturday morning, Beth texted that North would be discharged later in the day, but she wasn’t sure when, so I took a bus and a train and another bus to the hospital. It took two hours, because I spent an hour waiting for a hospital shuttle that doesn’t run on the weekends. I really should have researched that ahead of time, but I thought I had the route to Children’s down pat from all the times we went for trans kids’ group.

While I was trying to get to the hospital, a neurologist came and said the EEG looked normal. There was no unusual brain activity during the seizures. This was more or less what we expected—that they weren’t epileptic—but it was good to get that data point so we can move forward. And now North has a new diagnosis that goes under the Functional Neurological Disorder umbrella—they are psychogenic nonepileptic seizures, which means they have a psychological rather than physical cause. And speaking of the seizures, they were coming much less frequently by now.

I finally arrived around eleven, and sat with North while Beth took a shower and watched as the nurse unhooked them from the EEG. Then she came back with the discharge papers and we signed them and then went to the hospital cafeteria for lunch, to Starbucks, and home, where North rested for most of the rest of the day.

Sunday Beth and Noah went on a drone-flying expedition at a park with a creek and the ruins of an old mill. I would have liked to go, but North was feeling sick to their stomach, so I stayed home with them. North also didn’t feel up to finishing their summer homework—they still had three pages of their math packet and an essay that needed expanding—and we skipped our traditional last-night-of-summer-vacation ice cream, so it didn’t really feel like the last day of summer break. Or maybe it was because we knew the first day wouldn’t feel exactly like the first day either.

But the first day came anyway. North had four of their seven classes: English, Ceramics and Sculpture, Yoga, and Algebra II, each an hour long in theory, though some let out early. There was a little technical difficulty getting into the Zoom room at the beginning of first period, but in general it all went pretty smoothly. We were all curious about how a ceramics class would work online, given the lack of pottery wheels and kilns in most people’s homes. The answer is it’s going to be sculpture class, “with found materials.” Fair enough.

North had a short seizure during second period and then none until fourth period when they had another small one and then one that was so violent they fell out of their chair and hurt their arm and side. Beth turned the lecture off and North went to rest in our bed, where they ended up sleeping for an hour. They are often tired after a long seizure. When they got up they checked to see if the recorded class was available online yet (they are all kept for three days so students can watch one they’ve missed) but it wasn’t, so they did the homework the teacher had assigned and a half page of the summer math packet.

Next they wanted to make brownies, even though they were still feeling sick and wouldn’t eat any of them. I found this odd, but I helped supervise so they wouldn’t end up injuring themselves.

Today North had the rest of their classes: Japanese I, U.S. History, and Biology. It would be nice to see the next steps of this medical journey as clearly as a class schedule, but we can’t, so we’ll have to take it one day at a time.