Open Letter to My Sons’ School

Dear School Board and Administration,

Do you not understand how thoroughly exhausting this is? How every single day of my life is now shaped by your decisions to constantly alter the course of my children’s schooling?

The phone rings. A recorded message informs me that my two middle-school sons will now be “remote learning” for the next two days. My brain begins its mental gymnastics (again). I begin to process what the new morning routine will look like, adjusting timings to get one kid to school and two kids logging in. My brain strums through what meetings I have to coordinate for the day and what changes we will make for the next couple days.

My brain is constantly reading, processing and filtering emails from the school. This building is now closed. A case was reported in your son’s school, but your child does not have to quarantine. A case was reported in your son’s class but your son is not deemed a close contact so you can choose whether or not you want to keep your kid home in quarantine to do remote learning or to send them to school. Because this building is now closed, your son’s basketball practice has now moved to tomorrow at 8:30 instead of today at 7:30, but the other boy’s swim practice is now shifted to Saturday to allow for….

I take a sip of wine….

Because I don’t know how else to cope with the relentless stress. The constantly changing schedules. The pervasive uncertainty. The steady level of worry of exposure to COVID or the chance of one of us getting sick. The struggle to maintain some semblance of education and growth for the boys while balancing limited social contacts and the boys’ mental health.

Is it a “he’s tired” headache or a COVID headache? Does his belly hurt because he’s hungry or he’s sick? Is there a fever? Was that a cough? Do I send him to school or keep him home? Test him or wait it out? Do I call the school nurse or fill out an absence form or ask to make him remote…..or just say to hell with it?!?!

Do you not understand how tired and stressed we parents are as we try to understand the ever-shifting “guidelines” and “procedures” in this school district? As we try to figure out whether your guidance even makes sense based on data and science? As we struggle with the basic knowledge that we can not and have not been able to trust our community leaders to make the right decision?

I take a sip of wine….

I have spent the last couple weeks starting every email with “I apologize for my delay in responding.” Sometimes I attempt humor (“my kid left the garage door open and the pipes froze; I’ve been a bit distracted”). Sometimes I am honest and confess that I’m stressed and I’ve lost track of…well, of life. Sometimes I just move right along and answer the question I should have answered last week as if there weren’t seven days missing in there.

I’ve nicknamed myself “Last-minute Lynne.” My work is done the night before or it’s late. There’s no in-between. There is no staying on top of things. There is no managing anymore. Balls have dropped. Back-burner heat went out long ago. The to-do list got so long I’ve lost the first couple pages….

There is no relief in sight. Just constant worry. New COVID variants. New guidelines on masking. New impeachment trials and messy politics. New weather patterns and slippery roads. New research and new opinions. New vaccine roll-outs and new stimulus ideas. New evidence of health inequity and disparity. New, more, different, sudden, changing, insidious, good-luck-coping-with-this-curve-ball stress.

I take a sip of wine….

I’m a physician. I trained under a great deal of stress and experience stress at work which I can manage. But this stress is different and sneaks through my coping tactics. And, as a physician, I know that this chronic, ever-shifting stress is taking a toll on me. It’s taking a toll on my family as I waffle between fatigue and irritability. It’s taking a toll on health and on productivity. It’s taking a toll on my community and my city. It’s taking a toll on our country and across the world.

Dear school board and administrators, please decrease our stress.

Sincerely,

A very tired parent.

Cheers.

COVID Waiting….

Did you know that the “clock” app on the iPhone has a red second hand that ticks slowly along its course? I watched it the other morning, making its way through time. That’s what I’m doing right now, making my way through time. Time. Time for a neighbor friend’s COVID test result to come back….

There are moments in time when we do really stupid things that we later regret. When we slip up and can’t figure out where our brain was at that moment. Moments like when you bake cookies and decide to deliver them to a neighbor with aging parents just to “check on them.” But you forget that you should not “check on them” inside their house when it is COVID time and you didn’t bring a mask.

For when you “check on them” and spend too much time inside, you meet the definition of “significant exposure.” And if you have significant exposure you find yourself in a “triage protocol” trying to figure out the chances of getting an infection and the guidelines for what to do to prevent the spread of infection. The problem is that you don’t actually fit into the protocol until you know if your neighbor is actually positive for COVID. And to find that out….you have to wait….you have to pass the time.

Passing time waiting for test results is passing time in self-quarantine. What a delightful word. This is different than the “stay at home” that you just finished for two months. This is “stay in your house and don’t even go to the grocery store” type of situation. This is the don’t take your child to the neighborhood pool, don’t take him to his golf lessons, don’t run to get a cup of coffee, don’t move the car from the driveway and just stay home.

This is the beat-yourself-for-being-so-stupid kind of situation. The “you’re a physician, for goodness sakes, you idiot!” kind of situation. The “how could you possibly jeopardize the health of others?!?” kind of situation. The wake up at 3:00 am and beat yourself some more type of situation (It’s not healthy or helpful….but it is what it is….). The apologize profusely to dear friends with whom you came into contact in the first two days type of situation (where you feel embarrassed and awful….and awful and embarrassed).

As much as The Little Guy rarely has a meltdown, he had a meltdown on Day 1. He was sad. He was oh so mad at me. “Why did you do that?” he asked over and over. “I don’t know, buddy,” was all I could say. “I’m so so sorry.”  I wanted to hug him, but I also didn’t want to hug him as my brain kept yelling to stay away from the boys (an impossible scenario). But we made the most of the first day. Because I didn’t drive my car to work that day to see patients, I had more of a sense of being available. I actually said “yes” when he wanted to do an experiment in the kitchen by combining ingredients and spices and anything else he could find (and tasted it and spit it out). And, I said “yes” when he wanted to start power-washing the back deck (though he soon got tired and articulated that it was me who was actually “obsessed with power-washing”). By the end of the day, he remarked that he had had a good day after all.

Day 2, however, was a day when it was possible that the test result could come in and The Little Guy asked me every hour or so whether I had heard anything. It was getting hard to wait and make our way through time….but that’s what we do. I worked, he watched TV, Mr. Ornery and Super Tall Guy continued their video game addiction, and we all waited…. But somehow we were all getting along better and interacting more and enjoying our time. And my heart was heavy for my neighbor who was feeling unwell, stressed about her parents, and waiting ….alone….in her house….waiting….

Pop-up fort

Waiting, though, is tremendously hard on an action-oriented person who likes to have answers. Waiting is hard when you know that some tests come back in 15 minutes, some in 24 hours, some in 8 days (and that it doesn’t have to be this way if we had a coordinated testing system). Waiting is hard when it’s wrapped in the frustration of an inadequate national response to a deadly virus that marches its way through communities causing stress and angst and illness. Waiting is hard…..

Day 3,…..we wait….


Edited to add: At exactly the moment I pushed the “publish” button on WordPress was the moment my phone buzzed…. ” Negative” — Talk about “Time”!

Emerging from the COVID Fog

There were moments on the Jersey Shore a couple weeks ago with such intense fog that we couldn’t see the water from our seats on the sand. We couldn’t see the buildings where our rented house was tucked. We couldn’t see the lifeguard stand holding up trained rescuers. We couldn’t see danger, shelter or safety, but we could see each other.

And each other is who we have seen for the past three solid months during the COVID pandemic. Yes, we have gone for walks in the neighborhood with other people. Yes, we have passed people in the stores. Yes, the boys have played outside with other kids, trying to keep distant and not “sharing” despite years of reprimand to share their toys. But most of our entire human interaction has been within my nuclear family and that of my sister’s.

It was exciting to get away. Everyone was ready. But the weather was awful and uncooperative and full of fog and rain and wind at a steady 15 miles/hour and gusting into the 20s. The beach wasn’t welcoming and the playgrounds and basketball courts were closed. We spent most of our time inside and unlike other vacations, the boys were given plenty of electronic time because the adults were tired and solely focused on resting at the jigsaw puzzle table.

The fog on the shoreline seemed to match the fog of our brains during the shut-down. Time stood still or sped up but we couldn’t figure out what day it was. Work was either too stressful or we couldn’t get to it and that was stressful as well. My kids were suddenly home from school for the entire last quarter of the year, missing their friends and their teachers and completely missing out of academics.

We rallied and did what we had to do to “flatten the curve,” to not overwhelm the capacity of the medical system to care for those who had contracted coronavirus. But after three months, people were tired. Summer had arrived and we were ready to live to again. Escape to the shore offered a chance to change the scenery and start seeing the world in a different light.

One day I noticed that my three guys were standing looking out into the ocean. I’m sure they were just trying to judge the approach of the next wave and were unlikely to be as reflective as I am. I, on the other hand, snapped a quick photo of “my hearts” standing at the crest of the earth, pondering the vastness of the world that seems to go on forever in its steady form and yet is a constantly shifting landscape up close. I doubt they were contemplating the ill-preparedness of our country for the deadly onslaught of COVID-19. They likely were not wrestling with how to dismantle the racist systems that impact their very existence. They probably were wondering what seafood to have for dinner.

The beach week offered a chance to reflect on and talk to the boys about resiliency – the weather is awful, but we can choose to be happy and enjoy the moments we have. Mr. Ornery had started to refer to “bad” things that happened with the phrase, “We’re cursed.” I began to reframe it for him, “Actually, dear, we’re blessed.” We laughed at the ease of pedaling a surrey with the direction of the wind versus the return trip of pushing against it.  We found new activities like burying a yoga ball into the sand to bounce off it like a trampoline. And since the water was unfriendly, the boys finally had time to dedicate to learning to skimboard.

And while the older teens refused to engage in their previous almost daily excursions to Wawa, the local convenience store, because of the mask-wearing requirement, it gave us a chance to talk about responsibility. In a time of spreading virus, we cover our face to protect the health of the community because that is our responsibility as human beings. We could find fun masks to wear. We could laugh about how many times we turned around to run back inside to grab the masks. We could make it work.

And, the week gave us a chance to relax and reflect on the importance of rest. The Lord calls us to rest because He knows it’s important for the human body. We need sleep every day and we need times of rest every week. Rest renews us and heals us. After three months of a country in crisis and shut down, we needed to rest and help ourselves become prepared for the peaks and surges of the virus, for the next challenges we would face, for the next battles we would start to fight on behalf of ourselves and our communities.

While it took a good week to dig out from under the work that piled up in my absence, I felt grateful to have a glimpse of emerging from my COVID fog. I am grateful for the privilege of a job that has allowed me to work at home and provides me with times of rest. I am grateful for the friends and family who have walked beside me in the fog and continue in constant support. And I am grateful for the privilege of sharing my life with three growing boys and sharing the wonder of horseshoe crabs and sand-sharks and brown sharks and turtles and ice cream and parasailing.

May they take that sense of resiliency and responsibility and rest as they continue to look out in wonder and face their huge world.