Image Credit: Nicole Treska
Your kid has a cough. Any other day this wouldn’t matter. Any other day you’d remember what the doctor said about daycare—his first winter he’ll be sick more days than not. And it is still winter, even if spring break is days away.
Your choice, today, is an easy one. Your husband doesn’t work on Wednesdays. You go to work.
Your husband calls you, the sound of his voice comforting even if the words are not. “Arlo’s still sick,” he says. “Maybe he shouldn’t go to daycare tomorrow.”
You look around your office and sigh. It’s your turn to take a sick day, but tomorrow is the last day before spring break, the day you have to cajole your students to class, promising to hand back essays, quizzes, in person only. No one ever wants to come, even though at your school, students don’t take extravagant spring break trips. It’s not like they’ve left early for Barcelona or Dublin, the way you did in college. They just want to drive home faster to Pearl River, New Jersey. Maybe the lucky ones will be playing away games. The girl’s softball team has a tournament, the men’s basketball team made Division II finals. You love your students, but, like all people you love, they irritate you.
Which is what your husband, correct as he is, is doing now.
If you agree with him, cancel your classes.
If you disagree with him, do nothing.
You never realized how many decisions you made until you can’t choose whether to go to work or stay home, send Arlo to daycare or not, fly to see your in-laws or drive. Weeks later, you’ll think of those rest stops, the shiny surfaces, the scattered travelers, and you’ll feel sick with fear at what could have been.
You email your students and call the administrative assistant. Sick day to take care of a child. You worked here for seven years before taking a sick day, and then you got pregnant. Then your world wasn’t really yours anymore, was it? When the doctor explained your anemia to you, it was because the fetus was depleting your iron stores. Everything you thought was yours was now someone else’s. You decided to get the iron infusions near campus instead of in the city where you live. Hematology and Oncology of Rockland. Every other week, wearing lighter and lighter maternity dresses and stockings, getting heavier and heavier, while the other patients got … what was it, exactly? Their chemo? You didn’t want to know. You felt the baby kick inside you. Spring was so strong that even your hair smelled new. You didn’t wash it, let it grow long and wavy. You felt powerful.
Two years later, your hair is short and your baby is not quite so portable. He doesn’t even seem sick. Your husband has left for work. You smell spring outside, which is also the baby’s new word. Outside! Outside! he calls, grabbing his shoes.
If you go outside, grab your jacket.
If you stay inside, open the window.
On the sidewalk, Arlo peeks through the garden’s fence, trying to catch a glimpse of the chickens. Doo-doo, he calls them, and you love how he’s just as scared of them as he is curious. You’ve walked here from your apartment, you pushing the stroller and Arlo gripping it tight and walking purposefully. With his short legs, it took . . . well, you’re not sure how long. That’s another thing you love about having a kid: the way time melts away. No, that’s not quite right. It’s more that time doesn’t matter. You need to get him down for a nap at some point. And you need to get him to bed. And in between you need to feed him. But other than that, you let the days you have together unfurl however they wish.
Today, for example, you stood with him on the corner of Frederick Douglass Boulevard and 122nd Street, watching a crane as it lifted … what, exactly, was it lifting? You don’t know. You never realized how much you didn’t know until you had a child. What’s that? What’s that? Arlo asks, and Why? You find yourself naming the world, slicing clean distinctions between yellow and orange, bulldozer and snowplow. The opposite holds true too: chickens lay eggs, and so do caterpillars. And the eggs are white, like the moon, and round, like the moon. And the moon is up in the sky, and so is the sun, and yes, we can look at the moon, sure, like the other night when you stopped on the way home from daycare on your street, so busy looking at the moon that you didn’t notice that you were only feet from all the kids who hang out by the bodega on the corner, and you kneeled by the stroller and pointed and looked at the moon, and Arlo said moon, all excited. The kids, who are the same age as your students, shuffled a few feet away and lit up a joint.
Maybe they were looking at the moon, too.
There’s a thick chain through the door of the community garden. If you call the posted number to ask them to open it, take out your phone. If you decide to stay on the sidewalk longer, touch the leaf of ivy that’s creeping through the fence.
Are you sure it’s locked? says Cindy on the other end. They fed the chickens this morning.
I think so, you say, but as you tug the chain comes loose and you realize that it’s just been looped to look locked, not actually locked.
If you were writing a poem, that might be the poem. Someone standing outside a door, thinking it’s locked, when really, you just need to pull on it. Your students are always trying to figure out what a poem means when really, it’s not something that needs to be figured out. The meaning is already there, stated. When you wrote a poem that started Gabriel, we sing to you, it’s because that’s what you heard: your sister and her husband singing to their child.
Inside the garden, Arlo’s toddler feet threaten to smash the new crocuses, which, in their hurry to live, have sprouted dangerously close to the path.
There are no choices here, only life.
Is a virus alive, or is it dead?
Viruses today are thought of as being in a gray area between living and nonliving.
Gabe arrived early, on Arlo’s first birthday. You thought he looked like a sack of sugar or flour, sweet and heavy. You wanted to eat him, he was that lovely. His wrinkled hand gripped your finger, grasping onto all of the world that he could hold. Meanwhile Arlo played with your mother downstairs in the waiting room, your sister and her husband shining with joy in their hospital room.
If you think that nonliving is the same thing as dead, you can stop reading now.
If you think that nonliving is different from being dead, keep going.
When Arlo gets tired, you load him into the stoller, wave goodbye to the chickens, and take the same route home.
You thought you understood death until you had a baby. And then the line between living and dead seemed less like a line and more like the space between high tide and low, that in-between place where shells and seaweed are deposited, where mermaids drop purses and clams breathe under the sand.
But maybe you’re only thinking in convoluted metaphor because you don’t want to remember what it was like, giving birth. Or, even more so, you don’t want to remember those first days of Arlo’s life.
At home, you pull off Arlo’s dirty clothes, change his diaper, and lay him in his crib.
A seed might not be considered alive. Yet it has the potential for life, and it may be destroyed. In that way, viruses resemble seeds more than they do living creatures.
All that, and Arlo lived. All that, and Gabe died.
Isn’t that what your husband is afraid of? That’s the terror in his voice, his obsessive refreshing of his Twitter feed. He wants to lock the door against death, kill it with Lysol wipes. He protects himself with gloves, wearing them so frequently to come in and out of the apartment that Arlo has started declaring “Da-da!” when he sees a pair. Your husband’s precautions feel like overkill. You roll your eyes and push elevator buttons with your elbow, indulging his fear, which animates him even more.
Your sister is pregnant again. You know the number of weeks, but it’s hard to translate that into an image of what, precisely, is inside of her. Maybe it’s a clump of cells, undifferentiated. Or maybe there’s a heartbeat somewhere, organs shaping themselves out of matter. How big is it now—a fingernail? a quail egg?
A precise scientific definition of life is an elusive thing.
Two weeks after that morning in the garden, everything shuts down. Death is a paradox: something invisible that you see everywhere. It’s in the air of the elevator, on your doorknob, your phone, your fingers. Don’t touch your face! you repeat to yourself, your own hands a vector of disease.
You think back to Arlo’s cold, that Thursday home from school and daycare, trampling through the crocuses, watching roosters peck at the ground as feral cats slunk through the trees. Maybe it was the virus, maybe it wasn’t. You have no way of knowing; they aren’t testing people unless they’re sick or rich, and only then if they’re really, really sick or really, really rich. Can they test to see if a person had it before? You’re not sure.
On Facebook, your sister’s husband posts an update.
March 25th, 8:26 am
My pregnant wife who is a doctor in NYC is about to join the front lines. We need everyone who has access to supplies to please sell them to our local government. If you’re sitting home with nothing to do, find ways to get us supplies. Reach out to everyone you know and ask. If your family is politically connected to the GOP, now is the time to raise hell.
We need protective gear and ventilators now. I BEG YOU please, her life and the life of our baby depends on this.
It’s his first post about the baby to come.
Your memories are mixed up with the pictures you’ve studied; you never saw Gabe nursing, Gabe being held, and yet it’s there, somewhere; it’s someone else’s memory, a warm dream that catches and spreads. Like a fire, you find that if you breathe on it gently, it grows; blow too hard, and it’s gone.
Gabe’s deep eyes, his black hair. You can hear his song, his sweet newborn sounds. You feel the grip of his hand. Five days, alive.
Maybe it’s his memory that is nonliving, the way it moves between people, the way it depends on us to exist. The way that his memory reproduces, inserts itself within us. The memory of him is not alive, but neither is it dead.
Your sister is an anesthesiologist: that hasn’t changed. She will suit up. She will go to a hospital. Which one, you don’t know yet. What she will do, you don’t know. You don’t know if there are enough masks, gloves, ventilators, PPE.
You don’t know what is to come.
Turn back to page one.
Note: Italicized information on viruses is quoted from Luis P. Villarreal’s “Are Viruses Alive?”
Monica Wendel is the author of No Apocalypse (Georgetown Review Press, 2013) and the chapbook English Kills (Autumn House Press, 2016), among other works. She holds an MFA in poetry writing from NYU and is an associate professor of composition and creative writing at St. Thomas Aquinas College.