All of My Children Are Not Home Safe

Drawing by Ana Dooley

An email from my daughter’s school arrived in my inbox at 1:19 pm on October 1st that took my breath away. It was an unsigned announcement notifying parents that, due to severe budget cuts, all students in the district must resume in-person classes on November 9th.

This contradicted what we’d been told (repeatedly) since September. Namely, that her high school would remain completely virtual for the entirety of the 2020–2021 school year.

I’d tried to process the information without panicking and, after reading the email several times, found a link at the very bottom that read, simply, “Remote Instruction Continuation.” Aside from this link, the email didn’t mention the option of continuing remote instruction, nor did her school’s principal in his weekly video address.

But the link was there and so I clicked on it. It lead to a form that parents could fill out if they didn’t want their child to return to in-person learning. The district obviously wanted parents to consider this option as a last resort. A sentence above the form read:

I thought about what it would mean if my 16-year-old daughter got COVID-19. She would probably be okay, but maybe not. I imagined her coming home sick, trying to stay isolated, and ultimately passing the virus to me or my husband (or, more likely, both of us).

Based on our age and weight and blood pressure, we’re both in the high-risk category. We’re likely to get extremely sick. Though…maybe not.

Then I thought about something my daughter had said back in March, when New York was hit so hard that her school shut down in the middle of the month and didn’t reopen again.

I can’t lose anybody else.

I filled out the form.

We lost my older daughter, Ana, three years and six months ago. She died from a rare form of pediatric cancer called Inflammatory Myofibroblastic Tumor.

Emily was 12 when her sister died. She was 15 and in 10th grade when COVID-19 shut everything down, driving a wedge between her and the budding friendships she was developing, the progress she was making towards individuality, and the independence that she was beginning to explore.

Cancer had forced Ana to give up much of her hard-won independence just as she was entering adolescence. Now, COVID-19 has done the same thing with Emily who turned 16 in April. She can’t drive yet, can’t see her friends, and is always home — taking virtual classes, attending virtual therapy, immersing herself in virtual entertainment…

I want Emily to go back to school because I’m worried about the isolation that’s swallowing her up, but…

I can’t lose anyone else.

Emily will probably be okay even if she gets the coronavirus. I may be okay. My husband may not. All three of us may get sick and recover. Statistically speaking, we’d probably all survive.

Statistics can be comforting until they work against you. Ana’s cancer was so rare that there weren’t any statistics to hang onto at all. This is why I worry about Emily more than most parents worry about their children. There are so many ways to lose a child.

I recognize that my excessive worry is a consequence of trauma. I’m working on acceptance, on shielding Emily from my overzealous good intentions. I want her to have a full life without having to carry the burden of my worry, because it isn’t her burden to bear.

But I’m also not a fool. This is a pandemic. The virus is deadly. Sometime soon my one surviving child will go out into the world, with all its risk and menace, and I will have to trust that she’ll be okay.

But on October 1st, I filled out that form.

I got my flu shot early this year, making a special trip to my doctor’s office for this false sense of security. My husband got his early too and Emily will get hers next week, when she gets her annual physical.

It seems like such a small thing in the face of the virus — avoiding the flu — but fate must not be tempted, not when all of your children aren’t home safe.

The defining characteristic of the pandemic is death. I don’t know what that means for people who haven’t experienced the loss of a child. For me, it means taking every precaution possible because death is opportunistic. I realize that this doesn’t guarantee that we won’t get sick, but I’m not going to lay out a welcome mat for disaster.

The people who won’t wear masks, the ones who mock us for being afraid, the ones who deny the danger completely — they are luckier than me. It must be nice to live in a world where nothing bad can happen (until it does). I’m astounded by the people who don’t recognize death’s proximity, but I also envy them.

I see the shadow of death everywhere. It hovers at the edges of our ordinary lives and waits for us to get complacent.

I will not get complacent, so I filled out the damn form.

My daughter takes a painting class on Saturdays. She’s the only one calling in virtually. She works in her home studio and checks in with the class for a couple of hours each weekend.

“They’re definitely not six feet apart,” she told me yesterday after the class was over.

She’s not angry or embarrassed about being the only kid doing this class remotely. She’s disgusted that people are taking the virus less seriously than she is, but of course her life experience is unique. Death has been her companion too.

I’m relieved that Emily has the wisdom to be afraid. It also breaks my heart.

We’re losing a lot because of the virus — a year or two of normalcy, financial security, and the freedom to congregate, celebrate,and mourn together. But denying the danger of the virus isn’t going to make it disappear. Who can you afford to lose?

I’m thankful for small blessings. I’m fortunate that I have the option to keep my daughter enrolled in remote learning and that she understands why I’m keeping her home.

Parents throughout the country are confronting this question of risk. They’re happy to send their kids back to school or they’re relieved to keep them home, or they’re choiceless and trying to ride it out either way.

The difference for me is that all of my children are not home safe. I feel death more acutely than most parents do, so I will wear my mask. I will wash my hands. I will stay isolated and socially distant.

I will keep my child home from school as long as I can because I can’t lose anyone else.

Occasional poet. Writer of sad essays. Novelist. Birder and amateur photographer. I enjoy trees.

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