The other day it hailed and the sky opened to a startling blue. My children and I watched in silence from a window. We spotted the mother hummingbird from our yard and her new chicks as they swarmed the feeder on the porch just as steam began rising off the streets after the sudden temperature change. We talked amongst ourselves about how glad we were that the family of raccoons in the neighborhood hadn’t found the hummingbird or her new family, how the streets held the warmth of the sun in the pavement and the hail pelting it melted so quickly that it released steam, and that the lack of cars and pedestrians were because of the quarantine.
How clever it was that the mama hummingbird picked the rhododendron with its fragile branches to nest in so that any predator would fall under their own weight in the pursuit. How hummingbirds can weigh less than a penny.
You see, self-quarantining isn’t a huge stretch from being a parent of kids with special needs, especially homeschooling one of them. We’re used to the otherness of our lives and feeling lonely at times.
People physically distanced themselves from me a long time ago. It was a source of pain for a while until I realized that it was the winnowing of friendship that naturally occurs in life. Like the change from single to married, not having kids to choosing to have them, and then the discovery of neurodivergent children and husband. Pardon the pun, but that is where our paths diverged.
It feels as if the rest of the world is discovering what my life is like first-hand and I’m sympathetic to the process of accepting that particular reality along with the cyclical isolation. It will take a while but you all can do it, I’m proof that you can. I’ve accepted the overwhelming noise of children along with the absence of company that is beyond my control at times. The crushing weight of responsibility of people relying on me at a level of need akin to a newborn but perpetually. It’s natural to be conflicted with intense love and the guilt over resentment when loneliness sets in.
It occurred to me that any other time a sudden hail storm, like the one we had just seen, would have elicited exclamations of surprise and frustration at the sudden icy downpour from those outside. Instead, we only heard birds complaining and the steady sound of the wind that followed. Sounds that reminded me of growing up isolated in the woods. Sounds that are typically foreign to a congested Portland neighborhood but have become commonplace in the last few weeks. At this moment in the past, I would have heard the passing conversations of joggers, dog walkers, and college students on their way to class. Yet physical distance keeps the joggers mostly solitary now and rarely spotted, the dog walkers avoid each other and don’t congregate at the corner any longer, and the college students are gone for the year and forever from Concordia University that shuttered.
It was then that I noticed how silent it was that we could hear the wings of the hummingbirds. A new sound that I mistook as machinery. So new to my ears. The surreal realization of everyone in the world feeling very alone isn’t lost on me. I’ve felt like I’ve been living on Mars for many years now.
My daughter wondered aloud if the rain was enough to wash us clean of our plague, “the germs”, and how many people were sick. She spotted a lone person walking down the street with a mask on.
“I wonder if they’re dying.”
I looked at her in alarm. My husband and I didn’t discuss the details of the pandemic in front of her and kept any discussion “concrete and discrete” (as is our saying) like most topics that might upset them. We described what a virus was, how it worked, how it spread (this one in particular), and that we were staying home to keep others and ourselves well. That our only protection was cleanliness and staying put.
Yet our children are clever and my daughter is empathic to a fault. She sees right through you and it terrified me more than the virus to think that she might have overheard something or could sense my thoughts. My son climbed up behind me and straddled my back like a human backpack.
“My heart is sad.”
I hugged him in an awkward backward embrace and wondered if he understood, any better than the rest of us, this “social distancing” that really was “physical distancing“. He held onto my back as I rolled over and he loosened his hold to stare into my eyes intensely. Never casual eye contact with either of them. A stereotype of autism that I’ve never quite understood. It’s not a lack of eye contact as much as unusually intense and oddly timed. I’ve been informed at moments to stop whatever I’m doing so I can “share eyeballs” with my son. That unique interpretation of eye contact seems to translate well to their interpretation of physical distancing as well.
This strange new expectation we have for our children of not just avoiding strangers but anyone who comes within six feet of them is inducing further anxiety in my already anxious kids. It’s become so difficult to avoid people in our neighborhood when the weather clears that we’ve stopped taking walks and stick to our postage stamp back yard only after several incidences of the kids screaming “space” and running up on the porch to evade a passerby who refuses to keep their distance from our yard. It’s like my son channels an armed member of the Lollipop Guild as he wields his foam sword to defend his sister and himself from germs growling, “SPACE!”
They were accustomed to hail driving everyone indoors so they both assumed that we would go out to play. I was reluctant to let them gather ice pellets and was thankful when their attention turned to playing a game instead. I didn’t have the energy to chase them around the yard after four sleepless nights of comforting them through their nightmares. My new sleep schedule is staying up till around 9:00 pm to ease my daughter’s anxiety and then being woken at 3:00 am by my son wanting reassurance and then waking at 6:00 am to do it all over again.
The change in routines for my kids and husband made for a rough couple of weeks. It never can be underestimated how devastating it is to people on the spectrum when their schedule is upended without notice. My usually super energetic son who bubbles with joy has taken to rolling into a ball and crying sporadically throughout the day. My resilient daughter who is studious and contemplative has reverted to old habits of insomnia and stimming. My husband has been working from home, hidden in the basement, and has been indoctrinated into what a typical day might look like with me homeschooling, writing, advocating and simultaneously juggling therapy and interventions for the kids. I asked him what he thought now of what our average day looks like and he summed it up with, “Exhausting.”
The kids wait for their dad to come up from the basement and take his turn with parenting. They hope we’ll let them go on a bike ride or play in the yard. I just wait for a moment to myself and a break from the noise. Their noise is mostly joyful but I can relate to their sensory issues when I hit a wall and can’t take another moment of the cacophony. The irony is that the only break I have from the racket and drudgery of cooking and cleaning is when I’m in my lymphatic compression suit for an hour at a time in the a.m. and p.m. but that’s of course when they choose to thunder overhead with a spontaneous dance party or scooters across the hardwood floor.
I’ve taken to sitting in my car to return phone calls and staying up late just to hear silence. Not all that unlike the days of them being nursing newborns. Much like those days, I hope that the world will improve with their generation and become a better place for their sakes.
For instance, air pollution has dropped with so many cars off the road as of late. People are taking more of an interest in gardening out of the fear of running out of food but it lessens our carbon footprint as well without burning fuel to drive to a store to fetch produce that was delivered in a truck. I wonder how many people have taken more of an interest in cooking their food as well since restaurants are largely shuttering. Sad truth but maybe we’ll all learn to be more self-sufficient in the challenging days ahead.
Even with all the frightening facts in the news, there are reminders of our capacity for love and compassion despite our circumstances and to me, it oddly restored my faith in humanity to see this. The husband serenading his wife in quarantine through her window while she was in lockdown in her care home. Crowds cheering from balconies and windows to health care workers as they return to the hospital once again. And, my kids favorite, the baby otters on the live cam of the Oregon Aquarium.
Evidence of life continuing and all of us doing our best to care for our children and stay safe and sane the best that we can however that looks. Soak up the cuddles, lower the bar and allow more screen time, try the messy science project they’ve always wanted to try, indulge the requests for games and endless puzzles. Remember that as hard as being cooped up is for all of us, this is a chance to get to know each other better and let the world slow down so that we can live to see it another day.
Don’t agree with me? That’s ok, listen to Samuel L. Jackdon instead.