Quaranteened, Day 1

March 16

8:30 am

I take the dog for a walk. The sky is gray and the air is still. There is nobody out yet. Two large dogs dart past us and we hear the thump of their heavy paws thundering down the road toward traffic. Neighbors come out in their pajamas and bare feet and coax the loose dogs back home. A single, enormous crow flies closely overhead and caws loudly three times. “Caw! Caw! Caw!” And the front doors shut again. And the quiet is back.

9:26 am

MH opens her Chromebook and starts working next to me on the couch. I hear her say under her breath, “Let’s see…some bacteria and…a city. Yes, that’s it.” I ask her what she is doing and she replies, “I’m combining bacteria with a city in a program called Little Alchemy to see what happens.” 

“I see,” I say. “And what happens?”

“Nothing…yet,” she says.

“Is there an option for a virus?” I ask.

“Maybe. I just haven’t discovered it yet,” she answers.

9:42 am

MH, still on her Chromebook.

“I know,” she says. “I’ll try a container and…a city. What will that do?”

9:46 am

I receive a Potential Spam phone call from Mainland China. I do not answer.

10:02 am

“This is the perfect opportunity for me to learn how to skateboard!” P exclaims.

10:45 am

The boy awakens from his longer-than-usual slumber and stumbles into the kitchen to find pancakes and scrambled eggs. “Well, this isn’t the worst Monday morning ever.” 

11:30 am

The girl twin convinces the boy twin to let her dye part of his hair pink. Work in progress.

11:43 am

“I am so proud!” I look over to see that MH has successfully followed a YouTube tutorial to make an origami boat for a diorama that is still due on Wednesday.

12:20 pm to 12:45 pm

I get to know my online grocery shopper, Mark, really well over discussions about how many things on my list are out of stock. He has a sense of humor, which is most appreciated. “Fake chicken nuggets in the house!” reads his last message.

3:05, 3:10, 3:15 pm

“Mom, where’s the glitter? Mom, where are the cotton balls? Mom, I need to print out a picture of George Washington’s head. And I need some chopsticks and maybe two Q-tips.”

4:00 pm

Listening to the latest national press conference on NPR. (Now, it’s groups of ten or less.) Listening to the back-to-back voice mails from the school district, the principal from the elementary school, and the principal from the middle school. Listening to my oldest daughter ask for the umpteenth time, “Do you think we will even go back to school? Like ever?” 

4:28 pm

Mandating a family walk around the neighborhood. I almost step on a deceased squirrel at the end of the driveway. “Did it die from Coronavirus, Mom?”

5:30 pm

Washing dishes for the third time. Folding clothes for the second. Plunging the toilet for the first time…since last night. Wishing it was due to an abundance of toilet paper, but alas, just old plumbing.

6:00 pm

Making dinner. We took a vote. Three out of four quarantined family members are happy. 

6:12 pm

The girl twin asks her brother for a glass of orange juice at dinner. The boy twin (who now has subtle pink highlights) mumbles, “Why can’t you get it yourself?” I am actually yelling at my son for not pouring his sister a glass of orange juice. “How do you think this whole coming together in a crisis thing is supposed to work if you can’t even get your sister a glass of orange juice?!” I think I might need to lie down. I remind myself this is Day One.

7:05 pm

I recover and remember tomorrow is trash day. I give my son a chance to redeem himself. “Can you please take the trash cans down to the curb before dark?” I ask. He looks blankly at me. “I don’t think I can. There’s a dead, infected squirrel in the way.”

7:06 pm

My son is now taking the trash cans down to the curb.

7:30 pm

MH finally figures out how to make “sickness” on Little Alchemy. She seems pleased.

8:50 pm

I imagine my throat feels dry or scratchy or perhaps I’m just dehydrated since I cannot seem to stop binge eating the recently-delivered Skinny Girl popcorn. I gargle with warm, salt water and put the kettle on for tea. Just in case.

9:00 pm

My son calls from the bedroom, “Mom? Mom…?!”

“Yeah, Buddy?”

“Um, I love you and you’re the best mom in the whole world. And, be safe tomorrow.”


One Year (Almost).

Often, I have so much I want to articulate that it renders me mute. I fall short of expressing myself adequately, of finding just the right words, and so I find myself retreating into the perfection of silence. Like the smooth, white hill outside our home after a midnight snowfall. No footprints, nothing to interpret, no interference. Just quietness. There is beauty in that, but also a precarious vulnerability, knowing that at any moment, a branch from a towering oak might fall or a stubborn car might insist on making tracks. And then, the cycle will begin again. The searching for the words, the feelings, the reconciling of the factors beyond my control.

I know Russell struggled with this same tenuous feeling, but in a slightly different way. He had so much to articulate, that he could not record enough. His fiction-writing sessions were better described in hours instead of words, as he often deleted as much as he documented. He could craft a sentence for the better part of a night and then shake his head because it still wasn’t exactly what he wanted to say. He felt this way about much of his life. His existence. Russell always feared that he would not live to be an old man. He wanted to leave a legacy of words. Perfect words. He was the consummate artist, always trying to capture, to refine, to master. There was an observable, painful elegance about his daily pilgrimage. And though he was never satisfied with the product of his work, he was soothed by the ritual of it. The pursuit of the thing. The longing of the reward.

In between Sisyphean efforts, Russell filled time by recording the simplest things; the weather, the boldness of his tea, a joke exchanged between innocent siblings, the time he woke up that day. I wonder if he did this for monastic practice or rather to be in the right place at the right time in ready anticipation of the epiphany he patiently sought. His daily reconciliation reminded me of how I feel when I think about the universe. Is the beauty in the vast greatness of the infinite or in the nuanced smallness of the tiniest feature?

While driving to work recently, I was listening to NPR’s Performance Today, like I often do. Like he often did. The featured work was Death and Transfiguration by Richard Strauss. When I heard the host describe the work as a detailed depiction of the death of an artist, my instinct was to change the station, revert to quiet stillness. But instead, I listened, as it seemed honorable and right to bear the weight of the revelation. Strauss, among many others, shared Russell’s quest for the seemingly unattainable.The search for perfection on this Earth in the creation of something beautiful, something lasting and meaningful.

In a letter to his friend, Strauss explained the idea behind Death and Transfiguration:

…the idea came to me to write a poem describing the last hours of a man who had striven for the highest ideals. The sick man lies in bed breathing heavily and irregularly in his sleep. Friendly dreams bring a smile to the sufferer; his sleep grows lighter; he awakens. Fearful pains once more begin to torture him, fever shakes his body. When the attack is over and the pain recedes, he recalls his past life; his childhood passes before his eyes; his youth with its striving and passions and then, while the pains return, there appears to him the goal of his life’s journey, the idea, the ideal which he attempted to embody, but which he was unable to perfect because such perfection could be achieved by no man. The fatal hour arrives. The soul leaves his body, to discover in the eternal cosmos the magnificent realization of the ideal that could not be fulfilled here below.”

It was difficult to remember my husband’s last hours, described so accurately and compassionately by a man a century his elder. But the heartache I initially felt recalling the shadowy time between here and gone was subtly replaced by feelings of something new. Something that felt almost like comfort. Like Russell was vindicated in his quest for the thing that can only be revealed in the transition to what lies just beyond us. The transition to something impossible to know before its actual revelation. Perhaps Russell glimpsed the perfection he sought and was satisfied for that moment. Perhaps it is possible that when he unclenched his hands in those final moments and repeatedly whispered, “OK…OK…,” he was finally at peace.

It is my hope that in the straddling of the two worlds, Russell felt his soul complete. And that he was proud of his life’s work: his goals, his family, his accomplishments. It is my hope that he was enveloped in a coherent wholeness that transcended and outshined his greatest fears and doubts as an artist and, most importantly, as a husband, a son, and a father.

Because, if that is so, then I can also find comfort in not having the words and in breathing the quiet stillness.


Fill in the Blanks

On the sixth week after her father passed away, my oldest daughter presented me with a family portrait.

I told her I liked it very much. I like how Dad is standing tall, in front of the children, in a protective stance. I like how all the kids are huddled together, bonding, perhaps, in their collective memories.

I asked her, though, “Why don’t we have faces?”

She answered, “Because we just don’t know how we feel yet. We are ready to be laughing or crying at any moment. We just don’t know.”

Blank Spaces

Poppy (9)

On the sixth week after her father passed away, my youngest daughter presented me with a drawing.

I told her l liked it very much. I like how even though Mom and Dad are separated by space, they continue to share the warmth of a radiant heart enveloped in sunshine. I like how there is heaven and earth, stars and sun, and a calming symmetry between them.

I asked her, though, “Why don’t we have faces?”

She answered, “Because all the really important things you feel are on the inside.”

MH Drawing

MH (5)


Social Sympathy

The Greenville Journal wrote a couple of articles related to social media and the role it plays in helping families and communities grieve and support one another during difficult times. I am honored to have been interviewed about how our global village supported us through Mary Hazel and Russell’s illnesses and continues to support us now.

Sweet Goodbye


How Strange

It was shower night. (We aim for every other night as my children protest when I suggest they clean themselves every single day. I pick my battles.)

I was putting away laundry in the twins’ room when I heard P call out to me, in the way that your kids do the second you walk out of the room, “Moooooooom?” Moooooooom?!”

“I’m right here,“ I answered loudly. Sometimes, lately, the kids have wanted me to be a little closer. “What is it?”

“Can you come in here?” she asked.

“Sure,” I surrendered, as I piled the remaining clean laundry back into the empty basket. I poked my head around the door, making sure not to let out all the hot steam from the cozy marble-tiled bathroom. I have been frequently reprimanded. “What do you need?”

“I need you to come in. Like all the way in. Please?” she added.

I scooted in, barefoot, and navigated around the broken tile that I’ve been meaning to replace for years. I perched on the nearby shower chair which remains in the bathroom though nobody needs it anymore. “What’s up?” I asked.

My modest daughter peeled back the fogged-up shower curtain and stood there with the hot water beating down on her back. She was holding a slim crescent-shaped bar of soap and looked like she had seen a ghost.

“Mom,” she whispered. “Dad used this bar of soap.”

I smelled peppermint, tea tree oil, and a little lavender. I took a deep breath. There were several long seconds of silence, but the understanding washed over me, too.

“He used this on his body, while he was still alive,” she said. “How strange that the bar of soap is still here. And Daddy is not.”

More silence. More deep breathing. Nodding.

“Mom, I don’t think we should use it anymore. I think we should save it. It was Dad’s soap. This is how he smelled.”

I told her that I had been having similar thoughts. When I emptied the trash from the bedroom for the first time after he died, I took inventory: a banana peel, an empty yogurt cup, a napkin, a tea bag. His last snack. And I thought, “How strange that the banana peel is still yellow.”

How strange that his phone is still charged, waiting for a text. How strange that his slippers are still poised under the bed ready to receive his tired feet. How strange that he still gets mail. How strange that the grocery list he started on a pink Post-it Note still waits in the drawer. How strange that the cat our daughter chose from the Humane Society on her eighth birthday outlived him. How strange that his laptop is still plugged into the same outlet, where he wrote his last journal entry, on the day before his heart stopped. How very strange.

On the afternoon I squeezed Russell’s right hand, and the palliative care doctor held his left, his voice cracked when he responded, “How strange…” He had just been told that the medicine was no longer working. “How strange that I never will finish writing my second novel. How strange that I won’t see the children graduate,” he hoarsely whispered. “How strange that I won’t be around to take care of my mother and father.”

And it is all just so strange. The negative space. The echoes. The ripples. The feeling that he has just been in the hospital a little longer than usual but will return any day now. The illusion that he is still whole in my mind, when I close my eyes.

We are only a month into this grieving process. I expect that eventually we will put away his razor. We will sort through his clothes. We will consume the last of the groceries we bought while he was still with us. And then, I’m sure, there will be a completely new and different kind of strange.

Eventually, I realized my daughter, soap sliver in hand, had been shivering at the shower threshold for some minutes. We had been staring right through each other, lost in our own strange thoughts. I got up from the plastic chair, held her wrinkled hands, and drew her small, wet body into a clean, warm towel where we stayed until the shaking stopped.

I wonder how long soap will keep in a Ziploc bag.

Dad's Soap.jpg

A Conversation with Charlie

C: “Mom, where is Dad? I mean, physically. Where is he right now?”

Me: “Well, Buddy, his heart was too big and his body got tired. His spark just flew right on out of there. I was holding his hand when it happened and I saw it.”

C: “So if his body doesn’t work anymore, does that mean he can’t use his brain? Dad always said when he couldn’t use his brain anymore, it was time to move on.”

Me: “Well, that’s a good question. I don’t think it works in the same way we’re used to.”

C: “Can he remember things?”

Me: “I like to think so.”

C: “Is he conscious?”

Me: “I think it’s a different kind of state. Something we can’t really understand yet.”

C: “If he’s not conscious and his brain doesn’t work like it used to, I’m scared he doesn’t remember me. And if he doesn’t know who I am, then it makes me feel different.”

Me: “Different how?”

C: (Pause) “You know how you look in the mirror every day and you see your reflection, right? Like every day. There you are, just like you expect.”

Me: “Yes…”

C: “Well, now I kind of feel like I don’t really have that reflection anymore. Like when Dad stopped being able to remember me, my reflection kind of just disappeared.”

Me: “Oh my goodness.”

C: “What?”

Me: “Not only do you look just like your father, you’re starting to think like him, too.”

C: “Is that a good thing?”

Me: “It is. Just remember, your Dad is always with you. You carry him around in your heart and in your memories, and I feel he is with us.”

C: “I know all that, Mom. I know that when I miss him I can remember him; I just…wish he could remember me.”

Me: (Hugs for hours.)

Charlie Blog