Elizabeth performed her first airport pickup a little after 8 PM on February 27. Her mother mentioned it was odd seeing a mask or two on the plane. It reminded her of the SARS epidemic where some people wore masks constantly and some didn't think about it at all. They talked about the first cases in the US and the case on the West Coast that seemed to come out of nowhere. Her mother didn't think it was anything to worry about, except she was worried about it. Quietly.
Less than two weeks later, on March 11, NYS shut its CUNY and SUNY schools down. Elizabeth's last day in the city was on the 10th. That was a year ago, last Wednesday. Classes were redirected to any form of online teaching that a professor was prepared to manage. Some classes consisted of PowerPoint slides posted on the school website. There were no lectures for those classes; just the slides, and the tests, and whatever grades you got.
In the beginning was Zoom and people who had not used online and live collaboration tools were flummoxed. The school was not prepared to support them. The first week was absurdly painful and the next week was a timeout. The teachers came back a little better prepared but then there was spring break.
On March 21, Elizabeth's grandmother died. It was far enough into the month that we had to explain that it wasn't a COVID death. Somehow, if it wasn't a COVID death it didn't seem to have as much weight. On March 22, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut shut down. The rest of the country failed to process the extent of the threat. In New England, people learned to make cloth masks with inserts for filters. Anyone who was any good with a sewing machine turned them out from sun up to sun down.
Kitty's funeral was the last in the state. It was attended by ten people, including the priest. The cemetery remained closed until midsummer when it opened on Sundays.
On March 31, Elizabeth's mother lost her job, the one she'd started the last week of February. She wasn't terribly upset, a contractor should always have a six month buffer. Elizabeth's mom liked to be safe.
Four days later, on April 4, New York City opened the first mass graves on Hart Island. If you do not live in the Greater Metropolitan Area, not only don't you know what this means, you cannot process the fact of the numbers. Elizabeth's mother looked at the photographs from the New York Times, sat at her desk and wept. She had not seen her father since Christmas and meant to be in Vermont at least once a quarter, if not more. On April 4, Elizabeth's mother crawled in a hole of her own making and tried to make peace with the idea of never seeing her dad again. He was already sick and no matter what most of the country believed, this thing wasn't going anywhere anytime soon.
She wrote a book for her son. Later, she wrote one for Lucia but had no idea what to write for Elizabeth. There was nothing unsaid between them that needed saying. Nothing to teach a young woman who is not ready for the second round of mother things. She apologized and Elizabeth said, it's OK, but it wasn't. So here we are, finally. It took a year of COVID's special gifts to see the light that is meant for Elizabeth.
Her mother ordered 50# of flour and 2# of yeast. These were the things that flew off the shelf and her mother said, for fucks sake! What are these people doing? She was very worried about the supply chain and far more concerned with non-perishable food, medical supplies, and fresh drinking water. There wasn't anything reasonable to do about the water, but the flour arrived and she promptly birthed a sour dough starter. They got used to masks very quickly and shied away from the reckless. Mostly they stayed inside and went about the business of being alive. Meanwhile, the world continued to burn.
Toward the end of April, a pipe burst over the living room. Her mother called the land people's son because calling the land people had no real purpose. She explained where the leak had occurred, that the water had been turned off, and that there was no apparent damage. Twenty minutes later, two of them appeared, uninvited at the top of the basement stairs. They were maskless. She sent them back. The woman appeared at the front door without a mask and was sent back. She stomped her foot, muttered something that would have been better left un-muttered and stalked back around to the main house.
460 square feet is a very, very small space, best occupied by two or less people, especially in the time of COVID. All three of them crowded into the bathroom space to see what could be seen. Nothing could be seen. The water was off. All three of them crowded at the end of the living space where it had rained on the ironing board which was busy helping Elizabeth's mother make masks. Eventually they left.
A plumber arrived in the morning, took a look at the situation, and shook his head. We have a problem, he said, there are lead pipes all through this house and they are soft and old and disintegrating. You don't drink the water, do you? I'll be back tomorrow with a crew. In the mean time the screaming behind the wall picked up a new intensity and was redirected at Elizabeth and her mother. They should not have been surprised by the language; after all, they'd been trying to ignore it for well over a year. When the verbal assaults did not cease, Elizabeth's mother said, I'm kinda scared, and you? Yes. I can't live like this. They can hear her on my zoom sessions and I don't know what to say.
They decided, in the middle of the worst outbreak in the last century, to move. Some apartments could only be rented sight unseen. Apartments that could be viewed involved no contact with the property owners. They found a place in a part of Pleasantville called The Flats. They explained the situation, wrote three very large checks and then Elizabeth's mother went to work. She researched New York State Tenant laws and identified at least forty-eight documentable violations. The lead pipes were the very last straw. Her last cat was dying and finally they knew why. Neither of them were willing to comment on what the water may or may not have been doing to them, but they promptly stopped drinking it.
The apartment at The Flats was perfect. There were two bedrooms and a small office. They had approximately doubled their living space and the neighborhood was a village unto itself. Elizabeth completed her sophomore year and will complete her junior year online. She is still plagued by the belief that she might be failing everything and is still coming out at the top of her class. Elizabeth's mother lost the next contract job and money was getting tight.
Elizabeth's mom was very tired; the sort of tired you can only be if you've been brute forcing yourself most of your adult life. If a person could be subjective about a thing, she looked like she'd hit end of life. All it took was one phone call from a tax attorney. A thing that could have been, and eventually was, handled by a single phone call. Elizabeth's mom could only see darkness. She made a plan, got her affairs in order, and made a phone call to her son to fulfill one last promise. They drank beer and watched the sun set over the Saugatuck Reservoir, not two miles from the home they all remembered. He is a good listener and she does not remember what she said or much of what he said except one thing. You can never ask a person not to kill themselves; the best you can do is listen and ask, how can I help?
She smoked his cigarettes because it really didn't matter anymore.
It took exactly four days for her to climb off the ledge. She wasn't joking and she wasn't asking for help, but Lucia's anger sent her back over the edge momentarily. She called her brother and presented her lost mind.
No one suddenly decides their life isn't worth living. It can take a lifetime to reach that place. It would stand to reason that coming off the mountain entirely might take some time. What they weren't counting on was Elizabeth's mom's body giving out. The tachycardia was the least of it. The neurological damage caused by the cortisol in her brain brought her recovery to a dead halt. For a brief moment both Elizabeth and her mom thought this might be the point of no return.
The country was recovering from its 45th president and the January 6 assault on the capitol. Vaccines were rolling out and the numbers were dropping. The anti-mask contingent reared its head again and the State of Texas, recently having been without power and unprepared, lifted all bans, Texans in the bars and restaurants overflowed into the streets and the country waited for their numbers to spike again.
Elizabeth walked her mother in circles around the neighborhood. She was relearning to breathe and moving her body was very difficult. She seemed stuck, sometimes staring at a wall for hours. She had a doctor because of the ER visit because of the tachycardia but she was swimming through the swamp of viable brain cells. They noticed that her heart rate dropped when she left the state to visit her aunt. They noticed she could think again.
In Elizabeth's mom's entire life, nobody was safer than Elizabeth. How could she leave this beautiful, sweet girl? It was not a matter of competency. She won that award hands down. It was a matter of the past. It isn't as if Mike and Lucia didn't have their own pasts, but Elizabeth could still be held close.
Together they decided that it was time for Mom to go away, to do whatever she needed to do to take care of herself. They don't know what that will be exactly, but they see the path. They will work it out, one for Elizabeth, and one for Mom. They will put literally everything they own in storage and they will walk their separate paths.
Will you visit me? Elizabeth's Mom texts...