The saccharine melodies of Kidz Bop play on repeat, alternating with the “Frozen II” soundtrack. My two children, who are 7 and 4, run around our Manhattan apartment, showing the typical strains of stir-craziness from endless hours at home: “He hit me!” “That’s mine!” “Why do I have to take a bath?”
They do online art lessons and they have Silly Time at noon followed by some character-themed yoga. Sometimes they are allowed to watch “Paw Patrol,” which is usually perfect for maintaining quiet during a work call. They FaceTime me.
I’m 10 feet away, on coronavirus quarantine in the master bedroom, and I have been here for days. My partner, who has a demanding corporate law job, is now working from home and saddled with all of the physical work of child care, while I quack orders from the other side of the closed door.
I can’t make lunch, give baths or administer Band-Aids. All I can do is try to enforce naptime, referee kid squabbles and attempt to soothe their fears from the other side of the wall. This poorly timed absence renders me helpless and guilty, and I’m an Episcopalian.
I got tested for Covid-19 last weekend after feeling fatigued and having a mild fever. At the urging of a forcefully persuasive doctor friend, I walked to our local urgent care center and told them about my symptoms. I am a recent cancer survivor, which makes me “at risk,” so I was tested for flu and coronavirus.
The doctor pushed a cotton swab so far up my nose that it seemed like malpractice. He placed it in a vial and sadly announced that “it doesn’t look like it’s going to be flu.” Then he said, “If you thought that was bad, the next test goes much deeper.” This time, he took out a thin, flaccid swab and shoved it into my wasabi burn area, all the way down to my tongue. I tried to suppress my gag and act like an old pro at pandemic testing. I failed.
I was instructed to quarantine myself immediately. Test results would take five days, they said.
“May I go outside?” “No.”
“How do I eat?” “People can leave food at your door.”
“What about my children?” “Stay away from them.”
I could not be hands-on in the supreme moment of need. All the burden would be on my partner.
I’ve been mapping my confinement into stages of grief. First, Denial: I couldn’t believe that I would be indoors, alone, for days on end.
I think I skipped an acute sense of Anger in exchange for emotional volatility. On the second day, my 4-year-old daughter approached the closed door, placed her mouth by the crack at the bottom, and announced very loudly that we could still be friends and “talk to each other.” I had been quarantined for maybe 28 hours, but this was so kind and pure that I cried. Even preschoolers can understand the necessity of connection. Verklempt has always been one of my favorite emotions.
Then I got to Bargaining. Maybe I could make the best of my isolated time by doing things to improve myself. I’ve been working on a book proposal on shared responsibility in parenting, of all things.
I’m a 210-pound male version of Marie Kondo, so I thought I could use this as an opportunity to sift through (or quietly throw away) all the things that my partner had put aside to organize “someday.” It’s been 12 years.
I felt useful when she consented to my going through her four boxes of pictures from college, most of which was packaging, negatives and duplicate prints. They gave me astonishing glimpses of ways our lives had intersected long before we even knew each other. I saw an old friend from the early 1990s in one of her pictures from a summer in Washington, D.C. She had taken a cruise down the Nile with a longtime colleague of mine. Her brother had gone to prom in Long Island with someone that I knew from college. We orbit each other’s lives like rotating planets throughout time, and I had the pictures to prove it.
On the third day, I was feeling so great that I did CrossFit in my room. My temperature was normal. I had no headache. I wasn’t coughing.
Toward the end of the workout, the doctor left a voice mail message: My test results were in, faster than expected. I called back and waited on hold. My heart beat with the anticipation of the next step in the grief cycle: Depression.
I tested positive. I didn’t listen to the doctor’s instructions, because I was envisioning the prickly crown-shaped cells infiltrating my body, closing off my lungs, and infecting my family and friends. I was still sweating from my workout, but now I was sick: my temperature spiked; I felt tired; I checked for shortness of breath. I felt more scared than truly sick. I feared death.
I have no idea how I had the strange luck to contract this — I never win raffles, lotteries or even bingo.
But I am lucky in other ways. My bedroom has a wonderful view of the city, the fastest internet, and the cacophony of proximity to my family. We have enough to eat. There is every indication that I will recover. I will remain behind this door for at least 10 more days. Perhaps during this time, I will reach the final stage, Acceptance.
Full time parenting for the next two months, on both sides of the wall, will take some creative workarounds. This morning, while my partner took a work call, my children dumped six large bottles of tempera paint all over our rug, sofa and dining table, extending to the bathroom and kitchen. I was so mad that I threatened to come out and give them coronavirus.
Like a prisoner awaiting parole, I envision my release. I can hear my partner and children playing, and I receive the offerings of art and food they bring to my door before they scamper away. There are no close conversations, no fingers through the hair, and no kisses or hugs. And thankfully, for now I don’t feel terribly sick. But I have the strange ache of proximate isolation. I can hear everything happening in my family’s life but I am alone.
Kevin Noble Maillard is working on a book about modern fatherhood in America.