My parents were both in their mid-40s when, in a deeply unlikely twist of fate, I was born. Being my mom’s first (and obviously only) child, my rude entrance into existence was very likely to come with complications that could seriously hurt both her and me. I was a serious risk. Surprisingly, everything went well. There were no problems with her, and except for my occasional body odor issues, I’ve remained in good health ever since.
Now my parents are both turning 70, and all of a sudden, I’m a risk again.
I graduated college in 2018, and like many of my peers, found myself moving back home, because I majored in English, and what did I honestly expect? Although I have since held down a well-paying job, quit that job to be the managing editor here at Milwaukee Mag, and shockingly managed to pay off my student loans, I haven’t left the house yet. Up to now, I viewed living at home as a harmless bit of loserdom that fit in well with my overall aesthetic as a lonely weirdo, living off cold soup and frozen tears.
But all of a sudden, it’s not a joke anymore.
My parents are in the most at-risk group. We live in a tiny house. Worst of all, many carriers of coronavirus are asymptomatic for days, but just as contagious. If I brought the virus home without realizing, there would be no way to rectify that mistake, and that is a relentless terror and weird guilt like I’ve never quite experienced.
Once the virus reached Wisconsin, I continued going into work, but stopped almost everything else I feasibly could. It’s not like I was tearing it up at the club before, but still, I ceased every optional activity. Home. Work. Home. That’s it.
During this time, my dad continued, and continues, to go into work in downtown Milwaukee (although today’s “safer-at-home” order might finally change that), and from the moment he leaves the house until he returns, I live in complete dread that some filthy scumbag is going to sneeze on him. I gave him a bottle of sanitizer to take with him and begged him not to touch his face.
After that, I started noticing a significant reversal of roles. Whereas my mother had once begged me not to climb up on the monkey bars, run with scissors, or repeat any of the words my dad said when he was watching football, I am now the one constantly nagging her to wash her hands, don’t leave the house, disinfect amazon packages. Every evening, without fail, I ask my dad to stay home from work tomorrow.
“It’s really not safe,” I scold. “The virus lives on metal surfaces for days. Carriers are often asymptomatic. There are statistics, studies. You need to read more about this. Did you wash your hands before dinner? I didn’t hear that faucet running, Mister. Why aren’t you eating your vegetables — they’re good for you.”
“Oh my God, you are the worst,” he responds.
Then there are my more reasonable requests, such as convincing my mother not to lead her usual Friday soup dinners at church.
“I don’t think having a bunch of 80-year-olds eat soup out of a communal bucket is a great call right now, Mom.”
And my slightly more paranoid.
“Don’t go out back, Dad. There’s this squirrel out there, and … I don’t like the looks of him.”
But I’ve also imposed the harshest restrictions on myself. I started working at home last week and I haven’t left the house in ten days (save for my early morning, before all the sick people can wake up, runs), and I have no plans to leave it in the future. Maybe I’m being too intense, but it really doesn’t seem that way when I look at what’s happening in Italy, where reports are that people over 60 are being refused ventilators in parts of the northern half of the country.
The worry is constant and not particularly pleasant, but I think most everyone is feeling the same dark feeling right now, and I see no reason we can’t get past it eventually. But for right now, I’m in the tunnel with the rest of you and the light isn’t exactly on the horizon, so I have no intention of letting up on myself.
For me, it’s this:
Most couples in my parent’s situation wouldn’t have had me. Married at age 43. One-bedroom apartment. No paid maternity leave. Doctors advising you about everything that could go wrong in labor. And then, to take on a newborn when others your age are sending kids off to college. But nevertheless, here I am.
Staying home is the least I owe them.