I have spent the past 11 months filling my children with fear. Don’t touch that, I say. Lift your mask over your nose. Keep six feet away! I have chosen not to water down the reasons, explaining to my 6- and 9-year-old sons what the coronavirus is and how it infects and how many people have died and continue to die daily in the United States (2,010 on Monday). I have been especially preachy with my youngest. We’ve talked about his lungs. About the pulmonologist who told us he had tracheomalacia at 18 months and then, later, asthma. We’ve talked about all the emergency medical visits, all the nebulizers and inhalers that fill our kitchen cabinet.
He gets it. He’s washed his hands so often that his knuckles have turned red and raw.
What happens after you spend 11 months filling your children with fear and then the source of dread arrives? And of all the bodies in your household, it slips into only the smallest one?
Is there a name for the feeling just before you tell your sensitive 6-year-old that the threat is no longer abstract? That he’s tested positive?
He doesn’t believe me at first. I hardly believe me. It’s Jan. 21, barely 7 a.m.; maybe it’s all a dream. My son looks from me to his father then back again. We had the most reliable tests. His older brother cups his hands over his mouth in disbelief.
How? my son says, voice wobbly.
I don’t need to remind him that his teacher tested positive, that she’s home convalescing with a fever. That’s why we got tested in the first place. But this fiery, inexhaustible boy with the perpetual holes in his pants’ knees cannot help touching every wall and gate we pass on our Brooklyn sidewalks. He grips every bar in the playground, which we visit often because we do not have a yard. He regularly pokes fingers in his eyes and nose and mouth. He is 6. Who knows who gave the virus to whom?
I think about the two and a half days since we took the test, during which time I’ve helped him blow his nose and wash his face and polished off his glass of orange juice.
Now I mobilize and procure masks for everyone. My husband designates an area in the living room “just for first graders,” of which we have only one, and starts to build a fort. My boy understands the implications. He crumples to the floor.
I don’t want to have Covid, he cries.
Will I die? he says. Will you?
I had wanted my children to be afraid of this virus so that they’d be protected. So that our family and the community and the world would be, too. But I am also preternaturally anxious, someone who relies on therapy and medication to breathe evenly. My children have seen me distraught over seven-day averages and incautious loved ones and an immoral president who helped accelerate the spread. The size of my son’s sob is proportional to the extra-large apprehension I sewed into him for 11 months. How can this be unraveled?
There have been more than 2.82 million cases of Covid-19 in children as of Jan. 28, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Children account for 12.8 percent of cases in the United States, but there’s a caveat: These numbers most likely reflect an underreporting, since children may have no symptoms or only mild ones and may not be tested.
I tell my son that everything will be OK. I try to mean it. I say that being asymptomatic is a good sign, that he has a strong immune system, healthy organs. My husband and I carry the twin bed out of the room he shares with his brother, even though they’ve been breathing on each other all week. Better to do something, my husband says, than nothing. We set up an isolated folding table so that he can attend remote school and designate a bathroom just for him. We make it sound exciting. Your own room! Your own bathroom!
I’m like a king, he says, briefly pleased. He asks if I will make him a crown from cardboard. He does not know that “corona” in Latin means crown.
My husband and I have reminded each other and relatives that asthma puts individuals at risk for severe illness from Covid-19. It’s how we’ve explained our extra precautions. But it occurs to me now that we’re not actually so worried about him suffering physically or even, heaven forbid, dying. (At least 215 children have thus far in the United States.) We’re worried about the adults he might infect. We are worried about each other.
My son retreats to his castle with an iPad. Between work meetings, I deliver food. Room service! Still, we know the isolation won’t last, even as the C.D.C. advises a period of 10 days. He’s too restless. Too 6. After a few hours, he hollers my name, voice muffled through multiple layers: door, comforter, mask.
Your highness? I say, poking my covered face inside. He is upright on his bed, hair mussed. He stares at me. Then he opens his arms wide.
There is a flicker of panic in his face, a question mark, that I won’t approach. Or maybe I’m projecting; for a blink, I hesitate. I worry he sees this. I am afraid of my own child.
The apprehension will persist when my older son, a week later, tests positive, too. Both boys remain asymptomatic as we approach the tail end of isolation.
Children look to parents “when deciding how to feel about Covid-19,” Dr. Aaron Milstone, a pediatrician at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, has said. “If you feel calm and prepared, they are likely to feel similarly.”
I can’t promise that I exuded calm in the moment my youngest reached out to me, as much as I wanted to. Tried to. But what I could supply, without pretense, was comfort. Love.
On his warm bed, my son and I wrapped our arms around each other tight and did not speak a word.
Courtney Zoffness, @czoffrun, is the author of the forthcoming book “Spilt Milk: Memoirs.” She is also the director of the creative writing program at Drew University.
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