My oldest child, Allison, was the kid who said she wanted to play soccer, but then made me stay within eyesight at the field, who was excited about going to birthday parties, but made me walk her in and then stay with her until she told me it was ok to go.
Now in her 20’s, she’s stayed that way, throwing herself into what she’s most afraid of, taking flights with a Xanax in her pocket “just in case.” She never takes the Xanax; she just needs to know it’s there, just like she needed me to be in the doorway at the birthday house, or on the edge of the soccer field.
My daughter has learned to live with her anxiety
My dad admires her for this trait too, citing Nelson Mandela’s famous quote, “The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” He has said this to Allison since she was a little girl, repeating it to make sure she got it.
And she does. She calls me paralyzed on the South Street bridge, over a potential problem with a landlady, a housemate, work. She gives the potential catastrophe air, and then makes the necessary call, has the conversation, she does what she needs to do, and learns again that facing what she’s most afraid of is usually the right answer and the outcome is never as bad as the disaster she imagines.
My kids’ dad died when they were 13, 11, and 5. As the oldest, a lot of responsibility fell on her and in retrospect, I’m sometimes afraid that I allowed or expected her to co-parent more than I should have. But in my defense, she was already the responsible one, the smart one, the decision-maker. In the middle of the night of the day she was born I looked into her eyes and felt that she held all the secrets of the universe.
What we are living through now exacerbates everything
And what we are living through now is all of her catastrophic thinking rolled up into one storm cloud, a tornado that pops up and touches down without rhyme or reason. Part of her job with the city of Philadelphia is to disseminate the latest information on the situation in the city. One day she texted me, “Mom, there are only 10 new cases today!” And I was so happy to see a bit of hope in her message. Ten minutes later she took the rose colored glasses off and wrote—“Just a few days ago it was terrible when there was one. Now I’m trying to celebrate that there’s only 10.”
I knew it wouldn’t take her long to connect those dots. She quickly saw that trying to hold on to numbers to impose some logic on the current chaos won’t hold up. She is still my daughter, after all, and there’s nothing I can do.
So that’s her dichotomy, she’s the worrier but also the most responsible like a second mom to her siblings. And she’s also the one who calls me the most when I travel, the only one who panics if I don’t text back within an hour of receiving a message. You know what we fought over the most when she was a teenager? The things I allowed her siblings to do that she thought were too risky.
Once, I had to pull over in a torrential summer downpour after a mundane trip to the grocery for a few items, a trip that should have taken me 30 minutes took closer to an hour. By the time I got home she had worked herself up into actual hysteria.
My mother, who Allison was very close to, died just over a year after my husband did. So, what did Allison did for her first job? She was an activities coordinator at a senior citizen home, playing bingo with them and Frank Sinatra for them, serving them ice cream, making seasonal crafts, and…watching them die. She’d come home, cry inconsolably for half an hour, then tell me all the reasons why it was ok for that person to go, to join their husband or wife, that she or he was 96 and just fell asleep: a good life, a good death.
When she was about four I took her to see Snow White at a discount movie theater. When the witch gave Snow White the apple and Snow White took that fateful bite, Allison was so terrorized that I had to carry her out of the theater. And when we got home she made me reenact the scene over and over and over again.
So…maybe this is ok, her working in the epicenter of this crisis. Knowledge must give her some sense of control. She texts me the latest info simultaneously with the press releases—nothing is going to pass by her. This catastrophe is realer than real: in her darkest most frightened moments she could not have imagined this. It’s silent and invisible and has literally changed the world as we know it. She already knows, too well, what it’s like to have your world change.
We parents are sad for ourselves but heart-broken for our kids
I am her mother and I have no words to comfort her. I am terrified, terrified on a global scale. But my heart is broken most by watching my young adult child try to make sense of this. I hope each day that the information flowing over and through does not sweep her away.
She’s isolating, working from home, wearing a mask when she goes out, walking her dog through the city and taking photos of blossoming trees, real rainbows and those drawn and hung up in windows, the gorgeous meals she’s making. She’s trying her best, breathing through it. Sometimes I face the city skyline and try to send her positive vibes, trying to keep her in that elusive and rickety place of already being nostalgic for this time, this pause in our “real” lives, in some odd way, while we’re still in it, this time of both quiet and confusion.
I try to keep both of us focusing on TikTok dances and funny memes, good food, gratitude for Zoom and Skype and Netflix, gratitude that for right now, we are ok.
More to Read:
Kathleen Volk Miller has written for LitHub, NYT Modern Love, O, the Oprah magazine, Salon, the NYTimes, Family Circle, Philadelphia Magazine and other venues. “How We Want to Live,” an essay, was chosen as the penultimate piece in Oprah’s Book of Starting Over (FlatIron Books, Hearst Publications, 2016). She is co-editor of the anthology, Humor: A Reader for Writers (Oxford University Press, 2014). She is co-editor of The Painted Bride Quarterly and co-host of PBQ’s podcast, Slush Pile. She has also published in literary magazines, such as Drunken Boat, Opium, and other venues. She holds “Healing through Writing” workshops, and other memoir classes. She consults on literary magazine start up, working with college students, and getting published in literary magazines. She is a professor at Drexel University.