She just returned from an appointment in the big city. We are so excited to see her! I am nervous for her return at the same time. A two-hour lunch with her father during her visit can create a stir of emotions, a change in behavior, or she could return just as she left. Nonetheless, I am excited for her return. Life is back to normal. I’m a single mother with three girls and my firstborn has returned! Seems dramatic for a weekend away, but those three girls are my life and it feels complete when we are all together. Lots of hugs, kisses, and talking.
She is struggling from her visit, so the repair work begins. It won’t take long because she is beginning to adapt to two totally different environments and can adjust more quickly. After a good night’s sleep, we wake up refreshed and ready to return to our normal lives of work and school, then home. Our provincial lockdown is still in effect! The girls struggle with this, but our lives have become a solitude of family times — sometimes great and sometimes not. But at least we are together.
After a long day of school, we prepare for our nighttime routine of dinner, clean up, making lunches, showers, books, and bed. The same thing, the same routine most nights. I get my youngest to sleep, then head downstairs to talk with my older two daughters.
The phone rings. I think nothing of it, until I see the phone number. It’s my ex-husband. I run upstairs to take the call. I answer, weary. My heart drops in 5 seconds. My hands shake. I hear the dreaded words all families have been fearing for the last year of the pandemic: “Our daughter has come in close contact with a COVID positive person.” His fiancée. A two-hour dinner. Our lives have flipped to the dreaded nightmare. “You will receive a phone call in 10 minutes from the Health Unit.” No! Not to my oldest child, the one who suffers from anxiety. My highest-needs child.
I sit in my room alone. My hands won’t stop shaking. Unable to speak. No tears, just endless “what if” thoughts. The phone rings again; it’s the Health Unit with a list of instructions. She is to self-isolate from the rest of the family. But why? We were just talking. Just hugging. Just hanging out. Why now? Is it not too late for that?
Then, I get the extra mom guilt from the Health Unit: “What about your other two children? They need to be protected from the virus.” They are making me choose between my children. Choose to protect the mental health of one child or the physical health of my other two. I’m put in the middle. I’m all alone to make this decision. I have one minute to make this decision and implement the action plan the Health Unit put in place for our family to follow.
Wait! What about my daughter? Her anxiety. Her fears of staying in a basement, alone, with basement noises, and away from her circle of trust. I walk downstairs, hands shaking in fear. I call my daughters to the downstairs living room, as I sit on the staircase. I ask my middle daughter to join me and I ask my older daughter to sit on the couch. I see the look in her eyes — she thinks she’s done something wrong, as I prepare to deliver the worst news and ultimately to divide the house, all of us and her alone.
“I have something to tell you.” Tears form in her eyes; she knows it’s serious, she senses danger. “Your Dad’s fiancée tested positive for COVID and you are considered a high-risk close contact.” A scream erupts from body of fear. She keeps screaming over and over without taking a breath. The scream is not for fear of her health, but the fear of her reputation and the stigma attached to COVID.
The screaming has stopped and now her anxiety kicks in. She’s unable to breath. She is having a panic attack. I can’t hug her. I can’t hold her and help calm her down. My words are the only thing I can use, not my touch or my love. My heart instantly breaks into a thousand pieces — I am failing my child. She screams, “Mom, I need a hug. Please hug me.” Which do I choose, mental health versus physical health? Which do I choose, one child versus my other two children?
This is heartbreaking, unfair, cruel, wrong, and torturous. A lump is in my throat, but I can’t cry. I have to support her. We pause. We take a long pause. We do some breathing exercises. My middle daughter starts to cry. “I don’t want to die.” I can’t hug her either because my oldest daughter is watching. I can’t give her something my other daughter is screaming for. I am failing. I can’t cry right now. Breathe deep, keep breathing, calm them down. I keep telling myself that I can do this. We keep breathing, I keep reassuring them, and we eventually calm down.
We need a distraction, so I issue our plan. My oldest will move into the downstairs bedroom, bathroom, and living room. My middle daughter will move upstairs into the other bedroom. Time for action. We all put on masks and get to work. Our minds are temporarily distracted. We have a plan and a distraction from our emotions.
The plan is complete. We move into the details of this plan. The details cause anxiety, mental breakdowns, and endless tears. Fourteen days away from school for my children is tragic. The thoughts and worries of rumors is distressing. Especially because we live in a small town with zero COVID cases — we will be the first in town! I need to silence my worries.
My daughter’s phone rings. It’s her father. She puts it on speaker. He tries to help reassure her, but he is unable to support her just as I am unable to. The remainder of our night is talking through the “what if’s,” the rules, the worry, the anxiety, and missing school. She is so scared downstairs. I can see her looking around the empty room. The anxiety is growing at the thought of sleeping in an uncomfortable room alone.
I break a small rule — I have to. I suggest she sleeps on the couch downstairs and bring her sister’s blankets out there. I see a smile and now she has a mission! I watch her happily go back and forth from the room to the downstairs living room. Blankets, pillows, stuffies, toiletries, perfume, mattresses, and the piles get bigger and bigger. Thankfully her sister doesn’t put up a fight about the mess, but helps make suggestions to her. She creates different zones in her room: a place to eat, a place to stretch and workout, her relaxing area, a sleeping area, and, of course, her beauty area. She is happy and her goal is complete.
She plops down in her makeshift bed and the smile fades. “Mom, can you sleep at the top of the stairs? I’m scared.” It’s 3:30 AM. We are all so tired, but I instantly accept her offer. Everyone begins to prepare for bed. I set up my blanket and pillow at the top of the stairs. I’m in for a long night. Deep down I know it’s just the beginning. As she’s falling asleep, her last words to me: “Thanks Mom, you make me feel better.” Her eyes close. I take a deep breath, but my eyes don’t close — they stay open all night.
The days pass like a blur. So many tears, lows, and worries. The rumors begin around our small town. Time to prepare for the backlash — chin up, take a deep breath, and prepare myself and my children for the shaming. It doesn’t take long to realize the teacher is absent and all of her girls aren’t at school either. The rumors fly like a wildfire and burn just as hard. My phone dings with random questions to spark a conversation to seek the truth. Screenshots sent of social media conversations with my daughter’s name in it. People driving slowly past our home to get a glimpse inside in hopes of confirming the rumors. I do receive a few sincere messages of concern, but my subconscious kicks in making me question the authenticity of their messages. Is it concern or to validate the gossip? Deep down, a knot is growing in my stomach. I find a release by escaping to the shower to cry the entire time. Heart-wrenching sobs to release the knot inside, to feel some temporary relief. I wipe my tears and return to my girls, who are waiting anxiously for my support and guidance.
As the week continues, the negative COVID results come in. Every one of the contacts tests negative! We begin to relax, to breath, and to realize our health is not in jeopardy. However, their mental health is still in jeopardy. The rumors and gossips continue to spread faster than the virus itself. The cars continue to pass by slowly, our phones continue to ding with new information or questions on our whereabouts. The shame still plagues us like tar. But we are negative!!! I want to shout it from the rooftops! I want to shout to leave us alone and we aren’t carrying the virus.
We hold on so tightly to the moments and small amounts of people that make us smile. I wipe my tears to wave at the people who drop off food, care packages, beer, and other treats to help us survive and give some hope to our souls that humanity still exists in this town. But the knot is still there, the anger still burns deep inside, the negativity outweighs the positivity. All of this is for nothing! All of this is for a negative COVID result. Was it worth it? Was all of this necessary to jeopardize our mental health? Are we sacrificing our mental health over our physical health? Please tell me that I made right decision and that I did not make them suffer for nothing. Did I fail them? I will never have that answer.
It is time to open our door and walk out into this cruel and judgmental world. We have been labelled in this town. I hold my girls hands and squeeze tight. I know we will all face something different today, but I pray it all falls on me and their friends welcome them back with open arms. A tear falls from my face, not because we now have freedom and this is the end, but because I know deep down this is just the beginning.