To my daughter,
I vaguely recall brief references of quarantines scattered throughout my prior history lessons. Movies would often incorporate them as frightening plot points uniquely characterized by interminable isolation. But never did I think that this would become our reality. Never did I think that we would endure a quarantine of our own.
Just as I was nearing the end of my academic term, a tidal wave ripped across life as we knew it. Within four weeks of the spring semester coming to a close, a global pandemic shifted all of humanity. Initial reports of it being a hoax flooded the headlines even as thousands died in other nations. We ignored the alarms, either willfully or incompetently. The universities started to shut down one-by-one. Then it was my own institution as we were left to convert to online teaching within a moment’s notice. Your daycare shuttered its doors. Your brother’s high school abruptly shut down just as he was finalizing plans for his senior prom. Memories were stolen before they could even occur. Graduations, weddings, and even funerals became faded impossibilities.
Then it was the entire economy. From the NBA, to the NHL, to the MLB. We muddled through hurried calculations, attempting to assess the staggering magnitude of the resulting losses. When millions upon millions lost their jobs, those calculations multiplied into eternity. Those who lost their jobs were left to fall through a decaying safety net, that already had unraveling threads. When the price of oil dipped below zero, our mouths collectively dropped in disbelief. As the tentacles of the crisis continued to grow and reach to unforeseen spaces, the losses began to transcend our realm of understanding.
The losses extended beyond what we could see and touch. Social distancing replaced social interaction as swiftly as a mood ring changing from blue to red. Plexiglas windows were erupted as barriers between faces. We were told to stand six-feet apart if leaving our home was an absolute must. The touch of another person outside of your designated quarantine space was strictly forbidden. Hugging your own family members instantly became a past luxury. Computers, phones, and tablets became our connection of last resort. We clung onto those boxed faces plastered across our screens, fighting to maintain our human connections. Every time I closed a screen, the void only seemed to deepen. A hunger that I had never before experienced prickled the pit of my stomach.
To make matters worse, decoding hypocrisies and inconsistencies became the daily norm. Even blatant lies entered into the public discourse. First, they said that face masks would not protect us, and to disregard wearing them. Then they said that they were required in public spaces. First, they said that small businesses would be rescued, then we watched countless fall within weeks. Conundrums of morality then left us grappling for answers. Support local businesses and essential employees, or invite them to death’s door. Advocate for the continued closure of the economy to save more lives, while continuing to mourn the abuse victims who suffered behind closed doors, or the families who had no means to provide for their children.
And the widespread death collapsed any and all degrees of separation. When they died, they did so alone. Their last glimpses of loved ones appeared before a hard rectangular screen. The numbers kept rising, but then they started to open up our nation. The collective grief kicked me back into survival mode, thickening the skin around my heart. Not knowing when it would end, or how it would end brought me even closer to defeat.
But then, there was you. You were only two-years old, inching towards three. Navigating this crisis with a toddler had initially seemed like an unbearable feat. I attempted to prep for my virtual lectures while you were still sleeping, but the hours slipped away before I could complete a single task. Neglecting you became my greatest fear. Neglecting myself felt inevitable. Yet, even with the debilitating existence of working incessantly with no childcare, your light grounded me from the very beginning. Here is what you taught me to remember during our time in quarantine.
1. Be present with every breath that you breathe.
One of our first quarantine activities entailed planting a handful of flowers in an aluminum pot. We first painted the pot with an eclectic array of colors. You were intently focused on ensuring that the pot was completely covered with paint. You left no stone unturned. We then packed the soil into the pot as bits and pieces freely crumbled onto the floor. Once we finished this task, you then gleefully poked your index finger into the soil to make room for each seed. You giggled in delight. We nurtured those seeds to life throughout the duration of the quarantine. The mere privilege of watering our plants made your eyes sing with joy. As I watched the seeds grow, as I watched you grow with them, I felt my spirit shifting towards something brighter.
And then it hit me: Do not let these moments pass you by due to the fear of the future, or the trauma of the past, or even the pain of the present. You taught me to be present down to the very second of each day during the Coronavirus pandemic. I started to smell the fresh scent of emerging blades of grass during our brief walks around the block. I started to notice the subtle enchantment that filled up your eyes during our daily reading sessions. Dance parties became our “thing” as we’d clear out the living room floor to display our off-beat moves, providing endless entertainment to your father and your brother. Your uncanny ability to hurl insults at your 17-year brother caused me to laugh to the point of tears, forcing me to awaken from the darkest of moments.
While being present in this manner had helped me to survive prior traumas, you reminded me to do the same for this monumental one. Being quarantined with you forced me to focus on the extraordinary blessings that never left my side. For this my dear love, I thank you.
2. Pervasive injustices should never be the norm.
You descend from generations of injustices. Your grandparents endured the evils of Jim Crow while growing up in the south. They subconsciously passed along that flaming torch to their children, as pounding through injustices similarly became our norm. Enduring chronic poverty, surviving an irretrievably broken foster care system, working to the bone as a single parent in law school during your older brother’s earlier years--you are likely already intimately familiar with our histories. This pandemic intensified these preexisting injustices that had plagued our families for centuries. They rolled in like a series of unrelenting thunderclaps. Inequitable access to testing for the COVID-19 virus. Inequitable access to healthcare. Inequitable access to bailout funds. Inequitable access to basic resources such as food and water. Inequitable access to human decency and respect.
Yet, encountering the pureness of your joy, day after day, reminded me that pervasive injustices should never be the norm. You deserve better. Your entire generation deserves better. It is your birthright. Your constant presence sparked my drive to continue doing my small part. It pushed me to persist on the path of infusing my research with social justice issues. As a forewarning, I cannot promise you that the world will change without continued sacrifice from you and your cohort. Many will likewise try to convince you that these injustices are simply figments of your imagination. Or even worse, they may attempt to manipulate you into thinking that a world with pervasive injustices is in fact the norm. That the continued suffering of certain groups of people is completely justifiable. That it is solely their burden to bear. Do not let others manipulate what you know to be true. And use that truth to drive you towards the world that you deserve.
3. Hope is never lost.
Crises of this enormity will have you thinking that hope is a fool’s game. As countless continued to die, as our leadership failed us, I certainly started to wonder whether all hope should in fact be lost. But as soon as my hope would begin to diminish down to dangerous levels, you would be directly in my face, front and center, eyes gleaming with shimmers of wonder. For me, my hope derives from a divine source and you are an everlasting reflection of His love and His grace. As my steadfast companion during this pandemic, confronting your daily presence compelled me to recalibrate my hope. It pushed me to reignite my faith.
As you rise into your womanhood, unforeseen challenges will persistently arise, just as they have for me. Do not be driven by fear in the midst of this one certainty--constant change. Be open to your multifaceted roles in dismantling disparities and in igniting hope in the face of dire hopelessness, as the world continues to shift. To you my dear love, I thank you for rekindling the cycle of hope that has saved me time and time again.
By: Cary Martin Shelby