By Margie Smith Holt
It was Thursday, March 12 — two years ago today — and the day had started out so—normal. Working out at the West Side Y. Waiting for the C train. Come lunchtime I was at St. James Gate meeting out-of-town friends with Hamilton tickets. The TV over the bar was blasting reaction to the just-announced suspension of the NBA season. By the time the Irish stew arrived, the lights had gone out on Broadway. It was March 12, 2020, and right there at 81st and Amsterdam, a perfectly familiar street corner, we were instantly thrust into a world so surreal, it would be the tooth fairy who made me understand just how real it all was.
Or, rather, the second grader she visited one night not long after the rest of the world shut down.
Remember, way back in the beginning, when Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern tried to reassure the children in New Zealand that the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny were essential workers, but might be a little too busy to make all the rounds? I asked my 8-year-old niece, who had just lost another tooth—number 10!—if she had heard about that. She reminded me that she wasn’t allowed to watch the news.
I needed reminding because it was easy to forget she was just a kid when she was talking—knowledgeably, eloquently—about the mask shortage, and the equipment her heart-doctor father had to wear when he was in the hospital treating COVID patients, and how, when he came home, he had to quarantine in the guest room so she and her mother, who have asthma, wouldn’t get sick.
She was extra worried about the protestors who had begun showing up every week at the governor’s house down the street. She knew they were mad that the haircut places and nail salons were closed, but she was afraid if those places opened and people stopped SOCIAL DISTANCING—a phrase that rolled right off the tongue in that nearly toothless mouth—more people would get sick and endanger her dad.
She loves her family, she told me from her bedroom 200 miles away in suburban Boston, but being together ALL the time, with NO breaks, was kinda hard. Her little brother, almost 5, was driving her crazy because he needed attention and mommy was on conference calls for work. Proving her point, he photobombed our call, sans pants, shouting something unintelligible, but I made out the words STAR WARS, LEGO, and CORONAVIRUS. Remember when it was weird to hear a 4-year-old say coronavirus?
His sister sighed, like a weary adult. She was so tired of hearing about COVID COVID COVID. It was OVERWHELMING.
These were big words for a kid who was still trying to identify the nouns and adjectives in a sentence, which is what she should have been learning in her second-grade classroom, with her teacher, instead of on FaceTime, with her aunt. But her school had closed and my freelance gigs had dried up so there we were. We were working our way through From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, my attempt to plant seeds for a future New York visit.
Her mother thought I was doing her a favor, reading with her daughter every day, but really it was the other way around. It was good to have somewhere to “be” every day. An 8-year-old girl might not notice if you’re wearing a bra and she can’t tell, virtually, if you’ve showered or even brushed your teeth, but she will totally call you out if you wear the same shirt for three days.
Well into May the calendar on my wall was still turned to March. (Friday the 13th was when we started sheltering in place.) Sure you have lots to write about! a friend texted around that time, but in those anxious early days, I didn’t write a word. The basics were well-covered: The terrifying deaths and the health care heroes. The heartbreak and panic. The (now cringeworthy) Cuomo crushes and quarantine cocktails. The cancelled travel plans and postponed weddings. Toilet paper. Fauci.
What did I have to add? I was one of the people being asked to do nothing more than #StayHome, watch too much Netflix, and be grateful that my family was healthy and had enough to eat. Girlfriends wanted to schedule a standing 2 a.m. Zoom because that’s when everybody seemed to be wide awake, staring at the ceiling, but that was just the new normal, right? It would be months before the dreams started, the ones where we forgot our masks, hugged, and whispered gossip in each other’s ears.
I kept telling the 8-year-old she should write stuff down. Something to show her parents. Or look back on when she’s older. Wow, I lived through that.
She shrugged. She wasn’t feeling it. And who was I to judge?
So I was surprised to learn, later, that she did write something: A note to her father, left outside the room where he would quarantine when he got home from work, along with a $5 bill and some coins.
This is my touth fairy money and some more I was hopeing you could give it to the hospital for equitmint.
An arrow pointed to the back of the note. I know it’s not much.
Not much? She didn’t know it said everything.
This story needs an ending, I wrote, when I finally got around to scribbling these notes down sometime that first summer, prompted by a child’s act of kindness. But I never got back to it. My “COVID diary” was relegated to one story, a single page. For someone not very busy, there never seemed to be any time. Days blurred together. There was doomscrolling to be done. So many distractions. Protests. Politics. An election even more polarizing and isolating than holidays far from family and away from friends.
Suddenly (it seemed) it was a New Year and there was a vaccine and 2020 was over, but not the crisis, not yet. We’d logged more than 300 days of new habits, hobbies, and horrors. We slogged on, passing a year mark, then 15 months. More than half a million dead Americans and still counting. My niece knew this because she turned 9 and had started watching the news.
School was back in session. First hybrid, then full-time. Our aunt/niece time, one of my few pandemic joys, dwindled, from daily to twice weekly to once a week. But we kept reading, subject matter moving from childish adventures and sibling squabbles to bullying and braces and boys. Time stood still in my adult world but the kids in the books were getting older, and so was the kid I was reading with.
When her family came to visit last spring, there was no sign of the second grader. This girl I strolled with past the dinosaurs at the Museum of Natural History had her own money to spend—a gift, she told me, out of earshot of her little brother, from “the Easter Bunny.” Air quotes hers. I didn’t bother asking if she still believed in the tooth fairy.
Things were looking up then. We didn’t know we were about to double down: New variants. More closings. Double the deaths.
It would be the better part of another year before my niece made it to NYC again. She was 10 when she came in December, grown up enough to visit without her parents. She saw her first Broadway show. We ate in restaurants—quesadillas at Cilantro, pancakes at Cafe 82 (soft foods, easy on the new braces). The tweenager chose shopping over an afternoon at the Met. We both got COVID for Christmas, but hey, at least we got to see Wicked.
Lately it’s me who needs the elementary school lessons, not reading but math. I have to remember to add two—two years—every time I start a sentence with “the last time I (fill in the blank) was…”
Maybe I need proof that time has passed because I feel like I’ve been treading water. All those projects considered and abandoned without the slightest sign of progress. One lost year, then another. Seven hundred and thirty days in which, if you were lucky—and I was—nothing bad happened.
This week my favorite 4th grader went to school without a mask for the first time in two years. A full fifth of this little person’s time on Earth. She reminded her mother that the last time that happened, she was in second grade. A lifetime ago.
This story does need an ending.
No more treading water. Time to start swimming.