My life as I knew it ended on Thursday, March 12, 2020, though I didn’t know it or expect it. I took the subway to work for the last time, a nearly two-hour journey from my home in Brooklyn to the Evander Childs campus in the Bronx for a walkthrough of their AP and pre-AP English classes with Shoshana from the superintendent’s office and the school’s principal and assistant principal. I grabbed a mediocre second breakfast for the last time at the Dunkin’ Donuts on Gun Hill Road, and ate lunch with Shoshana for the last time at the Cherry Valley Marketplace across the street from the school. It was an utterly ordinary day that started like many others in the past four years of my career, but the signs were already there: Shoshana and I had offered, earlier in the week, to cancel or reschedule the visit as schools began to tremble with rumors of COVID-19 infection; she drove me home, insistent that I shouldn’t be on the subway anymore considering that I was thirty weeks pregnant. Rush hour in midtown Manhattan looked like an early Sunday morning, nearly devoid of both pedestrian and vehicle traffic.
I view my calendar for mid-March and I can see life ground to a halt: the book club meeting scheduled for Friday, March 13 was cancelled, as was the West Village Chorale’s performance of Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil on Sunday, March 15. After that, the calendar just empties out, dotted only with doctors’ appointments and reminders to water my plants. I can look back and see my friend Daniel’s daughter Sophia’s Bat Mitzvah the previous weekend, and laugh, quietly and bitterly, at the memory of bumping elbows and ostentatiously availing myself of hand sanitizer while we sat cheek by jowl with two hundred or so folks at Beth Elohim (indoors! a house of worship! how naive we were!). A little further sees a reminder of our babymoon in Mexico at the end of February (airports! restaurants! vague reports of some virus out of China on CNN out of the corners of our eyes while we waited for our flights! it boggles the imagination); a little further than that and there’s the last show we saw on Broadway, To Kill a Mockingbird starring Ed Harris as Atticus; a little further than that and there is the ultimate forbidden treat, a professional haircut. It is who I was: urbane, cultured, sociable. It is hard to believe that I was any of those things, harder still to believe that I still am any of those things after three-plus months of YouTube-ing and Zoom-ing into church and book club and cutting my own bangs with too-large scissors and gritted teeth before my bathroom mirror and, now, nursing a baby according to her weeks-old whims. Any day I manage to put pants on is a classy one.
My own sacrifices, of course, are laughably minor-league. I was not asked to drive a subway train, or treat COVID patients or bury their bodies; I have not had to grieve any personally loved ones. Nor did I do more than watch the video of George Floyd’s murder in horror and donate to bail funds; as my pregnancy dragged on beyond a forty-first week, I stayed home (I’ve gotten very good at it) from the many protests and actions, and one of the few times I left found me at the hospital, trying in vain one last time to evacuate my baby from my body before she was cut out in a late night Cesarean section. I have missed both the quotidian and the momentous since mid-March, remaining mostly isolated at home as I learn to love this tiny stranger. Whether my restraint and withdrawal has been justified or not, I’m under no impression that my behavior has met anything more than a baseline standard of common decency.
But as my neighbors and friends begin to plan picnics and dream of returning to plays and museums, my own outlook is hazy at best. I dream of a solid night of sleep, of course, like all new parents, but looking a few months into the future finds me likely to be living away from the city I’ve called home for nearly fourteen years and, therefore, not scheduling afternoons at the Whitney or buying Philharmonic tickets, so my dreams are decidedly different. I spend way too much time on Zillow, Wikipedia, and Google Maps, trying to picture myself living on Long Island, where Dakota’s new(ish) job is located. He’s been working from home for the duration, but eventually he’ll be called to be on-site, and the 90-120 minute (each way) commute from Brooklyn to Suffolk County sounds wildly unsustainable for longer than a couple of months. And while we’ve been fortunate enough to hold on to our jobs, unlike so many people in this time, we’re still priced out of the New York City real estate market even after years of saving. Moving out of the city was always likely going to be part of our story, but moving to New Jersey or Westchester would have put us closer to friends and family, some of whom have already, like us, left the city in search of more affordable housing; moving to Long Island flings us farther from just about everyone.
And so, on March 12, 2020, my life as I knew it was over. I was no longer free to linger over a bougie salad and a cup of coffee on my way back to the office, no longer obsessively building perfect playlists for my long subway rides. In some ways I was no longer a New Yorker at all, I thought, until quite recently.
When my parents and stepparents, or, perhaps more to the point, my daughter’s grandparents, arrived (masked, gloved, mostly outdoors) to visit their first granddaughter, they remarked on how many people were masked in our Brooklyn neighborhood; that is, nearly everyone they saw. They all live in different parts of Pennsylvania, a somewhat mixed bag on coronavirus response but mostly, by now, positive. Our neighborhood sits at the nexus of Orthodox Jewish, Bangladeshi and Pakistani Muslim, and Eastern European-leaning white old-school Brooklyner communities, so it’s not like there’s a ton of natural consensus on anything other than a low-key live-and-let-live ethos I’ve always appreciated. Still, there’s a silent sense of being in “it,” whatever “it” is, together: the whole neighborhood agrees on Carnival, the tiny and jam-packed 24-hour grocery just a block down the road, and the F train, and the terrible state of street parking, and the need to wear masks.
In this sense if nothing else, I am still a New Yorker. The worst aspects of our city are countered, if not yet fully conquered, by our best, and those are the ones into which I have tried to live in my time here. Looking back over my calendar again, I see my better angels at work among my worse: supporting the teachers and school communities of children who do not look like mine; sharing in the celebrations of a religious tradition different from my own. Nevertheless, there’s the decadence to which I had become perhaps too accustomed: vacationing in distant locales; taking in cultural events many folks can’t dream of affording. The city encourages these contradictions, the love of neighbor that feels virtuous enough until one peels back the thick layers of privilege that often go unnoticed.
What will I tell my daughter, then, about the strange time and place into which she was born? That isolating, for me, was preparing my heart for the first weeks of her life, when I would be almost entirely at home with her and her father and loving them both so desperately, to the point of tears, fearing losing one or both of them. That I did what I could with the only power I had while heavily pregnant and still employed: watched, and gave, and prayed. That I wanted so dearly for her to love the city, with all its flaws and failings, the inefficiency and tedium it presents as often as its electricity and vim, as much as I do and always will. That we kept her and each other and the neighbors we know and the ones we never will as safe as we could.
This is life now, and there’s little point in regretting what cannot be—which is not to say that there is no point in mourning. The distinction, for me, lies in the gratitude for what was and what is that lives in that mourning. There is still an opportunity to do better—more kindly, more simply—in the coming days. There are the lessons I will take with me from this time and this place, and pass them on to this little girl, who as we speak sleeps against my chest utterly unaware of everything but that she is fed, clothed, clean, and loved.
Life as I knew it is never coming back. In its place is a city and a nation slowly breaking, and my daughter growing at a dizzying pace. May what I, and all of us, do in the coming days foster resilience in both.