Ryan Pfeil | Medford, OR
Ryan’s (he/him) wife is a nurse and called to war during the COVID-19 pandemic. He is a journalist, suddenly forced to work from home and to grapple with the juggling act of meeting deadlines, while being the primary caretaker of two young daughters. They want nothing more than his undivided attention.
You scream in the dark.
I hear it through your monitor. We got this model because it has video, too, but something malfunctioned and now everything looks washed white in a blurred night vision glow. Like if an owl had cataracts.
The word born on your screams is the same as it always is when these midnight cries ring out.
I pull myself from the just-descended quiet of sleep and stumble through the dark and enter your room. I see you squirm in your tiny bed, see your mess of blankets writhing as you reposition, as you grunt and groan. Across the room, your older sister is still and silent. She’s on top of the blankets, her mouth open slightly.
I kneel next to your bed and reach and do what always seems to act as a slow-working tranquilizer. My right hand gently travels across your back, a simple up and down motion. The action, the room at large, is lit dimly by a small, glass globe stuffed with a gratuitous amount of LED strings. The double-A batteries that power the device are on their last legs, the brilliant glow dimming, almost dead.
Eventually, you stop writhing. My action gradually lightens until it’s nothing at all.
I continue kneeling on your floor for a moment, make a quick glance back to your sister. Then back to you.
My singular thought is one that’s been ever-present these last few weeks.
“Tomorrow’s coming,” it whispers.
And then it’s gone. The two-word statement is exhausting. Because here’s what it’s meant so far:
I’ll wake up, make coffee. Drink coffee.
My wife will come out, armored: scrubs, mint-colored slip on sneakers, name badge. This is how nurses dress for battle.
She leaves. I’ll be alone, but only for a few minutes. I’ll open my work laptop, the one that’s been with me for about a month now. I’ll start doing work things: check on overnight fires and car crashes, cruise public agency Facebook pages, catch up on scanner traffic, glance at TV news websites. Gotta start looking for something to write about.
It didn’t used to be this way. “Dad” and “reporter” used to be handled separately for the most part. Home things were home things and work things were work things. Sometimes work came home, yes. But it would usually fade.
A small, spiked ball-shaped particle we can’t see without a microscope, something that started xeroxing itself and jumping into other humans and suddenly was everywhere around the world, changed that. In mid-March, our governor issued an order that basically said all residents need to stay at home as much as possible to mitigate its spread, ensuring hospitals and ICUs don’t get overwhelmed. Go out
for groceries and meds and doctor visits, but that’s it. That included work. That included statewide school closures. Suddenly, home things were work things and work things were home things and there was no beginning or end to either. Existence as a Mobius strip.
Because during half of the working week, my wife – your mom – a nurse, was needed elsewhere. When you’re a nurse and there’s a pandemic, you go to war. When you’re a journalist, you move your desk.
The 5-year-old – your sister – will wake up first. She’ll pace briskly to me, “Frozen II” nightgown flowing, tangled, sandy vines of sleep mashed hair swinging freely. She’ll sit in my lap, put her head to my chest and stare out the window at the dew glinting on our backyard grass.
“Daddy,” she’ll say. “I want something to eat.”
I’ll get her something. I’ll start to turn on the TV.
“Daddy,” she’ll say. “Play with me.”
This is where it will start. This is where a plateau of relative quiet and silence will begin to plummet.
I’ll say “I can’t, honey. Not right now.”
“OK,” she’ll say, submitting but no less disappointed.
I’ll go back to working. Maybe I’ll start to write something.
You’ll wake up next. You’ll ask for similar things: food, play, attention.
I’ll promise you both I will.
“Soon,” I’ll say. “When I get X, Y, and Z all finished.”
It doesn’t stick. I’ll keep seeing things that need to get done. You’ll both keep making messes I need to clean up. You’ll keep asking to play, to snack, to go outside, to do everything that is the antithesis of working.
You kids are the best kids. Your sister is sensitive and empathetic and loves art and animals. You’re curious and tough and so, so funny.
But you’re also kids, kids at the peak of neediness who are 100 percent renewable energy. And there’s a third kid, too. Not my kid. Deadline is more like my horrible niece. And sustaining her is the only way I get paid.
Imagine trying to focus on calming a rabid bear when your beautiful, perfect puppies won’t stop barking.
Where do you put your energy first? What happens when you turn your back on the other choice?
This has been the standard framework for a month now. Your mom and I spoke about it at length. She encouraged me, told me this is a moment where I can choose growth or resentment.
On paper, she’s right. But reality is 451 degrees Fahrenheit and burns best-laid plans for fun. And COVID- 19 is jet fuel.
It’s been 30 days of this, and I hate it sometimes. Not the seeing my kids all the time part, not the writing part, not the staying put at home part; the fact that I have to learn to balance all three.
In the dark room, your sister utters a small sleep sigh. It sounds content. It sounds safe. Even thoughts of tomorrow have gone to bed.
I stumble back through the dark to my room, thinking of hibernation.
How animals go to sleep and keep sleeping while months of hateful, frigid darkness pass them by outside, spared except for dreams.
How everything is new and bright when they wake.