99 Problems

Published on March 30th, 2021 | by Devorah Heitner


Things to Be Afraid of (In a Pandemic)

Fifteen days before: Fear of Flying

I fly to Miami to speak at a fancy private school, relishing the escape from Chicago winter. Soon, my whole speaking calendar for the year will fall away, but I don’t know to be worried, yet, about my livelihood. I am nervous about the flights, though.

My flight home is crowded, and I make friends with my seatmate, Priyanka. Her consulting gig in the cruise industry may not last, she explains. The Diamond Princess is on the news that week. I nod sympathetically; Yeah, this has got to be a hard time for the cruise industry, and add it to the 10,000 other reasons that I will never take a cruise.

We talk for three hours. I am not scared that Priyanka will give me COVID. But I think twice about eating my airplane cookies with my hands that have touched so much airport.

Three days before: Fear of Making the Wrong Decisions

We think about keeping Ezra home from school. Every morning that week, Dan and I look at each other over our scrambled eggs. But the play, I say to Dan in a whisper in our kitchen, hopefully beyond Ezra’s laser hearing. The play is in three days. This is his last year of elementary school and Ezra’s been co-creating and rehearsing the fifth grade play every day after school. Making this play is a culminating experience. How can we pull the plug?

Two days before: Fear of Being Alone

My last coffee with a friend is with Miriam at Café Sol. Our lattes come with pretty clouds inked into the foam. I don’t know yet that no one will make me a pretty latte for the rest of the year. 

Miriam is already staying home, she tells me. This is an exception. Her immunity is compromised. I won’t see her in person again for ten months. 

Then we’ll meet to say goodbye, side by side in our idling cars at a parking lot. 

It is hard to complain about ten months in a condo in Edgewater when you grow up with your mother’s stories of living in hiding during the Holocaust, she tells me. You can complain, I tell her. Her son is wilting. Shrinking from the light. They are using her EU citizenship to go to Barcelona for a while. It is sunny there.

The day beforeFear of Scarcity

We’ve filled the freezer with salmon burgers and the pantry with pasta. I drive to the library to stock up. Too hot in my coat, I pull books and video games off the shelves. With my chin-high stack, I’m waiting in line behind an Orthodox family with seven kids. Like all the kids in the library, they are wiping their noses, coughing, putting their hands in their mouths, infused with the perpetual sickness of kids in late winter.

I try not to be too obvious as I edge away from them. Newspapers are blaming Orthodox Jews for spreading the virus with Purim celebrations. These people, who are my people but still the other for me. These people who have big families. And they are gathering, always gathering. As we are commanded to do. Hot with the shame of my fear, I must look feverish. They are probably scared of me, too.

I hold my breath to the shallowest possible inhalation, but I stay in line at the library.  I might die, but I am not coming back to our apartment without these books. These books will get us through. I push the door with my hip, not touching anything, relieved to get outside and breathe.  I head home to our cozy little apartment, to my life inside.

The night before: Fear of Strangers

I walk through the slush to Walgreens to grab zinc because I heard it might be good to have zinc on hand. There is an old man in the vitamin aisle. He stoops over the lozenges. Then, like a nightmare, he starts coughing. Painfully. I think about leaving but I am ashamed. He is Asian. His body represents everything I was taught to fear, but I don’t leave. I just hold my breath. I know better.  Just because he is Asian doesn’t mean he has this thing. 

Don’t I know better than to stand close to this man when his cough could kill me and my family? I castigate myself later, after I get home and wash my hands under hot water until they are pink. Because Priyanka on the plane told me her name, I was not afraid. I believed she would not give me COVID. Because she reminded me of people I knew. Because we talked to each other. 

But the bug doesn’t care. Talking to someone for three hours is actually a really good way to give or get COVID. I read in the Tribune about college students who came home from McGill and University of Connecticut and both of their parents were in the ICU within a week. COVID is a virus and fear is viral. You can get both from the people you love. The people close to you.

We are afraid of the wrong things and it kills so many of us.

The last day: Fear of Missing Out

The fifth graders are performing for the little kids in the afternoon and in the evening for parents. They are so close. Right before the afternoon show, I get a cold feeling and I run the three slushy blocks down Florence Avenue to Washington Elementary. This is the little school that could, the school that welcomed us after a terrible year of kindergarten at another school. The school we sold our two-flat and became renters again for. This school that saved us.

Breathless, I push through the glass door to the principal’s office, where the secretary knows me as Ezra’s mother, and I leave my driver’s license and grab a security badge. I find a seat near the back of the auditorium and text Dan as I am catching my breath. Come to school. I am acutely aware that I am in a room with hundreds of people. I try not to breathe deeply. 

This is the last time I will walk through these doors. The next time I go to school will be months later in the heat of June. We will stand outside. The principal, wearing a mask, gloves, and a face shield will hand me a garbage bag full of Ezra’s stuff though a small opening in the door. 

After the afternoon show they told the kids that the performance for parents is cancelled. Some kids cried, Ezra reports. When they told them that their parents wouldn’t see the play, that they wouldn’t go on the long-awaited fifth grade overnight trip. Ezra was pissed.

A year later, Ezra goes to his new middle school from the blue chair, Chromebook balanced on one leg. He is not a Washington Thunderbird anymore.  It’s all done with no goodbye.

Three months into lockdown: Fear of Abandonment

I find myself obsessing about those college students that almost accidentally killed their parents. The paper runs a picture of the girls, standing alone in their yard. I remind Dan that we never made a will. Cousin Johanna had always been the plan. Cousin Johanna in Jacksonville. For a decade I’d rested comfortably knowing Johanna and her husband would raise our son if we were swept away in a riptide or overturned on the highway. Of course, they told us.

One sleepless dawn I sit up, ribcage tight under my flannel PJs. We can’t send him to Jacksonville. If we die. I wake up Dan. OK sweetie, he says, and goes back to sleep. 

It was different making plans for a baby. But now, Ezra is a person. A person growing up in our fraught, progressive town. A person who confidently uses the full spectrum of pronouns and is starting to recognize and call out racism and white privilege. Meanwhile, my cousin tells me, even before the murders at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, that they have stopped going to synagogue because they are afraid. She was the only person I knew who wasn’t surprised by the 2016 election. “If you lived here, you wouldn’t be shocked,” she sighs.

People we know get sick. Our neighbor’s mother dies. It is clear that we need a plan. Friends suggest a lawyer, who patiently answers my questions over the phone. We talk it all through. Who would inherit Dan’s record collection and the 1999 Corolla. It is a short list.  

In the time that Ezra has grown to be 11, my other favorite cousin grew up. He’s a comic artist and his partner is a lawyer, and they have their own toddler son. They live on the edge of Manhattan, near a park with summer drummers. Of course, they say, when I call to ask them.

We meet the lawyer on our friends’ back porch across the alley. This way, our friends can be witnesses without having to leave home. Signing our wills on our friends’ porch is the most social thing we’ve done in ages. It is like a very solemn party. We pass the papers and chat as we sign them, page after freshly printed page.

Let’s make sure Ezra gets to know the New York cousins as soon as we can travel again, I say to Dan, walking home through our alley from signing our wills. Avoiding that one yard with the angry pit bull. 

Let’s not die, says Dan.

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About the Author

Devorah Heitner is the author of Black Power TV and Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive and Survive in Their Digital World. Her work has appeared in Long ReadsWashington PostCNN Opinion, and The New York Times. She lives near Chicago with her family.

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