Please let me begin by saying: I am in full support of the current ‘stay home’ and ‘physical distancing’ guidelines. I understand the science involved, and I am complying 100 per cent. At the same time, I have to admit, I’m struggling with the emotional side of it.
It has been gradually sneaking up on me. At first, I cozied up indoors with my family and enjoyed the unexpected unscheduled time. Eventually, it was time for a trip to the grocery store. As I steered my cart away from other people to maximize my virus-protection-buffer-zone, it hit me: they’re steering away from ME, too! They assume I’m toxic, just as I’m making assumptions about them. My stomach sank at the realization that my fellow shoppers and I were now viewing each other with blatant suspicion and mistrust.
A few days later, I was out for a solo walk when a mom cycled slowly past on the road, followed closely by a little girl on a princess bike. She was obviously a beginner, but was chattering delightedly about how well she was riding. That is, until she lost her balance and fell backward off her bike, 10 feet away from me.
Now, I am one of those “it takes a village” moms. I firmly believe we’re all in this parenting game together, and we’ve got to have each other’s backs. If I find a dropped Sophie the Giraffe on a mall floor, I will chase down the nearest adult pushing a stroller to ask if it’s theirs. At the park, when a toddler watched admiringly as my kids blew bubbles, I immediately offered her a brand-new bubble wand from our bag. At school drop-off, if a kid trips and falls on the blacktop, I ask if he is okay and if necessary, walk him over to a teacher or to the main office to get patched up. I imagine anyone who is a parent, teacher, coach, leader or decent human being would do the same.
As the little girl slipped off the bike and landed the road, I froze. My typical response would be to lunge forward and assist in some way: to help her up, to say something soothing, to retrieve her fallen bike and move it to the side. But I couldn’t do any of that. I have been instructed, in no uncertain terms, to stay apart from others. Even if I’m completely virus-free and pose no threat whatsoever, the parent could easily be confused or upset if I approach her child right now.
So, what did I do? I stood there helplessly. Upon hearing the wipe-out, the mom had quickly turned back to where we were. “I wish I could help you… I’m so sorry,” I babbled uselessly from the sidewalk. It occurred to me that the mom hadn’t witnessed the fall the way I had, so I said that only the girl’s helmet had contacted the ground, not her head. Inwardly, I tried to reassure myself that this was the kind of valuable information I would want if our roles were reversed. The mom was very gracious and thanked me as she consoled her sobbing daughter. I walked on to give them some much-needed privacy. The scene kept playing over and over in my head, and I felt crummier each time.
The following week, I was out for another walk, this time on a forest path near my house. Up ahead was a teenage girl in a motorized wheelchair. I was still a short distance away, but I recall feeling surprised that the chair could navigate the uneven terrain of the path, which is covered in wood chips. That’s exactly when the wheels began to lose traction and veer toward the edge of the path, which slopes downward into trees, plants and underbrush. Realizing that tipping to the side was a very real possibility, I instinctively started running forward. In the next moment, though, I pulled up and paused for a fraction of a second. The virus can be spread by touch. If I get involved here, I will certainly be touching the wheelchair and perhaps the person in it. Technically, I’m not supposed to do that. And, maybe the person doesn’t want my help. But if her safety is at risk, is there really time to ask? Shouldn’t I just leap in and ask questions later?
As I stood there, gripped with indecision, the wheels spun sharply, the chair righted itself, and the teenager sped away, clearly rattled by the close call.
From there, it was a long, somber walk home. I had flat-out hesitated to help someone – in a wheelchair. This was a low point. What was happening to me? Was I losing my ingrained human reflex to do the right thing and lend a hand? Was I letting a new brand of selfishness move in to my village? There were no easy answers.
In an effort to shake that empty feeling, I tried extra hard to do thoughtful things for others, within the parameters of social distancing. That night, I wrote an e-mail to one of my son’s teachers, thanking her for the time and creativity she was devoting to the class’s daily online tasks. I found a cheerful photo from a past visit and texted it to a friend who lives alone. On my next walk, even as I moved over to allow oncoming walkers generous space to pass, I made a point of making eye contact, smiling, and saying something friendly, to defuse some of the awkwardness.
Human interactions have changed, certainly in the short term, and maybe permanently. As I said, I understand why this needs to be, and I’m respectfully complying. In some ways, my village has been altered dramatically, but in other ways, it hasn’t. I know that kindness and caring are still in me, and still out there – they just have to be shared in different forms. So, even if it feels unfamiliar, I hope we will all keep trying. Our villages still need us – maybe now more than ever.