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Family Matters: The Coronavirus Chronicles


By Claire Mullen

As of today, the day I’m sitting down to write, there are two confirmed coronavirus cases in Cumberland County.  By the time you read this column, there likely will be more. Who knows how many? Our circumstances will have changed even more drastically than they already have.  I like to think that those changes will be for the better, but it seems that might be desperately wishful thinking. 

I have a lot of questions, as I’m sure all of us do.

I wonder if my children will be back to school real, wonderful school, with their patient, smiling (certified!) teachers, colorful, organized classrooms and productive schedules that most certainly don’t include a midday, two- hour break for Cheetos, fruit punch and Disney Plus.

On the day of the dreaded school cancellation announcement, my sweet and ever-enthusiastic kindergartner took it upon herself to name our fledgling homeschool “Sunflower Academy. She explained that she chose the name after my favorite flower, since I am her new teacher, after all. I had to stop her from taping to our front door an enormous banner with my cellphone number and “Sunflower Academy Call us if you need to!” emblazoned in Crayola crayon.  Let me tell you friends, after just our first week, the sunflower is wilting. I’m no gardener, but I think this flower might need some wine. 

I wonder if my husband’s local dental practices will be open at all.  He and his partners have already sent several of their health-compromised employees home on paid leave and transitioned to emergency care only, in an effort to keep their patients pain-free and out of our potentially overwhelmed hospital emergency departments.  I’ve never seen him quite so concerned, and we’ve missed him at the dinner table. We’ve bent our household rule of sit-down, unplugged family supper so that he can work late and come home to hole up with his laptop and a reheated plate to field video conferences with his team to try to figure out what the heck they are going to do. 

I wonder when I will be able to give my dad, a 61-year-old physician, a real hug.  My immediate family, accustomed to frequent gatherings, consists of a school nurse, a dentist, a cardiac physician assistant, a pediatrician and a fitness director of a large gym.  And then there’s me. (Hey, not everyone can ace biology). My wise father, the guiding light of our clan, sent a difficult group text message to all of us earlier this week suggesting that it’s best that we all stay in our respective corners until this terrible pandemic has subsided.

In the midst of all the uncertainty, isolation and upheaval, there has been so much positivity if you look for it.  Several things have sustained me. First, the beautiful weather. Spring knew we needed her something fierce. I’ve never seen as many people enjoying the outdoors as I have this week. 

A single drive through my neighborhood, a drive that I’ve made thousands of times rushing here, there and everywhere, brought me to tears. In a 1-mile stretch toward home, I saw a strolling elderly couple holding hands.  A little boy comically trying to balance his bicycle and several adult-sized gardening tools. A dad playing a front yard game of soccer, complete with orange cone goals, with his daughters.  I honestly cannot tell you the last time I saw a grownup fully and undistractedly participating in an outdoor game with his children. My own two kiddos splashed in the creek at Rowan Park, took to the Cape Fear River Trail to complete a nature scavenger hunt (posted on our preschool Facebook page by a sweet, sympathetic teacher), and logged lots of Sunflower Academy P.E. hours jumping on the trampoline, chasing bubbles, decorating our driveway with chalk doodles and walking our old yellow lab.  

Then there’s been the hilarious group text threads with my similarly housebound friends that have made me laugh out loud on days when I really felt like crying.  We’ve checked in on each other several times a day and recounted our parenting misadventures. An emoji trophy has been passed back and forth to the mom with the best isolation story du jour.  The grand-prize winner has got to be one particular fellow mom, a full-time executive suddenly forced to work from home while also parenting her three young children. Around 5:00 one evening, we girls got a text from her saying “Well, my phone has been acting up and apparently I just accidentally called 911 and a full-on SWAT team came to my house.  So that’s how my first day of working at home with all the kids has gone.” I am still laughing at the fact that when the officers showed up to her front door and realized that there was nary a hostage situation to diffuse, they told my frazzled friend that all dispatch could hear was the muffled sound of children screaming in the background. Note to self: keep mobile device out of pocket at all times during Sunflower Academy’s operating hours.   

Most poignantly, there’s been the amazing sense of community as we have all rallied to help each other make it to the bright side of the tunnel.  I wish I didn’t have a word limit so I could report all of the examples I’ve encountered. Teachers taking to social media to post home learning resources, children hanging their artwork in front windows of their homes to lift the spirits of passersby, restaurants innovatively creating porch delivery services in a double-effort to continue to employ their staff as well as feed their regulars, churches live-streaming sermons preached in empty sanctuaries. 

People like Jason Hairr, the owner of the Raeford Road barbecue restaurant and catering company “Southern Coals,” who, upon receiving the order for his restaurant’s dining room to close, took his food truck on the road to serve meals to children who otherwise count on their schools’ cafeteria for breakfast and lunch. To date, he has served just under 1,000 plates of complimentary food at a time where he could be home with a calculator and ledger, fretting over his own livelihood.  When I reached out to Jason to ask for his blessing to include his story here, he simply replied, “Yes ma’am. Just trying to do our part to bless those who need it.”   

What I wonder most of all is, after all of this is behind us and we are back to our normal frantic pace, will we remember the lessons we learned from an unlikely teacher, Covid-19, and continue to value the things that we’ve so suddenly learned that we take for granted?

Will we profusely thank our healthcare heroes and our children’s teachers? Savor family gatherings? Appreciate nature? Support local businesses? Make it a habit to check on our friends? Raise a hallelujah every time we hang a new roll of double-ply Cottonelle?

It shouldn’t take a global pandemic to see the beauty in linking hands with someone we love, going outside to admire the budding azaleas and taking a big, healthy breath of fresh air.