Early Spring, 2020
My morning walk, accompanied by the dog and my thoughts.
This morning, I wake up to discover that it snowed overnight—a mid-April reminder that winter has not yet run its course. Daffodils bend under the weight of snow, and two or three inches of fresh-fallen stuff covers lawns that are just greening up. It’s cold, but the dog is eager to go. I clear the sleep from my eyes, and we begin to wind our way through streets that are just barely light. The rare pedestrian we encounter smiles, and then creates a wide berth—walking not just six or eight feet away but often ten or twelve: convivial social-distancing at an early morning hour. My dog and I head towards some open, public spaces near my home. She knows the way. My brain begins sorting through everything that has happened in the last 24 hours, the last six days, the last six weeks—my daily mental rumination on coronavirus, with a curly black dog as witness. As we make our way through the quiet streets, my memory turns to my most recent shift as a doctor in the ER. I wonder if a patient I cared for with Covid-like symptoms tested positive, and wish test results did not take so long to come back. I worry about her—and about all the patients I have taken care of since the pandemic began. I wrinkle my nose against the spot that is irritated by my personal protective equipment (PPE). It is hard to breathe through a mask for the duration of a twelve-hour shift, but scarier to take it off: most self-contaminations happen with “doffing”, the official term for the systematic removal of PPE. I remind myself to be even more rigorous with PPE protocols on my next shift, and then think about my patient, again. My dog and I have reached the open space. I bend down and release her from the leash. She has good off-leash behavior, responding to my commands, and generally staying out of trouble—which almost makes up for the fact that she will chew her way through any household item that won’t walk away from her.
We see another dog and that dog’s people. The canines greet. Tail wagging ensues. The owners and I joke—from twelve feet away—that the dogs must be as lonely and cooped-up as we feel. I call the dog, and we continue on. I think about my kids, still at home asleep with the sitter—a wonderful young woman and family friend, who moved in with us at the start of the pandemic. Her presence in my home has been steadying, and has made my work in the Emergency Room possible. But school closures and social distancing have been hard on all of us. Most days, there are tears or angry words—and not always just from the kids. I fear I am not a good enough mother, that my kids will fall behind in school, that I am not meeting their emotional needs. The younger one cries more; the older one is more defiant. These are normal responses to trying times, I understand, but it is hard not to imagine I am failing my children somehow—that I have missed plugging up some hole that would protect them from the hurt of the outside world. The dog and I have found our way to the local cemetery. It is a neat and well-kept burial ground that has graves going back nearly 200 years. Some of my relatives are interred here. Today it is covered in snow. The dog sniffs and runs, following her nose and chasing squirrels. Snow sticks to the soft fur on her face and paws and undercarriage, and she looks like an abominable snow-dog. I remember that three days ago my kids and I made a similar walk through the cemetery with my daughter’s dad and his dog—socially-distanced co-parenting in this moment of Covid-19. It had been a beautiful day, with a blue sky, and tender green grass framing all the headstones. In a shady, older part of the cemetery, where the grave markers were small and worn by time, we had found a faint spray of violets—not thick enough to show up like a blaze of color, but a thin, barely-there water-color washed over fledgling grass. “Isn’t it a beautiful day?” I’d exclaimed at the time. “Yeah,” my daughter had said, full of tween sass, “but it would be better if we weren’t walking among the dead.” But today it is cloudy and still threatening snow, and as the dog and I find our way among the narrow roads and headstones, my mind is possessive of every worry. I think about the economy, about people in my neighborhood who have lost their jobs, and others who do not have enough to eat. I worry about elderly neighbors who are trapped inside, alone. It seems impossible that phone calls and charitable contributions can make even a dent in a world so full of hunger and loneliness—oh, and with a life-threatening pandemic just outside the door. And so the daily churn begins: an ongoing triptych of work, family, and world worries that open and shut and fold around each other, illuminating and casting shadows as I struggle to doctor, parent, and be a citizen in this changed, new world. The dog has begun to wander to the older part of the cemetery where the kids and I walked three days ago. Sometimes she bounds around, running in crazy circles and I am not sure where she is headed. This morning she has picked up the scent of something and is moving towards it with extraordinary focus—some unseen, mysterious thing that does not make any sense to me.
But I follow her, trying to sort out what she is after—looking for some prize she senses, but I cannot see. Soon, she is nosing around through the snow, uncovering low gravestones that lie nearly flat to the ground. These are the small, rough-cut stones that Mormon pioneers who settled this town once used to mark their dead. The stones say things like “Baby Girl Harris” and cite only one date to memorialize both the child’s birth and death; or “Nils ‘Swede’ Hansen,” with Gothenburg listed as place of birth and my hometown as where he died. And then the dog runs off for the next thing and leaves me with what she found—or maybe what found me: the violets. They are barely perceptible under the snow, and some have been smashed flat by the dog’s paws. I brush them off and see how fragile they are. They might not last another day—or another dog. But for right now they are all there: lavender petals and green leaves against snow.
I move on. It’s time to catch up with dog before she gets into trouble, and to get breakfast at home for the kids. The world spins on. The triptych opens and closes and then holds still. I remember that last winter the snow eventually stopped. Almost despite myself, I venture a hope towards Spring.