I’ve always loved my uncle. He is intelligent, witty, and one of the few remaining people in the world who will think before he speaks and withhold a comment if he doesn’t think it will further a situation. He also is a real fan of Sock Monkey toys, but that isn’t relevant to this story, so let’s backburner that for now.
Despite our mutual affection, most uncles and nieces don’t spend a ton of time hanging out, just the two of them. But our families had the fortune to stay in a shared beach house every summer. I was about thirteen years old when my uncle and I got caught in a riptide off the coast of that beach house. Even if pressed under oath, I could never give a reasonable account of how we ended up in that very strong riptide, just my uncle and me. How did we get there? Had we been paired up on some kind of board game, won, felt jaunty and wanted to go for a swim? Had I stormed off as a bitchy 13-year-old and tried to go for a solo swim? Did my parents ask him to act like he was casually going for a swim, to make sure I was safe?
The latter scenario makes the most sense, but I’ll never know.
We were swimming in Laguna Beach, California — which is an excellent place to visit, but a debatable place to swim.
I am sure I harassed him into allowing me to swim out way further than I should have. I know how to swim, but the USA Olympic swim team isn’t exactly knocking on my door. The saving grace was that my uncle was an actual lifeguard in his youth and swam five days a week, at the time, for his fitness routine. You could say he was an expert.
The start of my memory isn’t clear, but I have flashes of realizing we were in a riptide and were pretty far from shore. Honest to God, at first, I thought it was fun. I knew that I was in a riptide and that they were dangerous. Teenagers can be so naive. The current was strong; it felt like being on a moving walkway. Only the worst could have happened if I had been there alone. I probably would have played with the riptide like a new toy and floated out to sea, to my death.
The moment I first remember clearly of this incident is a flashbulb memory. A flashbulb memory is a type of memory that is encoded into your brain as an almost perfect picture as a result of experiencing very strong emotions — usually shock — when the memory is being written. It’s the reason most everyone can remember where they were when the World Trade Center was attacked. If I was an artist, I could paint the scene perfectly. We were in water up to our necks, and my uncle suddenly looked terrified. Terrified.
He is a very even-keeled person who doesn’t clutch his pearls (for reference, he doesn’t wear pearls, it’s a metaphor) or faint easily, so I immediately understood something was very wrong.
That look is where the memory really starts for me. The look on his face.
Riptides are a real thing. I can’t multiply fractions (this isn’t a joke, one of the things I’m really bad at is basic math), but I have always been adept at deciphering what people are feeling. My uncle’s visible fear only lasted for a fleeting moment, then he started to form a plan to get us out of the riptide. He told me to backstroke and swim parallel to the current. And I did. I tried to make inane conversation because I was trying to pretend we weren’t in danger. He listened, but advised me on how to navigate the waters, and told me it was important to keep paddling. Long story short, we made it to shore, even though I was exhausted and a little shook up. We made it to shore because he knew the steps to take.
To different degrees, the whole world is caught in a riptide right now. There is a pandemic, politics are divided, the news is barely news, and nearly every economy is in collapse. Despite all this, there are experts out there, who like my uncle that day, have our best interests at heart, and are competent and well-versed on the best possible course of action. However, he did have an advantage: this episode lasted no more than 30 minutes.
We’ve all been trying to get out of a vicious riptide since March. Coming up on five months being pulled by forces much stronger than us and out of our control. It’s easy to start to think that the scientists telling us what to do in this situation are choosing the wrong course of action. Why am I swimming on my back? Is this even helping? I swim much better on my front. I’m still here, stuck in this current. You were supposed to solve this, and you didn’t! I’m just going to try to swim straight through this riptide. That makes more sense when you think about it, right? Some expert you are! What you told me to do hasn’t fixed this yet!
We aren’t so lucky to have a flashbulb memory of COVID-19. It happened in slow motion, and most of us don’t have a defining moment of the first time we felt in jeopardy. That only adds to sense of confusion of why we are where we are and how we arrived.
There are established methods to get out of a riptide. And there are established protocols to get out of a pandemic driven by a coronavirus. Being exhausted and frustrated doesn’t change them.
The best information on how to deal with a situation doesn’t always mean that it fixes things right away.
This continual struggle with a lack of a certain final outcome is why we are all losing it.
I, personally, am going bonkers. Every day I wake up and think “WHAT IS GOING ON? WHAT SHOULD I DO?”
Should I send my kids to school in the fall? Will there be school in the fall? If I go to the grocery store two times in a week is that bad? Is this hand sanitizer strong enough? Where is my remote? Are my children regressing? If school is cancelled, should I send them to a daycare? Will there be daycare for school-aged children during the day now? If not, do I send them to after-school care, if there is no school?
Why am I paying full tuition if the school is going to be all online? Maybe I should send them. But then they might get sick. Or not get sick, but get their grandparents sick. Why won’t my husband get a haircut? I don’t care anymore! Herd immunity! I’m going to go lick door knobs at the Chevron Gas Station today and get COVID-19! Wait, didn’t Sweden do that? Not licking things, but, not locking things down. How are they doing? I haven’t heard a thing about them. Is COVID-19 done over there? Are they back to eating pickled herring and being polite in large groups, or is everyone dead there?
My gel manicure that I got before they closed down salons looks like shit. We could have preexisting conditions we don’t know about. Oh man, 10,000 new cases in California today? Kids, get inside! No, go outside and play. Isn’t there something about a giant black hole in space swallowing up galaxies? An earthquake in Oklahoma? Justice Ginsberg has cancer, again? I CAN’T TAKE THIS ANYMORE!
At this point is it usually around 7:42 am, so I momentarily pause my descent into madness to get the kids their breakfast. Then I start it all over again, because I don’t have any answers.
But, I actually do.
Just not answers I like.
The answer is, we have to keep doing things we don’t like in order to get this horrible fever dream of a life to end. I hate wearing a mask and I hate being isolated from so many people. I don’t mind washing my hands. (It disturbs me this is such a crux of trying to fight the virus because I previously thought hand washing was a given. On top of all this, I’ve learned that people are disgusting and apparently don’t wash their hands.)
I know the basic brushstrokes of what to do. I need to turn to the backstroke (wear a mask), swim parallel to the current (wash my hands), and keep going, even if I don’t like a thing about it. These techniques aren’t foolproof, but they are the best we have to get this pandemic contained.
I hate it. But I’ll do it. As long as it takes. Because I don’t have another choice.
But seriously, can someone call Sweden and check in on them? I’m worried.