Tomorrow will be my son’s seventh birthday. I once wondered what it would take for me to not be there by his side on such an occasion; the answer, as it turns out, is a global pandemic.
I’m writing this on the desktop I grabbed from my office, now propped up on the windowsill of my apartment — a makeshift workspace in a big, quiet world. My window faces New Jersey’s Garden State Parkway, where the traffic grows lighter and lighter every day. Beyond the highway lies the Watchung Mountains. What was once a peaceful vista now feels desolate rather than beautiful, a reflection of the new normal.
In the large apartment complex I live in, most of the tenants either work in New York City or Newark, both of which have become hot spots for Covid-19. It was inevitable that at least one of my neighbors would either be exposed to the virus or become a confirmed case. That happened two weeks ago; now, I work in isolation with the woman I love. Both of our children are staying with their other parents, in situations we’re hoping are safer than our own.
Before this, I was renting a room in an unfinished basement affectionately referred to as “The Dungeon.” It was dark and ant-filled with a decaying drop-ceiling. As much as I wanted my son with me, and as much as he wanted the same, my ramshackle room just wasn’t appropriate. But a few months later, when I moved into a space with vaulted ceilings and huge windows, there was space for my son — and he happily commuted between Mom and Dad.
This new scenario is the culmination of a years-long battle with poverty and mental health issues. (The latter still needs a lot of work, but I’m getting there.) I’m finally becoming the father I envisioned myself being since before my son was born.
The last time I saw my son in person, we were stealthily moving down the hallway of my building pretending to shoot monsters with Nerf guns. Later, we built a fort and watched cartoons. He made his first grilled cheese sandwich. It is a montage of memories that might have slipped away had coronavirus not spread across the world.
In the early days of the pandemic, before my isolation, my ex-wife and I tried to figure out what the worst-case scenario plan would be. His school was shutting down and transitioning to remote learning. It was all getting real.
How does our custody schedule change?
Should I have a go-bag for him?
Who does he stay with long term if we go into full lockdown?
We planned as best we could with the information we had. We alternated days, and while his remote learning was a small struggle, I was happy to have this extra time with him. He did his lessons, he painted, we played chess and Jenga. He was even making smoothies with spinach! All the while getting to know his future stepmother and sister.
Then, I got word. Some of the tenants in my building were exposed to Covid-19 and there were at least a few outright infections. My ex-wife and I had to make some hard choices.
She wanted me to continue to have him over for visits.
“But what if he gets infected here?” I asked.
“Maybe he can wear a mask and gloves and take the stairs?”
“Maybe I could stop by your place and visit with him there.”
“But then you’re bringing the risk here.”
There was only one answer. I had to stay away. It was a decision my ex-wife didn’t have a say in. She was and is irritated. It was a unilateral decision I made for what I believed to be all the right reasons. That said, single dads generally don’t live in a world where they make sweeping decisions. They roll with the tide of mothers. And I respect that.
The decision I made now leaves her being a 24/7 parent. Isolation as a single parent is tough on either side, even if it’s for opposite reasons. None of us are the fortunate ones.
In the midst of everything, though, my son has been the strongest of all. His birthday party was supposed to be at a ninja warrior gym. That got canceled. We downgraded to just a few kids in the house. That got canceled too. Now his birthday is down to a virtual playdate and possibly a quick visit from his grandparents. Through it all, he has shrugged off the challenges. He is all smiles and giggles (except for bedtime, but that’s another story). At least that’s what I see as I chat with him on my tablet.
Parents are built to run toward their children in times of danger. Social distancing is anathema when it doesn’t include your children.
Being a Gen X Black dad means trying to fill the holes some of our dads didn’t know how to. For some that hole is abandonment; for others, it’s a lack of affection; for others still, it’s financial instability. This pandemic harkens ghosts from our collective past. It heaps guilt on the shoulders of men who seek to break a generational trauma. Or in my case, to simply be better than I was a year ago.
The first wave of truly missing my son hit me last night, a mere four days since I last saw him. I cried in my bed.
I want to stop by and see him on his birthday, even if it’s brief. But while it’s an action that I could couch in some magnanimous show of fatherhood, it would really be an act of selfishness. My presence would be making myself feel better at the risk of endangering him, his mother, and his grandparents who are prime targets for this virus. It would be a patch meant to override the guilt I feel toward him and his mother.
I have to do the difficult thing and just be still.
The hardest part of all of this is just how arbitrary it feels. My plan is to be away for two weeks; that’s the incubation period for the virus. But does that prove anything? There have been two deaths in my town and nine in my son’s. This pandemic is not confined by timelines or geography. There is a world where I don’t see my son for weeks, even months. Worse still, is there a world where I have been exposed far later into isolation than I expected? What if day 14 is actually day one?
When the dust settles on this pandemic, and I have to believe that it will, there will be new challenges. Some of them practical and some of them more complicated.
What does the strain of isolation on single parents mean for their relationship going forward?
What does shared custody look like in a “post” Covid world?
Do I ever kiss my son hello again?
I have a sweatshirt he left behind after his last visit. A dark-gray hoodie with reinforced elbows and shoulders. When he wears it, he looks older than his six years. It sits folded in my dresser; every time I open the drawer, I inevitably touch it. It’s both comforting and painful, a reminder that while my decision to isolate was made for our collective futures, it has come at a cost.
He may not be able to fit it by the time he gets back here.