But sometimes I wonder, if I’d carried out my summer as planned, if I’d done my internship and went back to Harvard, would I ever have had these thoughts? Would I have realized that journalism wasn’t the field for me? Would I have committed to changing concentrations? Would I have mustered the gusto to commit to an even less employable career path? I can’t help but think the answer would be no.
When I left home for the first time, I tried to imagine what it would be like for my younger sister. The bedroom down the hall is suddenly quiet. A pair of running shoes rests by the front door, unmoved. Drives to school, once hastened by Taylor Swift’s entire discography, feel strangely quiet without company. But the truth is, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t comprehend what it meant to be the one left behind — until now.
So I call her double-mother, and for life I owe her twofold, or more. My debt to her is pleated infinitely, like the skirts of the floral chair in her living room. When I was little, I’d hide beneath the wooden coffee table and play with her orange and blue Dala horses, the clacking of their lacquered legs muffled by the cream carpet.
There are two definitions for the word “pith.” The first is the spongy white tissue that sits under the rind of a citrus fruit, coming from the archaic descriptor for spinal marrow. The second is simply the essence of something, its true meaning or feeling. I’ve found that it is easy to connect the two definitions, for the best way to describe the pith of my time in quarantine is a deep set, bitter sadness.
I’ve long been a proponent of bedroom dancing. It’s easy: Play music as loud as you can and start jumping, flinging your limbs outward.
Jen took her coffee with milk and one Sweet’N Low, iced in the summer. I handed her the pink packet, grabbing two Equals for Bruce before rushing to the donut rack for his glazed jelly stick and ice water with a plastic straw. Will took his coffee black with two Splenda and George usually asked for a milkshake, but only if Suzy was working (which she usually was). If not, he’d have a coffee and a bagel with extra cream cheese or a hot dog with raw onions, not grilled. I’d hand Lucy, a nurse practitioner, her cinnamon twist and cup of tea just in time to hear her chide George for his order — after all, he recently suffered a stroke. I identified my regulars by their orders long before I learned their names. They called me “Red” before they learned mine.
I’ve always been vaguely aware that my mom is an infectious disease doctor. There were little clues — medical jargon over dinner, horror stories about patients used to scare me into healthy eating, a skin rash-themed wall calendar — but on the whole, I simply thought of her as my mom, and beyond that, just perpetually busy. Now, though, her profession is not just unignorable — it’s inseparable from her identity as my mom, from her very existence.
"I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to best comfort my mother. I don’t know how to best help the people around me. I don’t know how to best help my friends. I don’t even know how to muster the right amount of empathy for people living next door, let alone people across the country or across oceans."