My daughter and I were in our pjs and watching “Nailed It,” the show that celebrates hilarious baking failures, when my phone rang.
“Oh! It’s daddy,” I said, and was then surprised when his friend Connor’s voice greeted me from the other end of the line.
My husband, Jordan, and his friend, Connor, have a tradition of weekend morning bike rides in Prospect Park; in the age of coronavirus, they’ve kept this tradition going, albeit while staying six feet apart from each other at all times. Exercise is essential to keeping Jordan’s spirits up. After a workout, he’s cheerful and centered, and our whole family feels the ripple effects.
“Amanda. Hey. It’s Connor. Jordan had an accident…”
I was now a beat behind time as it unspooled, trying to catch up.
“He passed out. He’s awake now, but he can’t remember the things I tell him for more than 15 seconds.The cops are here. They called an EMT.”
My heart dropped into my stomach. “Nailed It” was still playing on TV, and my daughter, Ali, age 7, was asking, “What is it, mommy?”
I said, as steadily as possible, “You watch your show, baby. Mommy’s going to talk in the other room.”
I went into Jordan’s office, closing the door behind me. Connor explained that he was calling from Jordan’s phone because his own was inside his jacket, which was currently folded as a pillow under Jordan’s head. I watched, out of body, as I asked him for details about what happened. Jordan’s been biking for 15 years, he wears a helmet, and he was riding the same loop he does every week: How had he gotten so injured?
“Oh my god,” I realized, as Connor explained. “He’s going to have to go to a hospital.” Now my fear sprinted on parallel tracks: Brain injury on one, COVID-19 on the other. Together they churned on top of the general streak of fear running through my body at all times these days. I felt the adrenaline take over my body: It was an ambush.
Ali pushed open the door to the office and stood right next to me.
“Mom. What is it?”, she asked, and there was no hiding. That was a theme lately, ever since the coronavirus hit. I couldn’t hide from her anymore, couldn’t perform the best version of myself during our time together. It — I — was all just hanging out there. Now I felt totally vulnerable and exposed as I said, as calmly as I could, “Daddy fell off his bike.”
“Oh, is that all,” she said, visibly relieved. “I thought something really bad happened.”
I didn’t want to scare her, but I also didn’t want to mislead her.
“Well, he hit his head,” I said, as small, hot tears ran down the sides of my face. Her eyes searched mine. “He got hurt,” I said. “Oh,” she said, processing the information, knowing it was bad, but not quite understanding.
Same, baby. Same.
Connor promised to keep me posted as we hung up. I looked into Ali’s eyes and admitted I was sad, and scared, but that I knew daddy was getting the help he needed (my version of Mr. Rogers’ “look for the helpers”). I hugged her. Inside I was dizzy, fainting.
What now, what now. I thought of calling my parents — always my first instinct in a crisis, even at age 43 — but then I thought of worrying them, and what could they do from Washington, DC, anyway? Feeling very grown-up, I decided that no, I would call my friend Kate, a nurse. She was great in a crisis. She would talk me through what was happening.
In the meantime, Ali made a bee-line for the kitchen. “We have to make daddy breakfast,” she said, rushing around the room. “And coffee. I know just what to get,” she continued, as she climbed up onto a stool to find her Halloween jack-o-lantern, still full of candy, on a high shelf. “Daddy will love this,” she said, as she poured some of her sprinkle-covered gummy bears into a small glass bowl. She’d gotten them with him on a trip to Economy Candy. He loved sharing his favorite things with her: Candy, Batman, video games, and, lately, The Simpsons.
She placed the bowl of candy in the middle of a plate and said, “Now we need to make bacon.” When I told her we were out, she said, “Well, what else do we have that’s meat? He loves meat,” and I found some salami in the meat drawer, and soon she was arranging the discs of pork artfully around the bowl of gummy bears.
“Now coffee,” she said, climbing onto the counter, getting down his Darth Vader mug. “We have to make coffee.”
I slowed her down. “This is so, so nice of you, but he won’t be home for a little while, baby,” I said. Silently I was screaming, Oh god, oh god, what’s happening to Jordan?
I called Kate’s home number, instead of her cell, and she answered on the second ring: “What’s going on?” I started to explain, keeping my voice light, cheerful, Kate reading between the lines just as I hoped she would, our nearly four decades of friendship serving us well.
But Ali wasn’t having it. “What is she saying?,” she asked, until Kate, a mother of three, said, “Why don’t you put me on speakerphone,” and then like an angel sent from heaven, she answered all of our questions, and explained what to expect, in language that was kid-friendly but not pandering: Jordan probably had a concussion. The doctor would probably give him a CAT scan and x-rays. When the time came, she could walk us through how to care for him. The whole time I was just thinking, “What isn’t she saying? What’s the WORST case?”
I texted her that question after we hung up; she didn’t respond, something that I later realized was probably on purpose: She probably knew that in a crisis, it’s better to conserve your energy and focus on what’s right in front of you, rather than spending it imagining all possible outcomes. I knew this, too, and yet in the moment, feeling blindsided, I was grasping. Planning for every possible thing that might happen next felt like being in control.
I started thinking about what the weeks ahead would look like: Jordan laid up in bed. Me, caring for a husband struggling to regain his brain function; also homeschooling Ali; working; caring for our crazy dog. It’s weird, though, because instead of panicking at the enormity of these imagined responsibilities, I felt a deep sense of knowing that I was up to it. I also felt a sensation of glass shattering, as if the delicate boundary of privilege that has surrounded me, and us, our whole lives, was coming down.
Jordan called around this time. It felt like hearing from someone beyond the grave. He sounded coherent but dazed. He kept apologizing, worried about the worry he was causing us. I said we were fine, and to just focus on taking care of himself. I told him how much we loved him. He said he wasn’t sure what had happened. I repeated facts to him that Connor had shared with me. He was in the ambulance, or getting into the ambulance, and had to go. I think Ali said hi, or tried to say hi? This part is a blur.
Meanwhile, Ali was going around our apartment gathering Jordan’s favorite toys and other items she thought would cheer him — a book of cute puppy pictures, a photo strip of the two of them from a vacation last year — and laying them out around our bedroom. “I’m making him a party,” she said, and tears kept coming out the sides of my eyes as my voice remained cheerful, maternal.
My friend Sara called — I’d texted her, and she was checking in on me. Again, Ali wanted in on the conversation, so we put Sara on speakerphone and she sweetly listened as Ali told her all about the party she’d arranged. I felt so supported. It was a reminder how much of a difference a simple phone call can make.
I’d asked Kate to let my parents know what was happening, and when they checked in by text, I asked them to let Jordan’s parents know, too. In the meantime, Jordan had started texting me. And he was making jokes. I felt so much better: Jordan is making jokes. That means he’s himself. That means we’re going to be ok.
And then, in a truly absurd turn of events, Ali had a playdate over Google Hangouts.
We’d planned it the day before, and it was going to be the first time she saw one of her best friends since all this started, and I figured why not give her the gift of this enjoyable time. She started the video call telling her friend, Parker, what had happened. Parker’s parents sent their best, and then the girls played the board game, “Guess Who,” remotely. Truly, life is strange.
By now, Jordan was texting me continuously. He was in the hospital. He had a headache, but maybe it was because he hadn’t had coffee or eaten anything; he wasn’t sure. He was still clearly a little bit out of it: He tweeted about what had happened, posting a photo of himself, before he’d even shared a photo with me. I don’t think he quite knew what he was doing, because it’s not like him to share something private while it’s in the middle of happening. Later, he’d discover that he’d also posted something about his ride to a bike stats website. It’s amazing to think of us upholding our social media habits out of instinct even when we aren’t fully aware of what we’re doing. Then again, maybe that’s a good description of how many of us use social media all the time.
In the end, he was fine. The doctors didn’t even use the word “concussion” until I badgered him, over text, to ask them, “Is this a concussion?” Yes, they said — a mild one. His CAT-scan and x-rays looked good. They sent him home with instructions to avoid “heavy activity” for a few days. When he asked if he needed to take special precautions around COVID-19, they said he should avoid hugging and kissing us for a couple of days. He scoured his hands before leaving the hospital, then worried as he waited on the curb for us to pick him up, where it was hard to stay six feet away from the stream of people coming in and out.
We picked him up in our car, Ali still in her pajamas, an old tapestry thrown over the passenger seat. It was so good to have his body close, even if I couldn’t hug or kiss him. When we got home I had him strip in our apartment building’s hallway, putting all his clothes into a garbage bag. He went straight to the shower, then disinfected the entire bathroom with Clorox.
He didn’t remember the accident itself (he still doesn’t). His neck was stiff, his shoulder and elbow sore, but overall, he was…fine. We knew pain was often worse the next day, so on Sunday morning, as my eyes opened, I prepared for him to say he was in terrible pain — prepared to go into hero mode again, to be his nurse for the day — but when I asked him how he felt, he just said, “Great, actually.”
Life is so, so weird.
Then there was me. I couldn’t stay awake for more than two hours at a time that day. Truly, I slept about 19 out of 24 hours. My parents worried I’d been infected, but I suspected it was my body finally letting down its guard and processing the incredible shock and trauma of the experience. (Plus, as anyone who knows me will attest, sleeping is kind of my thing. I used to fall asleep in bars while my friends partied late into the night. I even fell asleep on my feet at a rock concert one time.)
On Monday, I felt refreshed, and ready to go back to our weekday routine of homeschooling and working, and snatching bits of sunshine whenever possible.
But ever since Saturday, when we got home from the hospital, I’ve been petrified that the virus somehow got into our home. I felt more insulated before, safer. As with my relationship with my daughter, I feel more exposed, now.
But here’s what I’ve learned: My family doesn’t need me to be a hero; that’s something I put on myself. My daughter doesn’t need me to protect her as much as I do; that’s a burden I can lay down, as much as doing so still feels a little bit like going on stage naked. Motherhood isn’t a performance, and neither is life, as deeply as the performance instinct appears to be ingrained in me. All the world isn’t really a stage, or if it is, we need to learn how to be like real actors, playing our characters from the inside out, not the outside in. I try, always, to make measured and mindful choices, but I want to learn to do so from a place of authentic presence, rather than in an effort to control other people’s experience of me.
Last night, I emerged from our bedroom, where I’d been working, to find Jordan and Ali snuggled up on the couch, watching The Simpsons. I joined them, curling against my daughter’s body, feeling the warm strength of my husband’s arm.
The virus may get us, and some other emergency may be just around the bend, but for now, we were safe, together, and that was all that mattered.
I’m a writer and story coach. Learn more at amandahirsch.com.