After 2 weeks of isolation and potty training, I emerged like a newborn fawn, shaky on my legs and timid to the world. But a plan had begun to form. First step was joining forces with a family in central Oregon. Somehow I mustered enough courage and packed up my little Honda with everything that could fit in the Fit. I buckled my toddler into his carseat, tucked somewhere between the crate of books and the perishables, stuck a cutting of my favorite houseplant in the cup holder and hit the gas for Mt. Hood Pass. We left without knowing when we would/could return.
I was white-knuckling it from the second I grabbed the wheel. There was snow in the forecast for the mountain pass, plus rumors that I could be stopped by police for attempting to “travel”. I thought that I masked my anxiety well, but Daniel feels everything. “Careful, Momma,” his cute 2 year old voice chimed in from the backseat, warming and breaking my heart all at once. These must be particularly hard times for those that don’t understand why the world changed overnight.
160 miles later we arrived in Bend, Oregon, and at the First Door—panels of natural wood and fogged glass, opening up into the beautiful modern home of our friends Ida, Alex and little James. As they invited us in, our eyes sailed through the living room with high vaulted ceilings, passed the large open deck and beyond into an endless expanse of blue skies and fluffy tops of ponderosa pines. A joyous feast after quarantining in a North-facing ground level apartment. But even more than the view, it was the luxury of sharing in the stress of life during a pandemic. I felt like I could finally take a deep breath of fresh air.
When you first meet someone, you never know where the twists and turns of life are going to take you. When Daniel was still an infant, and after all my helpful visitors had returned home, I sought out the camaraderie of local Mom’s Groups. I stumbled upon a post in our neighborhood’s Buy Nothing Group offering a free space for new moms to gather. When that afternoon arrived I rang the doorbell of a lovely family home and was invited into a living room bustling with moms and tiny babies, all of which would quickly become our friends. There was no way of predicting that the woman laying out along the couch, in a particularly lovely nursing dress, feeding her blond haired baby boy, would become one of the most significant people in our lives.
Ida matched her baby, with the same sunny hair, rosy cheeks and hard-edged glint in the eye. Though you couldn’t tell by listening to her, she was born and raised in Sweden, married an ambitious American named Alex and settled down a long way from home. She spoke several languages effortlessly and always took special care to speak to her baby in Swedish so that he’d be fluent too. She introduced me to Elimination Communication and the Instant Pot and we took infant CPR and baby swim lessons together.
Before the boys were even mobile we split our weeks trading them back and forth, giving us each a few hours of baby-free time. The two of them were always mistaken as twins in the double stroller, and we spent the good part of two years parenting along side each other. Little Daniel and I joined them for dinners, holidays and even a ladies’ soak in their hot tub while Alex watched the kids.
They had been spending an increasing amount of time in their 2nd home in Bend the winter before the pandemic hit, so it wasn’t any surprise that they were now almost exclusively living out there. Ida and I had been talking about the challenges, fears and developmental concerns we had for our growing toddlers in isolation, and when she mentioned that there was plenty of room for us out there with them, we made the plan to move in.
The 5 of us lived together for 2 months, though we were never sure if it would be for a week or a year. We planned out our month, as best we could, on a white board calendar, using 5 colors to accentuating holidays and divide up the responsibilities of childcare, cooking and cleanup. As we planned out our meals, Ida and I flipped through recipe books, getting excited about what delicious things we wanted to cook. We compiled a pretty hefty grocery list, and in trying to shop less often, we sometimes filled up two shopping carts.
When it was my turn to do the grocery shopping, I felt woefully unprepared. I pulled into the parking lot and chose a spot away from everyone else. Sitting in my car I took in several long breaths. In through the nose, out through the mouth. I pulled my hair back and up into a big messy bun and slipped my hands into some surgical gloves. Another deep breath, in through the nose and out through the mouth. I pulled an N95 mask down into place and pinched the metal band to fit my nose. I caught my reflection in the rearview mirror and my eyes watered. There’s nothing like feeling as if you are risking your life just to get food.
It felt like I hadn’t gone grocery shopping in years, certainly not since the pandemic started. It seemed silly to be scared, but the mask restricted my view, restricted my breath, and I felt my anxiety level increase. I grabbed a cart from the clean side, and slipped in through the sliding glass doors.
I don’t know what I expected to find in there, but somehow I was shocked to discover a brightly lit, colorful, friendly grocery store with bountiful options. I gripped my shopping list and narrowed my focus to the mission: getting everything on the paper and getting out as quickly as possible. At the checkout counter the woman’s smile could be detected by a slight rise in her mask, as friendly wrinkles appeared beside her twinkling eyes. She asked me if I had found everything all right and I teared up under the enormity of a casual human exchange. I looked away with a, “Yes, thank you.”
Arriving back at the Bend House the decontamination process began. We always washed everything that we brought into the house. And what couldn’t be washed was put into quarantine in the garage. I put my contaminated clothes in the washer and scrubbed every inch of my body, always hoping and praying that I had done everything right and hadn’t let the COVID leak in.
When we weren’t braving the outer world, we juggled the challenges of raising two toddler boys. Having been best buds practically since birth, their friendship took on a whole new level as roommates. They fought, fussed, played and loved each other like siblings. And, though a little more tactful, the three of us adults had our own conflicts to overcome. Those few rough moments tied us even closer together, a team against the turbulent world outside that door.
It was on the expansive porch, overlooking the ponderosa pines, that I learned of my Bonus Dad, Leo’s, death. The blinding blue sky, and butterflies playing in the subtle breeze felt impossibly pleasant and I forgot the phone pressed up against my ear. Death steals from us what we hold precious above all else. But no damper can be put on love. In fact, in some ways it takes that love to another level, as our dead now speak inside us and through us, an intimacy that isn’t possible as two separate people in the turbulence of interpersonal communication. Leo and I had never been particularly close, but I know that he loved me like his own flesh and blood daughter, and since his death I’ve cried, laughed and felt his presence more clearly than when our complicated relationship was still malleable. He’s now with me daily, when before we’d easily go months without speaking.
Being given the space and support to mourn his death, was one of the biggest gifts of our time in Bend. As April’s giant Pink Super Moon rested on the horizon, I was able to walk out the door alone, to fill the moonbeams with my tears without worry of scaring my child. The tenuousness of life never feels as precarious as it does when you’re tottering in a world where people are dying by the thousands, and one of your own is taken from you. What strikes me is our ability to compartmentalize and push forward into a new day, regardless. We are extremely resilient.
Our society’s general disconnect between life and inevitable death, felt particularly obvious to me during the spring holiday season. I welcomed the levity of deviled eggs and haroset and set out a fun Easter basket of gifts for Daniel. It is Swedish Easter tradition to dress the children up like little witches with red round cheeks and a brown speckling of freckles. I found some wood glue in the garage and made the boys two little brooms to ride around on. We set the backyard up for an Easter egg hunt and the toddlers excitedly ran each bright plastic egg back to the basket upon discovery, finding more pleasure in the retrieval than what was inside them.
As the weeks continued to pass, life at the Bend House was good and we felt lucky. My little budding extravert continued to grow (and pick up some more Swedish) because of the social stimulus. The fresh air and the companionship took some of the sting off of having to continually cancel big plans and plane tickets, as the pandemic continued to get worse instead of better. The hardest part was not being able to gather together with my family for a funeral. The US/CA border extended their closure.
With everything shut down and canceled it was ridiculously strenuous trying to get Daniel the dental work that we had been told he needed days before COVID closed their doors. I had been calling for several weeks with no return call, before I finally got an actual human on the phone. She told me that they were booked out solid for several more months, but had I thought about having the procedure done at the hospital instead? The relief in finally being able to schedule his oral surgery hit me with a flood of emotions. The timeline for the next step in our journey had been decided for us. We would be returning to Portland for his appointment and then packing up our apartment for our big cross country move.
Once again I tetrised our belongings back into the Fit, leaving behind my plant cutting which now lived happily in a pot. We began our difficult goodbyes to three very important people. The sadness in leaving was comforted only by invaluable hugs. The preciousness and rarity of human contact during a pandemic can never be taken for granted. As we drove away I tried not to think about all the goodbyes ahead of me, all the friendships that couldn’t be punctuated with an embrace. Leaving Portland was going to be astronomically difficult.
Stay tuned for Door #2: Our Portland Home