I met Jessica 20 years ago.
She was shopping at the Times Square record store where I worked at the time. She had a sweet smile and electric energy that melted me from the first moment we met. Coming off of a bad breakup, the truth is I was kind of a wreck and Jessica somehow managed to put me back together. By the following year she had moved in and we’d earnestly begun our lives together.
We held each other tight as we stared at our TV screen during 9/11, drank wine by candlelight the night of the 2003 New York City blackout, and nervously giggled while walking against the wind in our Astoria neighborhood during Hurricane Sandy.
Oh yeah, we also managed to get married and have a beautiful little boy.
Sadly, though, people change, and we’re no exception.
Last year, we realized that we weren’t the same lovestruck twenty-somethings who used a futon for a couch and played in a band together. We were adults. More importantly, we were parents, and the kinetic spark of love had taken a backseat to the business of raising a child. We were damn good at being a family, but over the years, we lost a little bit of each other in the fog of parenting. In December, as Jessica moved out and we amicably began to navigate what our new lives would be, I felt terrified.
How was this going to work?
Despite our differences and hectic schedules, by two months into this new world, we were surprisingly making co-parenting a functioning reality. The balance of responsibilities was divided evenly and our son, Kieran, seemed to take it all in stride. In fact, his autism may have benefitted him in this instance, as it allowed him to process these potentially intense changes in a clinical manner. He didn’t see us living apart as something to be sad about, but was instead focused on how cool it was to suddenly have a second place to call home. We still made a point to all get together on Sunday as our “family day” and, most importantly, we showered Kieran with more love than ever. Jessica and I started to see the potential of our new separate lives while still keeping our family unit intact.
And then along came March.
Within the first two weeks of the coronavirus’ arrival, we were both unemployed, with a feisty six-year old who no longer had a school to report to, all stuck in our two homes. It was decided early on that my apartment would be better suited to keep Kieran at during the pandemic since it was a little bigger. And since it was our home before the separation, it was also the home base he was used to. We decided that every day Jessica would come over and we’d tackle remote learning together. Of course both of us were panicked personally and financially about what the future held, but we both felt confident that, between savings and unemployment claims, we’d get through it. At the very least, we had our health and we had each other, so we’d be okay.
Then Jessica began to feel feverish.
It was the Monday of our third full week of quarantine when her symptoms suddenly came on quickly and, within a couple of hours, she had to face the fact that this could be COVID-19. As much as I was concerned for her, I couldn’t help but worry that Kieran and I could already have been exposed and, the longer we all were under the same roof, the more that risk would increase. It would be terrible for either of us to get sick, but for both of Kieran’s parents to fall victim to this at the same time it could be a disaster.
During one terrible Memorial Day weekend when Kieran was an infant, Jessica and I were both hit with a vicious stomach bug. Since our families were living in different parts of the country and we had yet to need a babysitter, we had no one to turn to for help. It was a brutal experience, as we traded off caring for him between our own bouts of vomiting and napping.
Neither of us wanted to go through that again, so we quickly got Jessica back to her own place to safely quarantine. Only time would tell if Kieran and I were exposed or not, but while we waited that out his homeschooling still needed to get done.
The next few days were some of the hardest I had yet to encounter as a dad.
Kieran has always been an active child, and his recent diagnosis with ADHD had confirmed what we had suspected for a while: that it wasn’t just autism. Kieran is a bundle of nerves and a never ending ball of movement that struggles to stay seated at a table even to eat, so it’s always been crucial to get him outside where he’s less confined. Due to the virus, we had to make the best of staying inside, as each trip outside was laced with a subtle sense of danger — especially now that his mother was sick. Sure, we still did at least one walk a day, but that was a drop in the bucket for a kid used to the abundance of physical activity that we were able to give him before all of this began. Online exercise videos sometimes helped, but his lack of focus made even those an uphill battle.
The school work was an entirely different challenge.
Jessica and I worked best as a team, but now that it was just me trying to play both good cop and bad cop, Kieran wasn’t having it. Two tantrum-filled days passed by in slow motion as I fought tooth and nail to get him to complete his assignments. Meanwhile, I was spooked by every small sign of sickness I exhibited. Was it just warm in the apartment or was a fever starting to kick in? Was I coughing because of an allergy or because I was infected?
At the end of every long day, Kieran and I would both find comfort in facetiming Jessica to have her read him a bedtime story. It was a small piece of mom that we both embraced as we curled up together in his bed. As much as I missed her help, I knew she felt terribly guilty at not being there, not to mention struggling with her own health. Jessica is the type of mom to be there for Kieran regardless of any obstacle, so only something of this magnitude could force her to put herself before her child.
One of the most significant moments for me during her quarantine was a phone call after one of Kieran’s meltdowns. I was exhausted, frustrated, and felt like a failure, so I stepped into my bedroom and texted her, “Kieran is freaking out. Can I call you?” Somehow amidst her terrible fever and discomfort, Jessica still managed to get on the phone and offer words of advice and comfort.
“Don’t be so hard on yourself. Take some deep breaths. It’s going to be okay.”
They were simple words, but they went a long way. I hung up with her and spent a few minutes regrouping before walking back into Kieran’s room, giving him a hug, and telling him not to worry about the assignment he was so adamantly refusing to do. We’d give it another shot tomorrow.
By the end of that week, Jessica was on the mend and although the fever, nausea, and body aches were rough on her, she never had trouble breathing nor felt sick enough to seek medical intervention. On our end, Kieran and I stayed healthy and, despite some tough moments, we managed to stay on top of his assignments. Once her fever passed and stayed at bay for long enough, Jessica returned to the fold and we picked up where we left off, a little more beat up certainly, but also somehow a bit stronger.
Much like 9/11 or Sandy, this is another notch in our belt, and although we aren’t the same couple we were 20 years ago, we are still a family, and we are still Kieran’s parents.
George Flanagan previously wrote two previous articles about his experience as father during the COVID-19 pandemic