Watching the Pandemic Steal Intimate Moments From Teenagers

On a day when my 17-year-old son can’t seem to summon the strength to wake up, I worry he’s coming down with the coronavirus or that he’s slipped into a deep depression. But he tells me that his partner, who is 19 and uses “they/them” pronouns, is moving into the nursing home where they work. He is listless from the losses of his deli job and the end of his senior year, angry that his partner is in such a compromising situation. Consistently exposed to Covid-19, his partner’s been forced to make the unfathomable choice of isolating in quarantine or exposing their household.

My son’s voice rises, hands gesture at everything and nothing, the emptiness and pointlessness of the world contained in his flailing arms. The two now haven’t seen each other in two months, quarantine lines drawn around individual households, like borders.

As parents, we’re supposed to solve things. From the moment our kids are born, we are their protectors, their guides and advocates. But in a pandemic, I feel helpless to solve my son’s most pressing need — to be with his significant other. (Both of them have consented to my telling their story.) When his chin quivers and he looks at me with pleading eyes, the guilt washes over me. I didn’t create the pandemic, I didn’t devise the rules that determine safety as isolation from the ones we love the most. But I’m the enforcer of those rules and even though my kids mostly understand, I still feel like a monster.

At the end of each day, I escape to the backyard, where I sit and soak in the sun, play baseball with my spouse and kids, or walk in circles, alone. Out here, there are no alarming headlines, no emergency alerts screaming on our phones to let us know the stay-home order has been extended. Out here, the groundhog that will eat our garden runs to his burrow and for a moment I pretend that outsmarting him is my most pressing concern.

My son peeks through the door to let me know his partner is parked in the driveway to pick up some cloth masks and a care package. He fetches his 8-year-old sibling, too — she calls his partner her best friend, misses running to greet them with giant knock-you-over hugs, writes them notes that say, “I miss you, I hope I get to see you soon.”

We all step up to the front porch railing like we’re actors on a stage. There are no lines or rehearsals for this, no directors to walk you through the land mines of loving someone from afar during a pandemic. We only know that the edge of the porch is an imaginary line that we must not cross. I’ve considered this moment for days — how difficult it will be to be so near yet separated by an invisible gulf. My son begs to don a garbage bag as improvised personal protective equipment for a quick hug. But he knows that’s not how this works. Instead, we yell a short conversation down the driveway and I watch the two of them hold silent eye contact before shouting goodbye, their shattered selves on display.

As I walk to the backyard, the tears make it difficult to see. I try to take deep breaths, to steady myself so that I can find my chair and sit back down. I’m reminded of the time my high school boyfriend left for college and I had to feel for the arms on the airport chair in order to carefully collapse. That summer, we’d packed in sunset trips to Lake Michigan and danced at the end of desolate streets to the car radio. Every nightly goodbye was a countdown, every “I love you” emphatic with meaning. We’d had months to prepare for his departure and in the end, it still felt unbearable.

None of these kids had any choice in their separation. There was no transitional period to allow them to adjust. They did not know at the time to invest their moments together with the weight and ritual of farewells.

We don’t know how this pandemic will end. We’re all desperate for the day when we can hold the ones we’re separated from, but experts caution we could be practicing some form of social distancing for years. I’m afraid. Afraid that this will go on and on, and also afraid of guidelines and orders being relaxed too soon. I’m mostly afraid of traversing that in-between, of holding that tight line of protection and having it snap under the weight of my almost-adult kid’s frustration.

When the weekend arrives, I invite my son out to till up the garden with me, where the birds, feral cats and budding trees remind us that some of life is still going on as normal. There, we can breathe, there we can listen, there we plan only what we can. Inside, coping mostly looks like video games, like pulling away from the pain of reality. Out here, coping looks like asking where the tomatoes will go, and laughing when I mutter, “I’m going to get that groundhog,” like some kind of off-kilter Mr. McGregor.

I imagine that before there is treatment, before there is a vaccine, in the midst of a pandemic, my son will move out. In addition to everything else that’s been stolen by the pandemic — his prom, graduation and end of-year celebrations — moving out for the first time may be another milestone that won’t be fully celebratory.

School, jobs and internships have all been put on hold. Teens and young adults are on the front lines, selflessly taking on unfathomable risks in order to care for our parents and grandparents, to prepare our takeout and stock grocery store shelves. They’re worried about each other, they’re worried about their relationships and their futures. Social distancing steals it all — intimate moments and quiet, sad goodbyes.

In the early days of quarantine, as his friends were still gathering for birthdays and hikes, my son didn’t join, just mentioned it with a shrug as we played a quiet card game on the couch. Today, I watch him work hard to put one foot in front of the other, to make time for both connecting remotely with his partner and in-person with us. There is no denying that we’re all learning about presence, adaptation and resilience. And it’s mostly the young people who are giving the lessons.

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