The ragged little, shin-high hole in the drywall, just as I walk from my kitchen into my living room, reminds me that my family’s unraveling. It is one of several holes my oldest daughter Cleo has kicked into our walls these past couple months. And though her small, violent actions make it even harder for me to hold back my own peaking pandemic anxieties, by our fourth month stuck in the house together attempting online school, I can’t say I blame her.
When corona first cancelled school for Cleo and my kindergartener Xyla, I worried mostly about their increased screen time. I reacted by taking them crabbing at the Lafitte docks every night for two months, which definitely helped. My littlest still melted down daily, but Cleo seemed downright excited to finally join the digital singularity.
Nine months later, the opposite is true: Xyla has fallen in line, and begun to excel and enjoy her online classes, even despite her teachers speaking only Spanish–while her 6th grade sister Cleo tosses her laptop around, throws dry erase markers, and kicks holes in the walls.
I left Cleo to her own devices at the pandemic’s beginning, specifically to send her a message of trust. I would check in only to make sure she remained on track. “It’s time for your class now, right?” I’d nudge. “Did you finish all your work for it?”
“Yes,” she always answered. After class, when I’d notice 10 YouTube tabs open before her, she’d promise, “Teacher let us out of class early.”
“And she didn’t give you any work to finish?”
Feeling safe, I focused on Xyla’s kindergarten struggles–until I received an email from a teacher, warning of a looming F for Cleo in Science. The next day, her math and Chinese teachers sent similar emails, plus over a dozen missing assignments and tests Cleo needed to complete if she planned to barely pass the semester. Her teachers finally put me on a list that alerted me to Cleo’s daily missing work. Those emails quickly made it seem like Cleo did nothing but blankly stare at her teachers on the screen, waiting to return to her YouTube videos—followed by lies when I’d inquire about school.
I felt not just worried for her grades, but deeply hurt. Rule number one for parents is remain kind, but I always find it hard to be loving when lied to. And so I morphed from adored dad, into a fucking cop. I forbade Cleo to look at YouTube at all between classes, so she’d have nothing to look forward to. I took away her headphones because, “I need to be able to hear what your teachers are telling you,” I bluffed, knowing I wouldn’t understand her teachers’ Spanish anyway. I demanded Cleo open up all her Google Classroom pages so I could check for myself if she’d finished her daily work—even though the Spanish instructions confused me. Because of this, despite my best attempts to police her, Cleo continually managed to slip away from me. Even when I could muster the required kind parental patience, I felt forced to treat my darling first born like a stranger who would play me, if given an inch.
Cleo would cry real tears when caught in a lie. “I just hate online school!” she’d wail, and suddenly everything she’d done seemed honest. Right down to the holes in my walls. It’s true, No one wants to do any of this shit! Still, I am legally obligated to force her to do it. I sometimes wish the government would shut down all the schools entirely, and release us to fend for ourselves.
This period represents the first time Cleo and I have not loved each other to death. A work-from-home dad, I was able to put more one-on-one hours into Cleo than most parents could ever hope to spend raising their kids. Cleo and I are each other. Which makes it both sad and predictable that, stuck alone together in the house for months on end, we would eventually scrap like mountain goats.
I feel very lucky to have personally lost little to this pandemic, but I am deathly afraid of losing her love and trust.
With entertainment and culture options truncated by corona, I’ve done everything I can to give our daughters a life outside of their computers. Still, by now, they have lost the will to even go for bike rides or walks. And I have lost the will to push them. My brain knows we should go exercise, and that it would help, but pandemic paralysis has settled in, and keeps us inert.
In this sad state, I let myself become vulnerable to the idea of them getting a dog. My kids and their mom hounded me for years for a dog, but I simply do not like dogs (a brave admission in America!). This time I gave in; the kids needed some light in their lives. So now we have Rooster, a mini-pinscher who shivers in temperatures below 70-degrees. The girls’ love Rooster–until the dog needs to go outside.
“It’s too cold to take her out there!” they claim, opening their laptops. “it’s freezing!”
“It’s 62!” I slam their Macs shut. But I don’t have the energy to force them outside. Our whole relationship these days is me forcing them to do shit.
Their mother finally forced them to sign up for baseball four nights a week, which seemed dangerous, but at this point worth the risk. Both girls cried, “No! No!” but Cleo’s smile bloomed once she found herself running alongside girls her own age to the outfield.
Xyla weeped and wailed all the way to the field, scared as hell. “I will catch the ball,” she yelled at me, “but I will not hit the ball!” Parents stared at me as I led my crying baby to the dugout, where she switched over to a loud, sustained growl I’d never before heard from her. I kept a respectful distance to give her independence. Whenever she ran out of the dugout to me, I’d lead her back to join her group of mostly 6-year-old boys all excited as shit to be together. The maskless boys climbed all over each other, laughing poisonous droplets into each others faces. Just their joy scared Xyla. She’d forgotten what being around kids was like. “THEY’RE TOO LOUD!” she cried, covering her ears to block out the aluminum clang of errant bats striking the dugout’s concrete.
One of the boys pointed at teary Xyla and loudly asked all the other boys, “Why is she wearing A MASK?!”
I stepped over and whisper-shouted at the kid through the chain link, “Because there’s a pandemic! Mind your business.”
Finally came Xyla’s turn at bat. She growled so loudly that a parent in the stands shouted, “Look out, she’ll bite ya!” Xyla swung the bat with pure rage, and clipped a foul ball. Everyone cheered for the girl they’d all seen crying. “Go Xyla!” shouted a couple moms, which made me feel better than it seemed to make my daughter feel.
The anger in Xyla’s swings alarmed me, but she finally connected good, knocked the ball up the middle, then easily ran to first. Running finally did the trick; Xyla stood on first base smiling. Eventually she made it to home plate to score the final run of her team’s first winning game.
On the ride home she asked me to call her mother. “Thanks mom!” Xyla shouted into the phone, “for signing me up for baseball!”
My oldest still needed more than baseball though. With great loud strife, she caught up on her online schoolwork, but continued to suffer mentally and emotionally. One day after she’d recklessly shouted “I hate you!” at me over some small perceived slight, I looked at her and realized, She is dying inside…
And so, despite the possibility of her dying for real, we decided to send her back to school in person after Christmas break. We broke this news to Cleo, who cried as if being sent away to military school.
I, however, was elated to get to hang up my tri-pointed hat and Billy club, and just be dad again. We did not mention school at all during that Christmas break. I did neglect to label any of Cleo’s presents “From Santa,” to send a quiet message. But the dad who gifted her a hoverboard absorbed more love that Christmas morning than he had in months. Parents are always auditioning for our kids.
This fresh family calm made me feel New Year’s day would be a good time to cut back my drinking. I’d used vodka as a crutch, with varying degrees of failure, since the pandemic began. I went to bed with heartburn every night, and worried how this yearlong bender might return to haunt my body later on. So, without the stress of online school, I managed to skip my nightly cocktails. After just a few days, I felt more energetic, my face looked slimmer, my heartburn subsided.
Cleo returned home psyched from her first hesitant day of real school. She seemed happy to follow the new weird health protocols, if it meant seeing her friends, and receiving live guidance from teachers. Her daily report told me she’d finished every last assignment. Back at home, on a celebratory bike ride along the windy Mississippi River levee, Cleo thanked me for sending her back to school.
Riding back home through the neighborhood though, we noticed the father of Cleo’s best friend waving to us from his porch. “Hey hey! You heard the news? ” he shouted. “The city cancelled school again for the next two weeks!”
We thanked him, then I pulled my bike over at Crown-n-Anchor bar, because dad definitely picked the wrong week to quit drinking.