Walking with my child through the pandemic

black and white two people's leg walking on pavement

By Gretchen M. Michelfeld

In March, my son and I walked in our courtyard garden cold and panic-stricken. I joked that I had the corner office I’d always wanted—the corner of our living room, ha ha. His stepdad’s office was fancier—in the bedroom where he could close the door. Beckett was stuck between us, logging onto Google Classroom, trying to figure out if his sixth-grade teachers’ latest posts were actual assignments or mere suggestions. 

He was like everyone else in New York City; no one knew what was required of us. We wondered if we should disinfect the mail. Was it safe to pet the neighbor’s cat? The farmers market was better than the grocery store, right? We walked around and around the garden’s perimeter crunching our fear deep into the gravel path.  

In April we were wet and striving as we walked with ghosts, who haunted every bit of garden green, each tree, shrub, flower, and blade of grass. We walked fast to push away images of refrigerated morgue trucks and bread lines. We paused on the path for the 7pm cheer. Beckett chattered non-stop over the constant sound of ambulance sirens, making plans aloud. Silently, I made my own plans…my husband and I would try to make love. I would try to bake bread, do my own mending, buy toilet paper…I would try to tell my family in Texas what it was like living in Queens, two blocks from Elmhurst Hospital. Impossible. But still we walked and talked…about his cancelled summer camp, his cancelled trip to see his cousins, and this thing called Zoom. We marched on, masked and gloved, incanting Happy Birthday into our soapy hands the minute we went inside.

In May we were all three bored silly. We were suddenly good at Yahtzee and Clue and obsessed with The Good Place. We let Beckett play too much PS4. I read Day of the Triffids and made us do Paul Eugene aerobics videos in the living room. But mostly we walked. We began to brave the streets at night. Beckett, constantly dribbling his damn basketball, annoyed that I wiped it down before we came inside. At first the non-stop thump, thump, thump made it hard for us to talk, but by mid-month I took comfort in its steady beat. We talked about the girl he liked, about his friends and frenemies. We talked about my mom, his grandmother, who was very sick with this horrible thing that half the country laughed about and called a hoax. 

In June we were hot, furious, and in good company. Smart community activists had convinced the city to open a wide avenue to pedestrians so the neighborhood could get some exercise. We walked 38 blocks every day and raged about the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin…I explained why Tamir Rice was the one who always made me weep. We were angry at small injustices too, pissed off that the mechanical cat toy we’d ordered from Pets.com was already broken when we opened the box. 

In July we escaped. We rented a house far from New York in a place where we could stroll sans masks, outside alone for hours. The occasional dog-walker would nod politely and cross the street. Folks showed neighborly love by keeping far away. Being mask-free liberated our tongues. We talked about the NBA, Sweeney Todd, Joe Biden, my migraines, his stepdad’s siblings, Harry Potter, trans rights, Bird Box, Chipotle burritos, Avatar: the Last Airbender, Fortnite, his singing class, Billy Elliot, Billie Eilish, Cal Cunningham, his New York grandmother who had recovered from COVID, his Texas grandparents who missed him, his cat who missed him…the life that he longed for. 

In August we were back and bickering, walking together less—often tasting tears beneath masks, already damp from the hand washing they’d received the night before. He was grounded for racing his bike through a red light and almost getting hit by a neighbor’s car. He was sorry he lost his allowance and let a stranger buy him ice cream. He was annoyed that I gave him that embarrassing book because he refused to discuss his hormones with either of us. He felt picked on. Ha! He had no idea how much we let slide…like the time he left the court after a playground scrimmage, and rushed mask-less into a hundred onlookers, or the fifth time he dropped his phone and smashed the screen, or the millionth time he did not rinse his dishes or feed the cat or brush his teeth or ask before he ventured far away to his much-missed schoolyard. 

Now it is deep into fall and all I know is this: he sleeps late, he is very tall, and sometimes he still wants to walk with me. I hold on tight to that “sometimes” because in countless ways I have to let him go. He does not go to school. He does not go to parties. He does not go to ballgames. Yet he leaves us…for Google Classroom Hangouts, FaceTime with his buddies, a steady drip of YouTube videos, and biking, biking, biking. 

I must let him escape into his room, behind the door still adorned with the cactus drawing he made for art class eight months ago when he was still a child. 

Now I mostly walk alone and try to wrap my mind around each loss and blessing. Recalibrating friendships. Reconnecting with desire. Calling my siblings. Calling up righteous anger and true compassion. Making lists and resolutions. Making do. Making time to make dinner. 

When we do go walking, Beckett wants to reminisce. His now-breaking voice trembles with memories of family vacations, the school lunchroom, that production of Annie Jr. last September, where he crowed proudly as “Rooster” and danced with the kind of joy I worry he will never feel again. I walk and listen.

Sometimes, clowning around, I try to dribble his ball. And sometimes he still laughs. 

Gretchen M. Michelfeld is an essayist, dramatist, poet, and avid walker. She lives with her lovely son and husband (and their crazy cat, Cleo) in Jackson Heights, Queens. Find her at gretchenmmichelfeld.com.  

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