By Jennifer Alessi
It’s called “independent learning,” but how can it be when she’s only just turned five? Across the kitchen table, she perches before her Chromebook, Play-doh pebbling her keyboard and worksheets skidding across the floor. Every two minutes, she needs something.
“Where’s my caterpillar ruler?” she cries.
“What’s a caterpillar ruler?!” her father barks.
“It’s in your pile,” I pointedly remind her.
Whimpering, she riffles through the stack.
Since the lockdown, I’ve lost all metrics. I’m tempted to look into the grids on her tiny screen. Are her classmates struggling? Is Kiera more dependent than her peers?
When I was finally pregnant at forty-four, three years of fertility injections forgotten, I’d waddle along a boulevard, an olive tank top stretching over my stomach. Earbuds in, Elton on repeat, I stroked where she grew and mouthed along: “I promise you that, promise you that, promise you that/ You’ll be blessed.”
As a baby, Kiera wailed in the bassinet. But she’d sleep, twitching, in a lime green and grey Fisher-Price bouncer. Through the night I lay on the couch beside her, scooping her at first cry. I never wanted her to fret without comfort. I’d promised her, she’d be blessed.
She never took to the crib. Red-faced and outraged, she’d scramble onto her knees, gripping the bars, and vomit. After three or four nights like this, we stopped leaving her alone—what if she choked?
Then came the febrile seizure, the four-night hospital stay. The infection induced asthma. For the next three years each simple cold trickled into her lungs. I’d sleep beside her to monitor her breathing, waking every few months to her flushed-faced gurgle.
Now, five and healthy, Kiera won’t leave our bed. To force her to, especially during a pandemic, strikes me as cruel, At what point did our cherishing become coddling? When does protecting become crippling? Irreversible?
At least before the shutdown she was at daycare part-time. At ten-months old, as a Duckling, Kiera tummy-timed with other infants and fed from others’ hands. As a Monkey she toddled over playmats needing no one’s arm. A Rainbow Fish, she looped a trike around the gym and didn’t want to come home.
Now, her new classmates only exist on a screen. Understandably, she hasn’t formed any friendships since preschool. Independence-wise, she’s backslid. She insists that her father or I accompany her to the toilet. Yelping, “I’m scared!” she refuses to go upstairs alone. “Sit next to me,” she pleads from the couch. “Closer,” then clings to my arm. Pick this up! Bring me that! But, head bent over a tablet, padded pink headphones covering her ears, a silver squishable unicorn horn centered on her skull, she looks so vulnerable. She is so vulnerable.
When the Zoom magician fails to show for her fifth birthday party, my husband and I freak and fume then hastily text the guests to a new meeting link. In their black top hats, wielding their wands—the favors we’d driven around, contact-less delivering—the children play online for hours, somersaulting for each other, commanding each other to freeze. Kiera hasn’t laughed so heartily in months. With social interaction, she blossoms. A real playdate feels worth the risk.
When only she and a close friend, Cece, remain, her mother Deirdre and I cautiously probe.
“Has she had any playdates?”
“No, we’ve been isolating.”
“Sucks for them.”
Cece’s two siblings are years older. Like Kiera, she hasn’t played with someone her age in over six months.
The next day, Deirdre drops Cece off at my home. Crouching inside the door, Cece excitedly thumbs off her sparkly pink sneakers. The seashells on Kiera’s headband jiggle as she claps. A beat later they’re rushing up the stairs to her room. I can finally read or think in peace, I scheme. But Kiera still beckons every two minutes. Get my Elsa costume from the closet, please! Paint these unicorns with us! I like you near me!
When a second playdate is arranged for them to be at Cece’s house, Kiera begs me to accompany her and not to leave. “I’ll be too scared without you there.”
“Just this once,” I relent because she does look scared. “Just this once,” I repeat, but neither of us believes it.
Across from their house, the park is open. Unlike ours it isn’t locked because it can’t be locked. It sprawls, and the old men who play backgammon line the benches in their staid woolen suits and caps. The virus could fell them like dominoes, but their dogged presence to me confirms that loneliness is worse than death.
Inside the cluttered, lively home, Kiera hovers at my hip. Deirdre and I socially distance as she moves a laundry basket from a pilled recliner. “Is this an okay spot to wait?”
Thanking her, I unpack a book and settle in, hopefully out of the way. “She’s recovering from an earache,” I lamely explain my staying.
Cece appears in the doorway, giggling and shrieking, “Kiera!” I don’t have time to brace myself for the wistfulness. So fast, so joyous, my daughter disappears down the hall. I look up from my book every few pages, alert for a call that doesn’t come.
A fiction and nonfiction writer, Jennifer Alessi currently teaches college English from a corner of the guest room. She lives in Burbank, California, with her film/TV editor husband, sweet daughter, and elusive cat—who is far too independent for their liking.
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