Our Current Normal, Amelia Austin
A year ago, I was adjusting to moving out of Massachusetts for the first time in my life. I became a full time New Yorker and loving it. I had moved into an empty-nester apartment with an open floor plan. Other than the guest bathroom, my bedroom is the only private space, with a Murphy bed in the living area for occasional visits of my daughters and friends. The NYC startup community was thriving. I have many old and new friends here in the city and countless former students working and starting their own businesses scattered across Manhattan and Brooklyn. In the past year, between teaching in Boston once a week and conducting my coaching practice, my “new normal” was an endless stream of breakfasts, coffees, lunches, dinners, drinks…book signings, shows, galleries, music… It was the dynamic and stimulating environment I craved. As my good friend Bethany noted almost exactly a year ago in her own reflections about leaving Philly for NYC, it wasn’t that I didn’t love Boston (it had been my home my whole life, after all), it was that I wanted more.
[insert sound of car screeching to a halt, here]
My last in-person class at HBS was on March 9. My youngest daughter, Eliza, a senior in high school, had been sitting in on my course all semester as part of her Senior Capstone project (she’s building an app). It was a joy to see her once a week in my classroom as she is a boarding school student and other than weekends when she’d visit NYC or our college tours together, our weekly dinners in the Spangler cafeteria after class were a welcome opportunity to connect. I cherished those intimate times together before she headed off to college, when we discussed what she learned in my course, how her app development was coming along, college applications, her part time job and life in general. On that last day on campus, we ate together and then headed to South Station. It was her spring break and, because of the pending doom of Covid19, a class trip to Amsterdam had been canceled so she decided to hang out in NYC with me and the many friends from summer camp that she knows in the city. We thought nothing of it to have a couple of her high school friends come along for a few days too. Looking back, it’s funny to think about the anxiety we had of the four of us in my apartment for a few days. It would be tight, but we’d make it work.
Amid all of this, my elderly mother was showing signs of decline. The day before Thanksgiving, she had a fall. Falls are not uncommon for an 88 year-old with limited mobility and several health issues, but this fall resulted in breaking her ankle and finding out she had two serious cardiovascular blockages. Two stents later, she was shipped off to a rehab center to recover from the stent procedures and start PT for her ankle. Sadly, mom was not a fan of PT (“the exercise repetitions are so BORING”) and she didn’t appreciate that she had to commit to the physical work if she were to ever return to her apartment in an Assisted Living (AL) facility in Cambridge, MA. Weeks turned into months and mom continued to decline both physically and mentally; she had lost interest in eating (an early sign of dementia) and as a result, her energy was waning and her body was starting to atrophy. All the while, the pandemic was becoming real and we were worried for the possibility we might not be able to visit with her if things got worse. The last time I had seen her was March 2nd – a quick visit to the rehab center before class that day – and she seemed to understand that she was declining, but I’m not sure she fully understood death was near.
Meanwhile, my middle daughter, Amelia, was on a ship on the South Pacific sea off the coast of New Zealand. A Junior in college, her semester at sea program ended March 23 and her plan was to backpack with friends in NZ for a few weeks once the program wrapped up. The same week my youngest was making the most of NYC with friends as it began the pausing process with local shops and restaurants starting to limit hours or closing altogether, Amelia’s program was cut short and we were scrambling to get her back safely (and virus free) before she ended up stuck in NZ indefinitely. So many swift decisions to make – from where she should make safe connections (SF was optimal) to whether she’d be better off in NYC, Boston with her dad or with my oldest daughter, Abigail, who normally lives in NYC but is temporarily based in Portland, OR for a film project (currently on hold). We decided NYC was Amelia’s best bet so she could at least be with me and her younger sister and close to her friends in NYC. Looking back, we still had no idea how severely life would change for us or how drastically NYC would be hit by Covid19.
Eliza’s friends got back to Boston before things started to get uglier here in NYC and Amelia arrived safely here a week later. There was a mild panic in my home towards the end of that week when it sounded like NYC was totally shutting down. The girls could have gone to Boston, where their dad had more space for them in his home, but we didn’t know whether they were asymptomatic carriers, potentially exposing their father to Covid19. He was caring for his elderly, immunocompromised, parents and the risk was very high. I was also deeply worried about being completely alone. I had moved to this city alone because it gave me so much outside my doors that it didn’t matter. However, the prospect of being totally alone (other than my elderly Maine Coon cat, Edgar), scared the crap out of me. What if I got sick? What if they got sick and I couldn’t care for them? No personal connections for weeks? I just couldn’t bear it. I’ve never been clinically depressed, but I thought about how being alone indefinitely could trigger something like that; never mind the anxiety of fearing for my children’s health. Undoubtably, with so many sheltered alone in place, a major side effect of Covid19 will be depression, anxiety, suicide and accidental death. This is a traumatic moment in time for many and I will be forever grateful my girls stayed here in NYC with me.
So, here we are. I’m referring to this time as our “current normal” because we don’t really know what life will be like day to day or month to month. We’ve adapted to a life of unpredictability; accepting that each day is what we make of it and what lies ahead is truly unknown with minimal structure. Amelia and Eliza are doing two-week rotations between the Murphy bed and the couch. Weekdays are somewhat defined by Eliza starting online high school classes around 8am and I’m on Zoom with coaching clients, students and my work colleagues. Both girls have started to go running along the Hudson river each afternoon; doing their best to socially distance, donning gloves and keeping a scarf handy. I am keeping up with yoga via my favorite studio‘s live and on-demand classes. We are cooking together a LOT which we haven’t done for years. I’m breaking out old favorite recipes and teaching my girls cooking skills. Amelia, our resident artist, is creating new works almost every day – collages, drawings (this blog’s heading pic is hers), and evening hours are filled with music, an occasional cleaning party, binge watching several different TV series and slowly making progress on an epic, 3000 piece puzzle. While Edgar the cat is delighted to have constant snuggle time, he’s exhausted by all the activity that comes with us being home all day. We’re very happy he’s here with us though.
The current normal means that at any time, things will change and we’ll just deal with it. This week, it was mom’s passing. We knew it was near, but hadn’t considered how it would feel to not be able to be with her in the end, to sit with her as her body shut down, to be graveside to say our goodbyes or grieve together as a family. My three, globally distributed, siblings and I had a complicated relationship with our mother and mine was especially difficult with long periods of estrangement, anger and pain. She was my mother though and I was so sad for how she had to leave this world – totally alone. She never left the rehab center. In her last two weeks, PPE was required for visitors and none of her local relatives felt comfortable going there. Her caregivers were kind to her and I am confident she was comfortable at the end. Her funeral involved a brief, live streamed graveside service conducted by a rabbi who knew our mother. Her nieces and a nephew attended – abiding by the five-person maximum allowed at the grave site and all standing ten feet apart. My siblings, our children and a few cousins, watched the live stream together on Zoom. It was surreal and I still don’t feel closure because it was more like watching a reality TV show than my mother’s funeral. Since we never had the habit of talking routinely – she had a hard time hearing on the phone and never became a cell/text user- it’s still hard to believe she’s gone.
This week, we conducted virtual Shiva sessions with family and friends via Zoom. We prayed and we told stories of mom with a focus on her best self – when she was funny, supported us and how she served as a feminist role model. It still doesn’t feel real for me though. It also feels strange after the past year of a very high-touch relationship with my much older siblings navigating mom’s care, making arrangements, lamenting over her lack of progress in rehab, that we no longer have that forcing function to pull us together. We had been chatting daily on WhatsApp. My sister and I calling each other almost daily to strategize about mom’s care and finances while also discussing how she impacted our lives – for better and for worse. It’s been an intense time. That was our current normal and will somewhat return once we are allowed back in her AL facility to clear out her things – an event that may not be until this fall or even winter given the vulnerability of the community with whom she lived.
We broke the Shiva this week to celebrate Passover. Abigail, three hours behind us, was preparing her own seder feast as we did our abridged “30-minute seder” here in NYC. I found a local butcher who scored me a perfect, small, brisket for three and a shank bone. Amelia waited in line for an hour at Trader Joe’s only to be rushed by their staff to grab matzoh, apples for charoset and other much needed sundries and get out of the store as fast as possible. We left the massive puzzle in tact on the dining room table, carefully placing a computer atop scattered puzzle pieces at the center so Abigail had a view of our tiny spread. We were supposed to be in Portland with her this week – celebrating with dear friends who were kind enough to drop off “Passover in a box” for her earlier that day. I am so jealous she had home made matzoh balls for her chicken soup! We made it work. It wasn’t quite the same, but I was with my girls and we are healthy and safe and that, frankly, is all that matters right now.
My biggest take aways from this current normal is to lean into life as it is today and appreciate this time with my children in the moment. While a planner by nature, these times have shifted my mindset to accepting whatever happens as it happens. I truly believe “this too shall pass”, but I have no idea what the future holds…and I am ok with that. I am absolutely sure life will not go back to the new normal I had adjusted to in NYC. Some of my favorite haunts will not survive, new ones will appear. We will start connecting with friends again, but perhaps with more caution and preparedness. The markets will suffer, but eventually recover. My children will go on with their lives, but we will have new memories together of the time we were forced to live in a period of complete unknowns – grateful we had each other and our health during this time. We will say goodbye together as a family to my mother, likely at her Yahrzeit a year from now. We will embrace life with a new lens – appreciating the moment like never before and being grateful for what we have vs. what we’ve lost.
Each night at 7pm in NYC we hear the loud clammer of residents far and near. They are shouting out their windows, banging pots and pans, and celebrating the countless medical professionals and service people supporting the US epicenter of Covid19. This is the city I moved to; not thwarted by disaster. We’ve been here before during 9/11. We stand together, we will get through it. It’s our current normal.