COVID Diary 4

"I stopped him," she said, staring at the place where the fence used to be. "I took and put my babies where they'd be safe." --BELOVED, by Toni Morrison

Paul D tells her that her love is "too thick." --SparkNotes

"The uncomfortable truth is that I did not choose this life," says the protagonist. "It is inconvenient that I am in the category of the praised."

Here we have a story in which identity and vocation attach to the plot 's sinews and strangle its details. Our protagonist was a theatre major; now she's a nurse technician. She was a respected weightlifting coach; now she is twice the age of her coworkers and treated as invisible. Gray roots form a halo that we are to believe she refuses to wear, to be disposed of with the one surgical mask allotted each twelve-hour shift.

The COVID-19 pandemic sets the stage for this slightly unbelievable trajectory of events in the life of a middle-aged woman. While the characters are familiar--a loving husband, a son with an auto-immune disease, a narcissistic ex and his arrogant wife--the tropes test positive for cliche. What ex-husband would risk losing his children's home--and his children's loyalty--for a frivolous lawsuit against their mother? What doctor would break with executive orders to be around her at-risk stepson--claiming an "MD and her colleagues made the decision"? The MD designation of the wife is used to cut open the mother, who stayed at home with the children while the ex had pursued his career. And while a medical field designation for a character is fitting in the larger context of the crisis, the construct here--mother turns into nurse tech while ex marries a doctor--is silly when flaunted in this juvenile fashion. The sentiment of a mother fighting to protect her children is explored with gravity and sincerity; however, these bizarre elements restrain the story's power.

The mask returns as a metaphor throughout. One could argue that mention of the protagonist's background in theatre and social justice introduces the theme; the comedy and tragedy masks employed by ancient Greeks to display emotions from a distance is a fitting symbol for a grieving mother isolated from her children. Masks are rationed at the hospital where she now works, as they are throughout the world (an accurate detail from this time). When the mother of the ex-husband's wife sews masks for the children to wear, after the wife has herself risked exposing the kids to the virus, the irony is too strong, again leaning toward the cliche. We imagine Grandma is feeling a sense of satisfied patriotism for her war effort; that she attempts to protect the kids even as her own daughter jeopardizes them is laughable, however. As a construct to intensify the mother's grief, the masks return to their roots and become, quite literally, overdramatic.

The idea of home recurs as a theme, as well. The ex-husband had sued the protagonist to remove his name from the mortgage of his children's long-term home, a technicality he won despite having had all legal responsibility removed at the time of the divorce. Due to the lawsuit, the protagonist must leave her beloved job and begin at the hospital, where the crisis does not respect vocation or personal circumstances. In short: ex tries to take away children's home, mother takes job that ultimately sends the kids to live with him in his home. Here the irony works as a believable bookend that crushes her, even as the masks take away her ability to breathe.

Small details surprise the reader even as our protagonist experiences them as fresh wounds. The dog sleeps all day, and she fears he will die while the children are gone. The hard plastic of the children's newly-bought toothbrushes remains intact; she can't bear to face its sharpness and expose them to the air. The children begin to pull away even as she becomes distant. Their walks are awkward, friendly, but silent. She disinfects the leash, even the mail, but they seem to be afraid of anything she's touched.

Moments from the hospital complement the storyline nicely. An elderly gentleman asks the protagonist for the time of his procedure, because his wife plans to drive by the window and wave. Like our protagonist, all patients in the hospital are isolated from their families (again, an accurate detail from this time).

We are left with the question of motivation vs. action. Our protagonist never wanted to serve in this war and be among the heroes; the ironic circumstances that led there and to her self-isolation bring about a personal grief that's very different from that of others whose calling is to save lives. Readers are left wanting to hear more about healthcare workers' sacrifice during these unprecedented days, but our protagonist is too wrapped up in the comedy and tragedy of her own unwanted story.

 Original story here.


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