Sunday, April 26, 2020

10 Minutes in Quarantine

It's 2:30 in the afternoon. 

Despite a dozen tasks on imminent hold, I'm mesmerized by this ornamental masterpiece of a bowl. Viscid greens swirl into verdant blues. Hatched ochre shadows accent deep, oblong curves. But didn't I just clean this toilet yesterday?

Ten seconds of solitude dissolve untraceably -- were they ever even there? -- as the pleading hollers of my 8-year-old echo from the hall into the bathroom: 
"No screens! Play with real toys and real people!" 
Halfway through our yells, my 4-year-old, who's retained an eerily strong maternal tracking instinct, patters into the bathroom and sits conversationally across from me on the edge of the tub.
"Mom, what's for snack?" 
After several weeks in quarantine with five young kids, I may as well ask for a private jet as for privacy. 
"You're seriously hungry already?"
He nods seriously.
"POOP!" A 5-year-old chivalrously tromps into the bathroom, announcing his arrival with an indulgent, exclamatory rallying cry: "POOOOOOOOP!"
Only 45 seconds earlier, he was kicking a soccer ball with his twin in the backyard. By my parental calculation, this should be Minute One of a 15-minute break from them. And yet, here he is.
"THERE'S DOG POOP IN THE BACKYARD!" His proclamation radiates both valiance and urgency; if we owned a white horse, he'd surely have galloped in on it.
Didn't I just pooper scoop this morning?
"IT'S NEW POOP!" he trumpets unprompted.
Our 16-square-foot washroom, cavernous in my 10 seconds of solitude -- was that only 1 minute ago? -- crowds like a clown car. 

The conversation expands to four people as my 10-year-old leans in the doorway.
"Mom, remember, I need your help with my reading prompt. I'm writing about Batman's dog. It's hilarious."
Oh, right. This is the second time he's asked for help. I meant to stop at his desk on my way to the bathroom. This kid loves to read, loves to talk about what he's reading, but hates to write. 
"I want to say the book is interesting. Can you help me with that sentence?"
And now we're doing homework in the bathroom. 
"Interesting isn't a good word," I stall, washing my hands. "Can you check the Thesaurus for a word more… interesting?"
The word play only persuades a temperate smile from my oldest son, ever oscillating between the free laughter of childhood and the eyerolls of preadolescence. Hopefully a Thesaurus detour will delay him long enough for me to scoop "new poop," feed the hungry preschooler, and clean our giant petri dish of a toilet before editing 100 words on Batman's dog. 
"JONATHAN," my other 5-year-old arrives to blockade the door while sternly addressing his twin. "Did you tell Mom about the poop?!"
If it didn't happen so regularly, I might marvel how a gallery bathroom fits four kids and an adult so casually. 

The technicolor-streaked toilet and sticky urine floor earn first place on my latest To-Do List:
"Just let me clean the toilet; then, I will pooper-scoop the yard; then, Joseph, I will help you with your book report."
"SNACK!!!!!" My 4-year-old shrieks in justified offense that "first-come-first-served" apparently means nothing in our uncivilized home.
Per normal, in the 20 seconds it took to pacify a 10-year-old about schoolwork and two 5-year-olds about poop, I forgot about the 4-year-old's snack.

This organizational flux, interminably ranking multiple kids' constant needs, depletes me, even with an actively-involved husband. I try to recall the last time I was away from the kids for more than an hour since this quarantine began. Two days ago, I picked up groceries. Last week, I went for a solo walk. Just yesterday, I shut myself in the bedroom to sew face masks. Our state park outing on Friday requires a mask for each person. Between broken needles and dollar-store thread issues, I still gave bubble baths, sang lullabies, and explained the inner workings of a sewing machine to each kid who just wanted to stand inexplicably beside me as I worked.

A couple weeks ago, our leaf blower blew out a lithium-ion battery. With regular use and good care, most rechargeable batteries should last several years. But when drained too quickly -- usually by high-demand devices or high heat -- these batteries succumb to a condition called "deep discharge" and lose the ability to recharge altogether. I wonder the toll our high demand, high pressure days of quarantine will have on the nations' home caregivers.

Before leaving the bathroom with my entourage of kids, I spray bubbly toxic chemicals all over the toilet and leave it to set. I'll scrub it later.
"Mom," my 8-year-old meets us in the hallway, still distressed about the injustice of screen time. "You let the twins play on PBS Kids this morning, so basically, what you're saying is that you don't follow your own rules."
I don't have the energy to duel pandemic-quarantine-mom-logic against the endless depths of 3rd grade wisdom, so I just ignore him and prepare afternoon snacks. 
"Mom! Reading help!" my 10-year-old reminds me from the desk in his bedroom.
"Just a minute, Joe! I'm setting out snacks," I call back.
"You just want the little kids to be smarter than us," my 8-year-old continues to reason. "Because you know it's an educational website, and you want them to get extra time to learn about cool stuff. You just want me to be bored."
"Why don't you guys eat your snacks outside this afternoon?"
"BECAUSE THERE'S POOP!" David and Jonathan protest in unison. Ah, yes, the poop.
I grab the overflowing recycling container from our kitchen before reporting outside to scoop poop. Earlier today, while the little ones napped, I secreted a large collection of priceless kid art into that recycling can, and it will all be for nothing if my transfer to the outdoor bin isn't perfectly discreet.

I pause at the back door as my 4-year-old wails unexpectedly. 
"My can't reach my shoes, and my want to eat my snack outside!" Each vowel extends longer than the one before.
Oh, little one. I don't spend any words correcting his pronouns. Every day confers a miserly conversation budget to introverts, and as a mom of five chatty kids who are currently with me every second of every day, I'm consistently word-poor by 3:00 PM.

Pacified with shoes and socks, my littlest one hustles out to join his brothers' treehouse picnic of animal crackers and cartons of milk from the school lunch drive-thru. How grateful I am for that drive-thru. 

Snacks, shoes, covert recycling, pooper scooping… four missions accomplished in four minutes. I'm doing this.

Into my success stomps a hurt 10-year-old with a crumpled piece of paper, torn through from frustrated erasing. Once more, in the rush of doing all-the-things, I drop the ball on one child's very important thing.
"Oh, Joseph, I'm sorry."
I pull him close, and he leans in, just tall enough for me to lean my cheek on the side of his buzzed hair. Not so long ago, my chin could rest on top of his head.
"PAPER TOWELS! I NEED PAPER TOWELS!" Jonathan rams through the back door and bolts for the kitchen.
Joseph sighs and retreats to his bedroom where more schoolwork awaits.
"Milk spill, milk spill, milk spill," my 4-year-old sings from the swingset.
"NO! NOT THE PAPER TOWELS!" I chase Jonathan to the kitchen and toss him a hand towel instead.
Two days ago, I purchased the last package of paper towels at Walmart, and I'm not about to watch an entire roll of paper gold abscond to the treehouse. "Wet Milk Towel Laundry" mentally scrawls to the end of my To-Do List. 
"Mom, can I look for Owen in the car?" David hops alongside me en route to Joe's homework station.
For days, the twins have organized search parties to track down their lost Lego mini-figure. An excavation through the minivan sounds promising -- a good distraction for David and a quieter few minutes for me.
"Yes, absolutely, go for it!"
"Can you open the car door for me?"
It's such a small task, such a small ask, but these thousand little detours in a day scramble my brain into an incoherent labyrinth. 
"Just let me grab the laundry and talk with Joseph," I enjoin. "Then I'll open up the car so you can look for Owen."
Jonathan swings open the back door and lopes triumphantly across the room, dripping a trail of sopped-up treehouse milk as he comes our way.
"Where should I put this dish towel?"
I once eavesdropped on the kids as they ranked our house rules. Never having set "house rules," curiosity heightened my hearing. What did my little ones internalize as ascendant family values? Be kind? Be responsible? Be reverent? Their unanimous consensus tsunami-crashed my sandy idealism: Don't make a mess, they said. A dozen flashbacks collaged in seconds and confirmed my kids' conclusion. Yeah, I overreact at messes. 

Jonathan self-consciously hugs the milky dish towel, accidentally soaking his shirt and squeezing an extra splash onto the floor. 
"Oh Jonathan, I'm sorry for yelling. Thank you for cleaning up the spilled milk. Can you please keep the towel outside?"
The salve of understanding heals quickly. He tosses the towel to the patio and skips off to the kitchen.
"I think I'll do my activity book at the table," he sings lightheartedly.
Flashing him a thumbs up of approval, I finally reach the bedroom shared by my 8-year-old and 10-year-old.
"Hey Joe, I'm really sorry about your book report. How about you stay up a little later tonight, and we'll work on it together after your brothers go to bed?"
His eyes flicker at the extension of bedtime, and he nods in agreement. Maybe all schoolwork should reschedule to late evening, past little brothers' bedtimes and constant interruption. But our kids' collective bedtime is the horizon of my day, and these days, that horizon oasis already feels ever distant.

I wondered yesterday if I might not be here at all, just some kind of doting soulful spirit, wandering purgatory through a corner house in Conroe, Texas. Harmless, of course, the kind of friendly ghost who opens blinds felicitously by day -- light, light, more light -- and clicks deadbolts by night -- once, twice, again, again. If you listen closely, in the creepy predawn hour, you'll hear the tap-tap-tapping of her keyboard. 

Of course it's all a joke. I'm 38 years old. I have a kind, devoted husband. We have five wild kids. Except… except the other day, while sorting, folding, stacking laundry, having reached the bottom of the basket, I surveyed my work of six neat piles, three outfits each, in a line across the couch. But where were my clothes? Would a real person not create any laundry for three days?

Returning to the kitchen, picking up more laundry and the wet patio towel on my way, I stop at the counter to reserve day passes at the state park on Friday, a seemingly simple task on hold intermittently since breakfast.

My 4-year-old brings his snack inside and joins me at the table. 
"Isn't this nice, Mommy? Having a snack together at the table?"
"Mm-hm, mm-hm."
Brazos Bend State Park. Day Pass. Friday, April 24. Two adults, five kids --
"Mom, I need a new pencil," Jonathan calls from across the table. Even a 100-page activity book is useless short a good pencil.
"Can't you just sharpen the one you have?"
He presses the pencil sharpener in response, and its steady "Grrr-rrr-rrr" instantly slows to a useless "rr-r-r-r." I meant to change the batteries yesterday. 
"Just give me a moment to buy our state park ticket, and then I'll grab some batteries. Why don't you use crayons?"
"Mom." David appears brightly beside me from nowhere. They're like specters sometimes. "Did you forget the car door?"
He's a 5-year-old mash-up of Steve Irwin and Indiana Jones: sportish grin, crocodile hat, flashlight, magnifying glass, ready to safari search the minivan for long-lost Owen.
"Uh, yep, I absolutely did forget."
Why do I have to log into my account to book a day pass? My password reset email got sucked into the lint trap of the Internet because it sure as heck isn't hitting my inbox. It's a good thing I'm not on mission control for anything more important than a walk in the park because failure just might be the only option here.
"I'm sorry, David. Yes... here... we... go..."
I force myself away from the screen.
"Let's open up the car for you, little one."
My 8-year-old follows us through the laundry room to the minivan. "I'm so bored. I'm so bored. I'm so bored. Why do you want me to be bored?"
"Son. We have a whole collection of people in this house. Ask someone to play with you. No screens."
As I open the van door, every interior dome light shines on. Mental Note: if you aren't back here in 30 minutes to shut off all these lights, our state park family adventure will transform into a replace-the-minivan-battery adventure. 

At my computer, three unopened password reset emails await. Once I reach the state park payment screen, the system refuses our 7-person day pass request: "No groups larger than five people."* 

Don't tell NASA, but we have a wormhole in the universe squarely under our house. I know because at the end of each day, it shoots me back to the beginning of the same day, absolutely beat from a day's worth of effort but with zilch to show for it.
"You've gotta be f*cking kidding me," I mutter at the TDPW website.
Thankfully no kids are around to sample my adult vocabulary. But wait, that's not right. Where are my kids?

Incoherent screeches, like air sirens, resound from the garage. My 4-year-old -- wasn't he just beside me, pleasantly eating his snack? -- is fighting with his 5-year-old brother over who can slam the car door harder. My other 5-year-old showed up to defend his twin. 

Imagining a purple hand of smashed fingers and a COVID-19-infested ER waiting room with five young kids, I realize, in accord with the world's leading scientists, the only solution is to shut. down. everything.
"But you said -- " David starts.
"I don't care what I said. We're done in the garage. We're done looking for Owen."
Poor kid. This is why we still haven't found that mini-fig. What's your secret, Owen? How the heck do you disappear for days in this house? Seriously tho, your secret, please.
"But Mom, the pencil sharpener --" Jonathan tries to advocate.
The pencil sharpener will just have to live another day to die again tomorrow because unless it needs a hug and a movie day, I can't meet its needs right now. 
"Everyone to the living room. I'm starting a movie."
The kids come crashing in from all over, sliding across the floor, slamming headfirst into coveted couch spots -- 2, 3, 4, 5 -- and opinions shoot out like an enemy firestorm. 
All I really want is to stream "Song From A Secret Garden" (the most beautiful piece of music ever written) and drink weak coffee for the next 40 minutes. Or 40 years. But I need to choose which TV soundtrack will accompany my pre-dinner work in the kitchen -- starting laundry, replacing batteries, emailing in 20 school assignments... 
"Lego Masters. We're watching Lego Masters."
It will doubtless inspire a mess of Lego tomorrow, and probably another fruitless search for Owen, but all the kids approve. 
Where's that 4-year-old? He was just here, on the couch. 
I scramble toward his panicked screams in the bathroom, imagining the worst: Is the toilet overflowing? Did he accidentally pee all over his pants and shoes and socks and floor? Has his butt fallen into the water? 
"What is it, baby? What's wrong?" I'm still catching my breath.
He points across the room with the concerned face of a preschooler who's seen too many of his older brothers' nuclear disaster cartoons.
"The water is blue," he whispers.
Oh, right. Ten minutes ago, I started to clean the toilet. 

Photo by Josh Hild on Unsplash

*When I called our local state park directly, they welcomed us to attend as a 7-person family, reminding us to observe social distancing safety and wear masks while onsite.

1 comment:

  1. Oh Charlene, hang in there! I can't imagine, but this gave a pretty good picture! �� You are a brilliant writer.