I grew up on an idyllic farm tucked into the rolling hills of Missouri. We had an acre garden and a big red barn, but underneath the adorable exterior we showed our friends ― the milk cow named Ned, the orchards dripping with peaches, the cupboards lined with mason jars topped with gingham skirts and filled with produce ― lurked a chilling motivation. We were preparing to flee to the woods at any given moment. The end of the world was near.
While other kids boarded school busses, dodged balls in PE, and navigated cafeteria politics, I sat at the dining room table in our rooster-themed kitchen and listened to my mother interpret the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The Great Tribulation (the season of doomsday predicted by the Book of Revelation, for those fortunate enough to be unfamiliar with the phrase) was the centerpiece of my homeschool education. My mother’s conspiracies ranged from the earliest form of the Mark of the Beast (computer chips she believed would be forcefully embedded into our flesh) to the underground child protective services (CPS) operation designed to steal our freedom and usher in a New World Order.
I grew up neither believing nor disbelieving my mother’s doomsday predictions. I had some doubts, but those were likely due to my habit of telling her made-up spiritual prophecies I pretended to receive, and she never failed to believe me, which made me doubt her ability to discern the other signs of the times she constantly recited. But I wasn’t immune to my mother’s scary stories.
There were nights I couldn’t sleep for fear of missing the rapture. When concerned adults at church or the doctor’s office would ask if everything was okay at home, panic would shoot through me, my go-bag was miles away at our house under my bed, and this was it. CPS would be here any minute to take me away.
To please my mother, I would often lie about receiving spiritual prophecies, and she never failed to believe me, which made me doubt her ability to discern the other signs of the times she constantly recited. But I wasn’t immune to my mother’s scary stories.
In my late 20s, my mother went on an empty-nester cleaning spree that ended with most of my childhood artifacts becoming my problem. As I sorted through a box full of Precious Moments’ piggy banks and dusty stuffed animals, I found a notebook full of my childhood doodles. The pages were full of hand-drawn blueprints for underground bunkers.
A recurring peg on which my mother hung her terrifying predictions was a paraphrased verse from the Bible: “In the last days, there will be famine, plague, and earthquakes.” But the worst thing, my mother assured us, would not be the death and destruction of everyone and everything we loved, the worst thing, was to be caught unprepared.
One morning, at the start of our daily Bible study, my mother dropped a half-used box of dryer sheets on the dining room table, and announced, “The Lord has told me something.”
She had our attention.
“I’m not sure I’m supposed to tell anyone this, and I need you to promise not to tell your friends. I don’t want to scare anyone, but you’re my kids and we must all prepare.”
My sisters and I murmured promises of silence and held our breaths as we waited for her to tell us this grown-up, exclusive secret.
“As I was doing laundry today, the Lord spoke to me. When we reach the very last dryer sheet, The Great Tribulation will begin.”
People have used the word “surreal” over and over to describe the coronavirus pandemic that has taken over all our lives. When the NBA suspended their season in the middle of a Dallas Mavericks’ game, team owner Mark Cuban famously said what so many of us were beginning to think: “This feels like a movie.”
My mother eventually used the last dryer sheet in the box and we never spoke of it again. At some point, my father lost his job, and his new company relocated us to the suburbs and we left our preps behind. I grew up and grew out of almost all of my parents’ beliefs.
But as I move through our new, cinematic reality, I see the grocery stores with barren shelves and hear my mother’s tremulous whisper: “famine.” As the skin on my hands crack from over scrubbing, I hear her again: “plague.” My older sister called me, her voice shaking, “Did you hear there was an earthquake in Utah?”
I swallowed hard.
I’m scared, as I think most of us are right now. I want to call my mother. I want to hear her familiar voice, the voice that rocked me to sleep as a baby and steadied my breathing through long asthmatic nights. But I worry.
I still keep in touch with my mother, but both literal and figurative miles separate us now. We talk on the phone infrequently, visit occasionally and never talk about things that will make either of us uncomfortable ― her with my disbelief and mine about her beliefs that I like to pretend she left behind when I did. But since the coronavirus outbreak she has posted a few knowing Bible verses on social media, and I doubt she will be able to help herself if I call her now. I cringe at the very thought of hearing her inevitably apocalyptic interpretation of our reality. I cringe because I’m scared she’s right.
But I’m not a fantasist. I’m an adult now with a life and a career. I know that what we are experiencing with coronavirus is just difficult, uncharted territory. I also know that giving into my inner catastrophizer will not lead to the informed wariness that precipitates smart decisions ― instead, it will only infect the people around me with my own selfish, destructive panic.
I know now that none of it was real. Not the dryer sheets or the ominous scripture readings, or the secrets I held inside myself until they seeped into my nightmares and poisoned me with anxiety. But I still find myself reaching for my phone because, the thing is, “not real” perfectly describes the world under the weight of COVID-19.
I recognize that my mother isn’t right now anymore than she was when I was a child. And I know now, that none of it was real. Not the dryer sheets or the ominous scripture readings, or the secrets I held inside myself until they seeped into my nightmares and poisoned me with anxiety. But I still find myself reaching for my phone because, the thing is, “not real” perfectly describes the world under the weight of COVID-19.
I always set the phone down before I even tap in her name. I’m a bundle of nerves these days as it is. My partner is working from home, my three children are out of school. We haven’t been out of the house in days, and tensions are running high. The last thing I need to hear right now are my mother’s breathless “I told you so’s.”
Recently, a friend and I were discussing how to parent our children through this dark period in history. What to say, how to say it. What to do, how to do it. I told my friend that my favorite memories with my mother are the ones where a tornado siren shrills in the distance. The lights are out. A pair of antique brass lanterns are lit on the table. My mother sings us hymns.
“My mother really thrives in a crisis,” I tell my friend, “And you don’t forget the crises of your childhood. I remember the Oklahoma bombing, the bad storms, the months my father looked for work, and of course, Sept. 11. I’ll never forget those days, just like I’m certain my kids will remember coronavirus. I want them to remember that while it was a scary time, mommy was ready for everything and always kept them safe and entertained.”
Even as I say it, I wonder if it’s a fair expectation of myself. Sure, my mother was good in a crisis, but now, when I still need my mother, I can’t call her. Because when I was a kid she wrapped her fear up in a package labeled “Preparation” and handed it to me. And that package defined my life. So, even now, as I look at a world very similar to the one she described preceding the last days, I can’t unpack that box and evaluate the contents, keeping what’s good and leaving what’s bad. I’m too afraid.
I’m not sure how to best approach coronavirus with my children, maybe because I’m still not sure how to approach it with myself. But I know one thing for certain, I don’t want to give my children boxes of their own. As we go through this terrible time, I want to remember that fear is not a virtue.
Being smart is one thing, but preparing for the end of the world is something else entirely.
Olivia Christensen is a freelance writer whose work has been featured in outlets including Parents magazine and Business Insider. She lives outside Kansas City with her husband and three children, and when she isn’t using her keyboard to share her opinions, she’s probably hiking.
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