Six years ago this month, my family was forced to do a modified version of social distancing, but we were in it alone.
In the spring of 2014, my then eight-year-old daughter Sammi was scheduled for major cardiac surgery. My husband and I knew about it several months beforehand but had decided not to tell her and her big sister, Ronni, who was 11 at the time, until about a week before the surgery. We didn’t want to give them too much time to worry about it.
What we didn’t know then was that five weeks before the big day, the surgeon’s assistant would call and tell us to start avoiding potential sources of contagion for Sammi.
“We’d love to tell families to pull their kids out of school for the month before surgery,” she said, “but we know that’s not really realistic for most people. So, we recommend canceling all of her activities except for school.”
I was shocked. “You mean, like, soccer?”
“Absolutely no sports,” she said, “and also other things like after-school clubs or birthday parties.”
She went on to suggest we avoid all concerts, plays and other large gatherings. The goal, she explained, was to limit the number of places Sammi could contract something as simple as a cold. With any respiratory infection at all, the surgery would have to be canceled. We’d already postponed surgery so she could have it over spring break, thereby missing a little less school. She needed the surgery to resolve her cardiac issues, so waiting even longer would be hard. Worse, if she had the surgery and then came down with a cold two days later, it would drastically compromise her recovery.
And so we embarked on three weeks of sneakily canceling everything. We reached out to her teacher and the parents of her friends, who helped us by pushing better hand-washing and hygiene practices in the classroom, and we just stopped going to taekwondo or school chorus. She was young enough not to notice. We made up excuses for why we couldn’t attend our synagogue’s carnival for the Purim holiday and instead designed a special Purim celebration at her grandmother’s house, replete with a fancy nail polish station, a glow-in-the-dark glitter jar craft project, a big puzzle, and a costume photoshoot. Playdates were all outside.
My husband and I did our best to de-germ ourselves when we came home each day, washing our hands and wiping down doorknobs and TV remotes with Clorox wipes. We all started taking vitamins religiously, a practice that had been haphazard before. We told the kids that we were trying to prevent me from getting a cold during my worst asthma season.
“My husband and I did our best to stay six feet away from Ronni at all times. She was only 11, and it was terrible ... We took every immunity-boosting vitamin and supplement we could find, and we washed our hands for 20 seconds at a time, singing 'Happy Birthday' twice.”
At the beginning of week four, we told Sammi and Ronni about the upcoming surgery, cushioning the news with a brand-new iPad. We breathed a sigh of relief to be in the home stretch with just over a week to go.
Two days later, our older daughter Ronni got a cold.
We were frantic. We sprayed Lysol everywhere, banished the kids to separate rooms and called the surgeon’s assistant.
“What do we do?” we asked.
“Get Sammi out of there immediately,” she answered.
Resigned, we drove Sammi out to her grandmother’s house, where she spent the next four days isolated from everyone else. At home, my husband and I did our best to stay six feet away from Ronni at all times. She was only 11, and it was terrible. We apologized over and over, bringing her milkshakes and new books and letting her watch Harry Potter movies until her eyes glazed over. We took every immunity-boosting vitamin and supplement we could find, and we washed our hands for 20 seconds at a time, singing “Happy Birthday” twice.
Thank goodness, it worked.
After four days, we brought Sammi home, though still kept our girls in separate rooms. After six days, we were two days from her surgery, and we let her go outside and play in the park with her best friend. Ronni wore a surgical mask whenever Sammi and she were in the same room.
On the eighth day after Ronni came down with her cold, Sammi went to the hospital for her surgery. It went well, and ― just as importantly ― she never got Ronni’s cold.
During that whole time, the rest of the world went on as normal, with people sneezing on the handles of grocery carts and hugging each other and sharing germs with the world, but for the first time, I was noticing it all.
Our experience with social distancing prepared us well, it turns out, for what the rest of the world is going through right now. We had to adjust our expectations, keep our children entertained, keep our own anxiety manageable, and get through it. Of course, we had an end date in mind, which certainly helped, but we were doing it alone, which didn’t.
The most important similarity is the stakes involved. After seeing Sammi with three IV lines and two chest drainage tubes and half a dozen monitors attached to her, I understood immediately why adding a respiratory infection to this recovery would have been incredibly dangerous. People with fragile health need our protection. Hard as it would have been for me ― and for Sammi ― to be away from her as she recovered in the hospital, I’d have stayed home if I got Ronni’s cold. It would have broken my heart and caused me horrible anxiety, but it also would have saved her life.
All these years later, memories of that time have hit my family in different ways. Recently, Sammi reminded me of our makeshift Purim celebration. She spoke fondly of the fun time we had doing the puzzle and making the art at her grandmother’s house, and asked if I remembered, too. I told her that of course I did, and asked her if she knew why we’d celebrated that way in 2014. She didn’t. She had no idea of the anxiety beneath the surface for her father and I. All she remembered was the fun.
As parents all over the world are navigating this same kind of lemons-to-lemonade attitude shift, it’s worth considering the gifts this will bring. When I think about the things we did to make the experience easier on our kids, it was mostly about shifting gears without focusing on what was missing.
The new iPad was something we’d insisted we would never buy for our kids, but desperate times called for a change in attitude. Not going to restaurants forced me to get creative with our at-home cooking, and we made a lot of fun treats during that time. We invested in some new games, read some fantastic new books, and learned that Sammi was unbeatable in Uno. In some ways, it was a new riff on “sure, your tonsils are coming out, but think of all the ice cream!”
“We managed it then — sometimes gracefully and sometimes not — and so will the rest of the world. Loosen your rules, look for the gifts, and be aware of the shifting dynamics in your home.”
Even distancing our girls from each other while Ronni was sick allowed them to realize how much they loved each other, shouting from one room to the next and asking us daily when they could finally hug. Leveling with our friends about the need for careful hygiene and distancing from anyone with a sniffle taught us whom we could trust. Relationships tightened over FaceTime while Sammi was in the hospital, including through sweet video messages between friends who didn’t have access to real-time videoconferencing. We relished our closeness as a family and learned to navigate each other when that closeness got stifling.
As it was for us in 2014, this current need for physical distancing is high-stakes and nonnegotiable. We managed it then ― sometimes gracefully and sometimes not ― and so will the rest of the world. Loosen your rules, look for the gifts, and be aware of the shifting dynamics in your home. We’ll get through it together ― well, six feet apart.
Debi Lewis is a writer from Evanston, Illinois. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Kveller, ScaryMommy, Brain Child, and more, and she is at work on a memoir about parenting her daughter through medical mystery. You can find her on twitter at @GrowTheSunshine and by visiting her website, DebiLewis.com.