By Susan Bloch
Editor's Note: "Deep Dive" was originally published in January 2021 by Detour Ahead.
On a sultry August day, my toes grip the edge of the wooden dock of our rental house on Venice Island, Miami. The water is a clear navy blue, and there is no seaweed floating near the top. But at high tide I can’t see to the bottom.
My grandchildren chant, “Go, Safta, go!” Is it a ten or fifteen-foot drop?
A seagull screeches. Just past the buoy, a jet skier smacks the surface with an explosive thump. Holding the kids’ hands, I tilt forward onto the balls of my feet and close my eyes. I take a long deep breath as if it were my last. They pull their fingers away. Pinching my nose with my thumb and forefinger I jump. My legs fold under me. Smack. Sink. And I’m up, flipping my hair off my face. The kids stare down at me, clapping and cheering.
“Come on in now!” I shout.
They’re quite happy jumping into a pool where they can see the bottom, but when it comes to this unknown depth they soon learn to make me go first. It takes a few seconds for them to take the plunge. Then together we swim to a rope ladder and climb out. The next time we all go together, and then they leap into the ocean first. And they do it on their own, again and again.
This year has been the worst of times for the world and one of the best of times for me since I was widowed ten years ago. No travel to Russia, China, Tanzania, or London as planned. It’s a time of trip cancellations. A time with no group hikes in the Cascades, no in-person yoga classes, no wining and dining with friends. A time of trying not to despair and worry about dying whenever someone nearby sneezes or coughs. Logically, this is ridiculous because I’m already in my seventies and probably should be dead anyway of some sort of cancer or aneurism. But for me, it is also a time of hope. Hope that I’ll see my grandchildren graduate and set up homes of their own, and maybe even meet my great-grandchildren. Unexpectedly, these times brought me a time of friendship and intimacy with my son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren that I might never have enjoyed.
This all sounds Dickensian, and in some ways it is. While tens of thousands of patients in the US fill isolated COVID hospital wards, lie in ventilators, try to recover in ICU, and then suffer from fatigue, disorientation, and depression, the sun warms my back. I’m waving my arms, and shouting, “One, two, three, go!”
This year, before we truly understood how terrifying this pandemic year would be, I planned to stay with my son and family in Princeton for a couple of weeks. But when Seattle spiked with over 2,000 COVID deaths—including the manager of my local mini-market—my son and daughter-in-law persuade me to stay on with them.
“Only if I can do all the dishes,” I say, nodding. “I want to feel part of the family.” I’m already picking up a Scotch-Brite scourer. Even knowing I must never criticize, suggest or interfere in household matters, I’m reluctant, worrying I’ll drive my daughter-in-law crazy. But the opposite turns out to be true.
“It’s great to have another adult to chat with. Please stay on.” Nicole leans over and hugs me.
And so, I get to know and appreciate her in ways I’d never been able to before. Her double-tot watermelon martinis and heavenly key lime pie cement our relationship as we overdose on both, especially the pie at breakfast. At night, we try not to worry too much about the uncontrollable coronavirus spike—ten thousand new cases each day and no end in sight. We get used to our “new normal.” On TV we all watch the Octopus Teacher about the great friendship between a diver and an octopus. We cry when the female dies after she gives birth to clutches of eggs.
My friends are journaling, but I’ve no wish to write about life in this pandemic. Maybe my heart is on the wrong side of my body, and I will be misjudged for struggling to find beauty in this overwhelming tragedy. Headlines of hospitalizations, case numbers, deaths, lack of PPE, and hospital beds fill us with an unexpected terror. As the TV news cameras focus on exhausted health workers, grieving families, and interviews with survivors, I feel guilty for feeling happy.
The kids study via Zoom. At one fourth grade class of “show and tell,” Austen proudly displays all the complicated Lego spaceships and dragons he’s built. One of his classmates shows a dinosaur he built from wine corks he collected. “My dad gives me at least three corks every day and tells me to build something,” he says. I run out of the room giggling, hoping his dad isn’t listening.
There are no hockey or soccer games, no hanging out with friends, no brunches at Jammin’ Creperie, and no outings to Manhattan. So, the kids and I play games. Many I hadn’t played since I was a kid myself: Monopoly, table tennis, Cluedo, backgammon, card games, tag, hide and seek, and then Monopoly, again and again. Two are now teenagers, so I’m playing for real instead of making deliberate errors to let them win. I lose often.
Weeks pass, and soon it’s T-shirt and shorts weather. The lawn is soft under my bare feet.
“You can have a handicap at baseball,” my grandson laughs, holding the bat in one hand. “I’ll hop from base to base on one leg.”
We bake together, but I teach only one kid at a time. They choose the recipes—usually by the tempting color photo. Funny how some of these include many of my childhood favorites: jelly rolls, profiteroles, and chocolate cake. The carrot cake vanishes in a day, and the chocolate chip cookies and brownies get top ratings. Videos appear on TikTok and Instagram where my granddaughter comments on texture and taste, just like in the Great British Bakeoff.
“Mmm…these cookies just hit the spot,” she says, flicking her long curls over her shoulder.
There are flops. One batch of cookies with blueberry jelly in the middle baked hard as toffee, and no one could bite into them.
I join the kids in licking the raw batter from the beaters. This is the best part of baking, taking me straight back to my childhood when I sat on the Formica kitchen counter watching Mom’s nimble fingers rolling and cutting sugar cookie dough. She often gave me a lump to work on too. I squished it and prodded it and stuck my finger into it. Soon I was talking to it, telling it to behave itself, and licking my fingers coated with butter, sugar, and strawberry jam. Mom wore a pink-and-white checkered apron tied around her back into a bow and often leaned over to kiss my forehead.
Now there are no aprons, but I hug and kiss my grandkids too.
For dinners, we barbeque shrimp on skewers and dip them in melted garlic butter, bake stuffed potatoes stuffed with Parmigiano, marinate and grill chicken thighs and wrap them in home-made corn tacos with mango salsa. The crêpes with Nutella spread are such a hit we need to make a second batch. We pull off the crusts of homemade bread and spread the squishy inside thick with butter.
We sew masks for local healthcare workers. In the stores, shelves are empty. Sanitizing wipes are out of stock. Toilet paper, flour, yeast, and bleach are temporarily unavailable. Perspex screens appear at checkout. Some restaurants start doing takeout, others close. My table tennis improves, but I’ve lost the knack of shooting a basketball into the hoop anymore. I lose at backgammon and dominoes.
The COVID curve in New York begins to flatten.
We go for walks—which the kids normally never do—and discuss the pandemic, the president’s latest shenanigans, and how numbers in Europe and Russia are rising. We begin to speak a new language: Uptick, social distancing, flattening the curve, aerosol particles, and super-spreader.
As soon as it gets windy, we bike to the park and try to fly kites that mostly don’t fly. And when they do one of the kids invariably unwinds too much twine. At least three kites fly off to a far-off fantasy land, where hopefully, someone in heaven is getting the message as we plead for this pandemic to stop.
The COVID numbers get worse. Friends and relatives get ill and recover, though some have a tough time with the loss of smell, taste, fatigue, and coughing. My Seattle yoga teacher is on a ventilator and then in ICU, is released from the hospital, and then unexpectedly dies. We’re riveted to Andrew Cuomo’s daily briefings and Trump’s press conferences.
Soon I discover I can be happy and unhappy and even tormented at the same time.
My writing is dormant. I start and stop a few times every day, unable to focus. Somehow, I manage to finish, submit, and publish two essays about travel. Now, no travel, no writing. I try to read. After the first chapters of Theroux’s Plane of Snakes and Hawkins’ Into the Water, I give up. All I can think about are the mobile morgues in Brooklyn, the lack of PPE, and my cousins in London who have contracted COVID.
Nine-year-old Austen comes to the rescue. One day we go off to catch tadpoles in a glass jar in a nearby creek. We sit on our haunches and study yellow-spotted bullfrogs. I slip on a wet stone and almost sit right on top of a bullfrog. We laugh as it croaks and hops away. I realize I haven’t checked the latest news updates on my phone for a couple of hours.
Austen spends far too much time playing video games, so we agree to have an hour’s silent reading on his bed together every night. While he becomes addicted to The Land of Stories series, I can’t wait to read another chapter of A Woman of No Importance.
“Did you know the wicked queen put Snow White in a dungeon?” Austen asks, lifting his head off the pillow to stare at me.
“No, I thought she married the prince.” He snuggles into my shoulder, and I put my arm behind his head.
The best of times is still to come.
The kids’ parents decide to rent a house with a pool on the ocean in Miami so that everyone will have a change of scenery. I decide not to go with them. That is, until my son takes my hand and looks at me.
“Mom, how about you and I do a road trip?” Perhaps he’s forgotten that I hate long car trips.
“We’ll take a few days, you and I, drive through the Carolinas, and hike the Appalachian Trail.”
I don’t want to cry, but I can’t stop the happy tears at the thought of spending four days on our own together, something we haven’t done for almost two decades. Since before he met Nicole and before they had a family of their own.
“We’ll take the dogs too, and Nicole can fly down with the kids.”
I step back and look at him to see if he is serious.
“I’ll book hotels in Savanah and Asheville,” he says, “and we’ll manage the dogs together.”
Two strong whippets that I can barely control? The last time I took one for a walk, I felt like Mary Poppins close to liftoff. I hold my breath but don’t say anything. Mike is already on his phone checking out hotels that take dogs.
We leave a few days later with the dogs sitting in their crates on the flattened BMW back seats. The car is stuffed with my yoga mat and foam roller; dog food, treats, and bowls; a small chiller with drinks and cheese and tomato sandwiches; and suitcases. Barely acknowledging us, the kids kiss the dogs goodbye.
Florida has an uptick of new cases according to the New York Times’ headlines. I seem to be jumping from one sizzling frying pan into another fire, trying to pretend life is normal. I close my eyes, put in my earbuds, and listen to Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, while my son makes work calls. We pass blue signs: Washington… Baltimore… and then stop at a gas station to give the dogs water and a potty break. I put on my N95 mask and go into the 7-Eleven to use the bathroom and get something to eat. Neither the cashier nor the other customers wear masks. I hold my breath and hope I’ll stay safe.
I buy some grilled chicken wings that have probably been rolling on the hot oven poles all day. The only other option is a packet of potato chips or Oreos.
“You of all people,” my son laughs as the dogs strain on their leashes. “You always eat healthy, organic produce.”
I smile and take a bite of the wing. “Delicious,” I mumble and take another bite.
“Wait until we get to Chick-fil-A. They make great sandwiches,” Mike says, shaking his head.
Gently I push the dogs’ hind legs up into their crates, and we drive on.
There has been another surge in the number of cases in Florida—an all-time daily high of ten thousand cases. Hospitals are stretched to capacity. Emergency rooms overflow and there are no vacant ICU beds. All my bravado of “Oh I’ve had a great and interesting life so no problem if I go now…just don’t put me on a respirator…just let me go…” vanishes. I cough into my elbow and worry that I’m probably already infected. Thank goodness my kids can access my password manager so they can retrieve all my bank, utility, and retail accounts. My will, living will, and financial POA are signed and notarized. There won’t be much hassle for the kids when I go.
Mike chooses an Audible book as I wipe my fingers on a napkin and put the pile of chicken bones into the plastic-lined cardboard box. We both enjoy historical nonfiction.
“This one is about the tattooist in Auschwitz,” he says turning up the volume.
But after fifteen minutes of listening to the brutality in the concentration camp, we give up and settle on Beyond Words, Safina’s essays about the emotions of elephants. His stories of their caring and empathy calm us both.
Four hours later, we arrive at Asheville, North Carolina. On this Saturday evening, the town is bustling. Our hotel room overlooks the main square where the Vance confederate memorial is covered with a shroud. At least times are changing for the better as far as acknowledging and dealing with racism.
We find a restaurant with outdoor socially-distance dining where we and the dogs feel comfortable and safe from the maskless patrons. We dine on cornbread, collard greens, ribs, and beer.
“I’m so glad I’m here with you,” I say as we clink glasses. “What a beautiful and interesting part of the country.”
Over the next two days, we hike fourteen miles along the Blue Ridge Parkway just north of Asheville. It is hot and humid, and we perspire heavily, flicking away flies and mosquitos. Across the world COVID numbers spike higher and higher. It surprises me that despite absorbing doomsday numbers, I can still appreciate the smell of sweetly scented balsam firs in contrast to the pungent mushrooms. I can laugh at the whippets’ pathetic attempts to catch a squirrel while straining against their leashes. We have another day of driving, and my back feels tight. The whippets are happy to arrive at our Miami rental home and dart around the yard in circles as if they’re competing at a racetrack.
When the rest of the family arrives, we spend lazy days on empty beaches, building sandcastles, wakeboarding, and dining on takeout sushi, Cuban meze, hamburgers, and pizza.
The dual-line stunt kites fly high in the sea breeze amidst yells of, “Yay, liftoff.”
We’re numb to the 200,000 COVID deaths. Mondays feel like Sundays, and before we know it three weeks pass in a blur. It’s time for me to fly home to Seattle. Now my tears are sad. Who knows if we’ll see each other again?
Back home, on my own, I watch The Rise of the Nazis on PBS, read At Wolf’s Table, and The Madonnas of Leningrad, and listen to podcasts about plagues and epidemics. Just like everyone else I know, I grieve the loss of hugging friends, enjoying coffee and croissants in a café, checking produce in the farmers’ market, and feeling safe.
The pandemic flourishes. enjoying our stupidity not to wear masks, not to wash our hands for two minutes, and not to keep our six-foot social distance. Cases are rising everywhere. TV news reports show mobile morgues cruising the streets in El Paso, while I live on in my bubble doing what I can to stay healthy.
“The equivalent of three 747 planes full of passengers died in the US of COVID today, leaving thousands of mourners as the wreckage piles up,” a reporter on NPR announces. “Yes, I know,” I yell back. “We’re too complacent.”
Sometimes at night my head feels heavy, and from time to time I have a bout of coughing or sneezing. This is it. I must have the virus for sure. But I wake up fine.
In Seattle, it’s still warm enough to jump off the Madrona dock into Lake Washington. I take a deep breath and imagine I’m still holding onto smaller hands. I can almost hear the shouts, “Go Safta, go.”
The water is sludge green and colder than Miami’s Atlantic Ocean. There are no squawking gulls. A shrieking ambulance siren comes closer and closer. I close my eyes and jump.
Susan Bloch is the author of Travels with My Grief, a memoir. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in a variety of publications including The Forward, Entropy, The Citron Review, STORGY, Pif Magazine, and HuffPost, as well as receiving a notable mention in Best American Essays 2017 and placing in the Travelers’ Tales Solas Awards. www.susanblochwriter.com.