and Adult Psychiatrist
in Clinical Psychiatry
This is part of our series, Flattened By the Curve, which features the voices of doctors, nurses, healthcare workers, and others on the front lines against COVID-19. For information on how to submit, click here.
A massive knot has been forming in my daughter’s hair. Strangers love to tell me how they would pay a hefty price for hair like hers. I never knew there were so many shades of blonde—she has them all—and they are now giving birth to a thorny bramble at her crown. I observe the knot from afar as she spins around the dining room, dancing to Tchaikovsky, weaving through small spaces and narrowly avoiding counter corners. I ache to put a brush through it, but my hands are busy making breakfast and then clutching my coffee mug. She is only five years old — if I don’t brush it, no one will. She seems so far out of reach, existing in a different dimension. I’m behind a glass of monotony, my feet seemingly lodged in mud. She’s so happy and carefree, living out the past few months at home without school, one day no different than the next. In many ways I think I am happy too. I’m fine.
My husband is also fine. He is on the front lines. He tells me he is fine all of the time.
ME: “How are you?”
HUSBAND: I’m fine.
ME: "How was your shift?
HUSBAND: Oh, it was fine.
Fine has become our code word. It is a placeholder until we can someday find the words to both describe and understand what takes place during a pandemic. We will stick with the mundane as the poetry escapes us. Even without the words, however, the patients keep coming into the emergency room, stacking up the memories and the feelings that are buried below.
At bedtime, my daughter’s body is like a magnet, pulling me into her orbit. I’m close to her head, my nose buried in her nest of hair. The knot has been growing in size. It is now taking up almost half of her head. I should brush it, but there is not a comb or brush within fifty feet. I gauge my mothering looking at the back of her head. How does a mother let a knot get so big? I pull her closer and we fall asleep.
Before we had children and a daughter with feral blonde hair, and well before the pandemic, my husband and I were students together. I held a crush from afar and then we actually met, and boom — love. It was a love born in the halls of medical school. We share a language and can talk about “days at the office” few others can appreciate. It is our inside joke, our origin story, our wedding vows. We practice in different fields, but the bedrock is the same.
Bedrock is hard, but it is still breakable. After days of saying everything is fine, my husband calls to let me know he is on his way home—words I love to hear. He tells me about a young, healthy patient with COVID who is going to die. Then, a simple statement is misconstrued and we are angry. Our voices amplify. I hang up the phone. When he comes through the door, his eyes are puffy and avoid looking at mine. I walk around the house briskly, opening and shutting cabinets, my stomach doing somersaults.
It is hard to believe we are having a fight during a pandemic. There are knots to brush, counters to clean, and meals to cook. People are dying. Or maybe that is the very topic of the fight.
Hours later, we sit together on the couch, and my eyes fix on the cookbooks sitting on the shelf behind him — years of shared meals between us. At this moment, however, nothing feels shared. His voice is tense and cracking. I can almost see the young patient reflected in his eyes. The emotions are begging for release. He tries to find the words to help me understand the fear and anxiety permeating his days like a noxious green gas. I try not to choke on it. I am listening. I long to understand. His world has shifted, the cracks have become chasms, and sadness has filled the void. We cling to the edge and try not to fall in.
I nod. I stare at him to try to force a sense of comprehension. He is experiencing this alone without me—our argument time-stamping what feels like a seismic event, like a prehistoric mosquito caught in amber. Our shared timeline of career and family has been erased, and each new tick is something unfamiliar. The arrow stretches out before us and we are struggling to keep up.
And the days tick on, nonetheless. Our mornings and nights continue their familiar shuffle.
I come downstairs one morning as chocolate chip pancakes sizzle on the griddle with my husband at the helm. It is Saturday and the pace of the household is set on slow motion. The familiar Tchaikovsky plays in the background. I hold my daughter on my lap, the knot now staring at me, even though I had brushed it at some point in the last week. The hairs need to be misaligned, entropy is their default. She asks me if I can help her play a piece on the piano.
We sit down on the bench and I stare at the word fine on the sheet music. It is where the repeat ends and something new can begin.
Together, we begin to play.
Dr. Aron is a child psychiatrist in Washington, DC focused on prevention of mental illness. She lives with her husband, daughter, son, and puppy — and blogs all things child wellbeing. She looks forward to a future filled with haircuts and harmony.