I pulled my son and his younger sister from school on March 12, a day before New York City closed schools and most of the city shut down. Three months later, my son hadn’t set a foot outside, and he showed no desire or willingness to do so.
My son, 9, who has ADHD and anxiety, became increasingly uneasy as the world around him shifted. The incessant wail of sirens and only seeing friends and teachers through screens were just two of the constant reminders that life was out of his control. So he latched onto the one thing he could control – staying inside.
At first, it wasn’t a big deal. I wasn’t going out either. I’m immunocompromised with a history of lung issues, and I worried about my ability to fight covid-19 if I got it. We live in a two-bedroom apartment, and leaving requires passing through several shared spaces.
Then I overheard my son tell his therapist, “I’m not worried about me. I’m worried about my mom.”
That’s when I started going for walks with my daughter, hoping to show my son that, when done right, it was safe. Each time, I’d casually ask if he wanted to come, but he’d shake his head and say, “You know I’m not leaving.”
I hated breathing thick, hot air through a mask, seeing the shuttered restaurants and businesses and other humans shuffling down the street, skirting away from one another as we passed. Inside our apartment, we were on top of each other, but at least we were protected from the outside world, which we viewed through panes of glass and from a distance provided by the height of our building.
Weeks ticked by and the only fresh air he got was through the window. We did tele-visits with his therapist, school counselor and doctor, but he was intractable, repeating, “Not until everyone in the state is cured.”
May hit with no signs of things easing up and we looked for a house to rent for the summer, finding one out in the middle of nowhere, a chance to breathe free.
“I’m not going,” my son said. “You can’t make me.”
“It will be wonderful,” I said. “Just woods and a river. We can’t get sick.”
“I’m only safe here,” he answered.
I tried to win him over with logic, but he wasn’t convinced. “I’m talking about my emotions,” he said. “You can’t tell anyone else what’s safe for them inside their head.”
“True,” I said. “But our family needs this.”
“I’m not going and you can’t leave me here because I’ll die without you. I would cry until this apartment flooded with tears and I would drown.”
I thought if I could just get him out of the apartment, it might break this pattern, but I couldn’t even get him to open the door. When we hit the one-month mark before our departure, I started to panic. Sure, we could force him into the car, but for an already anxious and depressed kid, that seemed like a mistake. Then in the same week, his therapist of three years lost her job and his school counselor went on family leave. Devastated, he doubled down on his assertion that home was the only safe space, the one thing that didn’t change. I didn’t know how to comfort him. The truth was most of our nation wasn’t OK. It wasn’t just the virus that was infecting people but the anxiety, fear and uncertainty. Across the nation, grown-ups with far greater coping skills were crumbling, so why should he be immune?
Our miracle came in the form of an email from my son’s teachers. “Ms. D will be dropping off a package as part of an end-of-the-year surprise using all safety precautions and social distancing!”
My son’s teachers, Ms. D and Ms. K, were gifts. From September to March, he’d gone from reading well below grade level to reading on level, from scribbling his name illegibly to composing decently formed paragraphs, from writing fives backward to solving more challenging math problems and even occasionally showing his work. He thrived emotionally as well, transforming from guarded and self-deprecating to enthusiastic and proud. Once schools shut buildings down in March, he struggled without in-person connection, but his teachers stepped up, providing one-on-one sessions, brainstorming with me how to keep him motivated and understanding when his emotions overwhelmed him. My son loved them with his entire heart.
“Ms. D is coming to drop something off today,” I told my son. “Want to go downstairs and meet her?” I asked.
“Ms. D’s coming to my house?” he asked, jumping up, his eyes bright. “Yes, yes, I want to see her!”
When the buzzer rang I was on a work call and barely made an excuse before hanging up. This was our moment and I wasn’t going to miss it.
My son and I rushed to put on our shoes but of course, I could only locate one of his. “Where’s the other one?” I cried, practically hyperventilating. When we couldn’t find it, he shoved his feet into a pair of old sneakers he’d long outgrown. I put on my mask and then his, realizing it was the first time he’d worn one.
“It feels weird,” he said. “I’m scared.”
“It’s OK,” I said. “You’re doing great.”
He eased into the hallway, shaking slightly, wrapping his arms around his thin body, trying to make himself as small as possible. When the elevator came, he hesitated.
“What if somebody else gets in?”
“They won’t,” I said. “Only two people to an elevator.”
“But what if they do?”
“I’ll stop them.”
He stood behind me in the elevator, watching the floors tick by until we emerged into the open lobby. There was Ms. D, just six feet away. My son’s eyes crinkled into a smile as he hopped up and down.
“It’s so good to see you,” his teacher said as I started to tear up.
“It’s good to see you,” my son said. “I really, really miss you.”
“I miss you, too.”
When he told her that this was the first time he’d stepped out of his apartment in three months, she started to tear up.
“He came for you,” I said, holding up my hands in prayer. She stayed for several minutes, told him she was spending extra time with him because it was such a special occasion. It didn’t matter if it’s true. She and her co-teacher make every student feel like they are a gift. Nothing I had done had gotten him outside, but the promise of a moment with her was magic. There’s no power like the love of a good teacher. It is why my son was standing in the lobby. She apologized that she had to go drop the rest of the packages off but asked if he would walk her to the door.
“I don’t think I can,” my son said softly, looking at her.
“Maybe, just to get one breath of air, to feel the sun,” she said. “I’d really like that.”
He looked from me to her, then nodded.
We slowly followed her through the lobby out into the late-afternoon sunshine. As a breeze picked up, playing with the fabric of my son’s mask, it gave me hope that everything would be OK.
Heather Osterman-Davis is a features reporter for The Washington Post.