After enduring much pleading, we finally caved and got our six-year-old, our only child, a hamster. It was a pandemic gift. A throw-her-a-bone gift. A we-are-sorry-you-have-no-siblings gift. Our girl was ecstatic, and spent much of the first week squatting in front of the cage cooing, saying again and again, “I can’t believe I have a hamster! I can’t believe I have a hamster!” The hamster, named Humphrey, was so terrified of us she would have dug a hole through the bottom of the cage if she could. For a while she was so obscured by her wood chip bedding I was convinced she had already escaped.
Hamsters are nocturnal, which is hard for a little kid to understand, even if that little kid seems to get it and boldly announces that fact to everyone they speak to. Hamsters are noc-tur-nal! But the reality of this — having a pet who is basically asleep all day — came crashing down a few days after the hamster was rightly ours. After waking me up at 6:45am to tell me! the hamster! was up!, my daughter soon realized that Humphrey would basically stay hidden for the remainder of the day. No coaxing would wake up her new friend.
This is when the sobbing began. My daughter wanted to wake her pet up, to play with her, to hold her, to feed her, to give her water — all things, I told her, she’d get to do once Humphrey was more comfortable with our family, but this did little to soothe her. She sat on my lap and cried, fat tears plopping on my forearm.
We stayed together in a pile for a long while, as we are wont to do these days, with nowhere to go or be. Finally I said, Want to do some art? She nodded and we got her set up: paint, paper, water, brushes, a “dabber” (paper towels folded by the water). We are now experts.
I sat next to her on the floor and sorted through all the drawings and paintings she’s done over the last million lonely months of quarantine, making piles of To Keep and To Toss. There is so much of it, wonderful stuff, donuts and spaceships and animals. Watercolors, pencil drawings, crayons. I scrolled through my phone and found video upon video that my daughter made without my knowledge: of her dancing (her spine undulating like caramel), of plays she’s made up with her Lego people (“I have to go to the hospital because I’ve run out of blood!”). For a moment I did that thing, that silver lining thing: but look at all this stuff she wouldn’t have created otherwise! But she didn’t really want to be doing art. She wanted to be watching Netflix because that’s all she wants to do these days, because what she really wants — friends, a trip to the beach or the park or to see her grandparents, time away from us, camp, even school — is out of reach for God knows how long.
Every day, I am grateful: for my family’s health (knock wood), for our safety, for a roof over our heads, for work that still pays, for food in the fridge, for the fact that my job isn’t “essential,” that I can safely shelter in place, that I have a partner, that I live in a city where I can still take walks. Yes. I am so, so grateful for all those things. Yes, yes, yes.
But I am also sick of feeling grateful, of being told I should. How long are we meant to feel grateful to be living like this, with schools shuttered in my city for the foreseeable future and no play dates or playgrounds or an ability to do much of anything safely outside our apartment, a pandemic raging out of control that our government is not handling? Is this really how we should be living? Is this the best our leaders can do? Is this what I should feel grateful for? That in the face of all this, I am not one of hundreds of thousands of Americans who is a) sick, b) dead, c) not able to feed my kid, d) out of house and home, e) out of work? Is this really how low the bar is in this country? And now I’m supposed to look for the silver lining?
Spain has instituted a basic income; friends in Canada are getting $2,000/month in the mail to account for lost wages due to Covid-19, as well as an increase in their child benefits. New Zealand has managed to beat this virus into the ground. So, yes, don’t get me wrong: I see all I have. But I also see how this pandemic has swept through African American, Latinx and immigrant communities and caused mass, tragically unnecessary illness, loss of life and financial ruin. And in seeing that, I should feel… grateful for myself? Really? How does that make sense? Instead I feel utter heartbreak, despair, a deep-seated fear, and a fury I’ve never known.
Almost five months in, I don’t always have it in me to look for silver linings. It feels not so much like searching for a diamond in the rough, but a diamond in a pile of dookie that someone intentionally left on all of our doorsteps and didn’t clean up. I don’t want the diamond. I want the sh*t cleaned up so we can all walk out our front doors.
We got the kid a hamster because we could. Because we needed something to raise her spirits, to be excited about. We wanted to distract her with a shiny object. To help her forget, for just a second, that she can’t see anyone other than her boring parents. That her entire life now takes place within the confines of our apartment.
How’s that for gratitude?
Here’s what I’ve started telling myself: Some days don’t need silver linings. Sometimes they are just hard. Yes, my daughter has piles of art. Yes, she’s figured out how to record herself dancing. Yes, one day I will look at all she’s created and say: We really made something of that scary time. Or: This was when she became an artist/a dancer/an astronomer. But some days we need to just see these things for what they are: ways to survive. Of making the days go by, one painted flower at a time.