After a COVID-19 Year With My Parents, What if I’m Not Ready to Return to Real Life?

As a child, I used to imagine all the horrific ways my parents could die. Every time they’d leave the house for a date night or an errand run, a montage of monstrous scenarios would appear in my mind, each more grotesque than the last: a car crash that would somehow send our Chevy minivan plummeting into the nearest river, a freak telephone pole explosion, a fatal encounter with a random ax murderer. If the people responsible for the Final Destination franchise had met my 7-year-old self, they would’ve hired her on the spot.

They inevitably returned home alive; still, the habit has persisted all my life. I recognize now that my projections have always been an exercise of self-preservation, a method of preparing for a loss that would someday arrive. Then, last year, the ways I could lose my parents snapped into focus, becoming more ordinary and real. They are aging, and decades of catastrophizing their deaths has not prepared me for the tragic truth: Each day, we have less time together than ever before.

In March of 2020, I lost my job as an events organizer for then–presidential hopeful Senator Bernie Sanders and left my apartment in New York City with only a small suitcase of my belongings, naively certain that my return home to Toledo would not last nearly two years of my life. Almost 18 months later—spent applying for jobs, taking the same walks and listening to the same songs, all the while missing my freedom, friends, and my favorite takeout—I’ve realized Im not ready to return to my real life.

Before last spring, there had been many moments throughout my 20s when I’d been tempted to do exactly what I’ve done for the past year and a half. Lost jobs, bad breakups, a childish desire to be cared for have made me ache for the comfort of my parents’ home. But because there are about a million different punch lines for millennials who become basement dwellers or boomerang children, I’ve tried to cultivate a life that doesn’t include third-wheeling with my mom and dad every Friday night.

When the pandemic effectively rendered my job unnecessary, I was devastated to leave a role I loved more than any I’ve ever held, colleagues I came to know as family, and, of course, paychecks I counted on. But in some ways, I was almost relieved. In a time of such insecurity—health, financial, and otherwise—seeking shelter with my parents in the Midwest just made sense. For prospective flings and would-be employers alike, now I had an unquestionable excuse.

Since I’ve been home, we’ve celebrated two birthdays apiece, my father’s partial retirement, and the conclusion of my MA program at NYU. We revisited old movies, swapped new books, swilled beer in the basement on countless football Sundays and red wine on Bachelor Mondays, and tried out new traditions to make the holidays a little less lonely. And when we were without reasons to celebrate, as family friends passed away with little opportunity for us to say goodbye and it seemed there would never be good news again, we did our best to buoy one another.

Of course, we squabbled over my incurable messiness and their inability to refrain from conversation during a movie. But there is a new and specific tenderness that accompanied returning to my parents’ home in my late 20s and their early 60s. The global crisis unfolding around us inspired a tolerance that wasn’t there before. For my dad’s requirement for routine and insatiable taste for the entire Richard Marx canon. For my mom’s near obsessive care for domestic detail; as someone who has now lived in three apartments, I understand that it’s both an art and a science to create a space that makes its inhabitants want to get up every day and keep trying.

There’s also something about witnessing mass fatality on the nightly news as I sat next to them on the sofa that has left me wondering if I’m not the only one trying to tune out the ticking clock. For as long as I remember, I have worried about my parents dying. Lately, I find myself agonizing more about how they are coping with their own mortality.

I’ve lost count of all the times my mom has become frustrated with her 60-year-old body, how it keeps her from the long walks she once took without breaking a sweat or having to stop and turn around from fatigue and the ways it’s betrayed her vanity, carving newer, deeper lines on her face and new aches and pains in her feet.

In March of this year, when one of my dad’s favorite musicians passed away of cancer, I found him curled in the fetal position on the couch in the middle of the day, silent tears collecting in the wrinkles that frame his eyes. In the months that followed, he blared his fallen hero’s music like a teenage girl overtaken by grief, singing along at the top of his lungs despite the fact that he’s tone-deaf and it was 6 p.m. on a Tuesday. His mourning summoned to mind all heartbreaks of my teenagedom I was certain he didn’t understand. But he did. Just like he’s now aware that he’s reached an age when people he considered invincible are dying.

Each day, we have less time together than ever before.

Recently, I accepted a job that will require me to move back to New York, and somewhere between repacking my tiny suitcase and savoring every last second in their home, I realize I’ve never felt angrier. Enraged that this period of our lives has concluded. Furious that, in all this time, I didn’t find a good reason beyond my parents to remain in Toledo. And irate knowing that no amount of time with them will ever be enough. I know now that even the most predictable way I could lose my parents is as horrifying as any hypothetical ax murderer. I fear that I’ll return to my life in New York and, just when I’m settled, find out one of them received a fatal diagnosis. That growing within one of my mom’s feet is actually an aggressive tumor or that my dad, in all his semi-retirement stress and continued busyness, will suffer a heart attack. Or perhaps most likely of all, that they were exposed to the coronavirus and a vaccine wasn’t sufficient to keep them safe.

I don’t know what will be left of the life I left in New York. There’s a good chance I’ll wish I were right back in my most Midwestern corner in the world and an even better one that I’ll call my mom every day. But just as my parents aren’t getting any younger, neither am I, and I’m inclined to find out what subsisting during a pandemic looks like when I’m not sleeping in my childhood bedroom or squished between my mom and dad on their couch.

On my first day back in the city, I plan to buy a bouquet of flowers I can’t afford but looks as though my mom would choose it and to press play on one of my dad’s favorite fallen musical heroes—whatever it takes to feel close to them. It will be a new habit, a practice of reveling in their presence rather than preparing for their absence. Because I understand now that when it comes to time with my parents, there can’t ever be enough.

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