How hard physical activities saved me when my son died and now again during Covid-19
My son Balen decided that the mound of snow still clinging to our backyard needed to go. Of course, that task required a pickaxe, exactly the tool a mother loves to see her 8-year-old swinging madly at the ground.
Amazingly, his control of the axe was relatively stable, so I stood nearby watching. Soon, though, I had the urge to join him. I found a flat-ended metal shovel and started chopping away at the frozen mound.
As ice sprayed up at us and huge chunks of snow satisfying tumbled down the mound, I realized that I had been here before. Not here as in this spot chopping ice. But here as in finding a kind of solace in heavy work.
In the summer of 2014, after my son Rhys was stillborn at 37 weeks, Balen (who was then 2.5 years old) and I found interesting relief in odd tasks like extreme paper shredding. I bought a shredder that summer and we shredded the sh*t of everything. The shredder was loud, industrial, and unforgiving.
We also got into lifting and throwing giants rocks that summer. There was a creek not too far from our house in Oakland, CA, and like some sort of poor-formed, highlander games, Balen and I would hurl the biggest rocks we could lift into the creek.
“The cure for anything is salt water — sweat, tears, or the sea.”
-Karen (Isak) Dinesen, Danish Author
I’m sure that any athlete knows the feeling that I am trying to describe. It’s a mindlessness, a kind of calm, that you can find in repetitive, hard, heavy work. And I would be lying if I claimed there was not a kind of anger management therapy going on as well.
That summer, I’m sure there was a part of me that wanted to shred myself or hurl myself into the creek. But somehow, the act of stuffing old tax documents into the shredder again, and again, and again took enough of the edge off my anger that I continued to function as a somewhat normal human being and as the mother I needed to be my living son.
Today, with each swing of the pickaxe and shovel, Balen and I chanted for Winter to go away. It felt powerful, like we could muscle-in the change of season and force Spring to arrive in our barren backyard. But were we really angry at Winter? Probably not.
But Winter was a great scapegoat for the weight we felt — the weight that all of us feel — over how SARS-CoV-2 has changed our lives. For Balen, I know he’s angry that he can’t play with his friends. He’s angry that he didn’t get to finish the ski season. He’s angry that his mom is his new second grade teacher and his only classmate is his “annoying” 4-year-old sister. He’s angry that we can’t go out to dinner at the local pizza place, and he’s angry that our spring break vacation was canceled.
No, these are not the most profound things to be angry over (#firstworldproblems), but I think this is the safe way for his 8-year-old brain to wrap itself around what is happening to the world around him. He knows people are dying. And he knows adults are scared. But it’s much more manageable to hate Winter.
For me, like many of you, I’m sure, it’s hard to feel powerless. And it’s hard to live with so many unknowns. When will life return to normal? Will we have immunity in the future? Will a vaccine help? Will our favorite local small business be able to recover? Will someone we love get really sick? Or worse? Will the most vulnerable in society get the care they need? How many more health care providers will be admitted to the ICU for sacrificing their own health? Will the U.S. run out of hospital beds and ventilators as they did in Italy?
So, Balen and I chop ice.
We put our whole body and strength into hard work, just to get that feeling of accomplishment and impact that we can’t get anywhere else right now.
We can’t fix what we really want to fix.
But, if we have our way, Winter will be gone by next week.