Kids probably have more interesting pastimes nowadays, what with video games and everything, but does anyone Of A Certain Age, like me, remember playing “Mother, May I?”
One kid would be “Mother” and stand facing a row of other kids some distance away. “Mother” would say something like “Take three giant steps,” or “Take two baby steps,” etc. And the other kids would take their biggest or smallest steps but — and this was the catch — before taking a step everyone would have to say “Mother, may I?” After getting the “Yes, you may” you could proceed, with the goal being to be the first to cross the line in front of Mother. However, if you took a step forward on command without asking for the all-important permission, the kid playing “Mother” would screech in the tones of a vindictive banshee: “GO RIGHT BACK YOU FORGOT TO SAY MAY I!!!!” And you’d go right back to the starting line, even if you were only one baby step away from the finish.
What a weird form of entertainment. It’s a darned good thing they invented video games.
It was devastating, having to go back to right where you started when you’d made so much progress. When the end was in sight, your feet were close to the finish line. All because of one little careless slip — all that progress erased.
I’ve been thinking about that game a lot lately, that crushing feeling of being sent back to the start.
It’s easy for most of us to remember 11 months ago. Mid-March, 2020. For me, March 20, 2020 was the day Emma came home from college, her school having closed more than a month early. Jason and I had just been moved to working from home. A global pandemic was unfolding and in less than a week we’d gone from “Oh, that won’t really affect us here, will it?” to a province-wide shutdown of pretty much everything. Orders to stay home, avoid close contact even with loved ones outside our houses, go out as little as possible. Not that there were many places to go.
Well, you remember. You were there. We all were.
Over the next 11 months, those of us living here in Newfoundland had an experience shared by people in only a few other places in North America (and of course several places outside it). We went through lockdown. The initial outbreak was brought under control. Case numbers dwindled, then stopped altogether. Lockdown restrictions eased. We congratulated ourselves. We’d done it right, we’d “flattened the curve.”
We looked at people in other places, with their fluctuating or still-rising case counts and death toll, their cycles of restrictions, re-openings, and more restrictions — and we felt sorry for them. We had a nearly-normal summer and fall. Sure, we didn’t get to have the Regatta or the Folk Festival or a lot of other big sporting and cultural events — but we spent time with friends and family, ate in restaurants, enjoyed staycations, shopped and worked almost like normal, except for masks and distancing. We tracked the daily case counts, but live news briefings slipped from daily to three times a week to once a week, and the only cases we heard about were travel related, isolated, quickly contained.
We’d done it right. We had (most of us — enough of us, anyway) followed the rules. Taken each step forward, from Alert Level 5 to 4 to 3 to 2, restrictions rolling back at each step, always asking “Mother, May I?” and getting the go-ahead before moving another step back to that blessed, uncomplicated state that we remembered as “Normal.” The answer was always “Yes, you may.”
By December, when the first vaccines started rolling out, that finish line was in sight. Yes, the vaccines were slower coming than we’d hoped, but we got all the way to Christmas and two weeks past it without any major outbreaks. Case counts stayed low, and it seemed possible we’d get past the one-year mark and into spring without a second wave of COVID. And by the time summer 2021 came around, enough people might have been vaccinated that we could breathe a sigh of relief and feel we were pretty much out of danger. We would step across that finish line successfully, winners of the game.
That, of course, is not what happened.
February 20, 2021 finds me where last March 20, 2020 did (though without the pleasure of my daughter being home; she’s back in university in Nova Scotia, which, currently, is still stepping forward in an orderly fashion without any new outbreaks). I’m sitting with my laptop in my recliner by the window, watching the quiet street outside, with no plans for the evening beyond TV and board games at home. We had tickets for a concert tonight, purchased two weeks ago in a more optimistic time, but it’s been cancelled. As has almost everything else. Back in lockdown again.
There was something about hearing Dr. Janice Fitzgerald’s words last Friday night — Feb. 12, 2021 — at the emergency evening press conference when she announced that our current outbreak was caused by the B117 variant — that almost broke me. It was when she said, “We are back in Alert Level 5,” and I swear I heard a little quaver in her voice, that voice we’ve all relied on for eleven months to deliver the news in a steady, trustworthy tone.
Back. In Alert Level 5. Back to the tightest possible restrictions, full lockdown, no hugs with extended family, no small get-togethers with half a dozen friends. No teaching in-person for me, even with the rituals of wiping down tables and the sheets of plexiglass Jason had carefully installed in my classroom just a few weeks earlier. No more gathering in church, even with masks on for singing as we’d done since September. No more stopping into Chapters for a book or Starbucks for a coffee – stores open for essential shopping only.
Go right back, you forgot to say May I.
We’re doing the right thing, of course — if there’s an outbreak of the newer, highly contagious variant in a population where few people are vaccinated and there’ve hardly been any COVID cases for months, a tight lockdown is exactly the way to get it under control. And we never did get any guarantees that we were living in a magical wonderland where viruses couldn’t penetrate. We were always at risk: luck, compliance, and geographical isolation were just on our side for several months until, suddenly, they weren’t.
For me, at least, what’s been hard about second lockdown so far is that “Mother, May I?” feeling. We were so close to coming out the other side of this — that’s how it felt anyway. I find it much easier to cope with things, even difficult things, if I feel like I’m making progress. Like every step, however difficult, is a step in the right direction, towards the goal. If I can see the finish line and each moment brings me closer to it.
I think most of us are like that. We want to believe in life as an orderly progression towards a goal. Yes, there’ll be tough times, but we’re getting there. In our careers. In childraising. In spiritual life. In overcoming addictions. In battling physical or mental illness. The steps along the way may be hard, but we can bear it as long as they’re moving us close to a goal.
So often, though, life is like that childhood game. We move forward — sometimes with giant steps, sometimes with baby steps — closer to that goal. Then, suddenly, out of nowhere, the unexpected setback. The layoff. The relapse. The variant outbreak. The thing we thought we were safe from, knocking us squarely back to start. Go right back; you forgot to say may I.
And along with the loss, along with the vision of all the ground we have still to cover, there’s that angry whine of unfairness: But I was so close! We were nearly there!! I took all the right steps in the right direction!! Why do we have to go all the way baaaaack?? It’s not faaaiiirrr!!
That’s the voice I’ve been hearing in my head a lot over the past week. Knowing that this is how things work, not just in pandemics but in life, helps a little.
But only a little.
I still want that finish line.