Parents Talk Back by Aisha Sultan

In an Alternate Reality

In the alternate-reality version of this weekend, my husband and I would be at an elaborate Indian-Nepalese wedding in Minneapolis.

A former colleague would be getting married. It would be my first visit to Minnesota, and I had planned to see a few lakes and sample a tater tot hot-dish. Before we left, I would have asked my daughter about the ACT she’d have taken.

Earlier in the week, our family would have joined in one of our favorite traditions: going to the Passover Seder at Sally and Dick’s home. When they were younger, my children would join the search for the hidden afikoman.

Some of you would be in special church services and gathered with your families for egg hunts and Easter dinners. I would admire the pictures you would post of your kids in their fancy clothes. My favorites are the ones in which the kid looks like he can’t wait to get out of his dress pants into a pair of shorts.

In our actual reality, more than a dozen people tested positive for COVID-19 at my husband’s workplace, where he still goes every day. A front-line doctor we know is on life support after getting infected. My brother, also a physician, treated a patient in an isolation ward.

Instead of talking about a summer trip we had planned to Yellowstone, we’ve talked about updating our wills.

Living through a catastrophe unlike anything we’ve experienced before is a strange roller coaster of feelings. We are hyper-aware and thankful for being alive, while scared of a lurking death, trying to sneak in on an airborne particle. We are dealing with stress that feels uniquely terrible, but is actually pretty universal right now. We all know someone who has lost a job or shuttered a business or gotten sick or is worried about the rent or buying groceries. And if we’re not among those in the most dire circumstances, we are grateful to be among the shut-ins. 

But it’s hard not to consider, however fleetingly, the alternate realities that have slipped away. For me, it’s the one in which I recently returned from New York City, where we premiered my new documentary film project, and I am planning the rest of the festival circuit. There’s another one in which we are discussing which colleges my daughter wants to visit this summer. Now, no one knows when schools might reopen or when New York City will heal and recover from the brutal attack of this pandemic.

How can a month feel like a lifetime ago?

If we’re lucky, we will get to do all the things again. We will get to hug our parents and grandparents, hang out with our friends, pray in congregations, dine in restaurants, travel without worry, shop in stocked grocery stores, attend weddings and funerals, and trust hospitals to have supplies to take care of us if we get critically sick. Even things that seemed mundane before, like sitting at my desk in an office surrounded by colleagues, will feel special for a while.

Maybe as we get further into this isolated new normal, we will forget the alternate realities that could have happened.

The dear family friend we had planned to ask to stay with our children while we attended this weekend’s wedding had taken care of them when they were babies, years ago. The wedding was canceled before we had a chance to ask her, but we reached out recently to see how she’s doing.

She had gone to the ER early in March with a severe backache. It turned out to be advanced stage breast cancer. There’s never a good time to get cancer, but this may be the worst time.

It’s a time when we want to hold the people we love tighter, but that same love forces us to keep them at a distance.

These days, I’m trying to think about the brighter spots ahead on this new timeline. The kids will be back in school in the fall. We will celebrate my friend’s wedding in Minnesota. I’ll take a meal to our friend recovering from cancer.

Everyone we love survives.

I’m praying for that reality.