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At home for coronavirus, I’m the child in the (literal) room

This is my evening routine in the era of coronavirus: around dinner time, I descend the staircase that connects my childhood bedroom, where I’ve spent most of the day, to the kitchen below. From the bottom, I can just see the table where my parents are preparing to sit down.

But I eat on the stairs, balancing a picnic of chicken parmesan and red wine on different steps. When I’m done, I bring my dishes upstairs for a preliminary scrub before my father loads them into the dishwasher — he claims he’s taught himself not to touch his face, but everyone knows how seriously the over-70s are taking the novel coronavirus.

While my hands are now chapped from vigorous sanitizing, until a few days ago they were in flagrant contact with surfaces in every coffee shop and subway line in New York City, where there are now more than 1,500 confirmed cases of the virus.

Just last week I was sitting in my Brooklyn apartment, instructing my parents not to come into the city, as planned, to celebrate my 25th birthday. Their response: if the city wasn’t safe for them, it certainly wasn’t safe for their daughter.

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I reminded them firmly that I was about to officially enter my mid-20s, and could thus take care of myself. It was only their frail, Medicare-eligible hands that were at risk from pathogenic New York doorknobs. I spent the rest of the evening calling friends and telling them how I planned to protect my parents by toughing it out in the city.

Fast forward a couple days. My birthday plans, which all involved socializing in public places, had become both deeply uncool and, given the escalating social distancing imposed by the city, impossible. Friends were heading home to their parents. And the day before my birthday, a nasty bout of food poisoning showed me exactly how long I could tough anything out, and who was ultimately going to decide how I spent the outbreak.

“What do you mean, you don’t own a thermometer?” my mother said as soon as I admitted my weakened state. “I’m getting in the car right now.” While I negotiated a day to pack, the next morning I was taking my temperature (normal!) in a minivan hurtling down the turnpike towards my ancestral home — central New Jersey.

My mother, spurred to action by the arrival of a moment that requires the germ-consciousness she’s cultivated over decades, has very admirably organized the details of our intramural quarantine. My father, the oldest member of our family and the object of all our protective measures, is mostly annoyed that his daily outings to the Wegman’s supermarket have been curtailed. Having contracted childhood meningitis just as antibiotics emerged to treat it, and able to remember going down to something called “the town grange” to receive the first polio vaccines, he’s unimpressed by coronavirus — even though the fact that he possesses these memories means that coronavirus is coming for him.

The advent of this pandemic has shown many Gen X-ers that they are now truly the adults in the room, the only people standing between their boomer parents and a foolhardy bingo night. But for younger millennials like me who have scurried home to wait out the outbreak, it’s a return to an adolescence from which we just escaped.

I’m reporting for the Forward in front of a bulletin board tacked with high school photos and notes whose inside jokes I no longer understand. Instead of making innovative stews with Trader Joes’s canned goods, I’m eating the hearty, carb-heavy meals on which I’ve blamed my acne and all other problems since time immemorial. And in the end, my 25th birthday probably looked a lot like my second or third: I ate cake with my parents, crouching on the stairs instead of sitting in a grown-up chair.

This sense of regression is only compounded by the fact that, until it’s clear that I’m not carrying the virus, I’m as dependent on my parents as the brattiest suburban teenager who ever lived. Normally I would run errands, or cook, or get in my father’s way while he cooks. At the moment, I have to text someone if I want a cup of coffee.

The only thing I’ve done for myself since arriving is prepare a week’s worth of overnight oats (coronavirus or no coronavirus, my father wants nothing to do with my pulverized flaxseed), and it was an adventure followed by a bout of compulsive scrubbing of every surface on which I might have breathed.

It’s often hard to remember who is protecting whom, or to fully absorb that caring for one’s family isn’t preparing meals or folding laundry but simply keeping a good distance.

Our current atmosphere isn’t the most conducive to spending quality time together, but some rituals just don’t give way, even to pandemics. On Sunday, we settled on the couch/stairs to watch/listen to the latest Democratic debate. As always, we spent the two hours congenially shouting at the candidates, shouting at each other, criticizing the anchors, and storming out of the room in frustration — we just shouted from a greater distance, and stormed up our respective staircases.

And that’s where I’ll stay. Because right now, the only way to be the adult in the room is not to leave it.

Irene Connelly writes about culture and lifestyle for the Forward. You can contact her at [email protected].

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