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Like most people, we have been isolated at home for months. On the weekends, my husband is here but for the most part, it’s me, my four-year-old son, my seven-year-old daughter and a tiny lizard.
About five weeks after our physical distancing began, I noticed the scales on our leopard gecko were growing dusty. It worried me. We inherited the creature from my brother who died at the end of 2018 and I have been dreading the moment when the lizard too will die. I know it will be difficult. So I watch it carefully.
I reported the strange surface on the skin of our pet to my husband and children the morning after it began. Seconds later, our lizard emerged from its plastic rock lair with a filmy top layer flowing behind it like a peignoir. We laughed at the timing.
I didn’t think about it much until a morning last week when we were making banana pancakes. My daughter knocked our glass measuring cup off the counter. When it hit the floor, it burst into hundreds of pieces, fracturing along all the cracks created every time we had banged or clipped it over the years. As I swept up the shards, I wondered why we had been breaking so many things while we were severed from the world and if it was something to which I should be paying attention.
The destruction started early during our isolation. My husband’s birthday is in mid-March, five days after my daughter’s school and my son’s preschool closed indefinitely. The minor agony of constant uncertainty was already starting to wear on us so I wanted to do something special. As a brewer, his job had been deemed essential so the kids and I had time to plan a party while he was at work.
“Let’s make a cake for Dad!” I cried.
My kids stopped screaming at each other. We baked, iced and sprinkled for most of the day. They both denied sneaking spoonfuls of frosting through blue tinged lips, squealing as they gathered accoutrements for their father: candles on the cake! Streamers on the walls! Flowers on the table!
Two hours before my husband was due home, my daughter climbed up to grab a glass vase from a high shelf. I knew as I watched her small feet grip the high surface that I should stop her but I’d been telling her what (not) to do all day long and we were both tired. Then the vase fell from her fingertips. It shattered beside my husband’s cake, spraying splinters of glass everywhere. She sobbed hysterically as I threw the cake away but the world was too unbearably scary to take the risk of eating it. My husband had banana pudding for his 43rd birthday.
The week after, I broke our stand mixer and part of our kitchen floor. I turned my back on the machine as it was kneading a particularly stubborn batch of challah bread. Each rotation of the bread hook edged it closer to the drop as I washed the dishes, unaware of the danger behind me, until the loud crash made me jump in terror as my most beloved kitchen appliance crashed onto the tile.
Three days later, the fluorescent light in our laundry room blew and left me in darkness as I shoved wet loads into the dryer, hoping that no socks had fallen onto the floor.
All this breakage has bothered my husband a lot. He hates not having a way to make things right. But it doesn’t get to me as much. After my brother died, I was forced to accept that some things stay broken. Each time that I gathered pieces of what we have lost, I have become better at letting them go.
After a particularly frustrating day of unsuccessful attempts to fix the light in the laundry room, my husband suggested watching the Michael Jordan documentary series The Last Dance. That night, I craved something new and I wanted my husband to have something good. Our life had become a grind and it was wearing on us both.
The unexpected poignancy of Jordan retiring from basketball to play baseball after the violent death of his father took me by surprise. As I watched him take off his Bulls uniform and replace it with another, I saw him leaving behind the layer that no longer served him, just as our lizard had. Neither of them chose the moment that had transformed them, the molting or the murder. But they had to live with who they were after everything was different. Just like us.
I realized that our family, like so many others, has to learn to leave the past behind. We are now living in a world that we don’t recognize. We too have to discard who we used to be. In my house, the broken items and the slivers of scales mean nothing and everything.
We have been changed by 2020. It wasn’t our choice to become something new, but we are different now. Our world has lost the assumption of health. We must replace casual touches and carefree gatherings with the weight of infrastructure designed to keep us apart. At the same time, we must confront the lie that skin means nothing when it matters more than anything.
Humans do not shed it as easily as other animals. The beginning of change is excoriating. The process is tiring. Sometimes it feels impossible. Even animals who are designed for it suffer. Our lizard has been exhausted for days. Damage alters us before we are ready. I see our lizard, raw and nearly new. Fragile and uneasy. I feel the same.
Jordan said that no matter how it ends, it starts with hope. With my tender, hopeful skin, that is where I want to begin.
Amber Cowie lives in Squamish, B.C.