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first person

Illustration by Drew Shannon

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There are two essential service workers in our six-person household. I’m a physician. My teenage son is a grocery-store employee.

He likes to remind me of this shared status when we leave the house in the morning, his three sisters in pyjamas and his dad Zooming in front of a green screen. Jacob wears an oversized red T-shirt over a black hoodie, with Island Farm Market and a wide-eyed rooster emblazoned across the back. I’m wearing heels and a navy blazer. I unlock the car for the short drive to the children’s hospital, where I work as a psychiatry resident. “Hey Mom!” Jacob calls as he slouches down the driveway, backpack over one shoulder. “Have a good day doing your essential work!”

“You too!” I say, and he looks pleased.

What was an after-school job for him turned into a full-time position during the pandemic. He’d applied for the job the week he turned 15. I’d been skeptical, certain that this kid who teased his sisters incessantly and didn’t enunciate clearly enough for my liking would exasperate an employer in short order. I was wrong. Within a week he moved from shelf stocker to cashier. “My boss says I’m good with customers.”

He started to bring home groceries for his personal use. I gave him the bottom right crisper drawer for his pomegranates and Brie. He began to say price codes compulsively. “How can you not know what kohlrabi is?” he asked his sister at dinner. “Kohlrabi, 4628.”

With the onset of the pandemic, I paid little attention to Jacob’s job. I was preoccupied with the daily epidemic curves. I came to terms with my elevated risk as a physician, as colleagues posted to Twitter that they’d reviewed their wills and sent their children to stay with relatives. I was uneasy with the prospect of being transferred from psychiatry to the ICU. “I’m not afraid of dying,” I texted another resident. “I’m afraid of killing someone.”

I turned to my usual coping strategies. I worked harder, picking up extra shifts. I forwarded memes to friends, of a psychiatrist bumbling his way through an intubation, of a marmot screaming into a void. But at night I dreamed that I mustn’t inhale, for fear of contracting the virus, or exhale, for fear of infecting others. The only option was to stop breathing altogether.

I work in a child psychiatry clinic with two therapy dogs and unobstructed views of the Pacific. One Wednesday in February, the clinic was interrupted by a hospital-wide public address announcement: “Attention! All patients and staff! There is a humpback whale visible offshore!” Later, searching for my supervisor and two o’clock patient, I finally spotted them from the window, side by side on the beach, gazing out to sea.

Now such congregations are prohibited. Even the humpback, who had been making appearances for weeks, distances itself. I look for it every day, longing for the surprise of a breach or spout, for a bit of grandeur to overwrite our unease, even for a minute. We deserve this largesse, as we video conference our pediatric patients with their small brave faces and smaller voices. We deserve reassurance that some reaches of the world are unaffected. The whale does not return.

One night Jacob announces that his value as an employee has skyrocketed. He is one of the few kids still working at the Island Farm Market. It appears all the other parents have pulled their teens. Jacob does not seem to hold his own parents’ apparent lack of concern against us.

The next day I shop for groceries. Customers wear bandanas over their faces and there are limits on milk and butter. Someone brushes by me as I stand in the spice aisle wondering why turmeric would sell out in a pandemic. I back away into someone’s shopping cart. There is a profusion of apologies and forgiveness as we resume proper distancing. I go home and review the case fatality rates for COVID-19, stratified by age. It appears that there is no one better suited for the front lines than a robust 15 year old. So, despite our reservations, we allow Jacob to continue.

Every night at dinner, Jacob and I compare notes. We share our inside information. “I heard at the town hall today that there’s been no community transmission on the Island for 10 days,” I tell the family.

“Cauliflower is going up to $40 per crate next week,” Jacob says.

Patients are frightened and grateful. So are the people buying produce. We both deal with people pushed to their limits. I see them in the psychiatric emergency room. Jacob deals with customers who berate him for charging for the wrong pears. “In the end her refund was 26 cents,” Jacob concludes one night. “Can you believe someone would behave like that towards a 15 year old making minimum wage?”

Jacob announces that his employer has installed a Plexiglas shield between customer and cashier. This is more protection than I can access at the hospital. Masks are in such short supply that some residents are using the elastic from their fitted bedsheets to sew their own.

Days turn to weeks, and we settle into our pandemic routine. Uncertainty and anticipatory grief remain aerosolized over the city. These are ordinary features of life, I realize, just compressed into the uncomfortably short time frame of the immediate future. The whale might not return, but there’s splendour in the things breaching all around me. Each morning, Jacob heads out in his red T-shirt. Each morning, I reach for my ID badge and think, “Today everyone I love most in the world is still safe.” And I head back to the hospital.

“The whole store smells like alcohol, like vodka or whiskey or something,” Jacob reports one night. “From all the cleaning.”

I slide Brussels sprouts onto our plates. “4550,” Jacob says automatically. With my daughter home from university, there are four kids at the dinner table again, two on each side, and it feels balanced and whole. Mealtime is long and loud. My husband’s sourdough starter is covered in a cloth on the radiator behind me. The cat wanders through, perplexed by our continuous presence.

It’s 6:55 and the nine-year-old fetches a stainless steel bowl and a ladle and heads outside. Jacob leans back in his chair and waits. He understands that the 7 p.m. cheer, the citizens of Victoria pounding pots and pans on their decks, the hollers and horns, the fire trucks circling the hospital, the gratitude and encouragement rising and blowing over the city, is for him.

It is for him.

Martina Scholtens lives in Victoria.