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Into the unknown.
Illustrations by Avery Scharwath

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Our house was a refuge—until COVID-19 came home

When my kids grow up, I hope they remember watching “Frozen 2,” not the pandemic

The day our school announced it would close, my phone chirped with increasingly urgent push alerts. As I flicked away alarming headlines about the novel coronavirus pandemic—national emergency declared, travel banned, stock market crashed—one notification delivered good news: Disney would start streaming Frozen 2 that weekend, three months earlier than scheduled, a gift to parents facing an indeterminate amount of time at home.

That night, I watched the original Frozen with my two young children, as I had on many Fridays before. But this Friday, a movie about a queen who can kill people by touching them felt more like a horror story. When Elsa banishes herself to a remote ice castle to protect the village—truly, the ultimate social-distancing flex—I looked nervously down at my own kids, animated blue icicles dancing across their faces. The lyrics I’d heard them sing maybe 3,000 times spelled out my own pending fate: A kingdom of isolation, and it looks like I’m the queen.

In the early days, what my husband and I worried about most was the disruption in our routine—no school, no work, no friends—and how all the time indoors would affect our kids. Like Elsa’s castle, we knew our home would protect us from the pandemic. But it was hard not to shake the feeling that we were being trapped against our wills inside these walls.

I wonder what they will remember about this time, about our home and family, as I think back to what I remember from being 5 years old, the age my daughter is now. While sledding with the neighbors, we decided it would be a good idea to try steering a large wooden toboggan through the small right triangle created by the slide of our swingset. I don’t remember my face smacking into the slide, shredding the frenum of soft tissue that tethered my lips to my gums. All I remember is the blood, a trail of black pits in the snow, and the distant glow of the kitchen window. I knew if I could just get inside, to my mom’s arms, I’d be safe.

A mom and daughter inside of a heart. Illustration by a child.

Maybe, I hope, all they’ll remember is Frozen 2. My 5-year-old industriously reproduces the scenes from the film in washable marker, taping them to every living room wall. My 2-year-old wants to hear the songs so often that I teach him to summon them from our smart speaker. Elsa’s newest, unsettlingly relevant anthem—Into the unknown! Into the unknown! Into the unknooooooown!—starts to form our official coronavirus soundtrack. For six weeks, my children shriek this at inopportune moments as they march circles around our kitchen. It is playing when I watch our governor announce that schools will not reopen for the rest of the year. It is playing when I read that 40 percent of the people who live in my city no longer have jobs. And it is playing when I learn my mom has tested positive for COVID-19.

Despite taking every precaution, my parents had somehow become trapped with the virus inside their own home, and they faced a terrifying predicament. My dad has a pacemaker, putting him at a much higher risk of getting seriously ill if he contracts the disease. Their network of friends, who are mostly older, too, were all sheltering in place. What my parents had to do to avoid a rural hospital with no intensive-care beds seemed impossible without more support. They were ordered to stay inside for weeks—and somehow stay apart.

This wasn’t how it was supposed to work, I thought as I stared at my phone, still in shock. When I was a kid, the squeak of the sliding door signified I was safe from the dangers of the outside world. Homes were bunkers that kept out the cold, where my mom would bundle me close to her in blankets, my snowsuit melting into a soggy heap on the warm linoleum floor. When the most likely way to contract COVID-19 is from another loved one, those cozy spaces, those tight embraces, once healing, have become potentially deadly.

Even if I was a few blocks instead of a few hundred miles away, there is nothing I can do to help. I can only picture their house draped in swirling snowdrifts, my mom shut inside her bedroom, shivering and alone. At our house, feeling more powerless by the day, I attempt to make life feel normal for my own children, but it’s impossible to focus on the task at hand. I sift through towers of laundry and abandoned bowls of cereal on the kitchen countertop, sliding my laptop out from beneath unfinished math worksheets to sneak in a few hours of work. Each night, I go to the other side of the counter to cook dinner while I watch the mayor of my city stand alone in a room to announce the number of deaths across the region. I wonder how soon my mom will become a statistic in her own county.

Our house, which had just a week before felt like a place of confinement, has now become a sanctuary, and it only feels safe to leave at night, when no one else is around. I walk up the hill in our neighborhood to witness my own kingdom, which has fallen silent, the downtown towers lit bright blue for health care workers. I open Instagram and stare at the quarantine kitchens of my friends, dotted with perfect sourdough boules. They are living in different worlds, where homes remain disease-free.

Even the incessant viewings of Frozen 2 don’t offer much respite. In the movie—spoiler alert—Elsa sets out to find a voice calling to her at night. It is her dead mother, whom Elsa learns once risked her life to save Elsa’s father, but eventually, they both perished. When my mom casually texts me one evening that she had somehow passed out between the bathtub and her bed, my nightmares start to intertwine the plot with reality. Later, she tells me she couldn’t stand up, so my dad had to help her back into bed—she touched him!—and I am convinced I’ve seen both my parents for the last time.

“When will it be the same again?” my daughter asks, and I want to tell her it won’t. I am part of an entire generation of women caring simultaneously for kids we had later and parents who are living longer. Now with the nursing facilities that we believed were safe being compromised, many of us will end up making room at home for our parents, surrendering our careers to tend to their health issues. I can’t stop thinking that if I’d just moved my parents in with me before this moment, I somehow could have saved their lives.

The way I know my mom is finally feeling better is because she’s taking walks again, moving a little farther down their frost-dusted hillside each day. My dad—who never got sick—has built an igloo just outside their bedroom window. She documents him from six feet away as he stands before it, cheekily victorious, a case of Corona beer in his gloved hands.

I breathe easier again, too—until the snow starts to melt. The spring thaw signals the return of the second homeowners, who will be coming from states with mounting death tolls. The town council refuses to require masks. With a second peak predicted, my dad will have to avoid my parents’ friends for a year or more. How long can my mom—her lungs still weak—manage to protect him on her own? I want everyone to freeze in place, so my parents will be safe inside their own ice castle, up on their mountain forever.

That’s not realistic, of course, which is why I’ve started mentally carving out space for them here. I picture them driving the desert highway between us, towing the vintage Airstream trailer they spent years restoring with a very different retirement plan in mind. I see them pulling into our driveway and hear the squawks of their grandchildren, who will hopefully have watched at least one other movie by then. I think about what it will be like to finally hug my mom as I’m ushering everyone inside the house. Then I’ll lock the door, close the gate, and never let anyone go.