“Dispatch from St. Paul, Minnesota” by Abby Vakulskas

mike licht tv
Television, Mike Licht

 

My first interaction with my dad was in the shadow of his hand crossing my face, shielding me from the bright lights of the labor and delivery ward. The way he tells the story, I immediately stopped crying to stare at him. I believe the primordial instinct to protect struck him wholly at that moment—not uncommon, I’m sure, in fathers. Especially, unavoidably, in fathers of girls.

corona samIn the midst of a global pandemic, my dad has stopped watching the news. He is in his sixties, a retiree. Before the virus gained momentum he often spent his days in his armchair—laptop open, TV on, flipping through breaking news and reports on the Dow. When I borrowed his car, Rush Limbaugh’s scraping bass would erupt at full volume with the start of the engine.

I follow six different news outlets regularly in an effort to piece together my father’s perception of the world. I study their hooks, compare headlines, guess at what he will accept as true and what he will reject as an affront to truth. I try to predict what will be on his mind when we talk, assumptions he will make of me and I of him. Perhaps it has become my obsession by proxy.

But now the TV is dark and the radio stays off; he has avoided all news for twenty-five days and counting.

His avoidance is a difficult gap to bridge when the reality surrounds us. Flying home from Chicago in spite of the risks was unlike anything I’ve experienced before: I was the only person on the train platform. I was the only person going through Terminal 5 security. I chatted with the TSA agents, feeling a surreal sense of idleness. I was one of seven passengers spread throughout the standard-sized commercial airplane. Signs of the abnormal were everywhere, from the hushed silence to the coconut oil I had smeared around my mouth and nose to keep my hands away from my face.

But after touching down in the dark familiarity of Minnesota nighttime, my dad couldn’t bring himself to hear about my flight or what was happening in Chicago. He held up a hand, pressed the other over his ear: “I’ll listen again when there’s good news.” In contrast, my mom has been starved for conversation. We turn daily news over and over together, something almost tangible and malleable. Hushed in the early morning before my dad wakes up, through cut-off sentences, raised eyebrows; freely on walks around the neighborhood at dusk.

My dad says he’s aware of what’s going on, but it’s hard to gauge the extent of his knowledge. He catches peripheral glimpses of the basilisk, accidentally glancing at a newspaper, becoming more confined to putzing around downstairs as his usual haunts close. My mom acts as the indirect mouthpiece of the CDC, telling him the bare minimum of what he should know to stay safe.

My dad says the news will just make him anxious. There is little he can do to make sure his family is protected from an invisible enemy. Like all of us, he senses the gravity at hand and it shakes him.

The virus has challenged us to embrace rest, uncertainty, and tedium. To settle down next to this feeling of powerlessness and hold its hand. But powerlessness is a beast my dad (and many parents, I imagine) wrestles with. Protection, after all—of your children, your ideals, your possessions—is a myth. We do what we can. We stay home and wash our hands, try to help others, try to live more kindly and consciously. But beyond that, what?

So he practices his golf swing in the basement.

–March 26, 2020

 

Postscript, May 18: My dad has begun easing himself back into the news cycle. He’s returned to find the same highly-charged debates as before. I believe he wishes he could avoid the pandemic altogether, but he’s got a long wait.

✶✶✶✶

Vakulskas

Abby Vakulskas is a student pursuing her master’s in writing and publishing at DePaul University. Her work has been published in the Marquette Literary Review, Milwaukee Magazine, and the forthcoming issue of Crook and Folly. She draws inspiration from the Midwest, including Chicago, where she currently resides.