When the dominoes started to fall — sports seasons suspended, schools dismissed, offices emptied, supermarkets overrun — I thought about a quote I’d once read from the author Cormac McCarthy, who has often plumbed the darkest corners of the human psyche in his work.
McCarthy told an interviewer that one night, some years ago, he was staying at an old hotel in El Paso, Texas. While his young son slept peacefully in their room, McCarthy peered through a window at lifeless streets below, and his mind started to wander.
“I just had this image of what this town might look like in 50 or 100 years,” he said. “Fires up on the hill and everything being laid to waste, and I thought a lot about my little boy.”
That thought experiment became the inspiration for his 2006 novel, The Road, a chilling story of a father and son navigating a world left hollow and gray by some unexplained disaster. They hunt for food, elude cannibals, and cling to a flickering hope that they’ll find a better situation somewhere along the way. The book won a Pulitzer Prize, and was later adapted into an equally tense movie.
I devoured The Road about a year after it was released; at the time, I had two boys of my own, one an infant, the other a toddler. McCarthy’s fictional dystopia was unlike any I’d encountered before — it felt like an achingly real preview of something terrible and inevitable, like watching a storm steadily darken the horizon.
And now, 13 years later, we are faced with the coronavirus, a plague that threatens to affect millions of people. My boys are teenagers, but our family has grown to include another son, a 7-month-old with brilliant blue eyes who spends his days happily babbling and taking naps on my chest. I looked at his face — open and curious about everything — as the pandemic’s fallout started to cause greater disruptions to daily life, and felt a sense of dread that I imagine McCarthy experienced when he considered how his boy would fare in a world that didn’t resemble the one that had come before.
We’re all worried about the virus, and whether the months ahead will be disastrous. But I think parents of little ones, and moms- and dads-to-be, are carrying an extra layer of anxiety. Instead of getting lost in the excitement of new beginnings and new adventures, parents are forced in this crisis to consider middle-of-the-night questions they’d otherwise want to avoid.
How do we keep our babies safe from something lethal that can’t be seen?
What if our best efforts to protect them, to slow the virus’ spread, aren’t enough?
Or what if we’re the ones who get sick, and can’t be there to care for our kids, to assure them this nightmare will pass?
Other parents I’ve reached out to recently have expressed similar fears. Their social media accounts are filled with the usual happy snapshots — grinning infants, growing baby bumps, this milestone or that — which mask the nagging thought that they’ve brought a child into the world at the exact moment everything is going to hell.
But then parenthood has always been a bit of a gamble. You bet the farm that you can give your kids a decent life, that your screw-ups won’t require a therapist to undo, that you can guide them toward finding happiness of their own someday. You learn that the idea of control is flimsy at best. Ever try getting a toddler to leave a toy store empty-handed, without an eardrum-rattling tantrum?
Parents are expected to have answers to all of their children’s questions, from early ones about the sky and the moon to tougher ones, later on, that don’t always invite simple explanations. I took one of my older boys on a hike in Wissahickon Valley Park recently, when questions about the coronavirus and its fallout had started to occupy too much space in his mind.
It was late in the afternoon, and the sun hung low over our shoulders as we trudged along a trail, and then over to the dull roar of the rushing waters from the Magarge Dam. I told my son that you shouldn’t worry too much about things you can’t control, that you’re better off focusing on what’s in front of you, the little moments — like watching some geese putter across a creek — that help you breathe.
And I thought of something else that McCarthy said, when he was asked what people should take away from a book as stark as The Road. He thought people should be more appreciative, and care more about one another.
“Life is pretty damn good, even when it looks bad,” he said. “We should be grateful.”