On lockdown, a rinky-dink event feels anything but small.
Four weeks into Oregon’s stay-at-home order, as a contagious and yet-incurable virus stalked the globe, I did what any still-sane person should do if hoping to hang onto her sanity. I took my youngest daughter to a parade.
Not an elbow-to-elbow event with floats and marching bands. Not Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, or Portland’s Grand Floral Parade, which happens each June, although not this June. The parade I attended was nothing compared to those. It was nothing like any parade I’d attended before.
We waited for it at the crest of a hill near my house: My 10-year-old, Roxy; me; and six other tight knots of families, appropriately spaced out along both sides of the road. Kids held signs with crayon messages — “We miss you, Ms. Nelsen!” — and waved at each other across their six-feet buffer zones. Parents wore sunglasses and shorts and small-talked about working from home.
You can’t know everything going on in your neighbors’ lives. But by the looks of us, we did not appear to be suffering through the pandemic. Stir-crazy, for sure. Worried about our kids and our careers? Definitely. But not suffering, not compared with other people in Portland or New Orleans or Detroit or the Bronx. On parade day, even the weather in our southwest slice of the city was mild. The regular spring rains were on hold. The sky was sunny and blue.
Roxy smiled as she scanned the faces. “It feels good to be a part of something,” she said, sounding wistful. She didn’t add “again,” but the word seemed to hang there in the cool April breeze, invisible.
The email from the school said teachers would leave from the parking lot at noon. It was nearly one o’clock by the time their vans and SUVs began to inch up our road. They passed slowly by the brewpub (take-out and delivery only since the lockdown began), the public library (closed, indefinitely) and the liquor store (open, always; in fact it never shut). In the opposite lane, a trickle of cars pulled over to the shoulder, as if waiting for a funeral cortege to pass.
Then up and over the hill came a motley procession: Coach V., the P.E. instructor in peony-pink shorts, grinning on her bike. And behind her, 25 or so vehicles festooned with streamers, balloons and posters (and two more teachers on bikes). Mr. Jeans, the school principal with the born-to-be-a-principal name, poked out of a sunroof, playing his guitar. From inside each Subaru and Toyota, a teacher waved and smiled.
It was all so sweet and small-town. Then I began breathing faster and swallowing more. I looked calm, but inside I was churning.
I felt way too excited — weirdly, desperately excited. As the teachers’ cars coasted by, I felt myself leaning toward them, hard, like a dog straining at her leash. Or a super-fan at a concert, the kind security guards have to body-block from jumping the stage. As my 10-year-old stood placidly by, greeting the cars in a normal, relaxed manner, I screeched “thank you!” into each open window. I balanced my feet on the curb, stretching to see each next vehicle and the elementary school staff member it contained. I reached out to touch one teacher’s van as it passed, drawing back my hand just before making contact.
Three minutes later, I was still cheering and waving at each passing car when my neighbor Kerri noted that this shortest of parades had already ended. As Kerri’s voice connected to my brain, I kept waving. Random drivers peered at me through their windshields, confused.
At another spot farther along the parade route, my friend Blythe recorded the scene. In the video, her voice carries a familiar note of grateful mania.
“Heeyyyyy! Hiiiii! Hiii-eeeeee!,” she cries at each passing car and teacher. “Thank you guys! We miss you! We miss you guys!” Blythe’s laughter, like mine, is too loud. Too eager. Like a happy keening, if there were such a thing.
Blythe sounds like the parade made me feel. For days I’ve wrestled with why such a small event felt like such a big deal. The parade wasn’t for me and the other parents. It was for our kids who are missing their teachers and the teachers who are missing our kids.
I can’t attribute my reaction to merely seeing people, either. On walks near my house, I see people, even now, all the time.
I think it had to do with seeing these particular people — these daily fixtures of our neighborhood, who disappeared from sight more than a month ago — together again, right in front of us, after all this time.
Oregon’s COVID-19 fatality rate, near lowest in the nation, proves that our forced retreat from each other has saved many lives. You can applaud such measures and at the same time recognize the unique joy that is generated when people show up, safely and for a moment, to fill the void.
Since the stay-at-home order took effect in late March, it’s been easy to notice the vast emptiness in this comfortable, woodsy part of Portland. City buses gliding through the commercial strip, filled with riderless seats. Sidewalks so still you can hear, high above, when a light wind combs the tops of the fir trees. Soccer pitches and baseball diamonds that sit barren for long stretches, except for the random guy doing yoga, or a mom playing catch with her boy. My daughter’s school, shut tight to her and her classmates.
What’s been harder to discern, to recall with specificity amid the emptiness, are the ordinary elements that have gone missing — their precise shape (the luminous half-moon smile of a favorite teacher) and distinct sounds (when was the last time you heard two dozen cars honking?). The parade made these visible again. It brought them back into view.
If you are a nurse or doctor saving people in a hospital, or a patient fighting to breathe; if you are a grocery employee worried about getting sick at work, or one of the many millions scrambling to take care of yourself and your family because you lost your job — then obviously you’ve got no time to notice some small-potatoes parade, much less to chew over what it could possibly mean.
But if you’re not any of those people — and you feel thankful for that and also guilty for being so relatively unburdened — then all you have, right now, is time. And all you want is to find some meaning in it.
You don’t have to be a parent of schoolchildren to imagine your own Coronavirus Car Parade, featuring all of the people you used to see around your neighborhood. Your bus driver or favorite bartender. Your barber or manicurist. The librarian, the shop owner, the woman at the cleaners, your barista.
If you have grown a little too accustomed to the formless silence of this spring, attending a rinky-dink parade of these people might feel exciting — weirdly so. You might cheer too loudly at their passing cars.
When it’s over, you might walk home in a daze, knocked loose from your bearings, rubbed raw by your gratitude.
You might feel the weight of the past month pressing down on your chest, even as the past few minutes still lifted you up. Heavy — but also lighter. You might think to yourself, This is what people mean when they say: My heart is bursting.