Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects, including education and creative writing.
It’s a cold morning in Spokane. The skies are clear, but there’s a feeling of a dark, invisible cloud hovering above me. The virus pandemic is working its evil magic on my personal well-being. On top of that, I’m about to have a long-needed reunion with my youngest son. He, too, is feeling the weight of the virus, despite not fully understanding it.
I rush and hop into my wife’s car (my mode of transportation while here), and immediately hit the road. I don’t have far to go; however, on this day, it feels like a thousand miles.
Reason for the Journey
I’m on the road early in the morning -- and merely a few hours after a late flight from Los Angeles. It was a hasty decision to fly back home. My original plan was to fly out during spring break and stay for the week (which is two weeks from now).
But my wife called on Monday, telling me of a pending dilemma.
“Call a sub, you need to get home up here as soon as possible. Cassidy is freaking about everything. He wants you to be home,” she pleaded. “Can you leave by Wednesday?”
“Let me see, and I’ll call you back” I stated before hanging up.
I went through my planner in my classroom and discovered that Wednesday through Monday were devoid of any IEP meetings, workshops or school functions. But, before I could call her back to let her know, she called back within five minutes saying she just booked the flight.
Cassidy in Peril
Cassidy is vulnerable. His oldest brother Gordon has been temporarily moved out of the home and placed in a facility for those with behavioral problems. His best friends are his distant cousins who are two to three years younger than him.
Despite being a school day, he’s at his Auntie’s place (actually it’s my wife’s cousin, but Cassidy calls her Auntie). He spent the night there, as he often does. It’s an escape from the turmoil of his brother’s removal and from my absence. It’s also a chance for him to be with his best friends, who happen to be Auntie’s grandchildren.
Then again, nobody has any idea what this pandemic has in store for us.
To be succinct, the events of life, including the virus, has him twisted. Then again, everybody is getting twisted.
Now I’m heading there to give him a huge surprise. I hadn’t seen him in over a month and nobody told him. The pings thrust deep into my stomach as I drive toward my destination.
He has no idea I’m here. Neither does Gordon, who I plan to visit later this week.
Moving to Spokane Goes Wrong
My wife and I took a big gamble during the summer to move up to Spokane. We came from Orange County looking for a new start. It had been six years since we started a family through the adoption of Cassidy and Gordon. And, in doing so, we wondered if raising a family in the densely populated Los Angeles metropolitan area would be a healthy route to take.
My wife visited her cousin two years ago, and instantly fell in love with the place. I, on the other hand, wasn't ready to move. I was happily employed, tenured and about to hit my 20th year in my current school district.
As mentioned, teachers don’t have the luxury of moving to another district, let alone another state. You lose tenure, seniority, and position on the pay scale. And to further complicate issues, you may have to enroll in a college within the new state to fulfill its credential requirements.
Still, a compromise was made. We moved, but I went back to L.A. during the school year. The plan was I return at least once a month and during extended holidays such as Thanksgiving, Winter and Spring Break. Also, I came home for summer. Since my parents and sisters still lived in LA, I had a place to stay while there.
The plan was going smoothly until an incident changed that. Gordon was having mood swings and lashing out at school and home. He had problems in the past and was seeing a therapist. The move to Spokane, which my wife thought would improve him, only made him worse. A tough decision was made to move him out of the house and into a facility meant to rehabilitate him.
If being away from the family was causing some friction within my family, this recent turn of events put a huge strain on everybody. My wife had trouble sleeping; Cassidy started to act out; and I was racked with stress and trepidation.
Ever-Changing News from Work
By the time I landed in Spokane last night, the situation at work in Los Angeles became dire. At any moment, the school district I work for will make it official; the campus will be closed down pending an emergency board meeting. Still, everybody at my school is preparing for the closure. We know it’s coming. We’ve seen the reports of neighboring school districts (including the massive Los Angeles Unified School District) have announced campus closures.
The school situation in Spokane appears to be heading in the same direction. While school is in session for today and tomorrow, speculation is that Monday, March 16th will be the last day. Teachers and administrators sent emails in preparation for the pending decision. Just like my district, the staff and faculty of my boys’ districts (Gordon attends a school in another district) are not oblivious to ever-changing situations.
“Answer That Door”
On this day -- my first full day back home -- my plan is to surprise Cassidy, get breakfast, and take him to school. Later, after school, I will take him to a park, his favorite place in the mall or go get a bite to eat. Either way, this is going to be our special day.
I arrive at Auntie’s home. I can hear a commotion. As usual, Cassidy, who has ADHD, is being a live wire and not focusing. I can hear his cheerful shrieks. But that stops the moment I stand before the door (Auntie must have seen me on the surveillance camera mounted near the entrance). Before I knock, I hear her state: “Cassidy, answer the door.”
After a brief pause Cassidy asks, “why?”
“Just answer that door. I think there’s somebody there.”
For a moment, I forget about the pandemic. As far as I’m concerned, the most pressing matter to me is being with Cassidy.
I hear him gasp and rush to the door. Despite his notorious distractions, he manages to put two and two together and figure out that somebody very special is at the door. It swings open.
“Dad!” the precocious six-year-old screams as he throws his arms around my waist. “Oh, I miss you daddy.”
I stoop down and embrace him tightly. No doubt, I miss him too. I hold back tears as I say “Hey kiddo how’s it been?”
For a moment, I forget about the pandemic. As far as I’m concerned, the most pressing matter to me is being with Cassidy. And the outside world’s dilemma can be funneled out of my existence for all I care.
Virus Makes Itself Known in Subtle Ways
We go through the drive-thru of a local donut shop (or “drive-in” as many restaurants in Eastern Washington are labeled) and order his favorite flavors. I pull up to the window on this crisp and clear morning feeling great...only to be slapped back into reality by a subtle reminder.
There’s a sign on the window that states: “Yes, we are open until further notice. But nobody is allowed in the lobby.”
This sign is a reminder that businesses are beginning to feel the effects of the virus.
The cashier at the window is cheerful, but she keeps a distance while serving the doughnuts and taking my card (which she gingerly holds with two fingers through the process). Still, the transaction is quick and cordial. Before I leave, however, I notice she douses her hands with liquid soap.
We reach his school, which is a few blocks away. There is enough time to finish a few donuts in the parking lot. School starts and I walk him to the entrance.
“Okay, kiddo,” I state. “I'll pick you up, after school.”
His face lights up, realizing I’m staying.
He hugs me briefly, and heads off down the hall. His attention is on getting to class as soon as possible.
I keep my plans and pick him up. First, we head to the local mall. A place inside -- he coins the “Jump and Bounce Place” -- is his favorite. But the mall parking lot is empty. Most of the business inside it, including the Jump and Bounce, are closed.
We search the town for other places. He spots McDonald’s, realizing it has a playground in it. Thus, we stop there, get dinner, and -- most importantly -- go to the indoor playground. Immediately, he traverses the slides, tubed bridges, and large-scale mazes that make this area. He keeps going until his cheeks are flushed with pink and his breathing is labored. No doubt, he’s having the time of his life.
Upon leaving, I buy him a shake and the two of us exit the place much happier than when we came in. I keep this place in mind; soon, I’ll be heading over to the facility where Gordon resides. I know he’ll like this place as much as Cassidy did.
Spokane weather can change at a moment’s notice. And that’s what happened over the last couple of days. It snowed two nights ago, and it was enough to stick around. More weather came through, which included rain, hale and more light snow.
Today the sky parted briefly to allow blue skies and sunshine. I hope it stays that way and for a good reason. Today’s the day I visit Gordon. In the past, these visits were never easy, due to Gordon's emotional state. In the past, Cassidy would go with me. Today he’s staying home.
The drive is not far and goes around a heavily forested nature preserve. Despite the short distance, the drive to “the ranch”, as it is called, leads to the rural outskirts. Basically, I’m entering another world with its own reality and rules.
At the Ranch
The ranch is a large campus with a dormitory, computer rooms, learning centers, and indoor gym. In addition, it holds a small farm consisting of horses and goats. It’s a quaint place when you see it from the outside. But, this place has a reputation; this is where many of Spokane’s most troubled boys reside.
I enter the office, tell the people working there I'm here for Gordon. After a while, a familiar face emerges from a crowded hallway. He sees me and his face lights up. He runs down the hall and throws himself into my arms.
Cassidy has been living well compared to Gordon. In this place, Gordon is one of the youngest -- let alone one of a few African-Americans -- there. Life hasn’t been easy for him since being moved to the ranch.
Two Hours with Gordon
Gordon is wise beyond his years. And there are times I forget I’m talking to an 8-year-old. He’s aware of the encroaching epidemic. And on this day, he asks a lot of questions.
“What does it do to you?” He asks.
“Is there a cure?” He continues. “Do you die from it?”
There’s more questions like that. He’s curious, but the seemingly easy questions he asks are not easy to answer, especially as the information keeps changing by the minute.
All I can say are the following:
- “No cure, yet.”
- “It’s not killing everybody, but just don’t want to have it.”
- “It gives you a fever, makes you cough and some other things.”
At this point, COVID-19 is still a mystery in many respects. The symptoms vary and mimic other diseases. Trying to explain the symptoms only creates more questions.
For now, answering them isn't important. my immediate concern is spending the limited two-hour time frame I have with him.
Return to the Play Area
I choose to take Gordon to the same McDonald’s. My plan is simple: have lunch together and give him time to play in the enclosed play area.
Upon arrival we order lunch. Being the hungry -- and deprived -- child he is, he orders a Happy Meal with a chocolate shake on the side.
When we sit down, I make a distinct observation; we’re the only ones there. Also, the playground, separated by a glass wall and door is empty. There is a sign on the door, but I never get a chance to read it. I have a hunch what it says. The cashier who took our order stops by our table gives me an affirmation.
“Um, just letting you know,” he states. “The play area is closed.”
Gordon sighs in disappointment.
“It’s that coronavirus thing," he concludes.
Gordon frets but not for long. At least he got a toy with his Happy Meal and that momentarily keeps him happy.
To the Bookstore
A few days feel like a century. And the revelation that McDonald’s closed one of its popular attractions is a testimony to the ever-changing pandemic that’s plaguing the country. The closure is also a sign that many retail places throughout the area are beginning to close.
Still, with an hour to go before I have to return Gordon, I search for a place to spend some valuable time with him. Eventually, near the "now deserted" mall, we find a major bookstore that's still open to the public. Gordon is an avid reader and seeing Barnes & Noble is open, he urges me to stop there.
For the most part, he spends time perusing the store’s children and young adult section. He glosses over Captain Underpants and Harry Potter until he discovers the Wimpy Kid series. He’s excited. He tells me that he’s read several in the series while at the ranch. He begs me to buy the latest Diary of a Wimpy Kid book.I have no problem with that. So, I buy it for him.
But the reality that I have to return my own son to a facility that serves as his temporary home doesn’t sit well with me.
By the time we get the book I realize it’s time to head back. We rush to the car and jump in. While seated, he takes a long gaze at his new book. A huge smile crosses his face as he glosses over the pages.
My visit has gone splendidly. But the reality that I have to return my own son to a facility that serves as his temporary home doesn’t sit well with me. Simply put, he's my son and belongs to me. But his condition and commitment to the program dictates the situation.
A Bitter End
We return to the ranch within a few minutes from the allotted time I promised the caretakers of the ranch. Inside near the hallway leading to his dorm room, I give him a hug and tell him that I will probably be back within two weeks when my school district has Spring Break.
He simply states “okay,” and starts walking toward his dorm room.
“Hey,” I say as I watch him. “You take care, I’ll call you soon as I get back to LA. Remember, I may be back sooner than expected.”
He turns around and the cheerfulness that met me at the beginning of the visit and throughout the visit, fades away. His eyes well up, but he tries to stifle his feelings. He turns toward the hallway. I watch him head toward his dorm room, knowing his feelings are increasingly raw. Saying goodbye was never easy for him...or for me. I leave the dormitory building.
Outside, I notice the patches of snow still covering portions of the parking lot. I get in the car and unless my own suppressed emotions. I take a good five minutes to compose myself.
I am about to start the car. Then, I hear a child sobbing. I turn to find Gordon. He managed to slip out of the well-guarded dorm and find me in the parking lot. He’s crying hard and muttering. Once I jump out of the car, the muttering becomes clear.
“I don't want you to go!”
It’s also when I notice that he doesn’t have his shoes. He’s standing on a patch of snow with only socks to protect his feet from the cold. Seeing this, I guide him back to the dormitory. Moments later, one of the counselors comes running from the dorm entrance.
“I tried to catch him,” she said out of breath.
There's no time to ask questions. My concern is to get him off the icy patch of snow and back into the warmth of the facility. The counselor and I get him back inside.
He continues to plead with me: I don't want you to leave!"
Tears stream down his face. The pain within him is apparent. It takes 15 minutes to calm him down. I hug him tightly, promising that I will be back very soon.
Finally, he takes a deep breath and slowly loosens his grip on me. The drama is over for the time being. He say our final farewells and he goes into the care of the counselor.
I'm free to leave. But the exit is hard. I watch him make his way to the gym with the counselor. Satisfied, I head to my car. Still, I'm cautious as I get in. I wait, watching the dorm entrance. After a while, I start the engine, put the car into gear, pull out of the parking lot, and head down the road leading to the rural highway. Still, as I drive away, I keep one eye on the rear-view mirror, just to be assured that Gordon is not scrambling out the dorm and trying to chase after me.
The night before, I received news that Monday, March 16th will be the last day of school before the inevitable shutdown. The school board voted and made it official. The plan is that the shutdown will last until April 6. A second email confirms the estimated time to return will be April 10th.
Today is the day I was supposed to return to L.A. I let my wife know about the planned school closure.My wife acts quickly when I give her the news. She calls to cancel my flight home.
I call my sisters and parents to let them know of the situation and to send some necessities by mail to me as soon as possible. The news on the coronavirus is dire. I've heard from friends in the Bay Area of Northern California that they are about to go into a stay-at-home ordinance. Southern California cities will likely follow. The realization is apparent; I will not be returning to LA anytime soon.
A Silver Lining
Monday starts with a message from work. A link has been sent via school email. It links to a live presentation planned for the Monday morning meeting. It’s about the school and district’s hasty attempt to switch to distant learning within a week. This means that I will be busy on my computer, lesson planning for a classroom that’s more than 900 miles away. In addition, I will be bombarded by concerned students and parents wondering what to do in this situation.
There is a silver lining; in the midst of the pandemic and personal crisis, I’m here with my family. I can comfort Cassidy and my wife. I can keep close tabs on Gordon. At least I’m with family as the dark clouds of the pandemic looms above this country.
© 2020 Dean Traylor