By Karen Dempsey
“I asked Alex if he can come over,” my nine-year-old son Brennan said, holding the iPod he’d used to tap out his invitation.
“Oh—” I hesitated.
“And,” he said, with a half smile. “I told him that he’d better run.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. “Okay,” I said. “Good idea.”
A moment before, I had been frozen in place, staring at the messages on my phone, trying to understand what it meant that our city was “in lockdown.”
It was the week of the marathon bombings and two police officers had been shot overnight. Words like shootout, dragnet and manhunt were all over the news. One town over, police were searching for a suspect house by house. The MBTA had shut down all train and bus service (and not even the bombings themselves had accomplished that).
It was surreal. But what did the lockdown really mean for us?
Authorities warned a huge swath of the Boston area — over a million people — to stay home, inside, behind locked doors. And yet, my husband John and Alex’s mom Tiff instantly agreed with Brennan. Of course we should get the boys together. And our street marks the line between Cambridge and Somerville. Alex’s house, with its Somerville zip code, was actually just outside the lockdown zone. Tiff was making French toast. Did Brennan want to come to their place first?
“Sure!” Brennan said. He’d learned about the lockdown himself before I was even out of bed when he’d glanced at a text on my phone. He’d been anxious and uncertain, and full of questions that I wasn’t sure how to answer. But now, still in his pajamas, Brennan ran for the door and slipped on his Crocs. I decided right then that the day was going to be an odd one, but that when I could- when it made sense – I would follow Brennan’s lead and do all I could to keep it normal. I squeezed him goodbye and stepped out on the porch to watch John walk him down a strangely silent street.
Our house in Cambridge is a few houses from Mass Ave, the main artery leading into Boston. It was nine o’clock on a Friday morning. That should have meant rush hour — cars bumper to bumper, brakes shrieking, horns honking. But now I stood for several long minutes and stared at near-empty streets. I listened to the thick silence, and, in the distance, a constant stream of sirens and the thrum of helicopter blades.
Which is crazier? I wondered. Staying inside, or not staying inside?
For the moment, I was needed inside. Seven-year-old Liddy was waiting with questions. I told her, when she asked, that the police wanted us to stay indoors so we were out of their way, so they could do their jobs. I told her we were safe.
She threaded her arms around my waist. “I want to stay home.”
“Of course,” I said, hugging her back. “We can have a pajama day.”
With John home from work, we could give both kids what they needed – play dates for Brennan, one-on-one time for Liddy. But part of me wanted to keep us all together.
Awhile later, with Liddy drawing in the living room and John trying to get a bit of work done, I hopped in the shower. But instead of feeling relaxed as the water poured over me, I felt the push-pull of adrenaline and sadness for all that had happened that week. And then, a ripple of panic.
I turned off the water. “Can you run down and check on Brennan?” I called to John.
I am a worrier. Some might even say a catastrophizer, imagining, always, the worst. So I work hard to keep my own anxieties from interfering with my kids’ chance to grow and thrive, to keep them from inheriting my worries. At the same time, I flinch at the musings of the harshest free-range-parent types, for giving parents one more thing to feel judged about. As if being protective of our kids is a character flaw. But I try to keep my worry-cards close to the chest. And it’s a good thing I’ve had some practice. Because this day was going to be a challenge.
Soon after heading back to Tiff’s, John texted me to say the boys were ready to come to our house. I sat on the porch and the kids came running down the street with John and Tiff following close behind.
“Where are you going?” I asked, when, instead of heading up the steps, the Brennan, Alex, and Alex’s younger brother headed for the driveway.
“Dad said we could play basketball,” Brennan called.
Tiff and I shrugged at each other, then sat down on the steps. I looked around, again, at the neighborhood that seemed as though it had been emptied of people. But within minutes, my thoughts were drowned out by laughter and joyful shrieks and the thump-thump-thump of the basketball. The sounds even pulled Liddy outside.
After lots of basketball and a bit of lunch, the boys decided to move back down to the Somerville end of the street, where several other kids were ready to join the game.
Liddy didn’t want to go to Alex’s, but she did ask if we could walk her to the corner for a donut. I could see that, like so many businesses, the local donut shop was closed. I’d heard that a few blocks away, Dunkin’ Donuts locations open for business (“The only unsurprising thing about today so far,” a friend observed online, after authorities asked the chain to stay open for the officers and first responders who’d been working around the clock.) But in the moment, even those few blocks seemed too far from home.
Across Mass Ave, an open sign flashed in the window of a convenience store. “How about ice cream?” I asked Liddy. Hand in hand, we walked to the crosswalk, even though the streets were still nearly empty of cars.
In the late afternoon, kids and adults gathered at Tiff’s for snacks and drinks, board games and conversation. We left the television off, as we had all week, but kept up with the news on our phones. As evening fell, city officials lifted the lockdown. And soon after, it looked like things were coming to a dramatic close in nearby Watertown.
As I became engrossed in the speculation and play-by-play of Twitter, Brennan began to pull on his shoes.
“We want to play basketball,” he said, again.
And so I put away my phone and followed the kids and their parents outside. Next door and across the street, doors opened and neighbors filtered out onto the street, watching the kids, who whooped and laughed and talked nine-year-old trash to each other. The sun went down on the strange, sad day, and the thump-thump-thump of the basketball drowned out the rest.
Karen Dempsey’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, Babble and other publications. She lives in Massachusetts with her family. Follow her on Twitter @KarenEDempsey or read more of her work at kdempseycreative.com.
Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.