On House Arrest, With a Broken Heart

Perfect storm.

  • Category
  • Written by
    Jane Ulman
  • Illustrated by
    Nikki Smith

This past April I texted my sister a photo of myself in a yoga headstand, my feet pointed upward against the living room wall. “The picture is upside down,” my sister replied. “No, the world is upside down,” I said.

I had long thought the world needed a reset—to deal with climate change, inequality, education, health care, and other social and moral ills—but I didn’t expect its kickoff to be so virulent and terrifying.

I also didn’t expect that my husband, Larry, and I would be placed on house arrest, courtesy of the COVID-19 police, aka our grown children, one of whom is currently living with us. “You’re at that vulnerable age,” they continue to warn, allowing us neighborhood walks and curbside pickup excursions only.

And so, contending with an invisible, lethal enemy, I have been taking stock of my life, learning to be more self-reliant and less wasteful. Learning that I love to bake chocolate chip mandelbrot —“long cookies,” my 4-year-old granddaughter calls them—and that I don’t enjoy scrubbing floors.

I have become more appreciative of my sons and their spouses/girlfriend, who have circled the wagons around Larry and me. I continue to applaud the essential workers on the front lines, the health care workers, first responders, grocery store and takeout restaurant employees, and delivery shoppers and drivers. And I have developed a new appreciation for the work of the scientific community, promising to never again complain about getting a flu shot.

I have also dealt with those times when I was unexpectedly enveloped by a sense of dread. Who will live and who will die, I wondered. What will happen to the people who have lost their jobs, their health care, and worse, their family members? When will this end? In three months? Three years? What will the new normal look like? The enormity filled me with sadness. “You’re grieving,” a friend told me.

Then, on May 25, with the killing of George Floyd, our upside-down world suddenly began spinning uncontrollably, revealing once again the profound pain, anger, and injustice that 400 years of systemic racism have inflicted on the country’s African American population. It too is a deadly and often invisible virus that is now crying out for long-overdue attention.

I’ve placed the inconvenience of being on house arrest on a back burner. The sorrow I’m now experiencing is deeper and almost paralyzing. It defies words. I mourn for the future of my country. The current political turmoil, another kind of virus, together with racism and the coronavirus, have created a perfect storm.

I sit with this heartache, contemplating what small part I can play in helping to end institutional racism, in making this country, and this world, a better place. I read essays, memoirs, and nonfiction to see the world from other people’s experiences, to learn about the effects of intergenerational trauma, to discover what’s needed. I tune into online religious services, seeking solace.

Larry and I, as septuagenarians, are committed to house arrest for the long haul, until a vaccine has been developed or the coronavirus is no longer a potential death threat. When that happens, we hope to discover we are on the road to a more compassionate, more just, and more loving world. For all people.

Writer Jane Ulman and her husband, Larry, can be seen every morning walking in their Encino neighborhood.