My son Kyle turned seventeen the same month when the shutdown started. My husband and I planned to take Kyle and a few of his friends to RPM Raceway. It had been our long standing tradition—birthday excursions like paintball, bowling, escape rooms, and DJ lessons to name a few. Because of COVID, we cancelled our plans. Instead, we had a quiet dinner at home. Just Kyle, his boyfriend, my husband and me. I thought that in a few weeks, we would be able to celebrate the way we had in years past. That things would get back to normal.
Except, they didn’t.
Before COVID, Kyle would wake up and pick out his favorite hoodie, sweatpants and throw on his 80’s styled rim prescription glasses. A few times a week I would prepare him smoothies to get him to stay for breakfast. Some days it worked, other days I had to chase him out the front door, urging him to at least take his coat. Kyle would fly down the stairs, his tall lanky frame skipping steps. “You need a coat, it’s winter time!” I’d call at his back. “Mom, I’m barely outside, mostly on the train then inside the school,” he’d urge. Kyle would leave our apartment around 7:45 am each day to head to his dual early college high school.
The NY Times wrote that it was harder to get into Kyle’s high school than Yale. His high school had a program that included earning a high school diploma and a college associate’s degree at the same time, an opportunity that Kyle could not turn down. By his sophomore year, Kyle earned a Regents diploma. The accelerated learning was a challenge he did not seem to mind, especially because his teachers, all doctorate level, were amazing and showed a genuine interest in his progress. Although it was far from our home, Kyle enjoyed the freedom of getting to school on his own.
At school, Kyle enjoyed theatre classes the most. When the closing bell sounded and classes ended for the day, Kyle would stick around. After school, he found the motivation to catch up on work, and time to just hang out with his friends. He enjoyed being around the creative types who, like him, wanted to stay after school to rehearse a bit more or even get feedback on school projects. A kid of the City, Kyle’s life was bustling with social interaction and freedom of movement. Sheltering in twenty-four hours a day became harder as the weeks ensued.
The lockdown packed a powerful blow against us all. My husband, a professional personal trainer, was forced to stop working from the shutdown’s start. Before COVID, my husband went to school and worked four days a week—he was rarely home during the day. Once the lockdown locked us all in, my husband and my son were forced to share space without respite. Our home became a war zone.
One day, Kyle got up and decided that he would just get dressed and leave the apartment. I was in the middle of a work call when I started to hear the voices getting louder toward the back of the apartment. “I have to call you back,” I quickly hung up and ran toward the hallway, where Kyle stood with his coat on. My husband, twice the size but same height, blocked the front door. “You can’t leave,” my husband explained, “we’re in the middle of a quarantine.” I stood right next to Kyle when he suddenly struck my husband in the face. My husband’s glasses flew off and, split seconds later, Kyle was flipped flat to the ground. The commotion left Kyle’s mouth bloody and it took a few minutes for my brain to catch up as I shoved my husband aside, got beneath my him, and hovered over Kyle while holding his face in my hands and screaming, “You are ok my love, just relax.”
I inspected Kyle’s mouth. I saw that his braces punctured his dry lips during the fall, that he wasn’t bloody from being hit. Only then was I able to take a full breath. I took Kyle to the bathroom and told him that he would be fine. He was angry and defeated. I looked at my husband. He was defeated and saddened. As the war ravaged my home, my job did not skip a beat. Instead my workload increased with the use of virtual platforms. When New York City was COVID’s hotspot, my home was an epicenter of mass destruction. And we couldn’t escape it.
My cousin’s father was the first person I knew to be infected with COVID-19. In his early fifties, he contracted the virus while working as a court bailiff. The virus caused him to be intubated for weeks. Eventually, he had to have his arm amputated. His worsening condition and the constant barrage of news coverage about the pandemic made us incredibly nervous. That my husband was studying to become a nurse made him even more cautious.
His childhood friend, a doctor, warned of the seriousness of COVID from the onset, saying that medical professionals were perplexed, which was not a good sign for the general public. My husband, militant by nature, tried to make sure we were safe. He ensured to minimize the physical risks, even as emotional damage ravaged our home. He was the only one who left the safety of our four walls and only did so to buy groceries and vitamins for us. He took this job seriously. Neither of us saw our parents, all over sixty, for months. We used technology to connect with our loved ones, but the sheltering in had already psychologically affected all of us.
My home felt overly consuming. I could feel the heat all around me. Nothing was cool.
Kyle began to show severe signs of anxiety. He would pace back and forth instead of sitting through his Zoom classes. Whenever he did sit, he would shake his left so fast that I once asked if he was running in place. One of the worse signs was his lack of appetite. Kyle, already lanky by nature, started losing weight because he could not bring himself to eat, especially during school hours where he felt the most pressure. I struggled to determine how I could help ease his anguish. “Kyle, I really want you to have fun but no one is out right now because it’s not safe,” I reasoned.
“My friends get to go out and all you want to do is keep me here, imprisoned. I didn’t do anything,” he responded.
“Things will get better Kyle, this is only temporary.”
“Until when MOM? Until you say that it is safe? Why Mom? Are you a doctor?”
Kyle questioned my authority, in a way he had never done before. I explained to him that I was not trying to imprison him and that the city was not a safe place to be. But because a few of his friends were getting out, he believed it when the media said that this was mainly affecting older people or people with pre-existing conditions. I went over all the reasons why he needed to stay home, especially because he could be a silent carrier. My pleas could not get past his disbelieving ears.
More weeks went on and Kyle’s anxiety increased. We went on walks, but this did not seem to help. I finally caved and allowed his boyfriend to come to our home. My husband and I even let him sleep over—on the sofa, of course, because I am still a Puerto Rican mom. We thought this would help Kyle, and it did for a few days. But then his boyfriend got sick with fever, body aches and a cough. I was scared to death and sure he had the virus. I was convinced that he had brought it to my house.
The moment he left, I put on the hot water and got a pail and poured in the clorox. I mopped the house first, gagged at the strong smell of clorox, then got my new rag Lysol ready. I wiped down every doorknob in the apartment and downstairs, then wiped down every surface in the bathroom, kitchen and common area. I removed all the blankets, including the throws on the sofa, and put everything in the hamper. I cleaned my apartment as if Jesus himself would be my guest. I was scared to let Kyle’s boyfriend return. Allowing him back into my home, around my family, was no longer an option, despite his insistence he only had the flu.
Then Kyle’s teachers started emailing us. Kyle was not turning in work. Despite previously being an exceptional student, he was now earning an F in every subject. “Kyle, I know that your classes are now carrying high school and college credits so they are harder than last year’s course, but your grades still matter.”
“I don’t care about school anymore”, Kyle replied in a low tone with a shrug to match his nonchalant attitude.
“But these grades will still be sent to your colleges, and they are not a good depiction of how smart you really are,” I responded.
He turned to me, “I just can’t do it anymore Mom. I don’t know why, but I can’t care.” His mood went from anxious to sad to desperate and back again. We contacted his doctor, told him about Kyle’s symptoms. We got Kyle a psychiatrist who prescribed medications. Nothing worked. The medicine seemed to make things worse. We ultimately stopped that, too.
Kyle woke up telling me that he felt enclosed in his four walls. He wanted to move the furniture in his room around. I knew this would be a big endeavor. “Kyle, are you sure you want to start this now? Are you willing to part with all these things that you would need to remove to move the furniture around?” I asked with my eyebrows frowned up tight. He was already in a zone. Piles of clothes, then books, then board games, then boxes of legos, then piles of magazines, weird creature cards from middle school, and even figures of mythical creatures that he collected as a child all brought to my living room in distinct piles. I stared at the mess, and thought about the time I would need to organize all these things back into his room. “Mom, I don’t want any of these things anymore,” he replied as he hastily moved things from drawers and shelves that had not been dusted in months. Kyle’s energy was different. He quickly shifted from big energetic bursts to profound states of sadness.
I no longer felt that I could handle this new Kyle. I was exhausted in a way I could not easily explain. I did the one thing I thought I would never do—I called his biological father. I explained that Kyle was not well and that I was really concerned about his behavior. I had bouts of mental illness growing up, so watching Kyle suffer brought flashbacks. I thought of myself, my mother, my grandmother and my great grandmother. We all battled mental illness at some point. My grandmother, who had nine children and lost one as a baby, had such a severe episode that, it was said, she swallowed most of her front teeth. She wore dentures all her life, which I only discovered after her death. My family and I never spoke about any of these mental battles because they always came with reason. We called it los nervios. Or a sickness of “the nerves”. We only called upon the spirits to help with los nervios because it usually meant someone was not letting us be at peace. It was a mistake to call Kyle’s father before calling on my spirits, but I did it anyway. I even allowed Kyle to leave and spend the weekend at his father’s apartment, thinking that a change in environment could help.
That Sunday, Mother’s Day, as I was getting dressed to pick up Kyle, his father called. “Kyle doesn’t want to go home,” he said.
“What do you mean he doesn’t want to come home?” I asked.
“Kyle doesn’t feel safe in your house anymore and I am not forcing him to go back,” his father replied in an indignant tone that chilled my bones.
“I am his custodial parent and have been for seventeen years! What are you talking about?” I replied, standing up erect and ready.
He matched my anger, “Kyle is my son, too, and if he wants to stay here, then he has that option. Like you said, you had him all his life so if he wants to stay, he can.”
I could not believe my ears. The words echoed in my mind repeatedly and I started to feel as if the ground would swallow me whole. I became small—someone without any control. But it was true. Kyle refused to return home to me. Backed against a wall, I called on social services. What was once a cordial relationship with his father turned ugly. The fact that Kyle was seventeen, so close to legal adulthood, weakened my parental rights. Everyone warned me that if he stayed until he was eighteen, nothing could make him return, especially not the courts. My husband and Kyle’s biological father argued for the first time in thirteen years. Many ugly things were said.
Kyle was terribly confused and accused us of keeping him in his room, even said that we threatened him whenever he wanted to get out. I went to see Kyle a few days later. He would not look at me. Instead, he stood behind his six-foot father and told him that he was afraid of me. I saw the fear in his eyes, and my soul began to crumple. Kyle was struggling with reality and had convinced himself that I was the one that imprisoned him.
Suddenly, his father, who had only seen Kyle three to four times a year, now had full control of my son’s life.
The days turned into weeks, and each day felt as if it was multiplied by four. His father switched all his doctors and called me an incompetent mother because of Kyle’s mental decline. It was unbelievable how intense those words rang when I knew how much of my life had been sacrificed to mother Kyle. So different from his, the father that had only lived with his son for less than a year. But nothing I said mattered. Only a select few knew what I was experiencing because in my world silence is the only sign of strength.
Every night, I screamed then sobbed in the shower, begging God to bring my son home. I went into my arsenal and opened the books of my bloodline. I prayed to Santa Clara to clear all our minds and to bring my son back to reality. I started to light my candles and brought sunflowers to my tiny altar. I even called a medium and he said that this was a hard situation, and it was not clear how things would end up. I did not give up. My best friend’s mother brought me a jar and, in that jar, lied my hope of reuniting my family. Our names were written in honey. I laid it on my altar, next to a picture of me and Kyle.
The times were desperate. I decided to book a weeklong family vacation with extended family in a lakeside house. I reached out to Kyle’s biological father, and asked if Kyle would want to attend. My jaw unclenched and shoulders relaxed when Kyle said he would. Kyle spent a week with us. That week led to him returning home for short stays—just two days a week. Then I decided to have one more adventure.
Kyle, my husband and I drove down to Florida as a family, stayed in a huge Airbnb and invited a close friend of Kyle’s to join us. After spending another full week together, we started to talk more about Kyle’s return to our home, as well as the ways we would communicate going forward. Slowly we talked about what was best for him and he started to listen to my heart again. When we returned, his father asked that Kyle quarantine with us for two more weeks. This was a blessing. During those two weeks, Kyle realized that his home was with me, with us. God, the saints and my spirits paved the way.
COVID is still here and Kyle’s anxiety has increased, along with his heavy course load. I don’t know where we all will end up, COVID seems to be taking on new breaths. Kyle is still doing remote learning but I decided that I would allow him to travel once or twice a week to limited places. We are discussing failure as part of success, and I continuously remind him of how great he is. We finally found a therapist that seems to be helping, probably because I made sure that he was an LGBTQ+ clinician, and it has made a hell of a difference. We are all discussing Kyle’s strengths, and I no longer care about his GPA. He is taking a full college workload: Neurobiology, Race and Power, Coding, Seminar and Piano. Sometimes he just can’t do it all, and I have adjusted my expectations. The bigger goal for me is staying afloat.
Kyle’s mental health is something we talk about because I don’t want him to feel less than, as so many of us have been made to feel. As I was made to feel during my youth. I want him to know that life has many ups and downs, but that is also what makes life exciting. We need the lows to appreciate the highs. COVID has transformed us all into different people now. More resilient, more cautious, more alert, more understanding, more anxious, and more loving. With my white candle alit, we keep on keeping on.
Illustration by Alexandra Beguez
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