COVID rolled in with an unsettling feeling early March. I was losing resilience quickly not knowing what to expect. I was somewhat confident I could handle it. Working away from my family in a large warehouse in Cleveland that employed thousands had me second guessing. Everything I touched could expose me. Reflecting on that time I was anxious. I didn’t realize it then but I was. I think we all were.
Covering my face was a disheartening experience for me. I consciously use my mouth to communicate. I don’t mean speaking, that’s subconscious. Many of my expressions come from my mouth. As I listen to people I smile. I smile with different grades. If I’m interested, the corners of my mouth creep up into a small smile. If I’m not interested, only the right corner of my mouth may move up signaling an “ok, I’m done” smirk. Much of my communication is done with my smile. Covering my mouth took away my ability to smile.
Even worse than a face covering was the distance. Being six feet from people to have a conversation was frustrating. Voices were elevated at that distance. That added to the tension. I couldn’t shake or bump someone’s hand? That was isolating. Leading a team six feet apart without the ability to shake a hand was challenging. It was unnatural. It was awkward for me.
If someone needed help, I fought myself to try not to lean over their shoulder to point them in the right direction. Leaning over someone’s shoulder while you help projects the feeling of companionship. The body language says “I’m here for you.” Move six feet away from someone to help them. Tell them you’re there for them. How effective is that?
Enforcing those two restrictions at work was difficult for me. It was an internal battle. As a leader I’d only issue instructions I was comfortable doing myself. I felt deeply uneasy covering my face. It was upsetting that I had to stay away from people. The fact that I had to enact that on my team was remorseful. It was the first time I had to instruct people to do things I didn’t agree with. I was not being genuine.
The last week of March was normally special for me. I was always excited for my birthday. The first thing I think of is springtime. Spring is a renewing season for me. Snow melted into the ground and flowers started to grow. Soon there’d be the smell of freshly cut grass. Abundant sunlight came to warm my skin. Spring rain arrived that made the mornings open up with life-giving aroma.
My birthday fell on a weekend in 2020. That week my wife told me I should stay in Cleveland away from the family. Her justification was our son had asthma. Every so often he’d need an albuterol breathing treatment. The news reports at that time emphasized the use of ventilators as part of COVID treatment. We were both concerned if the virus got to our son, it could be devastating. I agreed gloomily.
I was devastated, too. I was isolated on my birthday weekend. The only thing I wanted to do was fix my relationship with my wife. We had been having trouble lately. She wanted me to stay in Cleveland instead. I felt like I wasn’t welcome in my home. I prayed and meditated on it. I did these things to keep my mind away from destructive thoughts.
The week she told me to quarantine in Cleveland, I called a floral shop down the road from the house. I explained that I was in Cleveland and needed to send my wife flowers. Every week for six weeks, I ordered them to drop their best spring flowers off at the house. Flowers in our kitchen were a benchmark after the passing of my sister-in-law. So many flowers came for the funeral, the family split them up. About a dozen floral sets came to our house. Since then, flowers were the centerpiece of our kitchen island. It was important to me to keep that warmth in the home while I was away.
During this time my wife mentioned seeing a couples counselor. I was relieved when she said that. It meant she wanted to work on things. I viewed it as an opportunity to grow together. I didn’t hesitate. I agreed right away. I researched around the next few days. It had to be a virtual counselor because we were in different locations during the week. It’s unsurprisingly tough to find a counselor during a pandemic. Once I found one, I immediately started.
The counselor interviewed my wife and me separately to understand us. I explained how much I wanted to please my wife. I retold the story where another counselor suggested I call my wife often to reconnect. I was eager for the counselor’s advice because of how poor the conversation was between my wife and me. The new counselor told me to stop calling my wife. “Ugh, ok, you’re right,” I agreed. I explained how frustrated I was that my wife was refusing to go on dates. The counselor advised me to leave her alone. “Sounds like she needs time away from the kids – even you,” she stated. Even more defeated, I agreed.
I know my wife likes giving and receiving cards. I wrote one card with supportive, loving words. Then another. Then a dozen more. In an evening, there was a stack of them on my desk in my hotel room in Cleveland. All different perspectives on how strong she is, how proud of her I am, and how beautiful she is. I send two or three out each week. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t ask if she got them. I only wanted her to know that even though I was distant, I wanted to support her. Silence continued until she mentioned it one day. “Stop wasting stamps on these notes, they don’t do anything for me,” she told me. Damn, I had about half a dozen left. But I listened to her. I stopped. Those cards are still in the trunk of my car.
After the flowers, the daily FaceTime calls, the cards, and all my prayers, quarantine came to an end in time for my daughter’s birthday. It snowed that day in early May. I was never more excited to see my family. I cried when I hugged my kids. For six weeks I hadn’t been with them. I was thrilled to see my wife.
After the kids went to bed, my wife and I got to chat. That’s when the darkest period of my life started. My wife didn’t want to be married any more. She realized she didn’t need me.