“Did you know that you clench when you breathe?” asked my eldest, barely pausing for a breath himself. I worked hard to squelch a snort of laughter.

He was ensconced at a month-long theater intensive in the snowy Berkshire mountains, spending long days immersed in personal discovery and text exploration. I was back home in Jerusalem, handling more mundane matters of everyday life.

He bristled. I apologized for laughing. 

But I was thinking that I’ve been doing a lot of clenching lately. Haven’t we all? 

When I wake up in the middle of the night and struggle to calm my breathing down and ease myself back into sleep, I’m for sure clenching. 

When I idly chat about when we can go back to normal and what that will look like and what will feel safe and how will we feel safe, I’m also clenching. 

Walking through the trees on a walk together.

When I yelled at an uncommunicative Akiva, our youngest, who has disabilities and limited language under the best of circumstances (and certainly not now), and then made it worse by throwing a few things (thankfully not near him), I was certainly having a tantrum. Maybe I was clenching too. 

As I forced myself to have a timeout and worked on calming my breathing, I reminded myself that I’m human and it’s okay. But I could barely bring myself to look at Akiva which was not okay.

I thought to myself, I’m done with this. You hear me? I’m done with this. I’m like super-duper-done. I am tired of life during Corona.

I know. I have NOTHING to complain about. My people are healthy and I’ve got food to eat. But I feel like complaining. And while I’m complaining, I don’t know how anyone has the time to watch movies or TV or knit or pick their noses or whatever because the day whizzes by at a breakneck pace, accelerated by my stress and by the daily needs of the members of my household. 

Akiva during his many iPad hours

I’m really struggling to be the right kind of person for Akiva. I find it hard to summon up the energy to respond to his continuous and repetitive patter. Over and over, he repeats things that are familiar to him, as well as being hopeful mantras, like go to the Seder at Aunt Jessica and Uncle Daniel’s, or pack for a Yachad Shabbaton. I care, but I care less if he gets his two walks a day, between endless hours of iPad-watching and listening to Oklahoma and Guys and Dolls. While I’m uptight about his current lack of language and the very real effort it takes for him to answer a simple yes or no question, I can’t make anything better for him, and there are moments where I feel the same as he does; that is, it’s hard to really engage and speak. Why are you asking me for the 90th time, he must be thinking, what I want to eat or if I want to go for a walk, or should I go to the bathroom?

Why speak? There’s really nothing to talk about. 

After my tantrum, he came over to hug me — he doesn’t usually initiate a hug — connecting to my moment, that is, how done I must have felt and might I need a little something like a “hug and squeeze,” as he likes to put it. It was so kind of him, but, sadly, I couldn’t really relax into it. I tried hard to smile and be thankful without grimacing and breathe without clenching. But it was hard. 

Maybe I’ll be able to “receive” again when we begin to go back to normal. Maybe I’ll be able to relax into a hug when we all begin to hug each other again. Maybe when I reconnect with my former life, my work, and see the rest of the family. Maybe. 

In that distant and healthier future when we can all speak and breathe without clenching. 

By Beth Steinberg
Originally Posted on The Times of Israel