“Do you have your phone, your iPad, your computer?” I ask Zeb, my fifteen-year-old son. “Don’t forget the pizza dough!” I exclaim, handing him a squishy plastic bag as we stand in front of his father’s apartment in Tallinn, on Estonia’s northern shore.
Sunday used to be pizza lunch. That was back when I had the luxury of hand-crafting the dough on Saturday, letting it rise lazily overnight, and enjoying a leisurely family meal before taking the evening ferry to Helsinki and getting back to the business of running a school.
Zeb will only give me a quick hug when we part. It’s a half hug, really, compared to the long one he gave me an hour ago in the kitchen. That kitchen hug was the precious kind—rare these days—where we relax into one another’s arms and I can breathe him in like I did when he was a baby. Now our time is compressed and uncertain. There’s no time for pizza. No room for nostalgia.
Sundays are difficult.
Before I turn away from my son, my heart breaking, I repeat the words I’ve had to say every few weeks since March 2020: “I don’t know when I can get back.”
Everything has changed. The demarcation line separating the beforetimes from my current reality can be summed up in those simple words of longing. For sure, I am just one story in this mess, and the depth of suffering experienced by those near and far is not lost on me—the death, the loss, the grief.
I board the two-hour ferry, which used to offer a simple and pleasant commute every weekend. Now the ordeal takes on the proportions of a rare pilgrimage, filled with stages of the penitent, piles of documents, COVID tests, police surveillance, immigration checks, and prayers uttered to unknown gods. The same question always haunts me as I find my seat. What am I doing? Like the penitent, I self-flagellate with the guilt of a bad mother as I wonder if I can take much more of this.
It’s all-hands-on-deck as I return to school on Monday. Keeping up with the pace of work over the past year and a half feels like running an ultramarathon at a sprint. The leadership team has faced a crushing load of work while addressing the needs of our staff and offering mutual support. Each of us crumbles, turn by turn, at different moments. We all ask for forgiveness when we know that there is no act to forgive. Every member of the team is doing their best and we beg each other to find rest.
My turn at being low came a couple of weeks ago; I had to just close the door and sob for a while. A week later, I honestly feel fine and able to support others through their tears.
“Kathleen, you are so strong. I don’t know how you do it,” a kind colleague states causally in the hall. I am not doing “it,” I think. I am just a woman, not a superhero.
Just a woman. I know how hard that is for most people to see. My title as Head of School often creates a distance between me and others, and their perspectives on me run the gamut from admiration to disdain. We rarely find ourselves on an equal plane where friendship can blossom. The loneliness at the top is compounded by the fact that others can no longer see “me.”
But I am just a woman, a mother trying to be there for my son and for others. There is no divide between us, if you could only see me clearly.
When I return home, I am completely spent and try to summon the energy to make dinner as I stare aimlessly into the fridge. There is no life now outside of school. I no longer try to pretend otherwise. Balance is not possible at the moment, only exhaustion.
Before you start offering suggestions about how I might find some, let me save you the trouble: I am a trained ashtanga yoga instructor and a body physique coach. All I can do at the moment is keep to rigid routines so that my health does not collapse. I eat my oatmeal, make the bed, and lift weights.
Get up, I tell myself each morning. Get moving. Keep going.
At 8:00 p.m., Zeb sends me a WhatsApp link with my favorite song from the Adventure Time cartoon called “Time Adventure.” We have watched all the episodes in the series and I have read all the comics to him, doing my poor voice impressions. He thinks it is funny to send me this song, as he’s seen me get emotional every time I hear Rebecca Sugar’s fragile chorus. What I hear when she sings is that time is an illusion and that our experiences together will persist.
Will happen, happening happened
Will happen, happening happened
And we'll happen again and again
'Cause you and I will always be back then
I send a few words back and add a laughing emoji. His humor always pulls me back to why I am here and into a state of acceptance about my role at this time. Without saying a word, Zeb answers that same question I keep asking. What am I doing? Our love “will happen, happening, happened.” Our memories of morning hugs during the pandemic will blur in time with all the other memories. I know that all of this suffering will end. I wrench myself out my state of disillusion once again.
Because my ancestors determinedly persisted, I am here as that blessing of the future. This is what I must remember. My grandmother survived the concentration camp of Buchenwald so that my son and I could exist. She sacrificed so that I could be here to lead others during this very moment. Laughing memories and hugs from my grandmother remain imprinted in me at a cellular level, as do my son’s.
Get up, get moving, keep going. All that I am missing and all that I desire in the throes of this pandemic is already here within, and it “…will happen, again and again.”
Kathleen Naglee is the Head at the International School of Helsinki. You can find her @KNaglee on Twitter.
 Rebecca Sugar sings Time Adventure: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xr53S9vIbCE