For most of the last half-century, my mom has worked as a Registered Nurse. But in the spring of 1995, she was the Easter Bunny in the Galleria Mall in White Plains.
Every year, right around now—when the magnolia in my parents’ backyard starts to flower and winter’s dread begins to recede (ha ha, right!)—this memory wafts back to me in a trachea-puckering haze of pollen and cherry blossom. It has always seemed like an odd blip on the screen of my childhood.
I called her after one of my recent half-deranged, post work-from-home twilit runs, holding the phone to my face with gloved hands on a warm night.
And I asked her about it.
“The Easter Bunny?” she asked, “I mean, I think it was only for three weeks or something.”
Streaks of pink and blue in an after-rain sky clashed with the soundtrack of sirens in quarantined New York. The air seems fresher since we all shut ourselves inside, the palette of sunsets more vibrant, especially after staring slack-jawed at an eleven-inch laptop screen, contorted for nine hours into one of only three chairs in the 600 square-foot apartment that I share with my wife Gina.
I paced outside my building, the few pedestrians tracing six-foot arcs around me. Some wore bandannas, gesturing at screens like railroad bandits from silent films. Others strode victoriously together, arms around single rolls of paper towels. I’ve savored the 45 distracted minutes that I spend outside every day, taking in the weirdness of New Yorkers straining to observe one another, while also straining more than usual not to interact with one another.
To be out in the world for the daily quota of fresh air feels indulgent and fraught with sensuous possibilities, the budding spring-scape so saturated with fun things to look at and smell.
Gina said she thinks this is what it feels like to be a dog
Meantime, in Queens, they parked a refrigerator truck outside Elmhurst Hospital to increase morgue capacity. A college buddy works there as an ER doctor, and in a half-drunk post-midnight insomniac Twitter scroll a few nights back, I saw a clip of him commenting on ABC News. It jarred me to see a familiar face and voice contributing to the collective rattling-off of exhaustion and dread. And I remembered a story he told after the 2016 election, ironically, to communicate the point that being a doctor wasn’t always heroic.
A guy showed up in the ER with a glass bottle wedged in his ass.
My friend got it out of there.
And then he noticed an I Voted sticker on the man’s coat.
In an act of extraordinary civic duty, he had voted with a glass bottle in his ass.
"Who's the hero in that case?" he asked.
“Look it wasn’t a career move,” my mom said on the phone, from another galaxy, “I worked a lot of part-time jobs when you both were kids.”
I looked up to a rooftop, where I thought people were screaming in terror. It turned out they were cheering for healthcare workers.
“I think I just found it in the classified ads.”
“Everything seems so weird,” I said, noticing the sky again.
“No, it wasn’t that bad,” she said. “Though I didn’t like that they sprayed the head with Lysol.”
“Before we got in the head, they sprayed it with Lysol.”
“The Easter Bunny head,” I said.
“Which head did you think?” she said.
“You got into the Easter Bunny head in a cloud of Lysol.”
“But they didn’t spray the rest of the suit?”
“Oh no,” she said, “There wasn’t time for all that.”
She has worked in hospitals, ophthalmological practices, schools for over-aged students with behavioral issues, and—for the last 35-ish years—pediatrics. Every day, she listens for irregularities in the thumpings and whooshings of tiny hearts and lungs; records temperatures with devices that have, in her estimation, grown unnecessarily complex; vaccinates wailing kids with steady hands and a soothing-yet-no-nonsense Jersey patois; and takes notes as critically sleep-deprived first-time parents explain that something seems particularly unsettling about their infant’s recent diarrheal improvisations (“Ma’am you’re not listening. You have no idea how this stuff smells”).
She talks a lot of panicked novice dads out of rushing to the hospital.
Tells them to keep pushing the fluids.
To check in again in six hours.
I imagine her voice: kind, objective, direct.
She raised two hypochondriacs in my sister and me, which I imagine to be a hazard for many children of healthcare professionals. I still call her first when I have a lump under my armpit (“I dunno, maybe the size of a coffee bean?”), or a pain in my eye (“not on the surface, but, sort of, inside it?”), or a red mark where (“I am about 80% certain”) there used to not be a red mark.
Since March 15, I have resisted the urge to call her whenever I cough or feel a little overheated in the apartment. I don’t want to subject her to another anxious phone triage, particularly during off-duty hours.
Even so, if she sees my number on the caller ID, she answers the phone jokingly, “CDC, this is Mary-Ann.”
She loves taking care of kids, because they say ridiculous things and give her hugs, and because they seem to get her in elemental ways. When we were growing up, she used to wear scrubs plucked from the wardrobe of Ms. Frizzle of The Magic School Bus. Dinosaurs, spaceships, exotic plants, constellations, and elephants. They count among the strongest memories I have of her going to work—of seeing a whirlwind of color get into the car and drive away. Patients got distracted in the whorls of shapes and characters while my mother efficiently and almost painlessly delivered vaccines or pin-prick blood tests.
“How many triceratops can you count?” my mother would ask at the office.
And the kid sitting on a parent’s lap would say, “one, two, three. Three!”
Before the kid knew what had happened, the shot or the test was over, and they had a Dum Dum in their hands. And I always imagined that my mom would wink at the flabbergasted parent, luxuriating in the special deftness that made her useful, special—but also totally ordinary, repeated a million times.
A champion social distancer and germaphobe, even in peacetime, the fact that my mother put on that Lysol-filled bunny head and sat in the middle of a busy mall for two hours at a time utterly confounds me. Keep in mind that we have also left aside the absurdity of the Easter Bunny myth in general. In brief: to celebrate the risen Lord, an enormous bipedal rabbit sneaks onto your property in the middle of the night to hide coin-filled eggs. In the morning, you run around with your sibling(s) to find those eggs, place them in pastel wicker baskets, and then cry because you don’t want to go to church.
Or at least, that’s how it went in our family.
“Why are you asking about this anyway?” my mother said.
“All I asked is whether the kids cried.”
“Why do you think I made them cry?”
“I didn’t say you made them cry. You were a giant rabbit. You can’t tell me they weren’t terrified.”
She paused, considering.
“Well,” she said, “It’s different than with, say, Santa.”
I noticed a delivery guy trying to get into our building, and pulled out my key fob to open the door. He backed away from me as I approached, but then nodded at me in thanks when the door unlocked.
“Well, because with Santa, there are stakes. Kids think he knows everything they’ve been doing.”
“And that’s what’s scary about him?” I asked.
“Right. Whereas with the bunny. Well. It’s just a big bunny.”
“A very big bunny.”
“Look, I really don’t know what you want to know. I worked a lot of jobs when you guys were kids and it was nice to have extra money,” she said.
Right then, through the general fog, something started to hit me in slow motion.
“I worked for temp agencies.”
This stream of other odd jobs that she had stitched together.
“I hated when they sent me to work with lawyers.”
Offices where we used to drop her off.
“There were piano lessons to pay for, and your sister wanted to horseback ride.”
And that I had figured she just did because they were interesting, or a change of pace. Like putting on a different costume on the days when she wasn’t nursing.
“And I thought, hey, easy money!”
That had been about making childhood a little better for me and my sister than it had been for her.
“Why couldn’t I be the Easter Bunny?”
Crises steady her—a good trait to have in crises.
Ask her what it has been like to treat patients in the context of COVID, and she will tell you in a deadpan that kids still need shots and check-ups. So she goes to work. Right now, that means keeping most patients away from the office to prevent them from being around each other. It means doing rotations outside, dressed in personal protective equipment, restricting the number of patients who enter the building. It means more telehealth, and more distance.
“They might start making me work from home,” she told me.
Patient contact has become dangerous for everyone, but increasingly so for a sexagenarian on the verge of retirement—even one whose only pre-existing condition might be, “sighs too much.” She seems worried that her career might end with her sitting on the couch at home, answering calls, instead of being in the exam room with sick kids, helping to make them better.
Like a professional athlete, she wants to be the one to decide when she comes off the field.
Three staff in her office have tested positive.
Yet she still gets up at dawn to go to work. Still eats her packed lunch in the car.
In the afternoon, she still moves through check-ups and checklists with parents. At five, on a deserted Hutchinson River Parkway, she makes it home in ten minutes. She cheats on her Lenten wine fast, eats with my dad, goes to bed, and does it again.
She's not on the front line at hospitals. I'm grateful for that. But even the fact that she can hear the constant rumble of shells in the distance makes me insane with pride. If they tell her that she needs to stop going to the office, I hope she knows that she has already done her part.
If I hadn’t feared melting into a puddle on the sidewalk, on yet another eerie night on the knife’s edge of the world, talking about the Easter Bunny gig, that's what I would have told her: that all of the work she has done has always been essential.
While rearranging my sock drawer for the fourth time (don’t look at me like that) since the start of lockdown, I dug out a family artifact relevant to what I think I’m trying to say. It’s a circular picture in a plastic frame, about three inches in diameter, cracked in a few small places, and clouded up in the way that old plastic clouds over time.
My father, smack in the heart of middle age, wears a dark blue sweater with a lighter blue collared shirt under it, and sits on the lap of a mangy Easter Bunny against a backdrop of plastic flowers and shrubbery.
Which is to say, my father sits on my mother’s lap.
I looked at it and remembered.
Remembered dropping my mom off at all kinds of jobs where she wasn’t wearing scrubs. Remembered the smell of her car after school. Remembered late-season flurries on my birthday, and watching The Ten Commandments all together on ABC for the hundredth time, and hiding under the covers as the plague came down from the sky in a green cloud. Remembered magnolia petals flipping end over end as we zoomed around looking for eggs in the chilly morning.
A flaw in the bunny costume’s design reveals my favorite detail in the picture. The mall photographer’s flash exposes my mother’s eye, which should have been obscured behind a thin black mesh. Looking closely at the way my mom appears to be squinting as she squeezes my father’s arms with white furry gloves, I could tell immediately—and can still see when I look at it now in these scary weeks.
Under that giant head, in a Lysol cloud, she was laughing.