Occasionally I flex my writing muscles by entering a short story contest. Here is my latest submission to a Reedsy weekly writing prompt. The challenge was to write a story in which a person feels increasingly irrelevant. I give you the short story- Relevance.
“Ir-rel-e-vant, adjective. Meaning: not connected with or relevant to something,” mumbled Marie under her breath. “I should get this printed on a t-shirt for myself.”
She blew the steam off her coffee before returning to her favorite pastime as of late- reading the dictionary quietly to herself before the kids woke up. Prior to the virus she would have been up at four-thirty a.m., dressed at five, have the kids up and dressed by six, and out the door by six-thirty. A quick and tidy drop off at daycare would be followed by eight hours at work.
Real, professional, adult work. Mentally stimulating and challenging activity in a healthcare environment. As a physical therapist she felt like she was someone and was doing something to change the world for the better and to help people in need. She felt strong, relevant, and worthy. She was not a simple-minded housewife of the nineteen-twenties. She could do all the cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, and child care that they did PLUS work in a professional environment. She felt like she was a well-respected rock star!
Was her heart in it? No. Had you asked her in her youth what she imagined she would be doing now she would have replied journalism or working as an author not her current role as a healthcare worker and a mother. Worried parents had gently nudged her that perhaps ‘art’ would best be left as a hobby. Her father reminded her that they do call them ‘starving’ artists for a reason. Why don’t you try healthcare they persisted? There’s great job security in that field.
They had been right of course. Even though her studies had been half hearted she excelled at them. Even though her self-doubt had been monumental during her first clinical rotation in pediatrics. Even though her deserted four-thirty a.m. commute to her third clinical rotation in the bitter cold and gale-force snow of February in Chicago had almost made her scrap the whole program. Even though she was plagued with nightmares that she was incompetent right before graduation. Even though most of her first year of work had been spent chanting quietly to her hyperventilating self in the back office, ‘I can do this. No, I can’t. Who do I think I am? I don’t know what I’m doing at all!’
Even though after ten years those doubts would occasionally resurface into the form of the question ‘have, I ever actually helped anyone at all or were all those people going to get better anyway on their own?’ She could still hold her head up high because her career in health care had bought her fist home at twenty-six years old. Her career had provided her with health insurance, food, and a new car when her old one was totaled in a car accident. Her career allowed her to save for retirement with a 401K and allowed her to take vacations to Canada and Mexico. Her career had paid for daycare and health insurance when her daughter was born. When the burn out of bundled payments and new Medicare restrictions forced her to treat four to five patients at once she still fought valiantly through it. Because she was needed. She was someone. She was here to help.
But then the virus came. Quietly off in the distance. Over there. It won’t come here, surely! But then it came. “It can’t be that bad,” she had told a worried co-worker, “More people die of the flu every year than this thing.”
But it was that bad. More people did die. The world shut down and she discovered who was ‘essential’ and who was not. She was no longer ‘essential’. For the first time in eleven years, she was jobless. Meaningless. Unimportant. Irrelevant. Here she was, trapped in a house with two small children. Then came the grief. The crying. The anger. The stages of loss. Could she drown them with work? Let’s try.
In four months, she tackled every home repair project that had been sitting on the back burner for years from painting closets to installing a rainwater drain in the front yard.
“I’m still important,” she thought to herself. “I’m still useful. Look, see how many things I can fix around the house. I’m working so hard; as hard as everyone else. I’m still relevant!”
But then all the house projects were done and she was left alone with two small children again. She looked at herself in disgust. She had used boxes of gold fish crackers and DVDs of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood on repeat to replace daycare while she simulated the stimulation of a ‘work’ environment. Now what?
Alcohol gave some relief, but the pain always came back worse when the buzz wore off. The anger and frustration scared the kids. They were getting anxious. At first the lack of structure was fun. Sleeping in, staying in PJ’s all day. Eating whatever and watching TV, but now it was getting boring and mommy was no fun anymore. They desperately needed to get back into a routine.
Her depression was compounded by the fact that the more irrelevant she became the more relevant and essential her husband became. He got raise after raise, promotion after promotion because he could now perform more duties and work more hours than he ever could before because now he had her to pick up the extra childcare duties. She should have been thankful, relieved. Because of him they would not starve. Because of him they could still pay the mortgage. Because of him they still had health insurance so that when they finally did get the virus, they could get medical care. But without him she would have been powerless to provide those things herself because she was irrelevant.
She slapped herself in the face one day.
“Time to stop crying,” she stated. If there was not going to be school or daycare then she would reinvent herself to be the best care taker and educator she could be. She would turn her home into an awesome and stimulating day camp for her kids. She read to them during every meal. She taught her daughter how to tie her shoes, dress herself, and make her bed. She potty trained her son in record time. They learned about flowers in the back yard, made messes in the front yard with bubbles and chalk, flew kites in the field at the park, went on walks and hunted for animals and birds. They did crafts and education activities that revolved around ‘theme-days’ to make learning less tedious. They went on virtual tours of the Eifel Tower and made crepes. They learned the Mexican hat dance and celebrated Cinco De Mayo with a homemade piñata. They took virtual ballet lessons, virtual zoo trips, and did virtual kids yoga sessions. She reinvented Easter Egg hunts for every holiday to keep them busy since they could not see their cousins anymore. She taught them to play soccer and baseball since the park district was closed.
Her spirits soared. If she could do this for her kids, then maybe, just maybe this wasn’t the end of a meaningful, relevant, and essential career. Maybe this could be the start of a something new for her too! Memories of that old passion came back to her. Maybe now was when she was meant to accomplish a lifelong goal and become a writer. She polished up all her old manuscripts and entered them in writing contest after writing contest. She completed Self-authoring Suit to center herself and help establish her goals and time tables for completing them. She taught herself blogging on WordPress and researched SEO online. She started not one, but two blogs. She submitted her fist manuscript for a children’s book- an idea that she and her daughter had created together!
Hope is a powerful drug. For a time, it allowed her to imagine that she was relevant again. For a time, it appeared that she was actually accomplishing things again. People where home and bored and looking for an outlet and they were using her blog! Her family cheered her on with clicks and likes and comments. Subscribers rolled in.
But then the rejection letters came. One cruel reality check informed her that Childrens’ books couldn’t be published without the insanely expensive services of professional illustrators. Contest after contest deemed her unworthy of the title of ‘Published Author’. Even worse were the contests that didn’t even bother to contact her with any feedback. Then, despite all the tags and SEO key words her blog slowly plateaued. Ad revenue halted at a paltry seven cents. She was left wondering to herself if anyone even read what she had taken the time to write. Probably not. Clearly what she had to say was non- essential. Irrelevant.
Things would change after the quarantine was over, right? Her job would call her back, right? Her kids would go back to day care, right? Life would go back to normal and she would be relevant again, right? No. It would seem that the world situation had permanently changed. Supply chains, shipping, and manufacturing had been tossed on their heads. Cost of everything surged to unheard of highs. She could no longer make enough money to pay for gas and daycare even if she had been able to ger her former position back.
So here she was now, reading a dictionary definition that she would never have thought would apply to her in a million years- irrelevant. A small cry from upstairs interrupted her caffeinated pity party. Her four-year-old son was having a nightmare about not being able to eat blue ice cream. She ran upstairs and scooped him into her lap and rocked him like she had when he was a baby. His little hand closed on hers. His warm tears dropped on her arm. She felt his whole body relax into the comfort of hers.
Perhaps she wouldn’t have that t-shirt printed afterall.
Hope you enjoyed it! Feel free to leave me comments and feedback- it’s how I grow as a writer.