My husband got sick first. We called his doctor. We called our doctor friends. I made a list of emergency contacts. I jotted down the address of the nearest ER. We separated our toothbrushes, our towels. I opened the windows. I followed him around with a spray bottle (two teaspoons of bleach diluted in 16 ounces of water). I wiped every surface he touched: countertops, doorknobs, light switches. Mark is 65 years old and asthmatic. From the next room I counted his breaths: one, two, three. Every time he stopped breathing, from sleep apnea, I stopped breathing. Four, five.
I got sick three days later. I began, as he did, with a ferocious headache. I tried Bayer, then Advil. I alternately shivered and sweat. My body ached. I rummaged around for a thermometer and it slipped through my fingers, and shards of glass and beads of mercury skittered across the floorboards. I stumbled into the shower. Waves of nausea doubled me over. I made the bed and fell prostrate across the mattress. I lost my appetite. I lost weight. I lost interest. One evening, I tried a spoonful of chicken soup. It tasted like sodium. I tried a bite of spaghetti marinara. It tasted like aluminum. The next morning, I could not taste or smell my coffee.
We were the 37th and 38th people to test positive for COVID-19 in the county of Santa Cruz, with a population of 273,000. By the time we were cleared from quarantine, 14 days later, the county had recorded only 38 more cases, totaling 76 (as of publication, the official count is 174). The numbers, however, are misleading. Every week I learn of more and more unreported cases in the community, some dating back to January, others earlier, in part because of limited access to testing, in part because, well, people don’t like to be probed and pricked, studied and stigmatized, restricted and regulated.
I stared at the ceiling and tried to figure out how we got it. Did we get it in transit? From that woman who coughed across the aisle from us on the airplane? In the lavatory? At the airport? From the TSA agent who searched my carry-on bag? The Uber driver? Did we get it in New York City? From our Airbnb host? Passersby on the Brooklyn Bridge or the High Line? The waiter at that restaurant on Spring Street? The couple who sat at the table before us, or next to us? Did we get it at the wedding? From my nephew, his bride, my sister, the event planner? Or did we get it in Santa Cruz, before we flew to New York? At the gym? The dry cleaners? The car wash? From our housekeeper? The plumber? The mailman? The mail? I search for someone or something to blame (our politicians, our president), but in the end I blame myself – for getting it, and potentially for giving it. I cannot understand how, on the morning of March 11, I could have boarded that airplane.
We were up in the air, midway between San Francisco and New York City, when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. We were at my nephew’s wedding, together with 75 guests in formal attire, the very day the Centers for Disease Control warned against gatherings of 50 people or more. No sooner did we fly home to California than Santa Cruz, along with six Bay Area counties, imposed the shelter-in-place order. I still keep asking myself why I didn’t see what was coming. Was I blinded by denial? Determination? Delirium, the virus having already taken hold? Was I blinded by optimism? Ignorance? The need to do right? The fear of doing wrong? Or was I blindsided by a confluence of events, up close and far away, too apocalyptic to comprehend?
Each of our children rallied to our aid in their own way. Miles, 29, a graduate student in entrepreneurship at Cambridge University and founder of the family camera app Famera, put in place an emergency protocol in the event that our sickness took a sudden turn for the worse. Colette, 31, who is studying acupuncture and integrative medicine in Berkeley, deposited on our doorstep a bag of food and supplements that boost immunity and support respiration: zinc capsules, astragalus tea, bone broth, pears. As we waved from our upstairs bedroom, I thought of all the times I cared for my children when they were little, and all the times they will care for us when we are old. I just didn’t expect the roles to reverse this soon, or in this way, where caregiving can happen only from a distance, or through a window.
Nurse D, from the local health services agency, telephoned every day. She reviewed the do’s and don’ts of self-quarantine. She reminded us to rest and rehydrate. She inquired about our coughs, recorded our temperatures, answered our questions. Some days we chatted for nearly an hour. I will never meet Nurse D, never see her face, but I feel so grateful that someone was out there, watching over us.
The symptoms receded, as gradually as the ebbing of the tide, and with them went the fear and the finger pointing. I was flooded with a sensation, however momentary, of blissful surrender. Being sick, with COVID, had released me from all my responsibilities – as a wife, mother, writer, teacher, friend, neighbor, householder. It had freed me, too, from that deep ache to achieve and produce, to matter. The days were long and languorous. They were mine to spend as I chose, and I chose to sit still, be quiet, do nothing. Doing nothing, I discovered, was the most important thing I could do, for my own healing, for the healing of the world.
Still, even as I lost track of the days, events popped up on my calendar: dental appointment on Monday at 8, haircut on Friday at 4. My life, in some parallel universe, was going on without me! I paid no attention. I lived wholly in the present tense — no past, no future. And I lived in the second person, a sort of self-distancing, an out-of-body otherness, as if the events happening to me were happening to somebody else.
I recovered my appetite, though I still couldn’t taste or smell. I regained the weight I had lost, and then some. Little by little, I regained my strength. I laundered the sheets, scrubbed the toilets, vacuumed the floors. I ordered groceries from Instacart and ran errands on Amazon. I did things I never would have considered doing before: coloring my hair, trimming my husband’s sideburns. I took a Pilates class on Twitch. I attended a Native American ceremony on Zoom. I hosted virtual teas with girlfriends, virtual cocktails with couples.
One day I noticed that my stay-at-home life had become as busy as my out-in-the-world one. I left behind my laptop and my cell phone and sat on our front porch on a wooden bench warm from the late-day sun. Bees hummed in the wisteria, birds pecked at the daphne. My neighbor’s rosebush hung over the split-rail fence, heavy with blooms, and I ran my fingers through their pale petals. All at once, in a rush that overpowered me, I realized that I could smell the flowers.
My husband has begun volunteering at the food bank in Watsonville. Although we were cleared from quarantine five weeks ago, the efficacy of immunity has yet to be determined and so I worry about reinfection. This morning, as Mark gathered together his mask and gloves, his disinfectant wipes, I begged him not to go.
“I have to do something,” he told me.
I bow to all the people, from our healthcare workers to our grocery-store clerks, who put themselves at risk every day because they can or must. But for the rest of us, whether we go out or stay home, do something or do nothing – these are the questions we will continue to ask long after our leaders decide it is safe to re-enter the world.
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