By Christine Doyle
Sounds like the name of a deep state cell block in some remote, secret place.
A cold that can kill? That can’t be right. How unfair. And the flu often does. So, what is this thing?
19? 19 what? Cases, maybe. Right. On what day? Day 3?
The letters C and O can mean so many things.
Co-. As in co-dependency.
& Co. As in a partnership. You know, like Tiffany & Co.
It can also mean C-O. As in rising levels in the air.
What a name.
I don’t think we will ever again hear a word or thought uttered, no matter how far off in the distant future, that starts with the sound “coh,” without experiencing a very specific kind of trepidation.
I put my hands in the dirt. I sweat and I toil. I will grow my own food at home. That is how I will keep myself and my family safe. I plant squash, peas and peppers.
I get basil. Lots of basil.
I have more success with tomatoes. Sweet, organic gems that improbably grow in groups of three. Isn’t this divine? One mother. Two children. There is synergy here. I can feel it.
I love watching the tiny green buds start out like little marbles on the vine. Even better, once ripe, I can say, “They’re safe to eat. Go ahead. Try one.” I bought the seedling at a local nursery. Is that cheating?
I don’t eat much takeout or prepared food these days. Ditto for restaurant meals.
I can probably count the number of restaurant meals I have had since March on two hands, except for the two week period this Fall when the heart shaped steamed milk on a cafe ai lait at the local coffee shop calls out to me in the most soothing way. I take comfort there, at a sidewalk table, as I listen to what sounds like a mentor counseling a mentee, six and twelve feet behind me, respectively. Still, I space out my visits to minimize the risk.
One sister is leaving 50 percent tips when she dines out these days.
My personal contribution to Covid relief seems to be working hard at not going crazy. “Be an example,” I say out loud, only slightly alarmed that I am talking to myself.
For some reason, my initial reaction to this virus is like a flashback to 9-11. I am shocked. And then scared. Very, very scared.
I have a sense of foreboding not unlike what Californians experience after a small earthquake, when glassware rattles ever
so slightly on a kitchen shelf or your desk jumps a beat then suddenly stops, a quick blink in acknowledgement and then, wham! You realize it isn’t over. Except the shock that the Covid crisis isn’t over yet is unfolding over and over. And over.
Just like I did on that awful September morning that brought down the Twin Towers in New York, I know I will know people who die. And apparently, I do. My sister told me last week, one of her classmates, a beautiful immigrant from Haiti who went on to be an Opera singer and who sang at a close friend’s wedding, lost her sweet brother, Donald, to this incomprehensible disease. A disease that once you get past all the medical data and definitions, like ‘viral load’ and ‘pulmonary function’, is beginning to feel more like a crime enacted on humanity than “a virus that affects most people in mild ways.”
Donald was so kind. Always smiling. So, so sweet.
Didn’t he perform with his sister at a good friend’s wedding? Wasn’t that him up there in the balcony standing beside Michele, who sang at the Met or tried out for a program there, at the very least. Yes, that was him, wasn’t it? The two of them side by side at St. Anne’s Catholic Church in Nyack, New York?
“Amazing Grace. How sweet the sounds that saved a wretch like me.”
I pause as the words are imbued with new meaning.
How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost
But now I’m found
Was blind, but now I see.”
Written by Judy Collins
Amazing Grace? It was a wedding. Isn’t that a funeral song? Ah, Covid brain. Was Donald even there that day?
I must have Covid. After all, I did have a 100.5 fever one single afternoon in early August. And in the high 90’s for a few days before that.
If I don’t have Covid, why am I living like I do?
It may be time to put that on a post-it note on my bathroom mirror. “Good Morning, Self. You are safe. Be grateful. Stop being crazy.”
Instead, I am obsessed with locking my doors.
Markets move on fear. There is a 500 point drop in the Nasdaq today. Of course, this particular Coronavirus, Covid 19, is a disease of the lungs. But isn’t it also a disease of the mind, given the fear it inspires?
“How are you, Mom? I mean, how are you, really?” my daughter asks on one of our loops around West U. “I’m concerned,” she says. Can I blame her?
I don’t know what to believe. And I can’t shake the feeling, the experts don’t know what to believe either. It’s a novel virus. Maybe they’re all just guessing.
“My ——— (Fill in title. Son/Daughter/Mother/Father/Neighbor/Friend) works at ——— Hospital and says there are no patients on the Covid floors.” “Not true,” a friend, who is a nurse at Memorial Hermann, tells me. “We have four hundred here at the moment.”
These conversations happen days apart.
“They tried to impeach him and they couldn’t. So now they’re going to wreck the economy to drive him from office,” a conservative television commentary offers.
“I don’t have to wear a mask. I have an exemption,” a customer inexplicably shouts at a barista.
“I think it is bio-terrorism.”
I think it is bigger than a single person. I won’t say it out loud but I am convinced I really do know. It’s ecotage. You know, those people who used to throw paint on tanks. Maybe they’re starting pandemics, I think to myself, and then wonder why I have trouble falling asleep that night.
What is that, you say? You, Dr. Scientist? The one I wish was running for President. No evidence it was man made? Nothing in its genetic code to prove it was engineered in a secret military lab and let loose in a wet market, where live animals, like pangolins (another new word!) and bats are slaughtered and housed in the same place, blood and bodily fluids comingling and mind you I have never been, but the aforementioned blood and bodily fluids then streaming into the aisle.
No wonder I lose my appetite for chicken.
I post a sign in the door frame between the foyer and my living room. “Shoes off, Please!”
Who we call in those first few weeks is so telling.
There are the calls that are visited upon us, the offers of support we give and my personal favorites: the gut check calls to people in our regular orbit because we think they have common sense. Why do we think a relative or neighbor who was spot on about last month’s hurricane might know if it is safe to travel yet?
Aren’t we all just trying to get our arms around this thing?
“Maybe it’s a move by environmental activists to fast track to a green economy and hurt the very industries being blamed for climate change,” I hear myself positing in yet another one of these early Pandemic conversations.
Or maybe it isn’t caused by something or someone, but causal. The result of dollars, designed to protect us from pandemics, now missing. It is enough to make anyone sick, isn’t it?
I buy an Instapot and learn to cook and like beans in case there is a run on meat. I freeze extra bottles of water. I stock up on toilet paper and pay $27 dollars for a pack that might have cost $18 dollars pre-Covid.
I ask my kids if they want me to teach them to cook, convinced as I am that certain kinds of food are the key to an individual’s personal Covid shield. “It’s okay, Mom,” my daughter asks, “we have the internet.”
For the first time in my life, I have a morning ritual. Routine is just too normal a word for the way I am behaving. For a little while, anyway, it involves a juicer and mashed oranges and grapefruits. One grapefruit to every four oranges. My son wonders where the Vitamin C is, as in vitamins from a bottle, the ones I get at Costco. “There is a run on them,” I respond.
“What are you up to today,” a close friend wants to know. “Oh, probably just decluttering.” She laughs. “You don’t have any clutter.” Not anymore. I also am scanning the kids artwork and school photos, in files by name, grade, activity and calendar year.
Who is this Covid creature? I don’t recognize her.
I tell myself I am being a good daughter by checking in with my Mom each day by phone. At some point it occurs by to me that the well-check is two way and that, at 89, it might not be fair to expect her to FaceTime.
What I don’t do is write. Well, that isn’t entirely true. I delete a piece I start a few weeks into the crisis about my early Covid response, which can only be called an absurd regression towards overparenting. A regression back to a time when I bake chicken after dipping it in orange juice and honey, dredge it in Rice Krispies, and add a pat of butter on top.
A time when I try to pass breakfast off as dinner because it is a cute thing to do. Here I am. March 2020. I am serving homemade pop-tarts for dinner to two now-adult people.
I decide I cannot write about something as confusing as a novel virus, a virus impacting, not just my day or at the most, several days, like all the other flus or colds I ever had, but one having an unprecedented impact on the entire World.
Instead I go into a metaphysical phone booth and hope to emerge a Super Survivor.
I walk six miles at a stretch to build up my lung capacity, I stop hugging and learn to bow or elbow bump, instead. I bring my own folding chair with my own can of Lysol to a socially distant virtual wine tasting, where four of us sit six feet apart and have a laptop set up to listen to a Sommelier give a webinar from the safest place of all, Cyberspace. Each of us brings our own four bottles. Um, that’s a lot of wine. We never really get to the wine, though. We are too busy talking about whether Melissa’s stepbrother’s wedding will go off as planned, what Caroline is going to do now that her semester abroad just got cancelled and my own daughter’s post-graduation career shuffle because of a hiring freeze.
With uneven results, I attempt to: pray more, get off social media, develop a home based yoga practice (week 41), complain less (maybe next week?), take up acrylics and make new curtains. Said curtains are now held together by safety pins, which I try to hide by twisting the fabric just so, like I’m rotating my leg in a yoga extension, and for part of the day at least, you can’t see them. I am still working on making a really good homemade pie crust. And oh, I did just learn how to say, “hi” in Norwegian.
Turns out it isn’t, “halloooooo,” pronounced like balloooooon without the “n.” It’s, “Hei!”
Hey, Karen, I think. Get a grip. People go to work. The person behind the coffee you are sipping is at an even greater risk. I notice early in the crisis two groups of workers that never stop or go indoors – construction and lawn care. In mid-October, I get up the nerve to fly again. I look like a Star Wars Droid. Shields on top of masks and gloves half way up the elbow. The flight attendant asks if people think the cabin is stuffy. “Open up the air vent,” she suggests. “The air system is disinfected.” Like kids in a classroom, a not-full plane of passengers’ bring their raised hands down and one-by-one, turn on the overhead vents.
We can breathe again.