One way to intro this piece is to mention the funeral home next door to my building.
Another way to intro this piece is to remind you that I’ve been a germophobe for years. So much so that at one time my children discussed having me committed. Many of the health protocols now recommended, I adopted long ago.
Or I could tell you about the box I prepared for my children after reading about the pandemic. The box that contained valuables, my mother’s silver, memorabilia, list of account numbers and location of important documents, keys to my apartment, the musical snow globe my father gave my mother that I want my grandson to have.
I suppose I could begin with something coincidental—the small dish I took from a cabinet, wondering where I bought it, turning it over and seeing “corona” inked into the porcelain.
Maybe best is a simple chronology: One evening after dinner, I was at my guy R’s place, adjacent to mine. I felt extreme exhaustion. Not the welcome tiredness of a satisfying day of activity that portends a good night’s sleep, but instead overwhelming fatigue.
Morning after, R came to me at 8:00, carrying his coffee mug. I was having coffee in bed, something I do only when I’m dragging ass. R returned early afternoon, touched my forehead and suggested I take my temperature. It was 100.5. Hmm, low-grade fever and exhaustion.
Is this IT? Is this the beginning of IT?
I cleaned the thermometer, handed it to R. His temperature was elevated. A look pulsed between us. Is. This. It?
Next day R reported that he’d slept over 11 hours. Usually, I have sleep issues, but I was sleeping, feeling like a stick of warm butter. And that headache. WTF kind of headache is this? Not the worst I’ve ever had. Not like a sinus headache. And the backache which I didn’t mention to R at first, because I attributed it to lazing around in bed too much. No cough, however I was congested, sounded congested, as if I had a cold.
A couple of days in, I called my doctor and spoke with her nurse. “No, I have not been out of the country.” (Nor have I been on a cruise liner.) She asked if I had shortness of breath. When I said no, she told me what to do if I developed breathing difficulties and provided both day and night phone numbers. She also scheduled a virtual exam. The physician who performed this virtual exam advised what to do if, if, if, and so and so. When I told her how careful I’d been, she said, “It’s everywhere.”
I began a memory search, mapping my activities, errands, who’d been in my place, where I might have contracted the virus, who I might have transmitted it to.
I told my children I wouldn’t want to take a hospital bed from a young person. I’ve had a wonderful life. But I’d like to avoid a miserable death, a suffocating death.
I took my temperature obsessively and thought about having in place some solution, some plan that would be less painful than a suffocating death, less painful than bilateral pneumonia, less painful than organ failure.
I’d read the numbers. A majority will be asymptomatic or have a mild case. Primarily the elderly, especially those with comorbidities, are at highest risk of dying from coronavirus. Yet I read about a baby, then a teen, and several within the age range of my own children. No known health issues. Dead. It’s that cytokine storm. One day a little cough and two days later, death.
Also, there’s a danger period, when a mild case, like ours, can transition to major, around day 8 to day 11.
Occasionally, usually at bedtime, I’d argue with myself. “We have it. No, we don’t have it.” Next morning I’d talk with R not only about the denial but also the fear and the stigma.
We also discussed what we perceived from friends and family members we told who seemed unable to grasp that this was possible—that someone they know could have the virus, as if this implies they could fall victim. Not from contact with us but that it really could be this prevalent. It seems they didn’t want to believe it could be contracted, even a mild case, by people they know. It’s shocking to read about the death of famous people, people you’ve never met but feel as if you know because you’ve listened to their music, attended their concerts, seen them in movies, admired their architectural designs, but if it’s someone you’ve gone on vacation with, engaged in conversation over dinner, well, then it easily could happen to you. One friend, a scientist, suggested I had seasonal allergies, even though I told her I had prolonged fever. No matter how many times I repeat the two words spoken by the “virtual” physician, “It’s everywhere,” I get the impression certain friends and family members are unconvinced, understandable since I can’t quite believe it either.
Before Covid-19 exploded in the US, R and I talked about the decision we’d made to move to a city. We’d left dear friends, moved farther from my sister Laura and her partner Erma. I had fractured the Sisterhood. R and I had regrets, even deciding to leave, move back to what really was home and what that word entails. But there was no time, no time to hire a moving company, to manage what was required before the US became Italy.
R and I joke about the convenience of that funeral home. Hell, my children joke about our living next door to a funeral home.
Recently, I asked my son H for advice, where R and I should move, maybe closer to him and his wife. He said, “We’ve booked you a trip on a cruise liner.”
But people are suffering, dying, so there’s really nothing funny here. If R and I did have it, we’re among the fortunate, although even a mild case is seemingly relentless. As if it likes your body too much to leave.
Missy Comley Beattie has written for National Public Radio and Nashville Life Magazine. She was an instructor of memoirs writing at Johns Hopkins’ Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in Baltimore. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.