I wake up to nature’s alarm clock—my two children begging for milk and Cheerios. It’s a Tuesday I think. Or Thursday? Day 8. Day 18? Who knows anymore? We’re in an alternate universe where schools are closed and toilet paper is a hot commodity. Where people line up around the exterior of grocery stores, spaced six feet apart, hands adorned in purple latex gloves and bandanas tied around their faces, itching to fill their carts as they eye each other warily.
Outside, the dawn is pale blue. A garbage truck beeps as it circles through my court.
Inside, the heater is on and the Wi-Fi is working.
The world hasn’t ended, though there are seconds, hours, when it seems like it.
I curl up on the couch under a blanket, watching my children watch cartoons. I notice that my nose feels funny. Slightly stuffy. It could be allergies. It’s probably allergies. It is April after all, and outside everything is blooming. I’ve been using a nasal spray proactively for a few weeks in anticipation of spring.
But what if it’s not?
I take stock of my body. My head is a little fuzzy; there is a dull ache above my eyebrows. But when I really think about it, I only notice it when I’m reading the endless articles about ventilator shortages and death tolls. My stomach cramps then too. Anxiety. That’s all it is.
But what if it’s not?
My husband is an essential worker. We’ve each made a trip or two to the store for necessities like meat and applesauce pouches and wine. We have a community mailbox station across the street that I go check every day. It may be unlikely, but certainly not an impossibility to have contracted the virus.
Just a couple months ago, Hand Foot Mouth disease raced through our family like a wildfire. My oldest daughter came down with it first, suffering from a fever and a full-body rash. My youngest got it next.
I sanitized everything, spraying the doorknobs with so much disinfectant that they tarnished. I washed my hands until they cracked and (temporarily) aged a few decades.
Then my husband came home from work with a fever, although the pediatrician had told me it was rare in adults. Blisters developed in his throat later that kept him on a diet of ice and Jell-O for almost a week.
After carelessly licking my thumb one morning to clean peanut butter off of my daughter’s face, I gargled with vodka, dry heaving over the kitchen sink. (Side note: I later learned vodka doesn’t have a high enough alcohol concentration to kill germs. Wish I would have known that beforehand.)
A few days later I woke up feeling hungover, although I only drank water the night before. My temperature steadily rose as the hours passed and my lower back and hips ached. That night I couldn’t sleep as painful blisters began popping up all over the tops of my hands. The following week I vacationed in Hawaii with my hands wrapped in bandages; and months later I still have red spots left over as evidence of that horrific illness. I had shingles at seven, mono at 15. This disease was worse.
But even in the midst of it, there was an end in sight. And I knew afterwards, life would go on like normal.
Now it’s evening and I am halfway down the stairs when I see my husband holding our daughters and dancing around the living room to “I loved Her First” by Heartland. I sit down and spy on them through the spindles, praying to God that years from now, I will get to watch them dance together on their wedding days.
Praying that all I’m feeling is the power of fear. That I won’t end up alone in a hospital like so many others. Or quarantined in my bedroom, struggling for breath, my family unaware downstairs.
I wonder if I should make a list of account numbers, login passwords, bill due-dates. Write just-in-case goodbye letters and hide them in my nightstand. My mind spins in some kind of morbid-curiosity cyclone and I feel like I will pass out.
This sensation isn’t new to me. This hypochondria. Panic attacks plagued me in my late teens and early twenties. I threw up once after having my blood drawn, because having a needle in my arm freaked me out. For years afterward I asked to lie down and have the blood taken from my hand, which somehow helped keep the panic at bay.
At my first eye exam, I got light-headed after the doctor dilated my pupils. I said I needed to use the restroom, hoping a splash of cold water on my face would calm my nerves. Instead, my vision went black and I collapsed into the hallway wall.
Once I got a cut on my foot from the ill-considered metal strap of a high-heeled shoe. The cut got infected, and after researching online, I was convinced I would die from blood poisoning and had to lie down on the couch for an hour until the anxiety passed.
Then there was the thought that I would die of an aneurysm during childbirth. A fear that started long before I was ever pregnant, probably from a combination of tragic news stories and my frequent headaches. Two kids later, thankfully that is one fear that faded away.
I think about those times, about how many hours I have spent, wasted, in my life worrying. I pour myself a glass of wine, the sauvignon blanc working its way through my body, releasing the tension in my shoulders and undoing the knot in my stomach.
My daughters run by, shrieking, and I find myself looking at them through the same lens I use at night when they’re sleeping. When I’m not on edge from the messes and fights and attitudes and endless questions. When I see their angelic faces, their hair fanned out over their pillows, and I am filled with unadulterated joy. A love so strong that it threatens to crush me under its weight.
It comes in waves, the fear. One minute I’m rolling my eyes at the photos of people wearing garbage bags and scuba masks, the next my chest is constricting while watching the rapidly changing bar graphs of confirmed cases by state or country.
Today I woke up feeling better. Still slightly congested, but no longer convinced that I will be the next statistic on the news. At least not right now. A sneeze, a momentary tickle in my throat, warm cheeks, a twinge in my back however, any of it can send me back down the rabbit hole.
And there are other worries trying to suck me in. Worries about the physical, emotional, and financial health of all my loved ones. Of society as a whole.
The biggest ones, the ones about my children and husband, those are so heavy that they take my breath away and shut down my brain.
I try to focus on the good. The survival rate. The everyday heroes who have stepped out of the shadows. The technology available to help us all stay in touch and teach our children. The encouraging notes written in chalk on sidewalks. The friendly conversations held across the street with neighbors I’ve never even seen before. The gas money saved, and the decreased pollution. The uncomfortable bras and jeans going unworn in my closet. The invaluable extra time available to spend with my young children before they grow up.
The good is getting me through; it’s what keeps my feet rooted in this hurricane.
And then something happens that threatens to tear me from the ground again.
Like debating the details of the shelter-in-place order with my husband. Is our government overreacting, being too extreme? Are the decisions of our leaders going to save us or end up hurting us more? How do we straddle the line between our rights and our lives?
There are a million factors to consider.
I hate politics. It makes my skin crawl. All the blame. The bickering like school kids on a playground. The lies. The contradictory news reports. I’m in the middle of the spectrum, neither conservative nor liberal. I usually can see the arguments, the pros and cons, for both sides.
What I can’t understand is the us versus them mentality. Especially in a time like this.
Are our leaders using this pandemic for their political or financial gain? Maybe. I don’t know. But I do know that I don’t envy them; I don’t envy the decisions, the responsibility, that rests on their shoulders.
I can’t even handle thinking about it anymore. I call for a moratorium and stress-eat the dark chocolate chips I have in the bottom of the freezer.
Standing at the kitchen counter, I hide from my family, our puppy, reality. I pop more chocolate in my mouth and my left eyelid twitches. It’s been doing that on and off for a month, maybe two. This annoying little tic, a reminder of the dread flowing through my veins. I’m tempted to wear an eye-patch. I’ll play pirate, and the house is my ship. I mean, why not, right?
I played bandit earlier today when I braved the store adorned with a mask, my weapon of choice a mini bottle of hand sanitizer hanging from my purse. I was in some weird video game. What is the quickest route from A to Z? Where are the hidden threats? Is there a secret door out of this crowded aisle?
My glasses kept fogging up from the warm breath that escaped the edges of my mask, and I felt claustrophobic. For the first time, I yearned to talk to strangers. To share recipes or bond over a mutual love of black licorice. To enjoy the camaraderie of others weathering the same storm. But instead, I kept my head down as I made my way around the store, randomly picking boxes and cans from the shelves that weren’t empty.
The grocery store used to be a break for me, an hour without kids where I could decompress. Now it’s a minefield.
Time is a funny thing. It has somehow both stopped and sped up. It’s been three and a half extremely long weeks of sheltering-in-place. We don’t know when it will end.
My insides are jumpy, itchy, like I need to shed my skin. I struggle to stay patient. To ignore the mess, let go of my home-schooling expectations. To give my children grace when they are loud or cranky or needy. To contain my frustration when our puppy chews on a toy or rips up our yard.
All I want to do is hide in my bedroom and watch reruns of Friends for the next month or two.
But I can’t.
So I trudge on. I know I’m not alone in how I’m feeling. I’m not the only one cycling through hope and despair, contentment and frustration. And that gives me a little comfort, a sense of peace. Although we’re all separated, we’re in this together.
Maybe this pandemic will teach us something. Maybe this alternate reality will lead to a universe that is full of love and kindness and faith. A universe where we are united.
And maybe, just maybe, a universe where people know the importance of washing their hands.