written by Lisa Fox
A dear friend texted me today amid the chaos to see how I was doing. “Let’s see,” I replied. “The vultures remain perched outside my window after disemboweling a bunny in the road, I’ve just decontaminated the mail, and I’ve finished my lunchtime ration of an apple and a yogurt.”
Over the past few years, I’ve written a lot of dystopian fiction. A LOT. Stories about robots who seek self-actualization. About aliens who destroy civilizations and the humans who escape them to rebuild. About societies that place a formal expiration date on life. But never in all my imaginings could I have conceived of where we, as a world community, have landed with COVID-19, and the impact it’s had on me personally.
As of this writing, seventeen people in my small New Jersey town are confirmed positive. One is a good friend who’s currently in the hospital. My husband’s aunt has it. My neighbor’s husband, an ER doctor, was quarantined for a few days for treating the exposed. My husband is on Day 17 of being holed up in our bedroom with a low-grade fever, minor symptoms, a negative test result, and a warning from his doctor to stay put until the fever subsides, since false negatives can happen.
Trips to the grocery store bring on a level of anxiety I’ve never experienced. Gloved-up, with mask and hoodie in place, I can hear my own breathing as I push my cart down the cereal aisle. I feel my heartbeat through my temples as I reach into the frozen food case, scoring the last bag of frozen corn. I hold my breath when another human passes me, too close, in the aisle. I avoid impulse purchases at the register – mentally counting the number of people who may have exhaled on the merchandise as they walk through the narrow exit space.
In a few short weeks, I’ve added so many hats to my head it’s nearly impossible to keep them from tumbling in a heap around me, never mind keeping them balanced.
Back in the good old days when I thought I knew what busy was, I spent my days working as a consultant, my evenings writing fiction, and most of my time in between chauffeuring my kids to and from school, activities, and visits with friends. We frequented local restaurants and often ordered take-out. I cleaned my house once every two weeks. We were the typical “work hard, play hard” American family.
Now, I toggle home-schooling my 10-year-old in between work calls. I cook all the time while rationing our food supply. I obsessively disinfect doorknobs, light switches, and just about everything else, multiple times a day. Some days I feel like a boxing referee between my sons, whose interest in video games has started to wane. I lament the experiences my fourteen-year-old is missing in high school. Conversations with my husband (who communicates from behind a mask) focus on his almost hourly temperature check-ins – from not one, not two, but three different thermometers. It’s nearly impossible to carry all this, plus the strain of tamping down my own existential anxiety. I want to sleep, but I can’t. I text my friends at 3am because they’ve become insomniacs, too. I curl up in my quilt on the couch in the living room each night with my dog, keeping my husband safely in the quarantine of our room – just in case.
COVID-19 is the worst kind of enemy. An invisible infiltrator that hides within our friends and neighbors – a fate cruelly transmitted, unknowingly, by those acts that connect us as humans. Handshakes, hugs, time spent conversing and laughing in the same room can morph into a deadly weapon that can’t be seen until the collateral damage of its attack is felt, and it’s too late to do anything about it.
It sounds like science fiction to me. How I wish it were.
Three years ago, I lost my mother to an illness that was never identified. Seven months ago, my father succumbed to colon cancer despite all efforts to defend him. I’ve had to make impossible decisions about the lives and fates of those I loved – choices I’ve hated. Choices I’ve second guessed. There are some days when the grief is so violent that I can feel it gripping me, a vice on my windpipe, reminding me of its omnipresence. Of its strength.
I was just starting to see my way through and learn to live around the losses when the universe turned upside down and my new normal was anything but normal.
COVID-19 has infected so many of us with an unprecedented, universal level of fear. Of loss, and grief. In a time when we most need to be close together, family and friends are forced to stay apart for our own good and the good of those around us. And in those moments when I have time to think, I find myself wondering if this is it – if we are facing the end of the world. Or at the very least, the end of the world we once knew.
Just as I questioned my faith after the deaths of my family members over the past several years, I find myself again questioning why this has happened. In those few quiet moments at night, when I pray for the insomnia to spare me and the pestilence to simply disappear, I think about the things I previously took for granted.
With so many sick, I’ve learned to appreciate the ability to breathe. I’ve realized what a gift it is to kiss my kids goodnight. I look forward to seeing my husband’s smile again, to see his face and not a mask. To sleep in my own bed again.
I’m trying to find blessings in the smallest of things. A full refrigerator. Sunny days. My recipe for apple cinnamon bread. Folding warm, clean laundry. Immersing myself in my younger son’s daily learning. Watching my oldest step up, learning how to properly load the dishwasher, how to cook pasta. Taking long walks with the dog, letting him stop and sniff the green grass as he wags his tail, joyful in the moment.
As difficult as these times are, I’m hoping COVID-19 provides the world an opportunity to reset. To reconsider what’s important. I’m trying to see past my anxiety and do just that.
Perhaps, we need to experience dystopia in order to truly appreciate our own utopia.
Musings from the Isolation Chamber: Updated May 5, 2020
Today is Cinco de Mayo and we’re all still under lockdown as the invisible enemy continues to gain a foothold. I managed to make myself a sort-of-sangria tonight with some white wine and frozen strawberries and cobbled together burritos (without chips or salsa or guacamole, mind you) from the staples I had at home. The kids were happy – these days, it’s all about the little things.
Since my first post six weeks ago (I think… time tends to lose meaning when it’s Groundhog Day, every day), my husband has rejoined the family, his aunt has recovered, my friend is still struggling with the aftereffects of the virus, and my neighbor fights the good fight, every day, on the front lines. Ninety-two cases confirmed in my small town. And me? I’ve decided to take control of the situation at hand, lest it control me.
I haven’t stepped foot in a supermarket in a month. Amazon.com is my new best friend, and anyone passing my house on recycling night will think someone’s just moved in, or perhaps is on the verge of moving out. We found a wonderful restaurant supplier who delivers us groceries once every two weeks. It’s been working out great – even though I accidentally ordered five pounds of garlic in our last shipment. (I’ll be quite ready in the event of a vampire-apocalypse). And I’ve even snagged toilet paper and Clorox wipes online. We support the local ice cream and chocolate confectionary with frequent porch deliveries, and a nearby farmer’s market with “contactless” delivery.
The new normal is all about enjoying the small things in life – homemade mint chocolate chip ice cream, crisp apples, fresh corn.
Yesterday, New Jersey announced that schools would be closed through the rest of the academic year. It was the right decision, and I knew it was coming. But, still. My heart breaks for my fifth grader who won’t have a proper send-off as he bridges from elementary school to middle school. My eldest son’s freshman year of high school came to a screeching halt just as he was starting to hit his stride. And all the seniors, with no prom, no final days of “senioritis” with their friends, probably no real graduation. I know all too well how tough decisions are the ones that almost always result in heartache. And right now, I mourn the losses these kids will never fully understand, because they never had the chance to experience them.
Friends have reminded me that kids are resilient, that they’re now a part of history, and that they’ll have different memories – telling their children and grandchildren about the days when their mother decontaminated pints of ice cream with Lysol wipes and people walked around wearing masks. It’s still hard to accept the world for what it is at this moment. But perhaps, we’re not meant to accept it. Like any loss, perhaps we simply need to learn to work around it and not lose ourselves in the process.