The blue light illuminates the tiny bubbles forming in the tea kettle water. While I wait for it to boil I think to myself that I should eat something while I am in the kitchen. I don’t know when I’ll have the strength to come back here. The idea of making my usual morning smoothie feels too ambitious so I settle for eating a banana. The kettle and its blue light have clicked off. I pour the water over the coffee grounds and turn my attention to the banana. I peel it and slowly take a bite. When I try for a second bite a wave hits me. Later in my illness I’ll be better equipped mentally to take these waves on. I’ll know what to do and what helps me feel better. They are still too new for me to even recognize that it comes in waves. I lean against the counter and take another bite. Standing here takes too much energy. My lean turns into more of a slump. Now I am resting my upper body completely on the kitchen counter. The surface is cool against my cheek and I say a silent prayer of gratitude that I did the dishes last night before I started feeling like this. I hold the banana close to my mouth so I don’t have to move much to finish it. I stay here a few minutes until I think I have the strength in my body to return to the couch. Once back on the couch, it takes about 45 minutes before I feel human again.
“You need to go to the emergency room.” The nurse is concerned with my breathing. It feels like a gorilla is sitting on my chest. We can’t risk it. I add more food to my cat’s bowl and put down extra water just in case I am not back today. The team of people at the hospital are kind. They speak some English. I speak some French. We muddle through with both. The only thing I can see is their eyes; everything else is covered. They all have beautiful eyes and I wonder to myself how that is possible. The nurse is trying to find a vein. I try in English to tell her my veins are small and everyone has trouble drawing blood, but she doesn’t understand. I don’t have the French for that so I let it go. She keeps trying until she finally strikes gold. She looks me in the eyes and says, “this is not my first day. I have worked here for seven years.” I can only imagine how tired and stressed she must be.
Later she returns along with the doctor. We need to test for COVID. It is a swab up my nose. The doctor tells me it will feel like she is swabbing my brain and he is right. Without thinking I scream and push her away, the swab dangling from my nostril. My turn to look her in the eyes. I apologize. She tells me not to worry, I did better than most people do. “Besides” she says “now you are no longer mad at me for the blood.” I can see the laugh lines around her eyes and I know she is smiling.
I have to pee. I leave the green army tent and enter the temporary bathrooms set up just outside. There are three stalls – two have bright red signs on the stall doors that read “COVID” and the third stall has a green “non-COVID” sign. I stand there for what feels like a million years trying to figure out what stall I am supposed to use. I don’t have confirmation yet that I am positive. But then again, the reason I am here is because of my COVID like symptoms. But the COVID stall may have cooties. But if I use the non-COVID stall and I have cooties, I could be risking other people. It is in this moment that it hits me: I am a statistic. I’m now one of the numbers on the infinitely long list of worldwide cases. I stand there for an eternity processing this until my bladder reminds me why I entered this room to begin with. I push on the door with the red sign and enter the stall.
It is clear to the doctor and nurses that I have COVID. The CT scan tells us my lungs are clear. Thank God. I get to go home and ride out the storm. I should call this evening for my test results. It may come back negative, they warn, as I am likely too close to my exposure to have a detectable viral load but my symptoms are obvious. I promise to come back if my condition get worse. I thank them and say a silent prayer for their safety.
After the banana incident I realize I am going to need help feeding myself. I had said no before because I didn’t want anyone to come near my apartment door for fear of infecting them. But all the food I have requires preparation time so I put aside my fears and pride. I ask for foods that take less effort than a banana. My community showers me with food. My friend also lends me a few books, for when I have the strength to read. I see Michelle Obama’s book in the stack and it reduces me to tears. I cry a lot these days. I’ve wanted to read Becoming since before it came out but just haven’t bought it yet.
I try to limit my movement. I only get off my couch when I have to pee. I wait as long as I possibly can and when I can’t hold it any longer I check my O2 and my heart rate. If not at worrisome levels, I make my move. This is usually a 20 minute expedition despite how small my apartment is. I go to the bathroom first and then I cross to the kitchen. It is all only a few steps away but I move slowly and take breaks along the way. I hold on to anything I can find. It is too hard to lift my feet off the ground so I slide them along the tile floor. Arriving in the kitchen I take an extra long break. I need energy to make tea, refill my water bottle, grab food out of the fridge, and venture back. Every time I go to leave the kitchen I wish I was a marsupial. I could really use a pouch to stash these things in. I need one hand free to hold on as I walk so that limits what I can carry. I have to make choices. I look around hoping I haven’t forgotten anything. If I have, it will be a few hours before I come back for it.
I pass a puzzle piece that is on the floor – a sign my cat must have been on the table while I was asleep. It is purplish pink with a little bit of green. I think it is part of the sky, the portion I was working on back when I was well. The puzzle piece has been on the floor for days. I know that it isn’t worth wasting my precious energy to pick it up. It will stay there until this is over. The familiar sounds of time ticked off by my cuckoo clock are missing. The clock fell silent days ago and although I miss its zen reminder that life is cuckoo, it would be foolish to try to make it across the room to wind it.
My finger pulse oximeter has become my security blanket. Sometimes I just hold it, reassured by its very presence. In the beginning I checked it constantly. I am learning the rhythms of this virus and my body’s response to it so I check it less now than I did before but still slip it on my finger with compulsive regularity. The best I can describe is that I am constantly exhausted and things like eating a banana takes everything I have in me. And then a wave comes. When a wave hits I am completely overwhelmed. I don’t have words for what it feels like. I struggle to keep some level of awareness of the world around me. I have learned to focus on my breath. I can only manage that sometimes. I check my levels. If the O2 goes too low I crawl to the floor and get on my stomach in the hopes that it will help bring more oxygen to my lungs. It has taken me four days to realize I can relax into child’s pose – far more comfortable than lying prone on my stomach. I haven’t figured out yet what is best to do when my heart rate is too high. People tell me to focus on “calming down” but that doesn’t make sense to me. I move at a sloth’s pace and don’t feel anxious so far as I can tell. So I focus on my breathing for that too.
Today I think I am smarter than that banana. Instead of eating it standing at the counter, I carry it over to the couch and give myself time to recover. I try in vain to peel the stupid thing. I don’t have the strength. The image from a children’s cartoon pops into my head – a monkey eating a banana but it is peeled from the other end. I defy 43 years of experience and habit and turn the banana around. The peel comes loose. It is still a struggle but after a minute or two I am finally eating it.
Today I notice I am lifting my heals slightly when I shuffle to the kitchen. This feels like progress. And then I have to lay down for two hours because making tea was just too much for me.
Today the puzzle piece mocks me.
Today I long for a shower. It has been days since I have had one. There is no way I could stand for long enough to take one so I settle for changing my clothes. I have to lay here and recover from the hard work of putting a clean shirt on.
Today new symptoms arrive.
I spend most of my time just laying here. It is too hard to focus on TV. Sometimes I put it on anyway for the company – something I have already seen so I don’t feel compelled to concentrate on it. I send the sporadic text. My doctor tells me to limit my phone calls as talking on the phone exhausts me and I need my strength. But I need to hear the voices of my family and friends so I call and try to mostly listen. I hang up after a few minutes, usually when a wave comes on.
Today I notice my knuckles are healing. They have been cracked and bloody for months with all the extra hand washing. I chuckle a little as I no longer need to be afraid of getting the virus.
I like to listen to the “Songs of Comfort” Yo-Yo Ma has been posting on Facebook, presumably from home while he shelters in place. He makes me think of my auntie Em. I like seeing him at home, dressed casually, his bookcase in the background. I’ve been listening for weeks, but they have even more power now. My favorite is Dona Nobis Pacem (grant us peace). He smiles a little while he plays it. I listen to it dozens of times every day. It brings me to tears every time.
Today I glance at the last two bananas and wonder if maybe I should have something else for breakfast. No! I am determined to conquer the bananas. I don’t mess around with the coffee, I go straight for a banana. I peel it from the monkey end and cram it in my mouth as fast as I can so a wave doesn’t hit before I finish. I revel in my superiority over the banana and begin to make my coffee. I know I will need recovery time from this but it was well worth it.
Today old symptoms long forgotten have returned.
This is just as much a mental fight as it is a physical one. I know I have to be strong. I know I am strong. People ask me if I am angry. Others ask if I am afraid. I’m not. I know I need everything I have to fight this so I don’t bother wasting it on such emotions. I consciously decide to let go of any hatred or resentment I am holding onto from the past. I can see now that energy is better used for healing.
Today I decide to write a blog post. More for my own processing than for it to be read. I can only write a few sentences at a time so it will take days to complete.
Today I am told I am likely half way through the most terrible part of this illness. I am cautiously optimistic while having a hard time fathoming doing this for that much longer. The hours go by quickly but the days seem to take forever. My favorite Emerson quote pops into my mind. I return to my breath.
Tomorrow is a new day. And I am dreaming a beautiful dream.