My husband and I have been sheltering in place since March 1, before the rest of Washington State, although we were still driving to the grocery store back then. He was scheduled for open-heart surgery on March 12, and we didn’t know any other way of getting groceries. Delivery seemed like an indulgence.
We were shielding ourselves from the common cold as much as coronavirus, since they wouldn’t operate on M if he was sick. That Sunday, we canceled all of our plans with friends until after his surgery. I apologized for being extra-cautious and hyper-sensitive, but M and I both agreed: we’d rather be safe, as much as we ached to see loved ones, especially in those last few hours before.
Now, I see: we were smart.
Right up to the night before surgery, M was nervous the hospital would postpone. Though it was life-saving, in the face of COVID-19, elective takes on new meaning, even with heart surgery. I couldn’t fathom it at the time, but this, too, has come to pass. If his surgery had been scheduled a few days later, it would not have happened. I don’t want to think of being in the hell of that limbo.
We have much to be grateful for, starting with health insurance and the fact that the blockages in M’s heart were discovered. The angiogram that revealed those blockages almost didn’t occur. Thankfully, surgical repair was possible, he had a good surgeon, and M was healthy up to the date of surgery. I am grateful that he survived. Due to changing restrictions in the hospital, I saw him in ICU after surgery, but I wasn’t permitted to visit him for the rest of his stay. I was unsure how well he would be when I brought him home five days later.
For now, I’ll say this: they can take a human body apart and put it together again, but what they do is not gentle or pretty. They give you a binder of information that cannot fully describe the experience during or after thoracic surgery, or tell you all the intricate ways a person needs to be cared for, not only physically but emotionally. The words standard, typical, normal were bandied about all along by the medical staff—who were mostly wonderful—and it made me realize that humans can adapt to anything. To some people, chest drains, intubation, bypasses, valve replacements, and broken sternums stitched with wire are normal, meaning unremarkable. Usual.
I am thankful M was in excellent physical shape going in. Seeing what he’s going through, I can’t imagine an elderly person or someone who is overweight, diabetic, or otherwise physically compromised healing from this, and certainly not without help. As a sole care giver, it’s enough to handle with a fairly spry man who can get himself in and out of bed on his own steam with the help of his heart pillow, which he holds to his chest as he stands. (For fun, try standing using only your core, rather than your hands, to push up from bed or your seat.)
This winter, M had been gearing up for his annual surf trip to New Zealand. If his doctor hadn’t found the blockages and he had gone on that trip, he could have had a heart attack during the vigorous exercise he had planned. He likely would have died. In a foreign country. A country I wouldn’t have been able to fly to. At the time, he was devastated to miss this trip, as was I, and irked that Air New Zealand wouldn’t fully refund our tickets—but the alternative, we agree now, would have been so much worse.
When he’s sleeping, I drift by his room to make sure he’s still breathing.
I am so thankful my husband is alive.
I think of all the ways we have been fortunate, despite how terrifying the past week has been. I was not prepared to lose M. I am still not. That one of us could die was something that I had put in the column of someday. Last Thursday morning, when we checked him at five-thirty, I shuddered, thinking, Someday could be today. It feels like we keep outrunning stormtroopers, one blast door at a time. If we pause to breathe, they’ll overtake us. So we keep running, praying the Force is with us.
I wonder when I will hug my friends again, or see them with my eyes IRL. It will likely be long after a temporary “normal” settles. I find myself longing to sweat next to people in the gym, feel the collective, sonorous OM reverberate in my chest at the end of yoga class, turn my face up into the sun on a walk—and not flinch when someone appears in the distance on the street.
I try to pin down the source of my anxiety, other than the obvious. I fear losing access to food, to medical supplies, and yes, eventually, toilet paper. I worry for our front-line responders in medicine, in civic jobs and utilities, those delivering our online orders for aspirin and hand soap. I feel anxious about the ability for the entire country to vote, especially states with no mail-in ballot options. I shiver to think of us being held hostage beyond 2020 by a narcissistic madman who is doing everything to cut off testing and aid to the most vulnerable—and, really, to all of us.
I’ve decided to take a break from drinking coffee.
The gyms are closed by law, so I’m walking every day. I’m not writing (or reading) as much as I want to, but I’m trying new things. I signed up for a free class on the science of wellbeing through Yale University. I took a yoga class via Zoom and talked on the phone to more people in a week than I have in a year. I ordered groceries online. Our self-isolation is eight to twelve weeks minimum. While I would probably survive coronavirus, though I have asthma, it would likely kill M.
I cannot order isopropyl alcohol or sanitizing wipes; everything is sold out. At the hospital for M’s ongoing blood work, I douse my cracked-and-bleeding knuckles with Purell. I have a few bottles of soap at home and, if we needed help getting more, we have friends who would do so gladly. I am beyond thankful for them.
Underneath all this, I am safeguarding the love of my life as he inches day by day towards health. I am trying to keep my own sanity by staying connected digitally while the buzzy, social, tactile world we once knew is being torn away. It was also a world whose thin rewards in exchange for brutal capitalist demands was killing and torturing people, if not in body, in spirit. When I panic about what we are losing, what dark, terrible dystopia will replace what we knew, I counter fear with the light that this pandemic may ultimately bring.
We cling to the devil we know because we sort of believe his lies. If our species can survive COVID-19, the sea change might unbalance the systemic oppression of humanity, nature, liberty.
Stripping normal from our understanding might help us change the world.
In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari asserts that what sets our species apart, beyond our ability to communicate and collaborate, is humanity’s capability to share belief in intangible concepts. God. America. Corporations. The stock market. Currency. These ideas exist only in our heads, yet because we agree to believe in them—whether they improve or harm our lives—they exist and they function.
We think [happy thoughts], therefore we can fly.
This pandemic is lifting the scales from our eyes as to the world we created with our common thought. What we stop giving energy to dies. It can go either way. This disruption is changing how we, as social organisms, communicate and collaborate, necessary actions that allow us to problem-solve. Online learning and teleworking and performances are privileged liberations that force us to question how we, as a species, will support each other’s survival and growth into the future. These small experiments will yield seismic shifts in way we eat, shop, move, learn, love, meet, make art, travel, maintain health, communicate—life as we know it will change.
Perhaps we will, in the end, becomes less lonely as a species.
We live in a precarious moment. There is no “new normal” and the early fallout of this pandemic demonstrates how thin a fabric that normal is woven from. Normal is an illusion. Every day brings change that our busy-ness has blinkered. Right now, today, we are awakening as a species—frightened, yes, but paying attention. Staying awake to the ramification of our daily choices during and after this period should be our goal. To think, as Jill Tarter of SETI tells Krista Tippet in the On Being podcast, not as Californians or Americans but as Earthlings.
If we are to survive on this planet, this is our moment.
I came into 2020 intending to make change, although on a less planetary scale. The first week of February, I gave notice at work. After nearly a decade at my job, and fifteen years working in marketing for architecture firms, it was time to invoke a pause. I had planned to edit the novel that I finished last January, to travel, and to volunteer for organizations involved in literature, the arts, and the environment. I applied for residencies, fellowships, grants. I told myself that it would be a year of rest, experimentation, service, creativity, relationships, and writing.
Last month, I began writing this post to kick off my new life.
Then M had his angiogram.
COVID-19 was already stalking silently into the Pacific Northwest, but life seemed routine, even dependable—I had my gym, yoga class, writing classes, tickets to see Rebecca Solnit, chai lattes and fresh bread at Grand Central. A beautiful illusion of intention, stability, privilege. I had worked myself into the ground for this moment of respite and transformation. Then, everything flipped. We scheduled M’s surgery, canceled our vacation, canceled our plans with friends. And I still thought, stupidly, selfishly, that I could have something close to what I had planned, an intangible future I was attached to.
Now, I am happy to have time with M inside our home, or on a walk in between rain showers.
When our local businesses open again, I’ll reschedule my eye exam, teeth cleaning, and haircut, possibly for June. I wonder when, or if, there will be a time that I can safely do anything I once did without endangering M, who will remain at risk. They say a vaccine is eighteen months away.
Until then, I’ll follow the counsel of Wendell Berry, who encourages us to do whatever small good we can do. The spring issue of Orion magazine has an interview with Berry whose words calmed my heart:
“The argument for despair is impenetrable, it’s invulnerable.
You’ve got all the cards.
You’ve got to cleanse that mess out of your heart.
However bad it gets, anybody willing to act with goodwill, in good faith,
with some competence in acting can make things a little better.”
I’ll do the small good I can for myself and M, the environment, small businesses (so many online offerings!), book stores, our nation, the world. I’ll build pollinator pathways in my yard, repair soils, plant seeds. I’ll massage the post-op swelling from M’s limbs and cook him healthy, healing food with whatever we have. I’ll register with the census, vote, volunteer to write online content, check in with loved ones, edit my novel, write. Practice yoga and meet with my writer’s group via Zoom for as long as we need to.
When I feel scared or hopeless, I will think of Wendell Berry and ask: What good thing can I do, no matter how small? And I will do it.