Lately, I find myself weeping at the slightest provocation. I’m not sure if that’s because my mom died three months ago or because of the pandemic—or if, possibly, there’s no way to separate each event out from the other. My mom died in February, and WHO declared the COVID-19 epidemic a pandemic on March 11. By the time school closed a few days later, we were already sheltering in place. Not because I’m a germaphobe–I totally am–but because we were all sick with an unknown virus. Unknown because, naturally, we didn’t qualify to get tested.
At Alex’s birthday party in late February, one of her friends had a hacking cough. Within a week the twins, who’d sat beside the coughing child, were both sick. Ellie got over the virus quickly, but Sydney didn’t. For nearly four weeks, she suffered from a horrible cough, intermittent fevers, lack of appetite, and general all-around lethargy. When I called her pediatrician’s office, they referred us to a hotline at Seattle Children’s Hospital. The nurse there asked me if Syd was coughing up blood or unable to catch her breath. She wasn’t, so we were told to wait for the illness to pass. Once her fever came down, we could send her back to school.
We didn’t send her back to school. By the time we would have felt comfortable doing so, school had been cancelled.
I got sick, too, with milder fevers, a cough, and gastro issues. Alex lost her appetite, and Kris had a sore throat and runny nose, but fortunately she was at the end of her immune-suppressing drug cycle. She, Ellie, and Alex rebounded quickly, but just as my respiratory symptoms began to fade, I relapsed with malaise, chills, and body aches. I lay on the couch for most of a week, feeling spent after walking across the driveway and falling asleep when Kris or the kids were in the middle of a sentence. But it wasn’t the physical symptoms that bothered me most. It was the fear of getting sicker. So little was known about the virus then, and even though the statistics looked good for people in my age group, I couldn’t help worrying about every headache and wheeze.
Kris, who isn’t a germaphobe, shared my concerns. What if we both got sicker and ended up hospitalized at the same time? Who would look after our children? We knew that there were friends and family members who would step in if we needed them to, but how could you ask someone to knowingly expose themselves to a highly contagious, potentially fatal virus? I ended up calling our friends in Seattle who are our kids’ back-up parents and checking in to make sure they were still all in. They were, but I could tell one of my friends was mostly humoring me as she assured me everything would be okay.
She couldn’t know that for sure, of course, any more than we could. Kris and I both have disordered immune systems, and the jury was (is?) still out about why some otherwise healthy people become critically ill from COVID-19 while others don’t. We weren’t worried about missing out on our own lives. We were worried about abandoning our children in a world that seemed to be falling apart, day by day. Someone said online that the pandemic is a slow-moving tsunami. Honestly, that sounds about right.
And then one day after Kris had already recovered, I woke up and felt, finally, almost back to normal. My terror receded. We had made it through the worst–we hoped.
“We are lucky,” Kris and I reminded ourselves and each other. So, so lucky.
In case you didn’t know this, the COVID-19 pandemic is a germaphobe’s worst nightmare as well as our vindication because WE WERE RIGHT, PEOPLE. And, incidentally, not crazy. As we’ve been telling anyone who might listen for most of our lives, germs are some scary shit. When I announced to Kris on March 9 that we needed to go load up on food at Costco and Fred Meyer—sadly, I didn’t think of toilet paper—she gave me a look that clearly said I was being paranoid. But over the following two weeks as our community freaked out and descended on the local Fred Meyer as if six inches of snow had been forecast, she changed her tune. From March 12 until last week, when another Costco run became necessary, we didn’t go inside a store or other public place.
Turns out being married to a germaphobe is actually kinda handy during a pandemic, given we’ve been training for this our whole lives.
“This apocalypse totally sucks,” Kris and I routinely joked in the early days of the crisis. And it did. Still does, actually. But we’ve also talked about how the entertainment industry gets pandemics wrong. Movies show empty streets instead of the crowded interiors where people connect online and over the phone, through email and video chat. They miss the dark humor that follows on the heels of tragedy, and the resilience of those who survive. In real life, there are memes, touching videos, hilarious Zoom fails involving uncooperative children and naked partners. There is also the inherent goodness in people, the tendency of the masses to reach out to support those they love.
Far from dividing us, the Internet has come to the rescue with offers of all sorts of connection. John Krasinski has lifted spirits with his home production, Some Good News, while musicians everywhere have taken to live streaming their productions, from the Seattle Symphony and the Metropolitan Opera to the Indigo Girls and Melissa Etheridge. Celebrities aren’t the only ones reaching out, of course. Neighbors are helping each other, and families are seeking to connect more than ever, even if that connection is virtual rather than in real life. Kris and I now speak more to our parents and other elderly relatives than we did before the pandemic. It feels important to check in, to talk, to see the faces of our families and friends right now while we are all still home bound.
Our new normal settled over us slowly. We started feeling better right around the time our school district developed a distance learning plan, and Kris began homeschooling our kiddos in earnest while I went out to my backyard writing studio daily, trying to finish a draft of my first novel since July. Alex’s Girls on the Run 5K had been canceled, so we decided to train for and run our own. On sunny days, we took to a field near our house for family soccer games. The local golf course was closed, so we took advantage and rode bikes around the beautiful paths. The twins turned 7 at the end of the first month, and we experienced our first birthday Zoom. Kris’s birthday in mid-May marked our 9-week anniversary of staying at home. Again, we connected with friends and family far and near via video chat.
I’d watched an interview with a British teacher in China who had been unable to leave his Wuhan apartment for 40 days, and he recommended trying to learn a new skill. As a family, we decided to take up piano lessons on my keyboard and Spanish lessons on YouTube. Some neighborhood kids hung hammocks in the 10-acre greenbelt between our houses, so we ordered our own and created an outdoor reading room. Kris and the girls have been cooking and baking up a storm. I’ve been cleaning, which is what germaphobes do, though with all five of us plus two dogs living in close quarters, it doesn’t look like it. Last week, I learned how to shut off the water to our house from the street, and this week, I might even use that new-found skill to replace a couple of worn-out shut-off valves in the kids’ bathroom. Because that’s what lesbians do, pandemic or no pandemic: We fix shit around the house. Or, you know, destroy our own plumbing. Personally, I’m hoping for the former.
We’ve watched more movies than usual lately, more for the family cuddling time than for the screen time. A few nights ago, while the girls got ready for bed after one such movie night, I sat on Ellie’s bed looking around their colorful bedroom, thinking how fortunate we are even at this difficult, uncertain time. I sang the girls their nightly lullabies, taking in the USWNT poster from the 2019 World Cup, the bookshelf stacked with favorite titles from my childhood as well as Kris’s, the three comfy twin beds with their bright quilts and ridiculous piles of stuffed animals, so many the kids almost don’t fit. We’ve tried to cull the stuffed animal herd before, but the girls have created intricate lives and relationships for nearly every single one. The families are diverse and highly accepting of difference, which is probably typical of children from same-sex parented families. If we were to take even one stuffy away, we would be breaking up a family, and no one really wants to do that.
Well, no one with any compassion or decency, that is.
The pandemic creeps on, a giant wave that slowly crashes over entire communities and takes the old and infirm—and sometimes the seemingly firm, too. We feel like we’ve been through it already, though, and we survived (knock on wood). We even got a bit of closure when the dad who brought his sick daughter to Alex’s birthday party apologized. His wife has damage in both lungs, so I can’t feel bitter. By now, I have managed to mostly forget that sick feeling in the middle of the night, that fear of what would happen to our children if Kris and I both succumbed to the virus. They would be taken care of, I know, and loved by many. They would grow up and one day flourish, I hope. But they wouldn’t have us, their mothers who have loved them more than our own lives since before they were born.
Last fall, when Kris developed a life-threatening reaction to her RA meds and had to be hospitalized for three days and nights, the crisis we experienced feels now like it was a dress rehearsal for the current show. For now, even as the country slowly begins to open up, we’ll keep isolating and hoping that by the time Kris starts her next round of immune-suppressing medication, the second wave won’t be raging. We’ll stay at home and watch movies and cuddle on the couch and maybe pop our camper in our driveway. With a fire pit in the front yard and 10 acres of second growth trees just beyond, we pretty much always feel like we’re camping. I’ll try to fix the bathroom sink and maybe take a stab at some electrical work—though not at the same time, obviously. Kris will keep teaching the kids, I’ll keep writing, and we’ll keep Zooming at dinnertime with my dad, who we see regularly from six feet away but who we haven’t been able to hug since early March. And we’ll remember how lucky we are. So, so lucky.
Stay safe and well, and hug each other if you can.