Life in the Time of Coronavirus
I live inside a dream, a dream from which I cannot wake, but one I can look out of, through shimmering gossamer curtains, into a distorted image of what used to be my life. I want to go out there again, but the membrane is impermeable. There is no passage, just a fogged-up window. I am stuck here inside a cocoon quarantine of my own making, from which no governor’s order can ever release me.
4:30 AM. I wake early, despite my comfy mattress, courtesy of the back pain that has dogged me since I took a fall in my own bedroom three months ago. I think of my grandmother, healthy at the age of 97, until she fell off her stationary bicycle, broke her hip, and quickly declined and died. I am too young for this.
I futz around reading quarantine journals on my phone until my back hammers at me sufficiently that I have to get up. Untangle myself from the electric blanket’s cord. Grab on to the soft leather armchair next to the bed and pull myself up. I’d better haul myself to the bathroom before my wife wakes up and has to use it.
We have a second bathroom in this house, but it is up front, where my sister-in-law and her boyfriend live. Knowing my proclivity for wandering about in varying stages of undress, I am under strict orders from my wife not to leave our bedroom without pants on. I need dibs on that toilet.
I sit on the pot for a few minutes, wallowing in self-pity, knowing it will hurt when I stand up. Not my back. I seem to have developed other problems, and I’m hoping it won’t be long until the doctor figures out what they are. Gall bladder? Cracked rib? Spleen? Hernia? Who the heck knows. It hurts when I cough. Also when I move. Also when I don’t move.
My doctor has ordered an ultrasound. They can get me in Sunday afternoon, which means I get to fast all day. Unless I want to wait another two weeks until they can schedule me in the morning. Okay, Sunday it is. I will grab my cane and venture into the bowels of Kaiser Hospital, the basement where they do all the imaging.
“Are you gonna be in there?” I hear my wife grumble, still half asleep. “I’m almost done,” I call out in response. Clean myself up, leave the light on for her, go wash my hands under the warm tap. I pump the soap dispenser filled with something called Japanese Cherry Blossom, lather up and count out 25 seconds as I scrub up. One Mississippi, two Mississippi. I always figure that a few extra seconds can’t hurt, particularly if my count is a little off.
I hear my wife’s rhythmic breathing and I know she has fallen back to sleep. It seems the two of us are always falling somewhere these days. Asleep, away, apart, on the floor, on our faces, into outer space. We live in Pandemic Land, transported there like stowaways, without a ticket or passport, as if beamed aboard by Scotty. I turn out the light and let her sleep.
Back in bed, now well after 5 AM, I hear my sister-in-law rattling around in the kitchen, see the light shine in beneath my bedroom door. I hear the metallic percussion of a pot, the clank of coffee cups. She must be emptying the dishwasher. Then the rumble, rumble of the ice maker as she prepares her first cold drink of the day. My nephew is about to arrive with his eight month old son and my sister-in-law has to clock in electronically to her VPN by 6 AM. She works from home, as does my wife. As do I, thanks to COVID-19, for twelve weeks now. Coronavirus has sent most of us home, where I supervise my team remotely, courtesy of email, text message, Skype, and endless conference calls. I avoid Zoom like the . . . well, you know.
My wife and her sister are doing double duty, not only working but also providing day care for Weylyn. I am of no help at all. And at the moment, Weylyn’s a-wailin’. He has not been a very happy baby of late. He wants to be in his own, familiar home. He wants his Mom. He wants his Dad. But they’re both working out there in the real world, at risk of infection at every turn. Our house is a perpetual wreck, strewn with toys, playpen, rocker seat, infant formula, every detritus of babyhood. Baby on board and this boat is rockin’. My wife hurries into the shower so she can relieve her sister as soon as possible.
My wife is a contractor with flexible hours, so she gets to tend to Weylyn during the day, then, exhausted, take a short nap (if she’s lucky) before plunging into her work in the evening. Some days, Weylyn is disconsolate, yells his head off, and my sister-in-law runs in from her home office, picks him up, walks with him, heats a bottle, feeds him, changes him, leaves him with my wife and runs back to her her computer, one ear perpetually cocked for the start of the next round. I don’t know how those two do it. They do it all for love. I am in awe of their dedication. They are saints.
My own office is my leather armchair, two steps from my bed. It has been wonderful not having to get up at four in the morning to snag a parking space in front of my government office in downtown Sacramento. I save so much money on gas. And I don’t miss the traffic or the driving round and round in circles in a vain attempt to find a legal place to leave my car for the next ten or twelve hours. Working from home has been a stress reducer for sure. At least this is the narrative that I let myself believe.
I never saw the downside of telework until it hauled off and bit me in the butt when I was not paying attention. I have been morbidly obese since childhood, and I never realized that my health was hanging on by a thread, that thread being the little bit of walking necessary to do my job. The 348 steps from my car to my cubicle. The 125 steps of a round-trip to the rest room. The seemingly epic trek across the indoor bridge to the building next door for meetings. At least I can still do it, I remember thinking, even if I have to stop halfway and sit down for a few minutes.
Now, after twelve weeks at home, I don’t think I can do it anymore. Use it or lose it. I know I’ve lost it. The next stop is a wheelchair, if the hospital and cemetery don’t get me first.
I can barely get my pants on and off anymore. I have been retaining water in my legs for a long time, and Doc says there’s not much she can do if I don’t lose weight. She tried water pills with me, but I cramped up so bad that I had to stop taking them. Cramps in my feet, my calves, my hands, my neck. Waking up at night with spasms, pacing back and forth to walk them off. Then came the night when both legs cramped up simultaneously, and I howled in pain as I was barely able to drag myself out of bed.
I try performing leg and foot exercises in bed. Just getting into bed is an ordeal, as I am barely able to lift my heavy, heavy legs high enough. It takes me several tries. I have developed alternate techniques, the most reliable of which tends to hurt my back.
I am gaining weight. Being at home, the refrigerator and pantry are always here, and the temptation to eat is forever with me. My only saving grace is that eating would require that I get out of my chair, and the thought of the pain of unfolding myself and standing up is a definite deterrent.
It’s not that I didn’t bring plenty of food with me to work, in the blue rolling bag that I would pull behind me, the handle doubling as a stabilizer as I made the long walk from car to desk. Meals on wheels, one of my coworkers called it. But it was limited. When it was gone, it was gone. The vegan-but-high-calorie potato chips and Oreos in the vending machines rarely tempted me due to the walking that would be required to get down to the lobby and back.
I was at my highest weight about eight years ago, before I lost my job and went vegan. For the first time ever, we had to go on Food Stamps, for which we were approved only after months of wrangling with the county and standing in food distribution lines for boxes of canned goods, rotting produce, and stale baked goods donated by supermarkets when the expiration date had passed. I lost a fair amount of weight after that, but now it’s creeping back up and I’m in shouting distance of my max, only about 25 pounds off. Scale don’t lie. I should make an effort to walk more, but it hurts too much. There are so-called “chair exercises.” I feel I am doomed.
Weylyn is crying uncontrollably in the next room, unresponsive to my wife’s herculean efforts to comfort him. I want to join him in his histrionics. I understand his feeling of frustration.
Like so many others, I want to return to what was. I want to draw the Chance card that reads “go back 3 spaces.” Only I want it to say “go back 3 months.”
I want to get a full night of sleep instead of waking up after three hours with my back on fire. I don’t want to have to think about how many hours ago I last ate and can I take an over-the-counter pain reliever now without ending up with stomach cramps.
I want to jump in the shower without grimacing in pain when I bend over to clean myself. I want to get dressed in a white shirt and tie, toss whatever I can find in the refrigerator into my rolling bag, hit the garage door opener and then the freeway, singing along with my iPod all the way to downtown Sacramento. I want to boil water for my morning tea in my little pot, then hide it under a blanket because we’re not supposed to have those (fire code, you know). I want staff to stop by and ask for advice, managers to stop by and ask me to do things. I miss my big double monitors and my shelf of reference books.
I want to take weeklong trips to southern Cali to lecture before classrooms filled with county workers, to show PowerPoint slides, to provide thoughtful answers to intriguing questions. I want to stay in mediocre hotels and eat lousy road food. I want to sit at a long table at the back of the room with my laptop and wireless mouse instead of sitting with my laptop on a folding tray in my bedroom. I want to greet the line of people coming in, look up the cases of the old lady with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles mask and the man in the wheelchair with his bottle of Purell. I want to help them cut through the red tape and get what they need to keep living at home and not end up in a coronavirus death trap of a nursing home.
But you can’t go home again.
I remind myself of the exhaustion of commuting and traveling, how I’d barely be able to stay awake while driving home. Drive, work, drive, sleep. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
I have been guilty of the sin of envy. I envied the techies and engineers with their headphones and laptops at Starbucks. I wished I could work from home. I calculated the number of years before I could retire and never have to drive to Sacramento again unless I was hankering for a really good plate of pad se ew. Final answer: Never. This house will not be paid off in my lifetime.
Be careful what you wish for. The grass is not necessarily any greener over here. Count your blessings.
It’s almost midnight and I gingerly pull up out of bed and go sit in my leather armchair. I am grateful it’s a rocker. I rock back and forth, hoping to work out the kinks in my back, delaying the pain of standing up a while longer. I listen to my wife snore across the room, play Scrabble on my phone, read the latest news of the riots and the virus. I realize that I have every risk factor for succumbing the moment the virus touches me. I am a dead man walking.
I’d better try to get a few more hours of sleep. Weylyn will be dropped off here at 5:30 AM, and my wife and her sister will have another exhausting day of trying to keep him calm, fed and distracted. For a while, they only had him on Mondays. But this week they had him Tuesday also, and then Wednesday, and now it’s going to be Thursday. My niece has been working more steadily as the weather improves.
At some point during the day, I know I will hear my sister-in-law coo “Did you make a poo-poo?” as she changes Wey’s diaper. Hopefully, it will not be during my Skype meeting. I have my weekly team huddle, during which I talk for about an hour and cannot stay on mute.
It’s not just me. Today, I was conducting a one-on-one with one of my people, when I could hear her 2 year old begin crying for his mom. Dad had to drag him away from the attic room where Mom works.
My team is used to it by now. They know that, at some point during the call, Weylyn will probably start screaming his head off in the background.
That’s what the word family means, I tell them. And right now, that’s all we’ve got.