By Sarah White
In the last week of October, I was exposed to COVID19 through my visits to my mother in a congregate living facility. She tested positive just before she passed from this life, but what took her down will go on record as respiratory failure of unspecified origin. I, on the other hand, will be counted in the great roll call of COVID statistics–happily, not among the dead. At least not yet.
My symptoms came on about two weeks after that known exposure. Because of the exposure, I had already gotten tested two times, five days apart—both tests came back negative. The first clue I was sick was a spell of unstoppable shaking as I ended a Zoom class I was teaching. I put it down to nerves about teaching a new curriculum. The next day, headache and body aches followed. I put that down to a new yoga routine and a longer walk than usual. But by Friday, I had a fever over 100, had lost my appetite, I hurt all over, and everything tasted different. I went to the clinic for another COVID test, cleared my calendar, and prepared for the unknown.
Saturday that third test came back negative but a new symptom appeared—a steady stream of post-nasal drip that upset both my lungs and my stomach. Soon my dry cough turned into a wet, sleep-disrupting mess. On Monday I tele-visited with my doctor who prescribed antibiotics. By Thursday, I was back at the clinic, suspecting pneumonia, which a chest x-ray confirmed. The next day—25 days after my last known exposure to the virus—I finally tested positive. This is quite unusual for COVID. Even 14 days would be considered a long time for enough viral load to develop for a positive test result.
And so began my COVID Flu-cation. I’ve been self-employed for most of the last 20+ years; I don’t take a lot of time off. To permit myself two weeks off in a row, I generally have to leave the country. Doing nothing for weeks on end in my own home was a brand new lifestyle. To be released from striving felt rare and wonderful.
Sleep was my only interest—my hobby, my passion. I couldn’t stand to wear anything but stretchy pajamas, knowing that at any moment an irresistible urge to hop back in bed might overtake me. I would wake hungry, at odd times, but no food sounded good and I found it difficult to finish even an egg or a slice of toast.
Oddly, while I couldn’t summon the brainpower to even think of doing any work, I found I could read and listen for pleasure. I pulled random children’s books off the shelf and re-read old favorites. I listened to podcasts. I simply slept, entertained myself, and tried to eat and drink water, as advised.
I was tremblingly weak, and yet my COVID lifestyle was strangely enjoyable. My spirit floated somewhere above my suffering body, experiencing the days like shards of light piercing the dark. Hot baths became long moments of beauty as sun fractured on the surface of the bathwater and steam soothed my lungs. And to crawl back between the flannel sheets afterward, and descend into another sleep, was purely a gift. There were other gifts—people brought us groceries, sent chocolate, emailed links to silly YouTube videos. My flu-cation was marked by generosity and compassion.
My daytime sleep was merely loss of consciousness. Nights were a different world. I descend into fevers, sweats, long hours awake as my lungs crackled and wheezed. And when I did sleep, I entered a vivid place, peopled with streets full of performers in costumes, sometimes jugglers, sometimes marching bands, with an atmosphere like Carnevale. Night after night I found myself returning to the same geography—an alternate version of the near east side of Madison along Williamson Street. I had a definite sense that these crowds of people were other dreamers in their COVID nights, and messages were trying to reach us. We were enmeshed in some kind of wisdom school.
After about two weeks in this dark fun-house dreamland, an episode came that felt like the culmination. I had become a motivational speaker aboard a cruise ship. The message I preached, received from COVID, was complex and beautiful and the rest of my life would be devoted to sharing it.
On waking, that complex beauty slipped through my brain cells like water through fingers. All I could capture of it were two phrases: Be kind to each other, and elevate your daughters. Not bad messages, but nothing compared to the spiritual beauty I felt lurking just beyond my ken.
Virginia Woolf wrote, in an essay titled “On Being Ill,”
Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed… it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.
Because my COVID flu-cation came 80 years after the widespread use of antibiotics, it was over much quicker than illnesses in Virginia Woolf’s time. Even so, it was an ellipsis, an omission from regular time. From the beginning of quarantine after my mother’s positive test to the day the Public Health Department ascertained I was free to leave the house, 34 days had passed. When I went under, the world outside was still in Fall, days sunny and improbably warm. When I was reborn into the world, it was December and the world was dusted with frost crystals glinting in the sun.
Thirty-four days is enough time for a physical, emotional, and mental reset. I have that disoriented feeling that comes when one returns from a long vacation: What is this place? And what is my role in it?
© 2020 Sarah White