As I See It: When The Second Shoe Dropped
May 4, 2020 Victor Rozek
I got tested today. Four ordinary words infused with extraordinary dread. They’ve now become part of a new language of fear, along with “cough,” “fever,” and “difficulty breathing.” A persistent sore throat and a slight fever that flared briefly a few days later, was enough to concern my doctor. She told me to come in the same day I called to complain about my throat and did a drive-by swabbing. When I arrived, she was waiting by the curb, helmeted, gloved, and gowned, like something out of Andromeda Strain. Another masked doctor stood behind her at a safe distance counting off the seconds as she inserted a small, stinging swab into my nostril. Thirty seconds later, it was done, and she backed away as if I was dripping plague – which she had to assume I was.
“How long before I know?” I asked. “Three to five days,” was her reply.
I doubt I have it. As I write this it’s been a couple of weeks since the onset of my mild symptoms. I didn’t experience the persistent dry cough or any difficulty breathing. Just in the last few days I hiked up a thousand-foot local hill, and did eight hours of heavy yard work on our property. I feel good, have lots of energy, and the persistent sore throat is most likely the result of post-nasal drip which has been an annoyance for quite some time.
But given my wife’s vulnerable condition, I had to be checked. She has cancer, aggressive and incurable. The best doctors can do is put it in remission. But the treatment she is undergoing weakens her immune system along with killing the cancer. Once this phase of the treatment concludes, a stem cell transplant is planned to rebuild her immunity. But until then, she is at risk, even to the common cold. The coronavirus could kill her. God forbid I have it and gave it to her. Thankfully, she is not exhibiting symptoms, but this thing is unpredictable and we’re going to be dodging it for a long, unspecified period of time.
Like many others, I’m working from home. For me, this hasn’t been much of an adjustment because I’ve been self-employed for many years. But during these past few months, since the coronavirus shoe dropped, I’ve learned a great deal about life, priorities, friendship, and interdependence.
On an abstract level, we all understand the inevitability of death. But for the entirety of my deliriously privileged life, natural and man-made disasters were things that happened to other people – tragedies played out on the evening news. But this pandemic is sparing no one. It’s startling to realize that any one of us could become a casualty in less than two weeks.
That speaks to the absolute tenuousness of life, and the illusion that we control outcomes. As Woody Allen quipped: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” The virus has been a great tutorial in humility. Whatever arrogance I harbored was shaken out of me like stuffing from a dog toy. Whatever false sense of superiority I harbored quickly vanished when I saw people previously taken for granted who now courageously sustain us all. People like grocery store workers, delivery drivers, pharmacists, janitors, postal workers, assisted living and nursing home staff, medical professionals, and other superheroes who expose themselves a thousand times over while in service to a freaked population. And that doesn’t include the hundreds of thousands of people who do the backbreaking work of planting and harvesting our food — people who have been treated so shamefully.
My priority now is to keep my wife safe until the world is safe enough for her to travel cross-country for her stem cell transplant. That means staying as isolated as possible (my wife doesn’t go out at all except for weekly cancer treatments) and sanitizing every grocery item before I bring it into the house. And now, it includes waiting for my lab results.
But test results are just a momentary snapshot. Every time we go out there’s a chance, albeit slight, of infection. And living with the constant not knowing is draining. It’s easy for me to go out into the future and make bad movies in my head. It’s a daily struggle to stay in the present, while simultaneously ingesting a daily dose of Internet bad news.
Ever since my wife was definitively diagnosed with cancer – ironically the same day the government finally acknowledged the arrival of the virus to our shores – friends have stepped up in extraordinary ways to support us. They have provided meals, made holistic remedies, shopped for groceries, and stayed with my wife while I self-quarantined at another friend’s house when my symptoms first appeared. And those who live greater distances away have immersed us in online expressions of love, concern, compassion, and support.
As the virus spread some understandably have dropped off as worries for their own welfare and that of their family took precedence. But a handful remain, risking their own health in order to help safeguard ours. It’s easy to be a friend when there are no risks, no costs; when your heath is good, your fridge is full, you have all the money you need, a car that’s reliable, and the rest of the amenities we take for granted. But strip some or all of that away and see who remains. We are incredibly blessed that all of the people who are our closest friends remain. The gratitude and appreciation we feel for them is boundless and we can only hope in some small fashion to repay their great kindness.
When the shelves in grocery stores stand frighteningly empty, it becomes dramatically clear how interdependent we truly are. From toilet paper to bleach; from food to medicine, all of the things we assumed would always be there were produced by someone else. Their welfare and our welfare are inextricably intertwined. Ignoring that fact resulted in the greatest economic power in the world being unable to supply its medical professionals with the masks and ventilators they desperately needed.
If ever there was evidence – beyond planetary warming – that we are a single global community, it was delivered by Covid-19. No borders, no boundaries, no ideologies stopped its spread. Like climate change, it affects believers and non-believers alike. And, like the effort to slow global warming, non-believers slow the progress believers could have made in averting the worst of the coming consequences. Scientific models are useful in predicting outcomes, but it is difficult to model ignorance.
So, complying with the best advice of medical and infectious disease professionals, for the foreseeable future we will remain at home, going out only when necessary, wrestling the twin demons of Cancer and Covid. Yesterday I got an email from my doctor: the test result is negative. I am relieved, but not particularly surprised. But now the clock resets again, and tomorrow I will continue to monitor myself and my wife for any hint of a symptom.
May you all stay safe.