Fear and Grief … At A Distance
It was in early February when my father-in-law became obsessed with the coronavirus. He lives in California and is fond of conspiracy theories and had been telling anyone who would listen to become a prepper, a person who prepares for a dystopian future.
“Calm down, Henry,” we would text him. He said we should build respirator masks, like he was doing.
My husband, Henri (same name, different spelling) spoke to his dad nearly every day. He called on February 10th. His dad was working on his invention. February 11th my husband was busy with work. I remember going to breakfast with my friend, Regina, that morning, to celebrate my birthday a little late. We were talking about politics and the Texas primary coming up. Was that only a few weeks ago?
On February 12th Henri called his dad, but he didn’t answer. Sent him text messages with no reply. He desperately called his brother and sisters, who live nearby, but no one was answering their phones.
I was at Ninja Warrior class with my son. He was hanging on monkey bars and swinging on ropes. My husband called me, beside himself. He finally got through and his dad was on the ground, as he had been for a day, when his legs collapsed beneath him. My husband was in Texas; his father in California.
Echoes of my mother came to mind. I had called her on a Tuesday, like I did every day. She didn’t answer the phone, she didn’t call back. I called her Wednesday morning. The call went to voicemail. Wednesday night I called my brother, who lived ten minutes away, to drive over and check on her. He found her collapsed on the floor where she had been for 24 hours. They were in New Jersey. I was in Texas.
This was five? No, six years ago. I hoped on the first plane out. My husband’s voice interrupted my memory. “My sister is on her way to him.”
My son, also named Henry, of course, but we call him Junior when everyone gets together, wanted to stay for free play at the gym. I told him Grandpa was sick and we needed to get home.
His dad kept saying he had the coronavirus because he was sweating and had the chills. Thankfully, he didn’t have COVID-19. But he did have a massive stroke. I told my husband to drop everything and get the next flight out. I would drive with the kids out there for spring break, in four weeks time.
Washington state was a hotspot for the virus. California started to be one as well. In January I asked my husband to buy some facemasks at the hardware store, just in case. They were already sold out by then. I worried about him being on an airplane, but no need to overreact. Right?
Valentine’s Day felt so lonely. I had sneaked a card into his suitcase before he left, but he hadn’t found it yet. He was at the hospital, and cleaning his dad’s house, fixing it so his dad could return home. The MRI said his brain was bleeding, but his dad was so strong, and such a fighter they were getting him ready to move out of ICU.
I was going to function as single mother for the foreseeable future. I work part-time at a gym, plus my husband and I have a mom-and-pop real estate business. My personal training clients were rescheduled to 5 a.m. so I could work, go home, take the kids to school, go back to the gym to train again, and then drive down to our building to work there.
For some reason, I thought February would be the very best time to lay sod and river rock at our property. Brian, our Property Manager, shook his head at me as we were covered in mud and freezing rain. By 1:30 p.m. I had to drive north to pick up my son from school and then take my daughter to theater, then home by 7:45 pm. Somewhere in there I think we ate hotdogs.
February 16. I win my Toastmaster’s club motivational speech competition! This year the ten final contestants get to speak in front of thousands at the international conference in Paris! There are multiple competitions to get through, but this has been a dream for years.
February 21. My son won 2nd place for his grade at the regional science fair! February isn’t so bad. The convention center was mobbed with children and parents, grandparents and friends.
Soon after, my son got sick.
I called the doctor, something I normally don’t do unless it’s an absolute emergency. She said a stomach bug was going around and assured me that he didn’t have the virus; his symptoms were totally different. I felt dumb. I felt dumb to allow him to be around so many people. I felt dumb that I was overreacting and calling the doctor for nothing. People on TV were saying this virus is nothing. Then why is China entirely shut down?
My entire house soon smelled like lavender bleach. The last time I cleaned the house like this I was nine months pregnant and about ready to deliver a baby. (Mothers will understand.) I was making it coronavirus clean.
My aunt called me from Florida. Maybe I called her? I don’t remember. My uncle was going into hospice. My aunt was recovering herself from a back surgery. Thank God one of cousins was able to move in to care for them both.
All my mother’s old photo albums were in boxes in my closet. She passed away five years ago and I never seemed able to go through the pictures. That day I did. I made him a book of all the photos of him and his family at our house and their house over the years. Most printing happened in China, so there would be a delay. I hoped it would make it in time.
Can we all agree that 2020 sucks? Is anyone anywhere in the world having a good year? On top of all of life’s standard misfortunes, did we really need a pandemic too?
I texted my brother in New Jersey (he’s fine) and my three best friends from childhood (they’re not). One’s mother was in hospice from cancer, just as New York was locking down. Another’s uncle in California just passed while her mother was at the airport to see him. The third was obsessively cleaning, cleaning, cleaning the house. Her husband works EMS. He had a mask but the new hires didn’t and wondered if they would get them soon?
We were still on schedule to drive out to California. Driving would be safer because we didn’t have face masks and didn’t want to breath the recirculated air. But maybe we were all overreacting?
President Trump said everything was under control, that there were only 15 people sick and then there would be two and then, like a miracle, zero.
I started shopping.
March 3rd. I voted for Elizabeth Warren. It crushed me when she dropped out of the race.
March 5th. The photo album arrives and I send it to my uncle.
March 7th. A woman I knew from Toastmasters said her husband, a nurse, had been tested for COVID-19 and thankfully, he didn’t have it. I had not been near her in almost a month, so I wasn’t worried of exposure, but my mind began to race. If I had to be in quarantine for two weeks, would I be able to feed my kids?
The theater teacher made the kids space out during class and take turns washing their hands and sing “Happy Birthday” twice. Right. Coronavirus clean.
Maybe a vaccine would be made soon? Doctor Fauci on the news said it would take between a year and 18 months before one would be available. The newscaster gasped.
March 11. I won the next division of the Toastmasters competition. We greeted each other with a wave (no more handshakes). My friends say I have a good chance to go all the way to Paris. I wipe down my trophy with Clorex once I get in the car. Wipe the door handles, steering wheel, my hands. The newsfeed across my phone says coronavirus is officially a pandemic. I wipe my phone down too.
The next morning the parking lot at HEB is full at 6 a.m. I get milk and meat and eggs and chips and two rolls of toilet paper and bleach. A woman coughs in line. I pull my hoodie over my face and turn away from her. I smile at the cashier. “It’s as busy as Thanksgiving!” I say. “Busier,” she shrugs nervously. I bag my own groceries. I fill up the tank with gas, using a Clorex wipe as a buffer between me and the handle. I wipe the door handles, my credit card, the steering wheel, my hands. I unload the food, put all my clothes in the laundry and shower while my children are still sleeping. I feel scared.
March 12. My husband has been gone a month now. At the gym, all clients and trainers had to have their temperatures taken before they were allowed in. I carried Clorex wipes and a travel size hand sanitizer the other trainer managed to buy before they sold out online. It was just too stressful. I texted my clients that we would train again after everything calmed down.
At my other job, my husband’s job normally, I bleached the doorknobs and handrails around our apartment building. I wrote a memo about the coronavirus and placed one on each tenant’s door reminding people to social distance and wash their hands. This was the day we were supposed to drive to California.
“Don’t come, Lisa,” he said. “I can’t risk you and the kids getting sick. My dad will get out of rehab and settled into my sister’s house, and I’ll rent a car and drive home.” But the prices to rent cars are going through the roof, even though the price of gasoline is going down, down, down.
My son and I go to the park, thinking my daughter would come back from her school club at 5:15 pm. We get home at 4:45 pm to find her locked out, angry and crying. My daughter and I shout at each other. She texted me but my phone was on the charger, so I never saw her message about the time change. I feel guilty. I feel angry. I feel scared. I feel tired. I screamed back, “Rylee, I’m doing everything! Your father’s been gone for a month, I’m working, I’m taking you kids to rehearsals and Ninja, I’m shopping for food no longer on shelves and I made a mistake, I’m sorry!” We both sob and hug and apologize and hug again. She’s scared too.
The stock market is a roller coaster, matching my stomach. School is on spring break now, but the district hasn’t officially closed. They are considering extending vacation for a week.
I used to homeschool my kids. This year then went back to “normal” school. #Irony. Part of me was looking forward to teaching them again, only not under these circumstances. My son’s best friend came over to play video games.
Texas was so weird. Toilet paper memes were all over, but gun sales were up too, so I knew people were starting to take this seriously. Some neighbors thought this was a big pile of horseshit. Tom Hanks and his wife test positive for coronavirus. The stock market goes berserk. The NBA ends its season. All sports shut down.
Friday the 13th. Trump declares a national emergency. Are we all in a movie? This feels unreal.
The days blend together. My friend’s mom passed away from cancer. Everyone grieves alone. She homeschools her kid. I start homeschooling my kids. Late night talk shows go off the air and now Trevor Noah is Skyping from his couch.
My kids want to play with their friends buy I say no. They want to eat at Chili’s but I take them to McDonald’s drive through. I tell them this is probably the last drive through food they will eat for awhile. My son will probably miss the 5th grade camping trip. My daughter will probably miss the 8th grade dance. I will probably miss my chance to speak to an audience in Paris. Not that it was guaranteed, but I was hopeful.
Chris Hayes on MSNBC said the United States was 10 days behind Italy on our current trajectory. I text my friends and family constantly. My uncle is still hanging in there. My father-in-law is getting settled into my sister-in-law’s home. I want my husband home.
My husband decides to take a plane. There are rumors that California will go on full lockdown and maybe airlines too. It’s actually cheaper to fly a plane than rent a car right now. He kept a mask from visiting his father at the hospital and wears it on the plane. I drive to the airport. There’s barely anyone on the road.
He gets into the car and we both breath a sigh of relief… and anxiety. “Happy Anniversary,” I said. Twenty years ago this day we went on our first date. St. Patrick’s Day, 2000. Our family is in isolation now. No symptoms, just in case.
Here we wait in fear and grief…at a distance.
Lisa Traugott is a personal trainer, Mom’s Choice Award writer, original cast member of FOX/John Cena’s “American Grit” and has a monthly fitness column on Bowflex.com. She won Ms. Costa Rica Sports Model 2017 and her transformation story was featured in Muscle & Fitness Hers, Good Day Austin, Great Day Houston and Austin Woman Magazine. She blogs at ShesLosingIt.com and is passionate about her clients.
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