On the phone, at a gas station, in our dreams
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Names and some incidental details in this essay have been changed to protect privacy.
March 28, 2020
This afternoon, for the first time in what feels like a long time but has only been a week, I step outside my Florida home and into my garden, a small shady space ringed by a high wood fence. I’m hidden from the world. Barefoot in my damp nightgown, I walk slowly across the pavers. One step, one breath. I have one hand on my throat. I’m not sure why, but somehow this feels absolutely necessary.
The virus is hidden inside of me. I feel its force and power. My body aches. Cold knots snarl in my calves and my thighs; my back feels frozen; shivers ripple up my arms. By the time I reach the birdbath, I’m sweating in the soft breeze.
I close my eyes. The hardest part is taking the next breath. I must breathe very, very slowly, in a very specific way.
Breathing has become like remaining steady on a balance beam over a dark pit.
I’m stunned to find I cannot take another step. I don’t have the breath.
After the garden walk, I sleep for fifteen hours.
When I wake, I find if I think about my friends in the Philippines who have lost family members; or if I think of Italy or the rest of the world; if I think about the crush in hospitals, the caregivers who are going to die; if I think about what might happen if I get even a little worse, or my doctor’s words — You are right on the edge; the hospital knows you might be coming — really, if I think any thought at all, my breath catches, and the next breath is impossible to complete. I gasp for air.
Then this stress-breathlessness incites panic, and the panic intensifies the difficult cycle, ricocheting through all the next breaths to come for an hour, or for the rest of the day, all night.
(Everything difficult gets worse at night.)
But I have a method. It has to do with observing and allowing. I learned ways to breathe in sangha, the meditation community in my church in New York City, where I sublet every summer. On Sunday afternoons, at St. Bart’s, for many years, I’ve been practicing how to breathe.
Now, as I walk back inside my house incredibly slowly, every step is mindfulness meditation. Even with all the years of training, I can’t believe how hard it is to allow an in-breath and to gently let that breath go.
There are many moments I think I’m not going to make it. I’m not going to be able to breathe in this disciplined way much longer. I’m not going to keep breathing.
And I must allow that, too.
And I do.
One breath in.
One breath out.
One month earlier
My story begins at the threshold of my friends’ house early in the morning on Friday, February 28. Inside, behind the locked door, a black dog sleeps.
His people, my friends, left at dawn, and now, as instructed, at 8 AM I’ve arrived at the door to their beautiful home — a modern castle of concrete and glass, with panoramic views of the glittering blue bay — to keep their dog, Zee, company for the weekend while they visit their daughter in Texas. I enjoy doing this for them; it’s a nice retreat for me, and the dog is good company.
The night before, I placed their carabiner with their key on my key ring. Now I hold these keys in my hand at the threshold. But their key is missing.
I already knew a lot. I knew about the man who had traveled to Wuhan, China, and returned to Seattle sick. I knew the virus was in the United States. I knew it was spreading rapidly. But I did not know, at that moment, that a Washington high-school student who hadn’t traveled abroad was being diagnosed with the virus. I didn’t know that the following morning the first known, reported coronavirus death in the United States would be announced.
In these last remaining hours before I understood I had a pandemic problem, I believed all I had was a key problem.
“If you come tomorrow by nine, he’ll be fine,” Eleanor had said when she’d handed me the key in her living room and I’d clipped the carabiner to my key ring. Frankly I was surprised they were going through with the trip, given what had been reported in the previous days, the airplane air, all those surfaces and moving-about people, but Eleanor had said they were going to wipe everything down.
Their daughter is an ER doctor. Eleanor is a doctor. Her husband is a doctor. I deferred to their wisdom. I trust the Smiths with my life. In fact, they’re my power of attorney and health-care surrogates.
But I would not have taken this trip. Viruses don’t know about state lines, about borders of any kind.
While they were in the air, flying to Texas, I fumbled through my keys and discovered the carabiner was empty. I had all my keys but not the key to this door.
I looked on the front steps and under the mat. I retraced my steps to my car. I repeated all of this. I emptied my purse on their top step and dug through every pocket, every portal. I went through my wallet. I went through my pockets. I patted my hair. All the while, though I knew it was futile, I kept checking the key chain. At no point then was I aware of my breath.
I was worried about poor Zee the dog, trapped in the house.
Around 8:30 I drove home. I scoured the driveway. I looked everywhere in my house: counters, bedroom, sink, floor, carpet — even places I had not been with my keys in the preceding fourteen hours.
About 9 AM I called Eleanor and William. I left voice mails, sent texts. No answer.
I looked in impossible places: my washing machine, the garden. On the patio I searched all around the big cobalt-blue pot of my lemon tree, where my one perfect lemon had just turned an elegant shade of yellow — maybe a week until harvest, no more than two. Already I was planning the lemon harvest. It’s a Meyer lemon, so sweet, most years I just eat it like you would an orange. I make this a ceremony.
Now I sat on my front stoop and took a couple of deep breaths. I took these breaths completely for granted. I just took them.
Still no word from the Smiths. But Eleanor’s mother lived in my neighborhood. I’d never been to her house — she was sequestered with a long-term illness — but over the years I’d walked by many times. I rang the bell and knocked on the door.
After a long time a caregiver came to the door.
“Do you have a key?” I asked her, explaining I was house-sitting for Eleanor and William.
She didn’t. She called William — a special number that he answers in flight, she said. She handed me her phone.
I took her phone and pressed it to my face. I didn’t even think twice about this.
William explained the secret steps, the undisclosed location, the code, the path, the magic words to say to the key-holder.
I apologized and told him I didn’t understand how this could have happened. He said not to worry; the dog would be fine for hours. “Sometimes he waits until 11 AM!”
In the background I heard Eleanor say no, the dog had not ever waited until 11 AM.
“Oh, Zee’ll be just fine,” William boomed cheerily.
I laughed with relief. His words were a gift, an act of generosity. I made a mental note to try to be the kind of person, like William, who releases the most worried person from their worry with humor. The kind of person who says to the guilt-ridden person, “It’s my fault for not attaching the key to the carabiner with a better method. I take responsibility.” He’d said that, too.
I wanted to remember to be more like this: Focus on the other person’s stress, not my own. Release them so they can do their job.
After the secret steps, the magic words, at last I unlocked the tall front door. I heard the dog rise heavily from his cushion, tags jangling. The great ink-black Labrador lumbered into the foyer, stretching lazily in the sun that poured in through the floor-to-ceiling windows. He waddled over slowly, smiling with his whole body. I texted his people photos of him.
I knelt down and petted him. I asked him if his dog superpowers included tracking down a key. “Can you do it, mighty Zee?” I showed him the identical copy, tried to get him to sniff it.
He looked at me quizzically, as if to say, I’d like to be helpful, but, honey, I have no idea what you’re talking about.
We walked — which is to say we stood around and took a couple of steps approximately every twenty minutes — and he sniffed and I searched. It was the first time we’d been in sync, pace-wise.
Then the dog slept in a column of sun on the polished concrete floor. I set up my work on the kitchen counter: laptop, the pages from my project, a stack of books, a nest of pens. Outside the windows, kids played in the park, and throngs of spring-break tourists moved along the sidewalk. These busy weeks of spring are how businesses in St. Petersburg make it through the dead-quiet trough of summer.
I tried to focus on my tasks, but all I could think about were headlines from recent days, articles on the virus that I’d skimmed. I went back and reread about the failure of the testing protocol. Caregivers were limited to three questions: Do you have a fever? Have you traveled to China or abroad? Were you exposed to someone with a known case of the virus? People who answered no to all three questions were sent home and denied treatment, their cases unrecorded.
Why were people not being cared for and carefully quarantined?
I watched the dog sleep.
I watched sailboats stutter across the water. Yet another large cruise ship nosed toward the Port of Tampa.
My mind could not settle on my work.
The mind is the opposite of a virus — it can’t go anywhere. But it thinks it can go everywhere. It infects the past and colonizes the future.
I desperately needed to finish a chapter of my book in order to meet my deadline. I couldn’t afford to take the day off. But morning rolled into noon as I sat in Eleanor’s kitchen, and the dog snored near my feet, and the sun shone on the bay, and the cafe tables all along the promenade swarmed with tourists, families enjoying the gorgeous late-February weather. My mind ranged wildly, trying to escape the container of the moment.
The pandemic is coming.
There’s not just one man in the United States who went to Wuhan and came back sick.
The pandemic is already here.
Why aren’t we preparing?
Where is that dang key?
At noon I hadn’t written a single word. I decided it was foolish to wait even a single moment longer. I needed to stock up, to get provisions in advance of this disaster. I drove fourteen blocks to CVS. Hand sanitizer was sold out. I bought four containers of Lysol wipes and two containers of hydrogen peroxide. I couldn’t bring myself to buy more. (I would come to regret that.) It did not feel right to clean out an entire shelf. (That feeling has not changed.) All the toilet paper was gone.
At the checkout the woman in front of me had a full cart: large jugs of aloe-vera gel — every last bottle, I assumed — and dozens of bottles of rubbing alcohol, and cleaning supplies. She had funnels and boxes of bandages.
“You can make hand sanitizer,” she told me. “Look on the Internet.”
I nodded. I swung my little red basket. I should be buying more, I thought.
“This thing is being so hyped by the media,” the cashier said, rolling her eyes as the woman departed with her cart full of bags.
As I walked to my car with my two bags, I felt both overly anxious and not remotely prepared enough, a ramped-up version of how I feel all the time.
I know now I should have listened to my wisdom and my fear both, in concert. I should have gone to more stores that day, truly stocked up. But I didn’t. Why not? I didn’t want to overreact. I didn’t want to hoard. And, to be honest, I wanted to finish that chapter.
When I got back to Eleanor’s, workers were setting up booths for a festival in the park across the street — a bouncy house, a stage for live bands. That evening I took Zee on a long walk. Six or seven people petted him. I petted him where they’d petted him.
An ambulance was called to the retirement community across the street, and a crowd of elderly people gathered.
While Zee dreamt and dozed, I tried and failed to write. I took a long bath, and Zee hung his head on the edge of the tub and stared me in the eye. He didn’t look at my body. No one had seen me naked in . . . how long? A long time.
I could see my reflection in his eyes: dark, glassy, needy, want-y globes.
“No, Zee, no, you can’t get in the tub with me. I feel we’re on the edge of inappropriate as it is. Where’s that key?”
I couldn’t sleep. I turned on my laptop and read through the news. The stock market had plummeted. An op-ed by a doctor said to behave as though you already have the virus, and as though everyone else does, too. Three hundred people you know will get it, and six of them will die.
Another article said over a million Americans could die if we didn’t isolate.
In the morning Eleanor texted they were going for a hike with their daughter — and that their daughter had said we were all likely going to get this virus. Eleanor placed three scream-face emojis at the end of her text.
That night I had plans to go to a restaurant with a friend and her husband, visiting from California. I had not wanted to be visited. Given the news, I hadn’t wanted them to come to Florida at all. Earlier in the week I’d urged them to cancel their trip.
My friends had been to China in October. They’d taken a cruise in December.
Let’s reschedule this, I’d e-mailed.
They called and said they’d been looking forward to the trip to Florida all year. “We have to see you!” my friend said.
I could not bring myself to cancel the dinner, even though my instinct told me, Do not do this.
Shortly before 8 PM, very careful with the key, I walked from Eleanor’s to the appointed restaurant on the crowded promenade.
The husband held out his hand, and I bowed instead. My friend came toward me for a hug. I stepped back and bowed again. The festival across the street in the park was in full swing.
“Oh,” the husband chided, “you aren’t worried about that virus thing? Now, Heather.”
“Have you been listening to too much news, honey?” my friend said. She reinitiated the hug.
“I just feel more comfortable not touching,” I said.
The husband grabbed me and pulled me to him. “Oh, come on,” he said, pressing my face to his chest. “We love you!”
At dinner there were jokes about people overreacting to the virus, toilet-paper hoarders, canceled trips, and stock sell-offs. They suggested we order a couple of desserts and share. I could not laugh. I could not share. I left early, in a pique.
It was good to come home to a dog, even a borrowed dog.
Another night with fitful sleep. Was I worried my friends had infected me? Not really. (I should have been.) I was worried I might be unwittingly passing on the virus to vulnerable people — my friends were in their mid-sixties; he’d recently recovered from a pernicious cancer — and worried that we all might be.
I said goodbye to Zee, and on the way from Eleanor’s to my house, I stopped by Publix.
Normally I go to the store every day. Because I’m working on a book, I’m home alone most days, and the cashier at the grocery store is often my only human contact. I never stock up. To go to the store at the end of my workday to gather my dinner ingredients is my treat to myself.
On this day the store was its usual Sunday-afternoon crowded, shelves mostly full, with some gaps. Most of the rice was gone. Meat was low. Soup and bread were sparse, but cheese and vegetables were plentiful. A tower of fresh broccoli seemed somehow almost obscene. I chose one.
I bought four cans of garbanzos, two cans of baked beans, a bag of lentils, four bags of pasta, and six cans of tuna, just as I would for a hurricane. Also a manchego cheese, a head of garlic, and six lemons. (Mine wouldn’t be ready for another week, at least.)
There was no toilet paper, which still just seemed strange — a fluke.
There was one carton of eggs left, and I took that. Why does it always feel weird to buy the last one of something?
I was aware, as I pushed my cart down the busy aisles, of the bounty so many of us have at our fingertips every day, and how wrong it is to take this for granted. Everything, regardless of the growing season, is here, readily available — shining, uniform, and piled high — all accomplished on the backs of others who may not have such access.
My freedom just to walk around and grab almost anything I wanted made me feel queasy, ashamed.
When I got home, I placed the canned goods in my hurricane closet and felt strong and stocked-up and ready.
It wasn’t until the evening that I realized I hadn’t bought anything for dinner. Or for breakfast the next day. Or really anything at all to eat for regular. All I had was the emergency food. At the store my purchases had seemed like so much because I usually buy so little. Now I planned out the meals I could make from the closet. I had enough, if I stretched it, for two weeks. Again I felt out of step, panicking too soon and somehow also not remotely prepared.
I texted my stepson in Michigan and asked him to send me hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes if he could.
He wrote back that the virus seemed to be mostly hype. “Remember SARS?” he said. “How Dad got us all worried and got the generator and cash, and then nothing happened? It’s probably going to be like that.” He said he’d look for hand sanitizer later in the week.
“Thanks, Jake,” I said, certain that this would reach Michigan before the end of the week, and there would be none for anyone then.
I forwarded him three research articles a scientist friend had sent me, predicting the crisis in the United States — graphs, charts, clusters on maps. This one is real, my friend had written.
My friend Amelia had opened her own Pilates studio in February, and I’d been trying to give her my business. We had a standing appointment on Mondays at 6 PM. All day I worried whether it made more sense to go or to cancel.
Exercise was crucial for health, and this was a private lesson, prepaid. But Amelia worked at the hospital. She was young. She could easily have been a carrier with no symptoms.
Because I had to run back to the store anyway, to gather my final provisions before I went into self-imposed lockdown, I decided to take the risk.
When I arrived, she was wiping down all the equipment carefully, as she always did.
I sat on her chair and took off my shoes and told her I was really worried about the pandemic. “People don’t seem to be taking it seriously,” I said. I asked her what things were like at the hospital.
Masks had been stolen and were under lock and key now, along with gloves. Then she smiled at me and said, “The media is so overhyping it. They are making people crazy! They are creating a problem.”
We worked out in silence.
As I left, I wished her well. I didn’t make another appointment.
When I got to the grocery store that night, I pushed my cart down aisles that were bare. In frozen foods all that was left was okra and some Amy’s Indian prepared meals, both of which I love. Again I couldn’t bear to clean out a whole shelf. I took two bags of okra and six Amy’s.
I found some misfiled turkey sausages in the frozen-fruit section, so I grabbed those and a can of lima beans and a few cans of tomatoes. In produce I chose a bag of potatoes and a bag of carrots. I was staying a good distance from people, and I used one of my precious Clorox wipes on my cart handle, just kept it there.
But when I went back for toothpaste, a skinny white-haired man in a blue shirt and blue shorts was coughing wildly into the air. I bolted away from him, down the back aisle, along the refrigerated case. In front of the yogurt was a withered, sunburned man with a shivery jumpiness about him that I associate with drugs, addiction, and a hard life. He had his hand on the door to the case, and he, too, was coughing without covering his mouth.
I thought about abandoning my cart, fleeing the store. You should not be here, my wisdom said. But then I thought about my tiny stockpile. Maybe this was my last trip out for who knew how long. Fear said, Stay. You’re already here. Do you really want to come back?
I sped to the checkout, where the woman in front of me was coughing. “It’s allergies! It’s allergies!” she said, smiling and laughing.
I tried to stay back, but I was aware, after she left, as I used the credit-card reader she had just used, of all the precautions I would need to take when I got home.
And I did. I took every precaution: I rinsed the food. I wiped down surfaces. I washed my hands. I did not touch my face. I took a shower. I laundered those clothes separately.
But I did not wash my hair. My hair, a hydrophilic dragnet of far-reaching tendrils — and I did not think about washing it.
I washed my hands. And I slept on my hair.
Officially I put myself in quarantine. A news quarantine, too: I allowed myself a quick check of The New York Times and Tampa Bay Times in the morning and one quick check at night.
At first I loved the long days of reading and working. I finished my chapter. I worked in my garden. I tended the lemon, which would soon be ready to pluck from the little tree.
To my surprise, my stepson read the articles I’d sent him.
This is real, he texted me. By the time he’d gotten to the store in Michigan, there was no hand sanitizer, no toilet paper. “This is going to be bad,” he said when he called me that night on the phone. “This thing Dad has been preparing for his whole life is actually, really happening.”
At night I called friends. I listened to music. I planned my classes for fall. I proofread my new book. Quarantine life so far looked pretty much like my regular life. I cleaned closets and organized my emergency food. It looked paltrier than ever. I was eating it every day.
I found half an avocado in the fridge, tarnished and sad looking, but I couldn’t bear to throw it away. I carved it out, whipped some sriracha into it, and spread it on a piece of precious toast. Then I used toothpicks to suspend and sprout the avocado pit in a glass of water on my windowsill.
For meals I used my 1950s dishes, because the bowls and plates are small, right-portioned. I prayed longer before meals. I paid attention to each bite. I reflected on my wasteful and gluttonous ways — years of oblivious consumption. As I walked through my house — six rooms — and my garden, I was aware of my freedom, aware of the glory and luxury of living as I do. I felt humble and grateful to be turned back to mindfulness practices I’d long ago let go. I loved the honesty and restraint: measuring out my portions carefully, planning meals, making things last. I’d lived this way earlier in my life. Why had I ever stopped?
One night I scraped the last lima bean out of the can; in the past I might have thrown it away. I would have thrown it away.
And when I found a package of jasmine rice buried deep in the freezer, long forgotten, I did a little dance.
The day of the great shift. Outbreaks in New York. The U.S. death toll rising. Flatten the curve. Social distancing. Six feet apart. Stay home. No large gatherings.
More people were now doing what I’d been doing for ten days, which was both encouraging and terrifying. This one’s real. But throngs of people still gathered in my town for spring vacation, and locals were out enjoying the gorgeous weather. When videos of young people partying along packed Florida beaches made national news, the beaches started to close, one by one.
Schools closed. Restaurants limited the number of patrons, then closed.
I did not leave my house.
Neither did my friend Heide. We talked on the phone most evenings. She was the only other person I knew who had been holed up since early March. We felt safe, protected by our isolation, our advance planning, and our worry. Because we felt so safe, we planned to walk together Friday night down by the sea: lots of air circulation along the waterfront, and on the wide sidewalk there, we could stay far apart.
But all day I was anxious about the plan. I called her in the afternoon and explained I had a dry cough that day — not serious. I was certain it was allergies. I hated canceling, but I couldn’t risk exposing her.
“The oak pollen has been so bad this year,” she said. “I’ve not been feeling great today either. I think I have a migraine. I was outside all day.”
We made a bike date for Monday; on bikes we could more easily stay six feet apart. We spent the rest of our conversation talking about why people didn’t understand what was happening.
After we hung up, I decided to go on our walk alone. I drove down to the seaside and I parked in front of a little dress shop. An older woman with a large hump on her back, bent and vibrant, came out of the shop and began talking to me. I could not make out the words, but I could tell she was happy to have someone to talk to.
“Is it OK to park here?” I said, taking a few steps back.
“Sure, sweetie,” she said. “You have three hours.” She stepped toward me. I tried to back away again, but she closed the gap, and it felt rude, almost cruel, to pull away again.
“It’s sure crowded down here,” I said. “I’m surprised.” A loud band was pulsing from the rooftop patio of the bar next door.
“Oh, business is real good,” she said. “We’re very happy!” She touched my arm. “You’re so pretty,” she said. “So pretty. That hair.”
I walked along the sidewalk, stepping into the street to skirt fishermen and families, strollers and skateboarders. I tried to keep six feet away from all of them. Girls were dancing on the boardwalk, draped on each other. A man played acoustic guitar on the pavilion, and people swarmed the park and danced in the square.
Separate from the crowd, I leaned against the concrete breakwater and watched the sunset. It looked like any sunset, a beautiful Florida evening: cool breeze, pink-and-magenta sky, pelicans.
On the way home I drove past the grocery-store parking lot, which was buzzing and full, as if before a holiday or a hurricane.
By Sunday the churches in New York had closed. The sangha I’m a member of — but can only attend in the summer, when I sublet in the city for the season — was now meeting online, so I took part.
During the sharing session, I told the others how happy I was that this terrible time had also brought an unexpected blessing: I got to participate in the sangha from Florida.
Yui, who’d been in total isolation since September because of a cancer treatment, said, “You are joining me now! Everyone is!”
Mario sat in front of a bookcase overflowing with books. He said he was certain he had the virus. He had been very ill and was unable to get tested or treated. He was feeling better, but there were so many sick people like him, still untested. “What’s going to happen?” he said.
Beverly, a state’s attorney, still had to ride the subway to work. She was scared.
Usually we do silent sitting meditation and then walking meditation, but today Clay led us in a guided meditation. I lay on my floor and closed my eyes. I heard David’s cat meowing. I heard New York sirens. I heard someone’s chair squeaking.
These hours in sangha, looking into my computer screen, seeing my friends, hearing the sounds in their lives, were the happiest I’d had in a long time. We decided to meet on Wednesday evenings in addition to Sundays. After our practice Clay read the collects — our prayers — and then he gave us suggestions for how to breathe throughout the day.
This teaching will save, I believe, my life. It is the key.
This is the day everything changes.
At 9 AM I drive to Lowe’s. The parking lot is nearly empty. The garden center is open and deserted. I’m searching for seeds and seedlings that are “cut and come again,” so I might have a supply of green things to eat in the weeks ahead, at least until the summer storms come and obliterate our gardens.
I take my wipes into the store. At the self-checkout I purchase chives, nasturtium, parsley, basil, and lemon balm. The card reader won’t let me sign with my finger encased in a wipe, so I sign it naked and bolt.
This is when it happens. And it happens fast.
I walk in the door of my house, and it’s as though I’ve suddenly walked into a wall of chemical gas — some invisible, breath-taking agent. I drop to my knees. I’m coughing, the driest, most hacking cough I’ve ever experienced. And I can’t get a good breath. I’m gasping for air.
The bags with the little pots of herbs fall from my hands. I try to take a sip of breath. My lungs feel made of concrete. The air has nowhere to go.
Another sip. But I’m coughing, gasping for air. As I try to regulate the breath very, very carefully, I kick the door closed and lie on the mat. My body stipples with shivers.
Lying down feels like drowning in quicksand. The cough worsens.
I slowly get to my hands and knees. My back has blades in it, and so does my throat.
It’s morning. I’m aware I might die. And there is nothing I can do. The little potted herbs in the plastic bags are strewn on the floor around me.
If I panic or in any way rush the breath, it feels like this one will be my last. I try standing, but it is sitting that works, and I sit at the counter and try to breathe.
As soon as I can — after many hours of this terrifying, chemicalized, concrete-lung half-breathing — I call my doctor.
She is not available, the receptionist says.
“It is urgent,” I say softly, slowly. I have to be careful with every single syllable, as though I’m made of glass and words are hammers.
“Can you hold?” she says.
And I’m coughing, hacking. I’m uncertain if I am holding or can hold. But it seems like I’m holding. I’m trying not to hold my breath. I’m holding the phone, on hold, and I am holding on.
After a long time I repeat all this to someone else, breathing between each word: as though I’m made of silk and air is made of God. “I . . . can’t . . . breathe. . . . I . . . need . . . help.”
“What’s your doctor’s name?”
Coughing, gasping, repeat.
Eventually I am transferred to a resident.
“I’m having trouble . . . breathing. It’s not . . . like . . . anything I have had . . . before.” This takes much longer for me to say than I can render here. I regulate the urge to rush the words because I’m certain that will lead to panic, drowning. “And I have a strange . . . cough.” As I struggle for breaths, I’m aware I’m sitting in the same chair I sat in yesterday afternoon for sangha. How happy I was then, less than twenty-four hours ago.
The doctor asks if I have been to China.
I almost laugh, but I can’t get a full breath. How can anyone still be asking these questions?
“No,” I whisper on an out-breath.
“Have you been in contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID?”
My mind races. Of course I have been in contact with positive people — odds are many of us have. I’m working on the next breath, but I’m rigid with fear. Having gone into isolation early, I was expecting that I would be spared the virus. There is so very little testing available. Many have it; few are tested. How are these the questions?
“No,” I say on an in-breath. “But,” I say. And I pause. “Likely.” My neighbor and her roommate believe they have it. I wish I had lied and said yes.
“Low. Chills. Weird shivers, really. The coughing — bad just these past hours.” I want to tell him about the cough over the last week, which I ascribed to allergies, but I am on a tight syllable budget.
“Yes.” My body is soaking wet.
“No fever, no international travel.”
“No,” I say. “I’m so scared.” And I feel my whole spirit protest, creating a tight corset around my lungs, whose outlines I can feel now, like bits of torn paper fluttering in my chest and pinned down with tacks. “I know I have it.” I’ve never been this scared in my life.
“So we don’t test. . . .”
“I don’t need a test,” I get out in one breath. “Can I get an asthma inhaler?”
“That won’t help. I don’t think you have it. I think it’s likely anxiety. I will call in an antianxiety prescription, non-habit-forming, and you just need to try to relax. Call 911 if you turn blue, and self-isolate for fourteen days.”
I do not think this man should be in the medical profession.
But, after talking to him, I also think it’s possible that I don’t have the virus. Partly because of what he said. Partly because I was so careful. I went hardly anywhere, saw hardly anyone.
I washed my hands.
I forgot to tell him I had lost my sense of taste and smell.
And I didn’t wash my hair.
After that call I fold down onto my hands and knees on the gray carpet of my office floor, and I work on not working on breathing. I imagine I’m a very small baby. My job is to keep the fragile baby alive by breathing life into her very, very carefully.
Hour after hour, I can’t make a single error: Not too much breath, or the air hits the concrete and I panic. Not too little breath, or I feel faint and I panic.
There’s a shift in early evening. I can stand. I can’t get a normal breath, but I can grab my phone from the desk.
I text Heide: I’m having some strange symptoms. Coughing. I can’t ride. Can’t risk exposing you. Sorry. More soon.
I find my thermometer. My temperature is only 99. But these intense chills belong to a high fever. Is my thermometer broken? I haven’t used it in years. I take Tylenol and prop myself up in my bed on pillows; maybe the lungs like to be upright? I cough. I pray. I try to breathe, and I do: shallow and scary breaths.
Why didn’t I tell the doctor about the friends who’d been to China? Why didn’t I say, Yes, I have a fever? Why didn’t I say yes to all of his questions? Because I didn’t want to overload the system. Because I know there’s no cure, no treatment except to do what I’m doing here, isolated at home, not infecting others.
All night I breathe the way we’ve practiced all these years in sangha. I keep the phone next to me in bed, faithful companion, and I memorize the pattern for 911 so if I turn blue, my fingers will know what to do.
In the morning I get winded walking to the bathroom. I’m soaked with sweat. The cough is persistent. I call CVS about the prescription the doctor phoned in for me — there is no delivery. They’re backed up for they don’t know how long.
The breath sometimes feels impossible. But there are moments when, if I’m careful and don’t try too hard, I can get almost a full breath. The trick is to lie propped up and motionless all day long.
This is nothing like a panic attack. This is a toxic chemical reaction taking place in my lungs. Why did I not explain that to the doctor more clearly? Or maybe I did, and he didn’t listen. I worry about permanent damage.
I try not to read the news — it takes my breath away and gives me nothing in return. I’m anxious for hours after reading about the dead, the spreading virus.
But sometimes I do read the news. I read about nurses seeing the terror in people’s eyes as they can’t breathe. I read about people being intubated, how they have to be restrained so they won’t tear out the tubes, because it feels like the tubes are part of the problem.
I can’t stop my mind from reaching into every moment of the recent past: When? Where? How?
The elderly coughing man in the blue shirt and shorts in Publix by the toothpaste, or the troubled man by the yogurt? The “It’s allergies” woman?
The Pilates studio?
The seed packets and plants at Lowe’s?
The man in the blue shirt and shorts?
I know it’s unknowable, but I can’t stop my mind, whose entire purpose is to know so it can feel in control.
I think it was the man in blue.
And I did not wash my hair.
On Friday, the end of the week, I wake up and feel almost normal. I am back to breathing. I have shivers but no fever. My throat hurts, but not as bad. The cough is raspy but less frequent, and it worsens only when I think about any of this.
Maybe the doctor was right. Maybe it was just panic. And I know it was not. I sleep fifteen, sixteen, seventeen hours a day. I can’t taste or smell food and have no appetite. And the chills and shivers squirrel through every cell in my body.
I ’m not breathing normally, but I’m back to work. While at my desk I take too many news peeks: Planeloads of people fleeing New York land in Tampa. Officials urge all new arrivals to self-quarantine for fourteen days. I am dubious people will really do this.
I would be waved right on through. There’s no mucus or redness or fever; the corset around my lungs is as invisible as it is painful. It’s seven days after the terrible breathing event, the chemical wall, the week of sleep. I am up and about. But I won’t go to CVS, or anywhere. I can’t bear the thought of infecting someone.
I write at my desk in the morning, and in the afternoon I work in my garden, pulling weeds by the driveway. I hate to pull them and throw them away — they’re dandelions, and good for sautéing in olive oil — but the yard is watered with reclaimed water and sprayed with pesticides.
That night I make a salad with the outer leaves from my poor lettuces, already straining in the heat.
Though I can’t taste anything, somehow it’s the best salad I’ve had in my life. I feel the energy in the leaves — fresh and green and sweet and young. I cry with gratitude for this food. I pray to be of better service to this world. I seek forgiveness for taking everything, everything for granted.
In the morning I discover the remaining lettuces have been stripped bare by the rats.
At night I wake unable to breathe properly. My lungs have returned to perforated concrete. I feel hot as hell, ice in my bones, though the thermometer registers no fever. Maybe it is broken, or I am broken. I feel ice water in my veins again. I struggle to walk from my bedroom to the kitchen, out of breath the entire time.
The illness is back. It’s a cut-and-come-again virus.
At 8 AM I call a different doctor, a woman in Tampa. I’m not her patient, but I’m on a waiting list to become her patient, with an appointment the following week. I can’t come to that appointment, I tell the nurse. Here are my symptoms: ice veins, shivers, no smell, no taste, fatigue, sweating, can’t breathe. The nurse doesn’t ask me about China, though she asks if I’ve traveled.
She says she is worried, and that makes me feel better. She says I’m the only person with symptoms she’s talked to who isn’t asking for a test.
I’m very aware of the load on the system. I know I have the virus. I don’t need a test. I don’t want to leave my house and get someone else sick. But I’m scared. I was bad, then better, and now I’m worse.
Sometimes it’s hard to breathe at all.
She sets it up so I can get oxygen, and so the hospital knows I’m a COVID patient well in advance. Per her direction, I call the health department.
“You were in contact with people from California?”
The affirmative gets me sent, by phone, to another office. I do all this talking while lying on my yoga mat with a cold compress on my forehead, imagining Clay’s voice leading us in prayer.
All the while, my mind goes viral. It has to know. It wants to assign blame. You are to blame! it says as it circles through the images: The old woman at the shop at the beach who touched my arm. The coughing man in the blue shirt and shorts. The man in the park who petted Zee. The New Yorker that came in the mail. The Pilates studio. The caregiver’s phone — talking to William about the key, pressing her phone to my cheek. The cashier, the cans of beans, the letter from a friend in Michigan — which went through Detroit, now a hot spot. My hair.
But everyone else went everywhere, and I stayed home (mostly), my little ego says in defense. How come I got this?
This morning, after just five days — it’s hot here — my seeds sprouted tiny circles of green. How? How do those little black dots turn into life? I still have to walk very slowly through my house, or I become breathless. It’s just like the walking meditation — the exact same pace — I’ve done all these years in the sangha on the fifth floor of the cathedral on Park Avenue.
Sometimes, as I am taking my slow steps across the living room, physically forced by my lungs to do this slow, mindful walking, I laugh — which is a wonderful kind of breathing.
This afternoon I’m at my desk, watching the day. I have never in my life been as contained in the moment, in the breath, as I am now.
My lemon tree sits just outside this window. This afternoon I will pluck the fruit. As I watch, a flock of grackles land in the potted tree. I count quick. Thirteen birds. Many more than the little branches can handle. I want to cry out, but I can’t. I’ll lose my breath, the breath I’ve been so carefully caretaking for hours today.
One of the birds pokes its beak hard into my golden lemon, piercing the skin. I can’t cry out. All I can do is smile.
I can’t see the virus, but I feel its seeds in me. I can’t see my faith, but I feel its seeds in me, too.
The virus is my breathing teacher. (I much prefer Clay’s methods.)
No matter what, one day my breath will not come again. I will never know when that day is.
But right now I have electricity and fresh water. I stand this morning at the threshold of my door and look out at a beautiful garden where, when I am well again, I can walk in sun and in shade. I have a car. I have a bottle of Tylenol. I have cotton sheets. I have a washing machine. I have so many books. (When I’m well, one of my projects is to count them.) I have words. And words are the breath of wisdom.
I have reading. Reading is the breath of spirit, for only with a reader do words come to life. Writer, reader: in this way, we are alive together.
When I stay perfectly still and don’t think, after a while I notice I’m not paying attention to my breath. I’m just breathing.
Heather Sellers’s essay “Just This Breath” [June 2020] is the most impactful thing I have read regarding COVID-19. It amazes me that Sellers could pump this out, get it to The Sun’s editorial staff, and then into the June 2020 issue in such a timely fashion.
Heather Sellers’s essay about avoiding, then contracting and surviving, COVID-19 [“Just This Breath,” June 2020] was a powerful reminder not to drop our caution. Her description of the experience — her vigilance and avoidance, the unfolding dread, then the knowing and disbelieving — was haunting.
The essay is also a testament to the power of a regular mindfulness practice, which helps her to cope with the painful and potentially life-threatening experience. “This teaching will save, I believe, my life,” she writes. “It is the key.” Amen!
When your June 2020 issue arrived, I was feeling frustrated, vulnerable, and lonely. Then I read Heather Sellers’s “Just This Breath.”
She took seriously the dangers of the virus, did her absolute best to protect herself, and still got sick. Yet she had the energy and spirit to write this essay that warns and comforts us.
Even as she feels the panic of not being able to breathe and tries to “budget” her syllables when speaking on the phone to a doctor at the hospital, Sellers brings a sense of hope. She reminds me of the necessity of cherishing each breath.