Long before our doctor ordered my family to quarantine for 14 days, I knew something was wrong. I could feel my chest tighten and my breathing grow more labored. I obsessively took my temperature after breakfast and before bed. Still, my kids teased me.
They had seen me other times when I was convinced that a sudden side stitch, strange eye twitch, or unexplained lump on my head was deadly serious. When that happened, I didn’t bother with a walk-in clinic or my primary care doctor. I went straight to a specialist. While they ran tests, my kids rolled their eyes and my husband waved stacks of medical bills in my face. There’s nothing wrong with you, they all said.
But deep inside, I knew there was.
It was there from the beginning. I grew up in a poor, chaotic household. Chain-smoking, binge drinking, and overeating were the things my family used to feel better about their circumstances. Even at a young age, I could see the toll their ignorance took on them. None of them went to a doctor until their symptoms were too painful to ignore. Even then, they would put more trust in God, praying and hoping that the “the cancer” hadn’t finally come to get them. When the diagnosis turned out to be their “sugar”, a bad liver or just high blood pressure, they were relieved. So was I. I imagined that if I prayed hard enough too, I could ward off sickness. That all changed when cancer finally came for my mother and took her away just 3 months later.
I realized I had to save myself. So, when I finally left home, I left behind their way of life. I lost weight, worked out religiously and eventually hired personal trainers to make my body bigger and harder. In my 20’s I believed there was nothing that lots of water, lean protein and supplements couldn’t cure. That is until the AIDS crisis. Pretty soon, I was among a generation of young gay men convinced it was just a matter of time for us all. Fear paralyzed me. Instead of seeking out an HIV testing clinic or the advice of a doctor, I sought solace in church and from support groups. It took me a year to work up the courage to get tested. Finally, a priest reassured me about that painful ache in my gut. That’s just shame and doubt, said. You’ve done nothing wrong.
Not knowing is always more painful, he said.
Maybe that’s why seeing doctors became my source of comfort. They could provide a sense of certainty. After I met my husband and we started our family, my frequent visits were normal. There were wellness visits when my kids were babies, then school immunizations followed by sports team physicals. In between, we saw optometrists, dentists, orthodontists. For a time, my children’s good health was a good enough proxy for mine. I felt the tension in my body ease. They’re doing fine, so I must be fine, I thought.
Then a few weeks ago, as the pandemic took hold, my symptoms appeared — the shortness of breath, the tension headaches and finally a squeezing in my chest. Just as I debated whether to seek out a Covid-19 test, my youngest, now 14, came down with symptoms of her own. They were far more serious. Her fever spiked. Her body alternated between chills and sweat. She cried out during painful migraines and body aches. Then came the terrible coughing. My symptoms seemed to vanish overnight as I focused on calls with our family doctor, her pediatrician and finally the emergency room. At night I prayed. My husband immediately donned a mask and gloves and became her primary caregiver. It was too risky, he said for both of us to be exposed. We had another daughter to keep safe. Each night, I watched them from the safety of her bedroom doorway, 6 feet away, and felt my stomach roil. I recognized it as fear for my daughter and I’d later admit, my own fear of getting too close.
Five days later her Covid-19 test came back negative. It’s mononucleosis, the doctor said. I hugged my daughter tight and reassured both my kids that our family is safe now.
But that’s a lie.
Despite the sheltering, the handwashing and my hand wringing, we might still come in contact with the virus. And even if we get through this unscathed, there might be future waves of this illness.
It’s taken me a lifetime to finally understand.
Life is full of too much uncertainty. There will always be only so much I can do to protect myself and those I love.
And now, I just to have live with that.