June 20, 2020: I laid in bed last night and smelled, and the plastic smell was gone. Last night was when I noticed the plastic smell had really left me and allowed other smells. I imagined I could almost feel the molecules hitting receptors in my nostrils. I smelled dust and linen and dog and mattress, replacing a smell that has lived in my nostrils for months, the smell of COVID: burnt plastic or cleaning agent, a tinny smell I’ve never smelled before that seemed to penetrate my flesh, that seemed to come from me and surround me.
There was no ventilator, no ICU, thankfully, but there were multiple video visits with my doctor. There was a website from my state saying no tests were available unless you had a fever or had visited a foreign country. There was a message saying that if you have these symptoms, stay at home unless it’s an emergency.
There was an ER trip, a few moments where chest pain/lung pain/heart pain made me gasp. There were a scatter of inhalers on the dining room cabinet. There was a sudden and shocking constriction in the lungs, a physical limitation that prevented those wings from inflating. It was not the ache of bronchitis. It was almost from the outside, something grabbing my ribcage, so that I could not push against it to free myself. There was, for me, no phlegm and just a slight cough. More than anything there was a kind of mute and subtle crackling in my lungs, and then a deep and constant ache, a chest x-ray, a feeling that my lungs were not mine, and then a return of the crackling on the way back out.
There was a pain that seemed to settle at the bottom lobes of the lungs that I could feel when I inhaled deeply. There was not knowing whether inhaling deeply was helping or was putting a finger into an infected wound.
There was an online Slack group where thousands of people around the world pooled their symptoms, and only in writing that sentence do I start to cry a bit, do the tears rush into my face from the places they live, do I start to feel the levels of fear.
For two months after getting sick, a small amount of effort meant a day in bed. There was revenge whenever I tried to push against it, to the extent that I became afraid of it and tried to tread gingerly on the world to not wake a dragon.
There was a swimmy exhaustion like being sunk into a chemical bath, like someone were pouring lucite around my body to make a paperweight of me.
There was movement and a progression. There was the eerie feeling of saying things about the virus—that a nasal swab might detect it only at first infection, that to me it felt as though it moved from the nose down into the throat, where it nestled and pinched coldly—and then later reading those things in the newspaper. There was the eerie feeling of piecing together a map based on what I read in my body.
There was sitting on the couch at night sewing masks and starting a Facebook group to help pool resources for my town. There was the realization that talking—projecting my voice so that I might speak via Zoom or phone—counted as a level of exertion that would take a day from me. There was the fear that I might never be well, and the thinking about disability and what projecting my voice means to my job as a professor, however we might profess in the future in boxes where air circulates in closed dangerous currents.
There was fever and a slight cough but more than anything there was a wall, unlike any wall I’ve hit. In all other games with my body, a bit of effort resulted in a frisson of blood and endorphins, a flow of health. In this one, blood flow seemed to make the virus surge along with my blood throughout my body. Now it makes sense. It is a vascular virus. Now so much makes sense.
There was Twitter. There was May 25 when George Floyd was killed by a cop in Minneapolis. There was watching the gathering crowds, looking at the map of where I lived in that city, knowing the co-ops and the parks and the spirit and the sharp will beneath Minnesota nice, the thirst for justice I remembered vaguely at the edges of my life.
There was my friend who made a YouTube show I watched every weeknight while I was at my sickest, and it was a distraction and a comfort, and there was the advice he gave to lie on my left side to get in air. There was lying in bed, turning on my left side, wanting air, and the gut-level resistance to acknowledging the difficulty of breathing.
There were text messages from a new friend I have never met, a friend of a friend who was mired in the same symptoms but who also interspersed the haze of exhaustion with wild starbursts of ideas, philosophy, book manuscripts, news links, as if the body were a part of the world. And made it so.
There was desperate pooling of resources: hours of searching online for Emergen-C packets. Or maybe it’s more Vitamin C or zinc I need. There were a few Facebook friends who had it, who noted more than anything the pits of doom, the loneliness of a route without a destination in sight. Maybe it’s nettle tea I need. Maybe it’s whatever is not on the blank and ravaged shelves at CVS.
There was desperate writing through all of it, sitting for a few hours as if on a life raft that remained even as my grasp on my family seemed to stretch and narrow, because apart from words I just wanted to rest. There was a vicious and keening need for comfort, and the odd comfort of the unwell, who knew the not-knowing as I did.
There was looking at the New York Times COVID map with the red circles overlaid like the most terrifying Venn diagram. There was having to have the COVID map open simultaneously with an animal cam showing baby goats at a farm in Maine. There was the feeling after viewing the map as though I had confronted an angry deity and as though it were necessary, as though when I did not look at the map, I had not prayed.
There was a roiling surge of irritation, the anchor of my meditation cushion, the frustration at daily tasks, the irritation of noises, the desire to curl into myself and be as quiet as possible.
There was an ache across the back that crept up within the first few weeks and stayed and stayed, and I didn’t know whether it was my lungs or my kidneys. Then I knew it was my kidneys, and around that time I found a graphic from a researcher on Twitter that showed with a map of the researchers’ symptoms where I was: kidneys at 10 and 11 weeks. Whenever I moved, it felt as though my swollen and bruised kidneys were slamming against my ribs.
There was the acute fear of other human’s faces. There was the sobbing that seemed to erupt from my face when it was suggested that my son might go see his father in Ohio.
My soul was bruised and it would heal. There were first times: walking out of a store where a man wore a mask incorrectly. Walking down a street past someone without a mask. Going to a protest with a chair. Going with a cane. Going on two feet. At each step I shrank from humans, who veered close like painted ghosts in a haunted house ride.
There was the spending of my energy. The frustration that somehow I wasn’t better at this, and that I cried a lot. There was rage at photos of crowds and faces unmasked.
There was blood in a vial and a negative antibody test that made me cry, as so many things about my health have made me question my sanity. And then a month later was the news about all the unknown, that the antibodies faded quickly.
There was my heart, which raced at odd times and hurt, and hauled itself and hauled and worked against a force I didn’t understand.
After three months of being sick—March 14 was when I got it—I yesterday both did an errand and walked around the block, a reckless display of health returning. A walk around the block to see the lurid surging green of leaves, a speeding car, shrubbery, lawn, all as tilting and shocking as an IMAX movie, how do we function with this level of intensity? And now, as I sit and write this, drinking coffee, there is a slight whiff of the COVID smell, a slight ache in the kidneys that is markedly less than before but not gone, a reminder that one’s body is never one’s own but is instead a constellation of overlapping circles.