I know the day we started feeling sick — at least two of us in our Brooklyn apartment — because that Saturday our 2-year-old son ran around outside. Walking past the farmers’ market at Fort Greene Park, I sent my friends photos of the clusters of people hanging out. “Can you believe this,” I texted, “the photos don’t do it justice.”
My husband Patrick woke up that morning annoyed, his whole body hurting. I took our toddler out of the house so he could sleep, or try to — we also have a 4-month-old baby. I did feel a little off, but figured it was just general exhaustion after a week of “working from home” with two small children. I let our toddler run around the park, his chubby fingers reaching for the railing of a bench, a wooden table, laminated names of plants strung around a tree. I tried to pull him away before he came into contact, but I wasn’t always successful. After 45 minutes or so, I put him back in the stroller. Time to get groceries.
We avoided the farmers’ market, walking another block down to a grocery store, where I struggled with bare fingertips to pull the basket off the arm of the stroller where I’d slung it. I loaded everything onto the conveyor belt before realizing my credit card was in a different coat. Apologizing profusely, I fled the store red-faced, leaving all the groceries I had just touched sitting next to the woman behind the register.
Another failure, bigger than I could comprehend. Within a few hours, I was on the living-room rug with chills, head pulsing. The toddler was dumping cards all over the floor. Our baby, my husband informed me from the couch, had thrown up.
The vomit had a dangerous resonance for us. Six weeks earlier, the baby seemed to have a stomach bug, vomiting dramatically for a weekend, and then into the week. Even though our doctor said she looked “basically fine” on Sunday, by Monday, I knew she wasn’t. Just minutes after arriving at a large intake room of an ER in the late afternoon on the Upper East Side, a nurse whisked us into an almost-empty pediatric emergency area where a doctor explained that our daughter had intussusception, the term for a stomach blockage that means something like “one part in another” in Latin, as in one part of your intestine gets wedged inside another, and would require admittance to the general hospital and a procedure called an “air enema” that is exactly as it sounds.
She was fine, but the condition carries a risk of returning and can flare up because of a virus. When she got another stomach bug a few weeks later, another night in the ER. There, my husband overheard nurses talking about how the pediatric ER might be turned into a place to park intubated patients.
We didn’t know it, but that was a message from the future, where we had arrived in no time at all. If Lois kept throwing up, we’d have to take her somewhere. I was sure my husband and I had COVID-19. I knew we were a danger to others. But what could we do? She is our baby.
By Sunday, she was still vomiting. We were all struggling. Life had taken on a gauzy quality: We drew the curtains and kept the lights on, lending a certain casino vibe to the living room. I called a pediatrician whose main advice was that one of us, my husband or me, should get tested, “so you know what you’re dealing with.” But what were we dealing with? And how, on March 22, to get tested? Call 311, she said, maybe there was a drive-through still taking walk-ins. I called 311, got routed to someone someplace whose connection was too fuzzy to make out who he was and what he could do. He took my info and then I never heard from him again. I emailed my primary care doctor and was prompted to install an app to take a test. I installed the app, took the test, and then an admin person replied that I probably had the virus, but new guidelines prohibited outpatient testing. Even if we had directions from a pediatrician? My wording grew stronger. A different admin person replied with an electronic shrug.
It felt impossible to be somewhat sick and take care of a sick child, plus a healthy one, but now we entered a new phase: acute illness and taking care of two children. On Monday morning, Lois gave a half-hearted last projectile vomit and had explosive diarrhea instead, a gross but good sign, one neither my husband nor I detected until I picked her up and my hands hit something wet. After the scene repeated itself a few minutes later with our older child’s diaper, we knew the virus had invaded our olfactory senses.
Patrick was feeling worse than me, so we developed some rules. When the baby slept, he crawled into bed, now wet with sweat, and I would amuse the toddler, feebly begging him to just come cuddle while he screamed and threw his toys around. We tried hard to get him hooked on screens but his desire to touch things superseded his ability to be entertained. Eventually, our game became me lunging for the phone once he opened phone settings or contacts or Twitter and him gleefully tossing it, sans case, onto the hardwood floor. His nap came, mercifully, at noon, and I would take the baby and crawl into bed for a while, and then, with an eye on the clock, leave the baby in her bassinet and take a shower. When I could, I opened the phone or computer and made a vague effort to keep up with some work task. I sent messages that were too verbose and then too vague to my co-workers, somehow flip and also dire.
By Monday night, my fever spiked higher than my husband’s, to over 102. My eyes flickered open and closed. There was nothing to see. My mind no longer had thoughts, just sensations: the rough towel that had gotten tangled up in the sheets, the smooth pillowcase, the warm sweatshirt that I had worn to bed.
By Tuesday evening, I felt slightly better, but with a constant migraine. The toddler seemed healthy, the baby no longer vomiting or blowing out her diapers. I shoveled clothes covered with our children’s vomit and feces into the washer-dryer combo like a cartoon ironworker putting coal in the furnace.
Every few hours, the virus’s grip on our family shifts: Now it’s Wednesday morning, I’m better, my husband is getting sicker. Our toddler has a fever. Now it’s Wednesday evening, we both are feeling better, and the infant has a fever. Now on Thursday afternoon, we both feel better, and the toddler and infant are feeling better. Now it’s Thursday evening, the baby has a fever again. Friday, my husband’s chills and fever return, more aggressive than before. “There is no silver lining,” I text a friend who had fled the city.
And then, the task I’d been dreading, maybe the most important one. A couple of close college friends are sick. Too tired to parse who would be better able to handle such an imposition, or how we would even handle the logistics, I messaged them both the same question: Could you take the kids if Patrick and I both had to go to the hospital? I hid in the bathroom and cried as soon as I sent it, hating how dramatic it sounded and how vulnerable I felt. How can this be real? I want so badly to make a joke about all the lucky idiots taking pictures of spring flowers or twee kid crafts or, God forbid, the perfect loaf of bread, but I can’t seem to summon the will to be bitchy. It’s that bad.
The overwhelming feeling of New York City in the pandemic is, for me, the fact of our aloneness. There is no doctor to see, no tests to confirm what we already know. We have nothing but a few screens, the walls of our apartment, our bodily fluids seeping onto fabrics of all kinds. New Yorkers can feel the curtains falling. We are at the mercy of an idiot president and choked hospitals, watching a governor we used to hate like he’s the son of Zeus. For a lot of the city, none of this is news. Authority’s failures have been reality the whole time. But this virus offers a special dark symmetry: It asks us to practice “social distancing” and then forces people to die in isolation. It divides, and conquers.
Today, we reached a stage where we felt well enough to yell at each other in front of our solemn kids. A positive step. We are lucky; we have jobs that let us be sick in peace, and with each day, hospitalization seems a little bit further away. I have started imagining what it will be like to go outside again. As I write this, there is a rare quiet in the apartment. I can hear my husband putting the jangly glasses from the dish rack into the cabinets. The toddler is stacking blocks. The baby might be asleep. What stage is next?
It’s Saturday again. We’re alive in our fetid apartment, the one we haven’t left, and will not leave until we have been symptom-free for some unknown period of time. I was wrong. There is a silver lining — the trash cans are overflowing, but I can’t smell a thing.