The children are wrestling again. On the carpet. In the living room. They’re writhing in a ball of limbs on the rug between the angular edges of the coffee table and the brick outcropping of our fireplace, and they’re doing this with no regard for their position in space or safety.
“Stop!” I shout. “Stop now! If you get hurt, we’re not going to the hospital. I’ll let you bleed! Stitch you up myself!”
This is the type of thing my children—daughter, seven; son, four—usually ignore. Or, if they heed me, they laugh at it. I’m all bark, no bite. Sharp in verbal rebukes, but dark in humor, and even at this age, they take this as a joke. As a father, as a physical figure, I’m soft with them, loving, tender, lots of hugs and kisses, and even when I’m mad, even when I speak as sharp as this and send them to their rooms, I come up later and explain what was bothering me, speak in an even tone, apologize. I make sure the children understand that although anger happens, it’s important to reconcile, to put your feelings into words. It’s unlikely, of course, that if one of them got hurt, I’d let them bleed or stitch them up, but I’m close to the edge. And perhaps they hear this in my voice, intuit that this is different, for they each release their grip on one another and scuttle to opposite sides of the room like startled crabs. They don’t look back at me or acknowledge my presence, they just stare at the TV, as though they haven’t been wrestling at all.
A trip to the emergency room is never fun. We’ve had two or three in the children’s lifetimes, mostly on account of the girl—stitches, a dislocated elbow. But now the world’s shutting down, or more precisely, a virus is shutting the world down, and it is, as they describe in the news, highly contagious; serious enough, based on varying estimates, to kill between one and six percent of those who contract it, and the ER is exactly where the most critical cases are going. It’s hard enough to head to the grocery store or pharmacy. People clogging the aisles, not adhering to expert advice to keep a distance. The ER? Forget about it. No, I’ll set the bone myself. When this is over—if it’s ever over—we can have the doctors break it again, set it right. And I almost believe I’d do that, but I never would. My wife wouldn’t allow it, and I wouldn’t either. The thing is just to not let it happen, to separate the two of them before they can hurt themselves.
Even going outside for a walk around the block isn’t easy, given the way the virus is said to spread.
The news can’t confirm much with certainty yet. It spreads through direct contact with someone who’s contracted it, as most viruses do. But the virus seems to lay dormant longer than most, to take time to develop into symptoms, so the population can move about asymptomatic, spreading it silently. How long it can live in the air is another question on which the scientific community can’t agree. Four hours? Six? Is it wafting around in the wind when someone coughs? If someone who has it walked past your house an hour ago on a still day, could you pass through a cloud of it, working in the yard, chasing your children around?
Every day now I sit in front of the computer, working from home, my office having closed three weeks ago, clicking through articles—the quest for a vaccine, experimental treatments with blood plasma, anonymous numbers of infected, specific names of celebrities who’ve contracted it, anonymous numbers of citizens who’ve died, tributes to celebrities who’ve passed away. All the while, my children run around—living and dining rooms, kitchen—careening past where I’m working at the table. They rush up two flights to where their mother is working in the attic, breakneck speed, socks on wooden stairs, slipping, pushing, shoving, laughing, while I, emerging from the nervous stupor that cocoons me, again yell “Stop!”, trembling, not so much because of their actions but because of all that’s happening and how quickly it has overcome us.
Every day now goes like this.
The family wakes around seven a.m., an hour after we would if things were normal, engaged in the hustle and bustle of a morning, the habits of hygiene to make ourselves presentable to the world, getting everyone fed and out of the house, to school, to daycare, to the office. Now, we have nowhere to go, nowhere to get to. I shower and dress at a leisurely pace, leave my wedding ring, which I usually wear religiously, on the nightstand, for fear if I go outside, the virus can cling to it. I go downstairs and sometimes make the children breakfast and sometimes leave it to my wife, and we start work while the children play or watch TV with no one saying much, staring at our screens, hoping that perhaps when we emerge from our hypnosis the world will have righted itself, gone back to functioning like it should.
My wife, even in the best of times, relegates news to white noise static and relies on me to pick up the information necessary to have a cursory knowledge of world politics, and this hasn’t changed with the pandemic. She knows the main things—stay inside as much as possible, if you have to go out, keep some distance between yourself and others, avoid the obviously ill. And because she sticks to this—and because I don’t pass along the gruesome details of stories I’ve read about contracting it, the narratives of victims in hospitals struggling on ventilators, battling both the illness and secondary infections, drowning on dry land—she’s faring better than me and is maybe even thriving.
I’m not doing great, and wasn’t even before this started, though whether this is due to a tendency to follow worst case scenarios through to their worst case termination or because I’m developing a heart condition, I can’t say, and now I can’t find out. Early this year, I was getting a light flutter in my chest, once or twice, each day; my heart beating at odd intervals, not to any severity, but enough to make me think that when I had time I should see a doctor. But I’d been scared and put it off.
Now, the world situation has transformed my reticence to make that appointment into an impossibility. The palpitations have increased and decreased and then increased again, based on what seems to be anxiety, and I’d like to write it off as such, but what if it isn’t? What if, in the night, I wake with my heart racing uncontrollably, pounding against the casing of my chest, trying to punch through the fabric of flesh, and I can’t catch my breath, and it isn’t because I have the virus but just because of your everyday average heart attack? What if I have to go to the hospital? Will I ever come out? Or will I, suffering from a preexisting condition, be vulnerable to the virus, head into the hospital and never come out?
I can’t say. I just hope to get through this, and when the all-clear comes, I swear I’ll get a physical. I swear I’ll take care of myself going forward.
Every day now goes like this.
After breakfast the kids go to the basement for playtime. My wife sets up shop in the attic while I start work at the dining room table. I sit, staring at the screen, answering emails. The world is mostly silent outside our windows. The sounds of cars going by, pedestrians walking past—these have all but disappeared. Occasionally, I hear objects in the basement shifting, the children arguing, the grandfather clock behind me counting off the seconds, my heart matching its rhythm, then speeding up, flapping against my chest like the wings of the sick bat said to have started this.
During the day, it isn’t as hard to keep my nerves from fraying. As the news comes in, I reach out to friends via text and email, share my concerns, discuss what’s happening. To know that others share my fear, the same dread, is comforting, not because I want the people I love to be afraid, but because I don’t want to be alone in a fear my wife doesn’t share. For while the highly contagious nature of the virus imbues it with near mystical qualities for me—sticking, in my imagination, to every surface I can touch whenever I emerge from our home—she walls off acknowledgment of the situation’s seriousness, shuts down all unnecessary emotions, and pushes forward on what seems like autopilot, chalking up the children’s daily schedule on a white board at breakfast, adhering to it rigorously. To look at her you might be fooled into thinking there isn’t a world outside. But I’m not fooled. And as night approaches, it’s more difficult to keep myself from falling apart.
I can feel them coming on as evening progresses—symptoms.
Shortness of breath—that’s the first. Shortness of breath. I can feel it in my chest, my sides, a pain. My lungs aren’t filling. Not all the way, they aren’t.
I don’t want my family to worry, so I keep this to myself. Concentrate. See if I can’t make it go away through willpower. I can get my wind if I put my mind to it, breathe through the mouth, but my ribcage seems to be contracting with every breath, a set of jaws munching my lungs into pulp, clamping down, refusing to offer release.
By the time the kids are in bed, my pulse is racing. My heart rate has kicked into high gear. My body is humming, and I get up and pace the floor, living to dining room to kitchen and back. There’s no alternative, my body’s aflame, not feverish so much as every nerve firing at once, and moving like this is the only way to keep it contained.
My wife is in the attic making last minute changes to a project, and I don’t want to bother her. I had a middle of the night false alarm with heart palpitations a few months ago. I’d gone to a party and had a few drinks. Then I woke, four a.m., heart racing, and I took deep breaths, sips of air. I held myself still and sipped and sipped, but it didn’t slow my heart, so I woke her. “I think something’s wrong. I can’t stop my heart from beating so fast.” And it took an hour for me to bring it under control, to get back to normal, lying there, wondering if this wasn’t the end.
So, I pace and pace.
Why would it find me?
Of all the people who could get it, why me? I’m staying home, avoiding other people, doing what I’m supposed to.
But I’ve had to go out for groceries. And my wife has been coughing. She says it’s post-nasal drip, but what if it isn’t? What if she’s caught a light case and passed a heavy one onto me?
Seven thousand cases reported in the state, population 13 million.
That’s the method I use to ease my mind, mathematics, stats, and it’s failing now.
There’s nausea now, swelling in the pit of my stomach.
I want to go to my wife, to talk to her, to ask her to comfort me, but what if it isn’t the virus, and I’m overreacting again? Or what if it isn’t the virus but the heart attack I’ve been waiting for? Should I call an ambulance now, just in case? I can see them showing up, my wife rushing down the stairs, speeding behind us in the car to the hospital. Them putting me under, surgery, doctors trying to save me. I picture my chest open, my heart raw and red and beating as they work around it. Is this it? A heart attack?
Maybe, maybe not. Maybe it’s nothing at all, nothing but my anxiety, manifesting in different ways, with different symptoms. So, I keep moving. I won’t disturb her, not yet.
Living to dining to kitchen. Repeat.
The fear is in its coming on, in its not being here yet, in anticipation. This is what I fear: knowing that some people are asymptomatic, carriers; knowing that some people have light symptoms where their bodies make quick work of it, flush it out; knowing that for others, it’s a death sentence. What I can’t handle, what I’ve never been able to handle is not knowing. And for what feels like the next two hours, I pace the floor, not knowing if this is it.
By the time I get my breath back, it’s 11:30. My wife has been asleep for two hours. I don’t want to disturb her rest, so I sleep on the sofa. I turn on the TV, put on a comedy—the rhythm and beats of anticipating staid jokes, the way two people talking about inane subjects can drown out my thoughts. I fall asleep while it plays, the voices in the background working to still my restless mind.
My wife has been dealing with my anxiety since we got together thirteen years ago. I understand how tiring it can be. I’m tired of it, too. But the virus is real. The quarantine is real. The lockdown and people dying and hospitals running short of beds and ventilators is real.
“I’m scared,” I want to say to her. But it doesn’t seem manly to voice this.
Two days later, I wake at 4 a.m., sweating, uncomfortable, having trouble breathing again. I’m in bed now, not on the sofa, my wife’s sleeping beside me. I don’t want to disturb her, so I slip the covers off, and as I get out of bed, a chill racks my body. I go to my closet and pull on a sweater, and when I get downstairs, I curl up on the couch, shivering, clammy. I keep touching my forehead with the back of my hand, but I can’t tell if I’m feverish or not. I’m cold all over, shivering, shivering, but then I rouse myself.
If this is the virus, I’ll need strength to fight it. I limp to the kitchen to put together a simple meal, a berry smoothie with protein powder, an orange, a few vitamins. I want to eat more, but by the time I get to the last slice of orange, my stomach has turned sour and wave after wave of nausea assails me. I double up on the kitchen floor and have to make my way back to the living room curled over, crawling along.
Nausea isn’t a symptom of the virus, is it?
And if this is the virus, will I beat it, or will I die?
Last I read, it was killing between one and six percent of people who got it, so the odds are good I’ll beat it. But to my mind, throughout my life, every plane I’m about to board is the one that’s destined to crash, and I can’t shake this habit of thinking now. The kids will be okay. Kids are mostly not getting it, and if they do, it’s not bad. And my wife, she’ll be fine, too. She’s always fine. She’s resilient. I’ve never considered the possibility she might die before me and won’t start now. To my mind, I’m always the one who goes first.
I turn on the TV, put on some comedy again.
The thing about odds, it only matters if you’re not in the one to six percent. If your plane crashes, it doesn’t matter that 99.9% don’t.
All the things I won’t see, won’t be around for, moments in my kids’ lives.
This isn’t my normal fretting at what-ifs: people are dying.
I can’t remain still anymore despite the pain, overcome as I am by the kinetic sensation of my bones trying to break through my skin.
I pace with the pain, my pulse racing, but I can’t outrun this going back and forth between my kitchen and living room. Wouldn’t it be best to end everything, to go out and catch it and fight and live or die but get the whole thing over with? I can’t stand the waiting when waiting is all we can do, confined to the house. Even when I leave, when I go outside, I spend all my time thinking about getting back, getting inside these walls, to our supposed safety. And the toll this is taking on my heart, my injured heart, the heart I should have had checked and didn’t, the strain of the world going to pieces.
At six-thirty, I figure it’s safe to risk waking my wife. I want—no, need—to talk to her. I’ll say it, even if it emasculates me: “I’m scared.”
I’ll let it pour out and hope she’ll comfort me. “I need you now,” I’ll say. “I know I seem weak, and I am weak, and if I’ve ever needed you to prop me up, it’s now.” I’m almost in tears. I need reassurance, but as I cross the threshold, the wind of panic escapes my lips like a steam valve, and she rolls over in bed and says, “What is it now?” with such disdain that it shatters my resolve.
“I don’t know,” I say. “I can’t tell. I might have a fever. I woke up in a cold sweat.”
She sits up, places her hand on the back of my forehead.
“You’re fine. You don’t have a fever. If anything, you’re cold.”
She pushes back the blankets and goes to shower.
Planning for the future.
I’m certain I’m not alone in having taken this for granted.
It’s the children I think of, the futures I’d like them to have, futures I’d like to see—my daughter, a woman; my son, a man. It doesn’t matter what they do with their lives, what professions they take up, whether they marry or have children. I want to see them grown. And I’m hoping to provide instruction and support and guidance along the way. My own mother grew up without a father—heart attack, 44—and this doesn’t sit well with me, having entered my own fourth decade two months before the outbreak.
I understand that people are worse off than me, that some are living in situations where they can’t isolate, that some are stuck in places where they can’t see their loved ones, that others don’t have enough money to get by. But even as I reach for perspective, remind myself I’m fortunate, the irrational part of my mind overwhelms everything else. For this is what panic is—it’s not an unmanly response to triggers of fear, but a response developed over thousands of years of evolution gone haywire, a response to a world thrown off its axis, a reaction on the other end of the spectrum, yet not all that far removed from my wife’s shutting off her emotions, marching forward, step-by-step, with blinders on. She’s making plans for summer vacation, and this morning, the morning of my near breakdown, she calls to get our lawn sprayed with mosquito repellent in June when it’s only March. How she can see that far ahead and feel certain we’ll be here for all that, I don’t know. What I’d wanted this morning was for her to put her arms around me and use that faux-prognostication to tell me everything is going to be okay, even if we have no way of knowing this.
When she doesn’t, I decide to throw myself into the care of the children. My wife still makes their schedule, but I do my best to carry it out, continue their education. Flash cards after breakfast for the girl’s first grade vocabulary words. Then I ask the boy, who hasn’t yet entered school but who’s learned his letters, to say the letters after she reads the word. Next is math, followed by story time. I’ll read to them about dinosaurs or rocks, nonfiction I hope will further their knowledge of the world, and they sit, enraptured. Doing this helps me get out of my head, but it only occupies two or three hours a day. For the time it lasts, I can hold my thoughts at bay, but as soon as it’s over, those thoughts flare up again. I wonder what it’s like to lose consciousness for the last time. Do you know you’re going to sleep forever? Is it death that bothers me? Or the idea of suffering? Or is it simply the loss of control? Isn’t that why I fear sleep? The idea that suffering, that illness, could sneak up on me, unaware?
It’s folly to think I have any control over this, that I can make it bend to my whims, force it to cede to my commands. I just want to stop being so scared, to find my way back to who I was before this, to rediscover the joy this has sapped from my life. I haven’t always been this way, so wrapped up in fear, not constantly, not like this. Even when I had anxiety attacks before, they were sporadic, not bunched up, an everyday occurrence. But what do I mean by joy? What do I mean when I say life? I’m having trouble remembering the person I was before this.
My wife and I, as if by unspoken agreement, trudge on through the days, trading off care for the kids, cooking meals, doing laundry, vacuuming, cleaning the bathroom, making beds. My fear is there, but I somehow manage to diminish it, push it away, relegate its intensity during the daylight hours to a thin background noise.
We go to the elementary school parking lot a block up the street and teach the children to ride bikes. Whenever we see neighbors arrive to do similar things—walk the bus circle, ride their own bikes—I steer the kids away from them, all the while watching them for coughing, for sneezing, fearing that any bodily emission might carry to us on the breeze. We wear our face masks, and sometimes we see that others are wearing masks, too, but sometimes they’re not, and we drift away, surrender the space. And it’s good to get outside, though it’s often only for a short time.
Even though my wife and I are sharing these activities, I worry about what the situation is doing to us, the distance it’s creating, the distance that, in normal circumstances, I’d recognize and try to cross, make some loving gesture to bring us closer, a date night, a dinner, a morning when I put on cartoons for the children and return to my wife in bed and make love. But I can’t sleep in bed anymore. I’m up all hours, confined to the couch, albeit by my own choice, so that I don’t bother her. And date night? That’s an alternate reality, a lifetime ago.
In past weeks, I’ve done something I’ve never done in the long history of our relationship: I’ve withdrawn into myself. I keep going through the motions, pretending I’m me, but maybe in the face of fear, I’m doing the same thing as her, shutting down all parts of myself I don’t need for survival, putting a clamp on all but the emotions necessary to deal with this. Is now even the time to make overtures at reopening the affectionate part of our relationship? But then, what if we can never get them back, even after this is over?
And the children, the way I’ve snapped at them. In the past, I’ve had to take our daughter to the emergency room twice. Once to have a cut on the back of her head stapled, once for a dislocated elbow. If either gets hurt, will I really deny them treatment, let the virus and the possibility of infection turn me into someone I’m not? Cold, unfeeling? The virus is frightening, but isn’t it more frightening to let fear change you, to let it turn you into someone unrecognizable to yourself?
You can still die of this, I think, but somehow, after weeks of anxiety, the aftershocks of this thought aren’t as strong as they were.
What’s the use of living if you’re not living?
The next afternoon, before taking the kids to ride bikes, I slip my wedding ring on for the first time in weeks. It’s been sitting on my bedside table, unworn, owing to my irrational suspicion that it could catch the virus out of thin air and accumulate the sickness on my hand. It’s taut and foreign at first, but this sensation gives way to comfort, a species of hope.
I want my wife to see it, in case she’s taken offense at my not wearing it, but I’m not going to go so far as pointing it out. I can’t say it outright—I can’t say why—but what I need is her to recognize a muted gesture, this way of telling her I’m back to being who I was, as far as that can happen.
In the light of day, as we walk up the street together, I try to imagine what I was so scared of—a bike accident? One of the children tumbling sideways, falling to the ground, breaking a bone as I’d feared when they were wrestling by the fireplace? Our daughter is peddling up the hill, my wife and I between, our son behind us. Our daughter wants to race ahead. She’s so proud that she knows how to ride a bike, and everything she does shows this from the way she holds herself bent over the handlebars to the verve with which she peddles. She looks back to see if we’re watching, to see if we’re as amazed by what she’s doing as she is, and I call out, “Keep your eyes forward! Look in the direction you’re moving!” Meanwhile, I keep my feet moving, head up. I watch her, conscious of my wife beside me, her hand inches from mine. Usually, I’d take it, but right now, I can’t.
What am I so frightened of, amidst this show of health, on this sunny day?
But all the time, I know it’s this: I wake in the middle of the night and have it, really have it. Not the asymptomatic version, but the one where your fever spikes and you can’t catch a breath, where you’re disoriented and can’t form a coherent thought because you’re not getting enough oxygen to your brain. I wake with this, and you’re not there for me. You send me to the hospital to spend my last days on a ventilator. The onset is sudden, so sudden that I don’t have a chance to catch a glimpse of my children before the medics take me out, no chance to prepare, to say goodbye, to tell you how much I’ve loved you. They take me from you, from the children, and leave me in quarantine, the real quarantine, cared for by strangers. And as I lay there, my last thoughts coursing through my addled brain, I wonder if you understand how much you’ve meant to me, if you know how much I’ve loved being here with you, on days like this, days where we walk together in the sun with our children. We all die, I know. And there’s no such thing as a good death, but if I can’t see you and the children, if I can’t reach out and touch your hands…
I guess it doesn’t matter.
Thing is, I don’t just love you, the three of you, though you’re the most important part of it. I love it all. This whole world, the sun up there and the blue sky and just being here to experience all this.
And so walking along, I reach out with the fresh hand I’ve just put my ring on and wrap my fingers with yours, because I might as well do it while I can, while I have the time, while I have this opportunity.
This is what I mean by joy. This is what I mean when I talk about life.
Jason M. Jones works as a writer and editor in Philadelphia. His short fiction and nonfiction have appeared recently or are forthcoming in The Jabberwock Review, Swamp Ape Review, Puerto del Sol, and Potomac Review. For more, please see jasonmjones.net.