April 28, 2020, 11:45 a.m.
Dan: The real world
The scratchiness in my throat won’t go away. I keep checking my temperature and it’s 97.8. I unwrap the little oximeter I ordered from Amazon to check the oxygen level in my blood. Clipped on my forefinger, it registers 99. Not perfect but this isn’t a third grade spelling test.
I draw air into my lungs, and then some more and then even more. No congestion.
If it weren’t for the sore throat and the three-day-old headache, there’d be nothing to worry about.
And yet. I’m afraid.
A week ago, I saw what covid-19 looks like in the hospital for an article for next Sunday’s paper. Although I’m supposed to be focusing on medical staff on the front lines, all I could focus on were the people lying on the beds.
All alone, they were attached to drips and ventilators and tubes. It looked to me like some kind of dystopian dream. Or one of those horror movies where a germ is taking over the world and creating only chaos in its wake.
They—it was hard to know who was who under their own protective wrapping—covered me up in gowns and gloves and masks so that I hardly recognized myself and then they let me walk down a single covid hall. It was a spooky place. Monitors beeping, the whoosh of ventilators, the smell of disinfectant that hung in the air, the quiet padding down the halls.
I met nurses whose foreheads are scraped and bruised from the masks they wear. Their badges of honor, they say with a self-deprecating giggle. And they admit the marks and the masks hurt.
One doctor told me he sleeps in the garage when he gets home, self-quarantining himself from his wife and three small children. He hasn’t seen them in person since mid-March—even though only a single door separates them. His wife cooks his dinner and leaves it on a paper plate before he gets home. His breakfast, fruit and a bagel, and his lunch, a cheese or peanut butter sandwich that doesn’t need refrigeration and a packet of potato chips, wait nearby in a brown paper bag. He texts her hello and goodbye. At lunchtime, they FaceTime so he can talk to the children and see how much the baby has grown. She was born in February and he’s basically missed a month with her.
I forgot to ask him how he goes to the bathroom, or shaves or takes a shower. I was so overwhelmed by that image of selflessness, on the part of both parents. I’ll have to text him later.
As I listen for the sixth, or maybe it’s the seventh time, to bits of what I recorded, I hear exhaustion, a little fear or maybe it’s just concern for their own health, and I hear pride, too. These people, from the techs to the EMTs to the nurses and doctors, signed up to save lives.
That’s what they’re struggling to do now.
And I’m trying to figure out how to tell their story so my readers know there are lots and lots of heroes out there.
They don’t see it that way, not the people I talked to anyway. They’re just doing the jobs they were trained to do. One nurse merely shrugged when I used the word “hero.” She told me she’s seen worse night after night in the emergency department where she worked for twenty years. This, though, this disease has a ruthlessness about it that makes her voice quiver. “I feel sorry for their families,” she told me. “They can’t even say goodbye or hold their loved one’s hand as they go.”
That nurse said it’s hard but late at night when the floor is quiet she’ll sit with patients in their final moments. She prays for them, sings a gentle song called “On Eagle’s Wings” and cries. Even if she can’t get too close, she said she believes they hear her and know they are not alone.
As her voice from my recorder fades away, I stare into my darkened living room. I never bothered to raise the shades this morning and the day is so gloomy. Perfect for a story so raw. Even the crows that screech outside the window are quiet.
A text wakes me from my reflections. “You okay, Dan?”
It’s from Jessica.
I’ve missed the morning editorial meeting.
I ought to text back but I can’t even focus on the little keyboard on my phone. I’d call but the buzzing in my ears had made it hard to listen to my recording all morning. A phone conversation would probably feel worse.
It would be nice to talk to Jessica. I don’t want her to worry but I’d like to hear her voice. Maybe it would make me feel better. I always feel so lonely when I’m sick.
Being a sick grown-up is so miserable compared to being a sick kid. Mom would let me lie in front of the television with a rare can of Coke—something never allowed except at holiday parties. She’d bring me lunch on a tray and check my temperature every few hours and bring me my medicine. Even when I was eleven years old with the flu, she fetched my toy dog and tucked it under my arm while I slept, leaving a trail of drool on one of her throw pillows. She never said a word.
Maybe this is just a cold. Maybe it’s covid-19. All I know is I have to stay away from everybody—especially Jessica and her little girl—for the next fourteen days. Did I catch something in the hospital?
After all the precautions they took, after all the hand sanitizer and the soap I used when I got home, it’s not possible. Is it?
Whatever it is, it’s sapping all my strength. I can’t work anymore. I save the notes I’ve typed on my laptop and shut it off. The pain is making my head buzz. I’m going to lie down and rest a while. Maybe the acetaminophen will kick in soon.
Before I make my way to the couch, Rex jumps to his feet.
“No, boy. No walk right now. Go lie down.”
With a sigh, he drops back onto the rug by the front door and lays his head on his oversized paws. His big brown eyes remain fixed on me. It’s good to have someone to look after you when you’re not feeling so good.
The next time I wake up, sunbeams slant through the dining room windows and pool on the oak floor beside my couch.
With a start, I wonder how long I’ve been sleeping and ask out loud, “What time is it?”
Rex jumps up and stares me down. I bet he really needs a walk. We haven’t been out since seven this morning.
I glance at my phone. It’s after five.
Poor guy needs dinner, too.
The earth below my feet dips and dives when I stand so I collapse back onto the couch. My head aches just the same as before.
“Sorry, boy.” I’m letting my old dog down when I reach for the afghan but I can’t help it. He’ll survive. The way I feel right now, I’m not sure I will.
The world fades away again but not before I remember the story that isn’t finished, the call from Jessica I didn’t return, the countless emails that are probably waiting for me. And patient, devoted Rex. His gaze stays on me, a comfort that eases the painful buzzing in my head.
“I’ll feed you in a minute, boy,” I mutter, knowing full well he’s going to go hungry for at least a couple more hours.
April 29, 11:15 a.m.
Jessica: A nighttime of worry
First thing this morning, I checked my text messages. I haven’t heard from Dan since, I have to think back, Friday. I texted him when he skipped the meeting yesterday morning. I texted him with a question in mid-afternoon. I send one more text before I sat down with Lori to watch Frozen II for the umpty-sixth time after dinner.
He never answered me.
With a meeting due to start in a few minutes, I text him again and still no response.
I punch in his number and it rings three times before going to voice mail.
“Dan? Just checking in to see how you are. Missed you at yesterday’s meeting. See you later?”
He went to the hospital on Friday for a story. I was supposed to go but I wriggled out of it because of my concern for Lori. I didn’t want to chance getting sick and giving her the virus.
When Claire offered me the assignment, I hemmed and hawed for a moment before Dan caught on. He’s the only person on the staff who knows I have a daughter.
“I was hoping to write that one, Claire,” he interrupted her.
That earned him a frown from the editor. “But I asked Jessica.”
“Yes, I know but it’s right here on my list of proposed story ideas.” I’ve talked to him enough to hear when he’s bullshitting his way and this was one of those times.
“I’ve been reporting on all those cases and, well, it seemed we should go talk to the doctors and nurses. I was thinking of checking in with University Hospital. I have a contact there…”
Claire must know when he’s making it up as he goes along, too. “Who? You’ve never written a story about the hospital.”
“Dr. Marino,” I pipe in. “She’s on the faculty there.”
Dan nodded so I continued. “She said something about how the hospital staff is working overtime.”
“Yeah,” Dan picked up the thread of our stupendous lie. “It’ll make a great story. Doctors and nurses have been profiled in China and Italy—remember that young doctor in China who died from the virus after taking care of all those people in Wuhan? I want to do a story like that.”
“Right. That’s exactly what I want. Give me two-thousand words for next Sunday’s paper.” When Claire glanced down at her notes Dan mouthed “thank you.” It’s impossible to tell on Zoom but I’m sure he was talking to me.
We’ve turned into a good team after a horribly rocky start. So now the team is in trouble. I look at my phone and will him to call or text me back.
If he doesn’t show up at the meeting, I’m going over to his house. Hearing Lori answering Mrs. Gambino’s math question, I wonder if that’s safe. What if he got sick when he went to the hospital?
When Dan doesn’t appear, I argue with myself through the editorial meeting. I can’t expose my little girl to the virus. We’ve been so careful for more than a month. The health officials are saying the disease in kids is rare but there have been a few terrifying cases of children contracting the disease and dying. Only a few have been reported but to those few’s mothers, each death was one too many. I can’t take that chance.
But can I leave her here? Would that make me a terrible mother? Of course, it would. I never let Lori out of my sight.
Yet, I can’t help but worry about Dan. I recall falling in the kitchen a few weeks ago and how frightening it was to need help that wasn’t there. Maybe he’s lying in a pool of blood on his kitchen floor, too far from his phone to call.
The image in my thoughts can’t be erased once I think it. I decide I have to go. I’ll turn on a movie for Lori and slip out the back door. It’s closer to Dan’s house anyway. I don’t even have to tell her I’m going out. Or maybe I’ll say I’m running a trash bag to the can in the alley. I’d be gone at most twenty minutes. I could set my alarm so I’m back before she finishes watching a movie later this afternoon. She wouldn’t even miss me, right?
That’s what I decide as I fix Lori a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and put it on a plate with carrot sticks and two Oreos.
“Lori, time for lunch.” I bring the food through the dining room where she’s finishing a language arts assignment. Doggie Woggie sits beside her.
“Let’s take a break today. You’ve worked so hard this morning.” She follows me to the living room, looking quite puzzled. She says nothing as I set the plate on the coffee table. “How about we watch a movie?”
I flip through the videos, stopping at yet another Disney princess movie. One she hasn’t seen sixteen million times. “How about ‘Mulan?”
“The cartoon or the new one?”
I have both in my hand. “Which do you want to see?”
“The cartoon. I like the dragon in that one.”
“Okay then.” I pop it into the DVD player and pat her silky hair. Lori must get a bath later. We’ve slipped on personal hygiene the past few days.
Without another word, I slip into the kitchen, sling my purse over my shoulder and unlock the back door.
“Mommy? Where are you going?” Lori’s at the door, half a sandwich in her hand.
“Taking the trash out,” I lie as she eyes my handbag.
I reach for the trash bag and tie it.
“Did you want something?”
“There’s a man at the door. He said he’s my daddy.”
Next Monday CHAPTER 19— Jessica: Colin
Coming on Wednesday, the next audio chapter,
Chapter 17—Jesus and Vodka
Dan and Jessica’s story needs your ideas.
Every Monday I’ll post a new chapter until Dan and Jessica find love, lose it and, we hope, find their happily-ever-after. Do you have an idea, torn from your own pandemic stay-at-home saga, that might help them? (PS–This is torn from real life, for sure. Someday I’ll share the story. It’s wonderful.)
If you have a suggestion for #what happens next, send it along with your name and hometown to firstname.lastname@example.org. (Copy and paste the address, please.) Or comment below.
Together we can write a great story to remember the lockdown of 2020.
Ⓒ2020 MARY K. TILGHMAN