I always thought when you went over the tipping point that there would be a fall. Instead, I’ve learned when you go over the tipping point the point impales itself in your heart and holds you aloft writhing like an insect being prepared for a museum display.
Internally, I can’t understand why I’ve found myself stuck. All I’ve done is experienced two years of the pandemic in the most privileged way possible. I worked from home in my basement office while my husband worked from home in our bedroom, and my daughter attended school at home; then at home and at school; and now at school. We have money to pay for broadband, computers, masks, and COVID tests. I should feel lucky.
My mom is alive. I didn’t survive cancer. I don’t currently have cancer. My house didn’t burn to the ground. The opposite scenarios are all ones my friends have experienced since 2020. I didn’t get COVID. My daughter didn’t infect her grandparents when she got COVID. Thank goodness.
My co-workers think I’m a great boss and do great work. I’m working on a project to fundamentally reduce the climate change impacts of transportation system in this country. This week, my work was lauded by the Secretary of Energy and the Secretary of Transportation. I am at a career high point.
I know mental health. I’ve lived with a partner with depression for 22 years. I experienced anxiety during this pandemic in a vicious cycle of chest tightening, worrying I have COVID causing additional chest tightening and more worry that I have COVID. I was seeing the therapist at my doctor’s office until she quit. She never suggested medication. I took the quizzes every appointment. I’m not jittery. I can focus. I can sleep. I am fine.
Sometimes feeling bad is appropriate. Sometimes the combined strain of the banal — lost friendships, loneliness, dead pets — and a literal apocalyptic existence leave you feeling kinda crappy. I just checked my favorite John’s Hopkins COVID-19 dashboard and 5,802,066 people have died worldwide. I was tempted to round to 5.8 million, but 2,066 feels like significant digits. That’s 2,066 sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, friends, lovers, human beings. I can’t imagine 2,066 deaths much less the other 5,800,000. An antidepressant doesn’t make that go away. Every day brings new catastrophes. A quick scan of today’s headlines: war, border blockades, delayed vaccines for kids, and voter suppression. Awesome.
I’m supposed to work and achieve. I’m supposed to be a visionary. I’m supposed to lead, mentor, and manage others. I’m supposed to raise a healthy well-balanced child. I’m supposed to care for my family, my friends, and do not forget the all-important self-care. But what if self-care requires alone time to cry or scream? What if I’ve sucked up all I can suck and need to experience legitimate emotions during my endless daily cycle of bedroom, basement office, kid’s sporting events, kitchen, and back to my office for a few more hours before returning to my bedroom to sleep? When do I to take an hour, a day, a week, a month and fall apart because the world is a horrible scary place? And if I breakdown, then what? Do I pick myself up and start climbing to the tipping point again? This isn’t a brain chemistry problem. This is reality.
And here’s the thing. I’m not alone. If I look around there is a mountain range of impaled others. If I listen closely, I can hear a chorus of “I’m fine.” “I’m good.” “Doing okay.”
How am I doing? I am scared. I am exhausted. I am angry. I am stuck. And I don’t know how or when it gets better.
We were so fucking careful for six hundred and sixty-two days. We canceled camping trips and school trips for fear of being infected. For fear of infecting others. We quarantined fourteen days before Christmas Eve 2020, just so we could spend a few hours with family without masks. My daughter played soccer games (outdoors), basketball games (indoors), and volleyball matches (indoors) masked. She wore masks at the beginning of cross country meets. My husband and I? We watched games and races apart from other families with our lower faces hidden behind our own masks.
It wasn’t enough. Six hundred and fifty-eight days of being safe and somehow COVID found my daughter. When you are careful, you know exactly when infection occurs, even if you don’t know how. We’d been quarantining after an exposure to a family friend. For five days from 12/26 – 12/31 my daughter didn’t leave the house, but when our New Years Eve plans were canceled because our friend (the same one we were exposed to) was still testing positive, I made a terrible decision, “Let’s just go to the hockey game. No one will be there.” Our first mistake.
My daughter and I put on our masks in the car. They stayed on the entire walk to the game and the entire game. No one was there. We got seats one row up and 6 seats over from the nearest people. People who didn’t wear masks the entire game. The woman in the group coughed several times. I glared at her a lot as if my mommy eyes could stop any germs. At the far end of the row, another group of maskless fans sat farther away, but didn’t show any signs of unhealthiness. Everyone was at least 10 feet away, probably more. No one was behind us to breathe their COVID-y germs down on us. We had masks on: my husband and I KN95s, but my daughter had asked to only wear a surgical mask. Our second mistake.
At intermission, we walked down through the concourse. My daughter had to use the bathroom. Our third mistake. After a moments hesitation, I followed her, deciding I would go too. We both went, but in stalls a distance from each other. We washed hands near masked women, and then went to visit friends at the game who we hadn’t seen in at least six hundred and fifty-eight days. They wore masks. We wore masks. We hugged, but they had COVID recently, so it was a safe hug, but we were near other people. I didn’t note the mask wearing of those strangers because I was so happy to see our friends again. Our fourth mistake.
We spent the rest of the game at our seats. Near the coughing woman. Near the maskless fans. My daughter sat between my husband and I in her less-protective surgical mask. After the game, it was cold, so we wore our masks all the way to the car, keeping our faces warm and avoiding the germs of the unmasked fans walking near us.
My husband and I were boosted, but kids my daughter’s age were not yet approved. The CDC wouldn’t recommend her booster until two days after she tested positive for COVID; six days after she was infected. All the times I’d thought poorly of people who were infected right before they could get vaccinated came back to me in a karmic vengeance. Our fifth mistake? Hard to say, because we hadn’t heard that boosters were imminent, but we did know it had been over six months since her shots, and we knew Omicron was raging. So yes, let’s count that as mistake five.
We went to another hockey game the next day. Same situation, but more fans. The guy next to me was drunk and kept leaning in to talk to me, touch me. We moved seats so I was out of reach. Could my daughter have been infected then? Sure. But neither me, my husband, our friends, or our friends’ unboosted kids got COVID.
On January 2nd my daughter’s phone pinged with a notification that she’d been near someone with COVID on December 31st. I didn’t get the notification, nor did my husband. The only time we were apart was in the bathroom. Could the state notification system have been smart enough to know that my husband and I had better masks than my daughter? Of course not. Right?
Monday, January 3rd, my daughter felt crappy when she woke up. A wicked headache and a bit congested. My husband had just recovered from a bad cold (not COVID, he tested three times). Maybe she caught it? Or perhaps irritation from all the residual particulates in the air from the fires that burned Superior and Louisville days before? She had no cough and no fever, but we tested her for COVID just in case. Negative, so she spent a few hours with my parents (mistake six), came home and went for an unmasked walk outside with a friend (mistake seven), and then went to her club basketball practice (mistake eight). At least she wore a mask at basketball, like always.
Tuesday she went back to school (mistake nine). Her head still hurt and she didn’t feel great. Of course she’d also slept less than 4 hours. I know because I slept with her. She was anxious about school and finally I gave up and joined her in bed so she could get some rest. All night we shared recycled breath. (mistake ten) “It feels like knives are stabbing my eyes,” she said as she got ready for school. I gave her a Tylenol, because I know how horrible a lack of sleep can make you feel: especially your eyes. Testing crossed my mind, but she was negative the day before and we only had five tests left (mistake eleven). I picked her up from school and she was feeling pretty good. She had an hour to eat a snack and change and then off to her school basketball practice (mistake twelve). After dinner she started feeling really cruddy, so we tested. Positive for COVID. My husband and I tested. Negative.
We felt terrible, and our penance was the COVID walk of shame. I told my parents their granddaughter had exposed them to COVID. She had exposed my immunocompromised father, the one consistent family fear of this pandemic. At least they were both vaccinated and boosted. My husband texted the parents of her (vaccinated, not boosted) walk friend. I emailed basketball coaches, and texted hockey friends. My final note was to school “friends”: the ones who hadn’t invited her to New Year’s, the ones who made fun of her for not going on their school trip, and ones who hadn’t bothered to invite her to any of their outings during the school break. (You know, those middle school “friends.”) I let all their moms know that my daughter was positive and had exposed their daughters to COVID throughout the school day. Everyone was either nice enough, or ignored my note. Was there a little snideness in their responses? A little smugness? Impossible to tell from email, but I know they found us overcautious, ridiculous, and exhausting for six hundred and sixty-two days. I’m sure at least one family felt a little secret joy that the uppity family was knocked off their pedestal. My daughter’s final penance? The recital all the “friends” were going to over the weekend was now out of the question. My kid couldn’t go because of isolation protocols. Another demerit. Another chance to get left out.
What was the tally of our even dozen mistakes?
My daughter, infected with COVID
Her walking friend, infected with COVID
As far as we know, that’s it. My parents were spared. My husband and I were spared. Both my mom and I felt bad enough to test three days after my daughter tested positive, but we were negative and both feel fine now. Did we have it, and our booster helped us fight off the infection? Who knows. No classmates or teammates were impacted. The family we infected has been careful, like us, during the pandemic, and they have been kind as our daughters go through COVID together. We’ve helped each other find tests and traded food ideas as our girls lost their sense of taste. The girls are happy to have an isolation buddy to do homework with via Facetime. As much as neither family ever wanted to end up in this situation we are making the best of things.
But my kid has a disease we know little about. She lost her sense of taste on day 6, so her symptoms aren’t decreasing. She’s still testing positive on day 7. No fever, and blood oxygen levels consistently above 96%. Protocol says she can go back to school tomorrow, but really? I’m going to send my daughter who doesn’t feel great and is testing positive to school? Sure she didn’t infect anyone last time, but do we push our luck? Push the luck of other families?
I’d love to say that I’m super zen about all this. That I can look back and say we were super risky, made twelve mistakes, and all that happened was our daughter and her friend got infected, but I’m not zen at all. I’m fucking angry. Look at my mistakes and tell me what parent, what person, which of you, hasn’t made the same mistakes. In fact, maybe you have made even bigger mistakes without masks or without testing. One of my mistakes was letting my kid go to the bathroom with only a surgical mask on. Should I have told her to hold it? Go when it wasn’t as busy? Force her to wear an N95 mask? What we did wasn’t a mistake. We followed proper protocol. She made another mistake when going on an unmasked walk outside with her friend the day she tested negative for COVID. Raise your hand if you’ve gone outside and talked to someone without a mask. I’m betting every one of you has your hand raised. And did you have a negative COVID test earlier that day? I’m guessing not. Now guess what? You gave your friend COVID. Fuck that. And sure, my kid was not boosted, but she couldn’t be. The damn CDC had to wait FOUR DAYS to approve the FDA’s recommendation and even those assholes waited until it had been over SEVEN months since the kids with the most responsible families got their kids vaccinated. This is all utterly unfair bullshit.
Now I get to worry about long COVID, and what long term impacts this virus will have on my daughter. Will she still be able to run? Play sports? What about even longer unknown impacts? I get to worry because there are no hospital beds and if she takes a turn for the worse there will be no oxygen for her, no ICU, and sure as hell no treatments. For making a dozen mistakes, I get to be that parent. The one who risked her kid’s life, her families’ lives, and her friends’ lives for a hockey game. Except, I didn’t do anything that any safe family hasn’t done this pandemic. And I’m angry as hell for all the people who haven’t been careful, who haven’t worn a mask, and who haven’t been vaccinated so this damned virus keeps mutating. Every selfish person who just can’t bother to put something over their nose and mouth and get a nothing-short-of-miraculous-vaccine is culpable for my kid’s illness. At least as much as I am for making what I admit is one bad decision: to go to a hockey game with Omicron raging.
For six hundred and sixty-two days we were careful, responsible members of society and this just sucks. If I was a toddler I’d be pounding and kicking on the floor screaming a tantrum of “it’s not fair.” As a fourty-seven year old, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that you’ll find me there tomorrow.