December 26, 2019

I am horrified now to realize that I might have spent a full day carrying and spreading a potentially fatal illness

On December 26, 2019, at two o’clock in the morning, I woke with a dry cough. Sitting up on the edge of my bed, coughing steadily, I blamed the roughness in my lungs on the unhealthy combination of my asthma and all the ghastly cigarette smoke I’d been forced to inhale at a relative’s house on Christmas Eve.

Since I was due at a medical lab at an ungodly early hour that morning for blood tests (note to self: Never ever, never again schedule an annual checkup following a month of overindulgence between Thanksgiving and Christmas!), I piled my pillows high to breathe more comfortably in an upright position, and slept a little longer before rising for my appointment.

Later, minus six vials of blood, I hurried to break my fasting status (more junk food, before I had to face the awful results!) and then dropped by my favorite discount store to load up on post-holiday sale merchandise. But my cough worsened as I piloted my cart through the store, so I checked out with very few purchases and drove home, planning to use my nebulizer to clear the ongoing asthma attack.

Good intentions, road to hell… I arrived home to find a message on my house phone (why, oh why, did he not call my cell?!) from my father, saying he was heading to the ER with breathing difficulties. Of course, he neglected to mention the ER of WHAT HOSPITAL??! Since he never actually turns his own cell phone on, precious time was wasted in tracking him down before I rushed off to the hospital. I remained there most of the day until Dad, made more comfortable, was admitted in the late afternoon and settled into a room. Then I drove to his house to care for his lonely little cat, check his home security system, and haul in his Christmas gifts, still sitting in his car.

Yet even as I’d remained at Dad’s side throughout the afternoon, I’d struggled to suppress my ongoing cough. I couldn’t in good conscience abandon my father, yet I was uneasy. A full day of wheezing? Could this really be no more than a reaction to cigarette smoke? But I had no other symptoms, not then, and years of asthma have made me blasé about the condition. I told myself that I just needed that nebulizer treatment.

But as I drove to Dad’s house, a tidal wave of illness crashed over me. My head began to swim; every muscle began to ache. Arriving at his home, I seriously considered just collapsing there and sleeping on the couch. But I knew my own pets were probably waving protest placards and chanting unpleasant slogans regarding my failure to provide dinner. So, despite a quickly rising temperature, I drove home. Half-hallucinating, I was actually startled when I automatically raised my garage door and drove in, for I remembered nothing of my route home but feverish dreams.

I cared for my pets and collapsed into my favorite armchair. I would remain there for the better part of the next four days, aching, chilling, headachy, feverish and coughing; actually unable to walk up the stairwell of my own home to my bedroom. Although the worst of my illness seemed, at least initially, to be over within a week, I suffered a relapse on New Year’s Day, and continued feeling absolutely dreadful for weeks, coughing continually long after my fever lowered.

My brother, who had taken over with Dad when I dropped, fell ill next; his wife followed, all of us sharing similar symptoms. Meanwhile, a friend living in another state who is usually healthy suddenly fell seriously ill of pneumonia; one of her acquaintances then lost her spouse to pneumonia. And if all this sounds like possible cases of Covid-19, well, then, so it does. But on the day I fell ill, the epidemic in China was still carefully under wraps; their first coronavirus death had not even been acknowledged until December 8.

Long months later, I would read about random blood samples collected during that December which were found to exhibit Covid-19 antibodies, proving the disease had been infecting people throughout the U.S. far earlier than initially known. So I’ve since given much thought to the undefined illness my family and friends experienced that winter, and the horrifying reality that I might easily have spent a full day carrying and spreading a potentially fatal illness, all the while thinking it was nothing more than a totally-undeserved smoker’s cough bequeathed me by others’ cigarettes. That realization overwhelms me with guilt.

I remind myself that none of us living had ever experienced pandemic, and that when I fell ill even the medical community was unaware that Covid-19 had already begun to spread. But whether we suffered Covid-19 or not, and as the victims and fatalities from the Delta variant mount up, I hope that none of us who’ve survived these turbulent and painful months will, in the future, ever again take lightly even the hint of communicable illness.

At this spot, I usually refer readers to an earlier blog post–but there is nothing in the Archives of my past blogs that in any way relates to this essay. Of course, with the possible exception of those who endured Ebola, none of us living in the late 20th and early 21st centuries had ever experienced a plague! Pray heaven we never do so again.

Be Prepared

§   Throughout my life, I took Otto Frank as my role model. “Be prepared” might have been engraved across my forehead.   § 

I first read Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl when I was about 12 years old. It fascinated and enthralled me; horrified me and completely broke my heart. I loved every word of it. Yet I can’t say, even now, that Anne was my hero. Oh, I loved that teenager; felt that I understood her and empathized with her highs and lows; laughed over her astute, witty, and oftentimes rude descriptions of the inhabitants of the Secret Annex. But, no, my real hero in that story was Anne’s father, Otto Frank. Without Otto Frank’s sagacity, without his careful preparation that took his family into hiding and the precious two years of life he gained for them and their companions—well, without that, Anne’s diary would never have been written.

Despite the betrayal that doomed them to the horrors of the Nazi death camps, Otto Frank did his best to protect his family, and for that reason, he became my hero. He thought ahead. He prepared. At only the age 12, I was in awe of his wisdom, his far-sighted perception.

All these many years later, I realize that throughout my life, I took Otto Frank as my role model. “Be prepared” might have been engraved across my forehead. Think ahead. Plan ahead.  Have a contingency fund as part of my household budget; keep a fire escape ladder in my second-floor bedroom. Buy a gun and learn to shoot. Be ready, not just in my personal life, but for where I thought the world might be heading.

As a young adult living alone, part of that preparation involved a technique which I came to call “a pair and a spare”. Even when I lived in a one-room apartment, my tiny larder and under-counter fridge were always as full as I could afford to keep them. After all, I lived alone; were I to be sick, unable to get out to shop, I would need supplies on hand. (Only once did this far-sighted plan fail me, when a long week’s housebound illness preceded one of the worst blizzards that Indiana had ever experienced.) Later, when I had more storage space, my technique evolved further.  A pair and a spare. One bottle of liquid soap beneath the sink; two in the pantry. Six onions in the vegetable bin; twelve potatoes. An open box of breakfast cereal; two in abeyance. A roll of toilet paper on each dispenser; three more in a basket in each bathroom; a full package in the bathroom closet. A box of tissues in each room; an equal, unopened number of boxes stored.

Much later, I read about preppers.  While not quite convinced of their sanity, I  nevertheless incorporated a few of their ideas. I laughed my way through the Millennial Bug nonsense (smiling smugly when all the clocks went on ticking and computers running),  but disease was, I believed, a different matter.  The very first cases of Legionnaire’s Disease tumbled into headlines, and then the threat of Swine Flu.  The SARS outbreak splashed into the news, and then MERS, and then Ebola. It was reasonable to expect that if a pandemic, or even just a plain old epidemic, arose, getting out to make purchases might be a fraught experience.  With each outbreak, I made certain I had more than I would usually have on hand my home: canned goods, paper goods, soup, pasta, rice, beans, peanut butter, OTC medications. Utilities, too, might be disrupted, so keeping some jugs of water available seemed like a sensible idea, along with candles, matches, oil lamps. If nothing else, it was all very useful during power outages! Nothing I ever bought was to outrageous excess; each time when the threat passed, my extra supplies were very quickly absorbed into daily use. But, had they been needed, they were available.

So when the first whispers of the coronavirus arose, I began my usual routine. Very early in January, long before the initial case of the disease was identified in the U.S., I began storing essential items. A pair and a spare, not just for myself, but a bit of extra for my daughter and son-in-law and their toddler, just in case. I might not need powdered milk, but it would be there if needed for my granddaughter.   My pets, too–my elderly cats eat a special diet, but I  keep only a week’s worth in the cabinet.  Now multiple cans went into the pantry, and I made room in my garage for several more cat litter sacks than would usually be stacked there.  And, yes, there was a spare package of toilet paper!

And this time, finally, all the supplies were needed. Indiana went into lockdown status on March 23, days after panic buying had all but stripped the shelves bare. Secure in my preparations, I did not need to brave the possibly-infected, rude rush of people out storming the stores. My pantry and garage were stocked with goods enough to see me through at least a few weeks of quarantine, with enough to spare for the people I most love, if needed.   I was prepared.  A pair and a spare…

I like to think Otto Frank might have smiled, just a little.

 

The Kindly Neighbor and the Generations

§  To imply that today’s youth do not know sacrifice is to minimize and belittle everything they have experienced.  §

A friend asked me—not in an accusatory manner, but just curiously—why none of my recent weekly blogs had discussed the coronavirus pandemic. My initial reaction to her question was, “Dear God, don’t we all have to read and hear enough about it every day?” But, the simple truth is that my blog posts are usually scheduled as many as four to six weeks in advance, leaving them very little probability of corresponding to current events.

Only a day or so after her question, though, I received an e-mail lightly connected to the pandemic which simply set my teeth on edge; so much so that I decided to rearrange some scheduled posts to include an essay about it.

I cannot name the original source of this material, since the e-mail I received did not include it. Here, however, is the article that arrived in my email in-box, along with a note remarking that it was “just beautiful”.

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My reaction to this essay was swift and very negative. I re-read it multiple times in dismay, finally summarizing it for myself as follows: A kindly, thoughtful person makes special effort to ask if an elderly neighbor needs anything during a national crisis, and receives in return a rant, a harangue; a tirade closed by a scathing, condescending remark. And while I have rarely been the recipient of offers of neighborly helpfulness, I am certain that a critical lecture and nasty remarks would not be my first choice of response.

My second reaction to the account was that of weary disgust: I am so tired of generation bashing! Whether it is the self-named Greatest Generation deriding Baby Boomers, or Boomers disparaging Gen X’rs and Millennials, or Millennials ridiculing Boomers and Generation Z…I am sick of it. Each generational group is composed of individuals—individuals who differ greatly from each other despite their shared experiences. There are things we can all learn, wisdom to be gained, from appreciating one another’s viewpoints–but that wisdom cannot be gained so long as we continue to disparage each other.

No generation has a premium on dreadful events.  Each generation endures pain, and war, and sacrifice. Pearl Harbor was no more shocking than 9/11. The “police action” of Korea and the undeclared war of Vietnam were just as horrific for those who fought them as the Second World War. And I feel certain that those soldiers who battled through the First World War could easily have spoken just as scathingly to the man of this story as he did of subsequent generations.

Nor is disease limited to any one generation. A survivor of the Black Death from the Middle Ages, transported through time to the era of Spanish Flu, might well have laughed ironically: people were not, after all, dying while lying on straw pallets, covered with lice and fleas.  Lesser diseases were not under the sole proprietorship of the Greatest Generation, either. A Boomer myself,  I had classmates who survived polio; I endured measles, mumps, chickenpox, and rubella.  I was dreadfully sick with whooping cough as 40-something adult. My daughter, a Millennial, caught chickenpox before a vaccine became available.  I watched two co-workers barely survive MERSA.

Boomer children grew up under the horrifying reality of the bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki,  and the grip of the Cold War; we daily walked past the radiation insignia of the shelter areas within our schools as we ran practice drills for surviving nuclear annihilation. Sissies?  I feel sure that “duck and cover as you prepare to be vaporized by a nuclear warhead” did not comprise part of childhood  of that 80-something man.

To say that today’s youth do not know sacrifice is to minimize and belittle everything they have experienced. True, they do not recall a world without instantaneous communication, even from the battlefield, but the very world they have been born into is dying: the polar icecaps and Antarctic ice fields melting away; bees, butterflies and bats, all our pollinators, dying off at unprecedented rates. They have grown up in schools drilling not to survive nuclear war, but active shooters; they have watched their classmates mown down before their very eyes. And now they are dealing with the first genuine world-wide plague for 100 years. For them, this will always be the defining moment of their generation: when they had to shroud themselves in a chrysalis of isolation, afraid to hug a loved one or touch their hand; watching their parents and grandparents and even classmates succumb to an invisible enemy and barred from them as they died, gasping for breath.

No, I have reached the conclusion that the real man in the sad little tale I was sent was not, as declared, that full-of-himself 80-year-old, declaiming his one-sided story,  lauding himself while deriding all those whose experiences did not match his particular world view. The real man, was, I think, that kind-hearted neighbor who, unasked, came to see to the needs of an elderly man…and who came away, quite unappreciated and totally belittled.