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.

Handshake, Schmandshake!

§   I originally posted this essay in September, 2018.  Now, with Dr. Fauci suggesting that we may never return to the gesture of the handshake, it seems a great time to repost it.  Ha!  I was ahead of the curve!  §

I’ve never quite gotten the point of the whole “a firm handshake” deal. Judging a person in this manner has always seemed to me like two little boys playing at arm wrestling.  Who cares whether one’s touch is quote-firm-unquote?  I personally suspect that the whole firm handshake concept (which for decades was an exclusively male prerogative) was just something devised in a homophobic era by men who felt a light touch also indicated someone who was “light in the loafers”.

As a young girl in parochial school, occasionally being taught lessons in etiquette (something which, by the way, I would highly recommend be added to the curriculum of every school today), I was instructed that a man did not reach to shake a woman’s hand unless she first extended her own hand.  Unfortunately, this etiquette lesson has gone the way of the dodo, but I truly preferred it.  I dislike touching or being touched by complete strangers.  No, that’s wrong – I despise touching or being touched by complete strangers.  It feels invasive of my personal space, and it takes away my sense of control about a situation – my right to decide whether or not to be handled.  I wasn’t raised in the “good touch, bad touch” era, but not having the right to decide if I want to grasp the hand of a totally unfamiliar person has always felt “bad touch” to me.  After all, how do I know where that hand’s just been?  Is this a person who doesn’t wash after using the bathroom?  What if they have a cold or the flu? Blech.

For that reason, I’ve devised many a trick to avoid shaking hands. My favorite, when I can do it, is to sneeze.  Since allergies are my constant companions, this often isn’t difficult.  And turning completely aside to sneeze, carefully covering one’s face with both hands, is a wonderfully self-deprecating, “Ohmigosh, I can’t believe that happened, let me get a tissue,” moment.

If I’m unable to rustle up a realistic sneeze, I cough. Coughing is much easier, and it still requires turning away and covering one’s face with one’s hand, thereby making it unlikely anyone is going to immediately grasp that hand.  Both coughing and sneezing can include simple explanation and apology: “Sorry, I’m afraid I have a bit of cold; I certainly don’t want to pass it on to you!”, or, “So sorry; the ragweed is in full bloom, and I’m very allergic!”  All said, of course, with an apologetic smile, sometimes while dashing hand sanitizer over one’s palms – no one wants to shake hands with a glob of alcohol gel.

Actually, I rather enjoyed this aspect of the terrible flu season of 2009, when experts recommended that the handshake be foregone in favor of the fist bump. It’s impossible to judge the fleeting gesture of the fist bump, and the touch is so brief that it doesn’t feel invasive.  I only wish the fist bump recommendation was in place every flu season.

I might be happier, though, in a culture in which the bow was the gesture of choice for introduction. Besides being a refined and classic gesture, in those cultures in which people bow rather than shake hands, it’s possible, by the depth of one’s bow, to indicate anything from real pleasure in meeting someone to total rejection and insult.  Now there’s a custom I can appreciate!

But I am most taken with the classically graceful “Namaste” gesture (the explanation of which so befuddled the current President after his trip to India), in which the head is bowed slightly over one’s steepled hands as the word is spoken. “I bow to the Divine within you,” the word and movement say, acknowledging the totality of the person standing before one, recognizing that they are both body and spirit, whole and perfect and complete.

Handshake, schmandshake. One should be judged by one’s stance (confident and self-assured?  Slouching, unable to meet the other’s eyes?) one’s smile (genuine or nervous?) and general neatness.  All the rest – clothing, accent, makeup, hair, and touch – are just window dressing. Fluff.  In the long run, the immediate judgment we make of another is just that: a snap judgment.  Stop worrying about their handshake and take the time to know the individual.