Journal of the Plague Year 2020: Waiting

In March I started writing journal entries about the Covid-19 pandemic because it seemed clear that we were living through unprecedented times. A lot of people didn’t notice what was happening in Italy and New York City, or felt it didn’t affect them. I started noting the case numbers and deaths in Arizona because I felt strongly that it would end up here. Looking at the data, the public policy response, and people’s behavior, I saw no reason why it wouldn’t.

It did.

A few acquaintances had bad cases; a young man I know lost his mother and brother.

My sister and brother-in-law got sick, and recovered after a mild illness.

Though most people were ordered to work from home, those of us who came in saw increasing cases, quarantines, cleanings and closures. I was quarantined twice, but so far have tested negative.

On December 21, my mom called to say that she had a positive test, though she and my dad were scrupulous about staying home and wearing masks when they got groceries or takeout. They’re both having a rough time. My mom’s oxygen levels have dropped to the low 90s at times. Chills, fever, exhaustion. I call them every day, drop off groceries and vitamins.

My mom sent me a text message saying I’m a good son, which brought tears to my eyes.

She called a little while ago to say that her symptoms are serious enough that she may have to go to the emergency room. She’s scared, of course, but also calm and practical and courageous. She said she’ll text me when she hears back from the doctor.

So I’m waiting.

Stupidly, I’ve been thinking of my cat Julia. I got her from a no-kill shelter in Daytona Beach when she was six weeks old. She had an upper respiratory infection, and was so tiny that I kept checking to be sure she was breathing. She grew up to be a big, chatty, boisterous cat who charmed anyone who crossed the threshold of my various apartments and houses. Julia was a good cat, but not, to me, an outstanding one. She was a crowd-pleaser, but wasn’t particularly snuggly or attached.

When Julia was 13, she suddenly lost a lot of weight and had awful vomiting spells. She’d always been a pukey cat, casually hocking up hairballs and half-digested kibble. Now she was distressed, hiding. I took her to the vet again and again; tried different medications and foods. She was ill for months, and for a long time I was anxious and guilty and stressed, but also hopeful that the next tablet would fix her.

I really started to love her during the last months and weeks of her life, when she was struggling. Though she was in pain, she was quiet and calm. She would often sit next to me — not in my lap, but just a few inches away. She slept most of the day, but when she woke up she would come find me. Even when she stopped eating and drinking, she would wake up and pad over, and I would lift her onto the bed or chaise lounge.

I stopped worrying about whether I was doing the right thing — if she needed to go to the vet again, or what would happen the next time I went on travel. I put out food and water that she didn’t touch, and groomed her, and sifted through her box, and cleaned up the last, few little foamy patches of vomit. A lot of my ego and fear drained away; I didn’t fret about the cost of her illness, or whether I was a good cat owner. We waited together, and when it was time, I took her to the vet one last time.

Julia’s death taught me a lot about love. I wanted a certain kind of cat. By chance, she wasn’t that cat. For more than a decade, I noticed the ways she diverged from my ideal cat, and quietly decided that my next cat would be entirely different. When she became sick, I stopped noticing what kind of cat she was, and just did my best to relieve her pain and help her. I fell in love with her late and hard, and I was very sad when she died.

Now, when my parents are sick, it’s a relief to just buy them groceries and tell them again and again that I love them. I let them sleep, and don’t bug them about what symptoms they’re having.

To me, it’s earth-shattering that my parents have Covid-19. I’m afraid, and I can’t imagine losing them.

It’s humbling to know that millions of Americans have had this experience.

It’s hard not knowing what will happen.

Tomorrow is New Year’s Day. The beginning of 2021, but also just another day in the pandemic.

Total cases in Arizona: 512,489

Current hospitalizations: 4,526

Deaths: 8,718

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