Masked

 

I finally cried yesterday.

Save many a hormonal-fueled sob fest when I was pregnant, I’m not really a crier. My pain and anxieties manifest in other ways. So when the tears pooled and finally spilled, breaking the COVID-19 emotional dam I’ve been heaving around, I was surprised. And suddenly exhausted.

But I needed to get it out.

Yesterday was my first day wearing a mask full-time at the hospital. Working in a separate office far from patient care, I hadn’t been required nor compelled to wear one all the time — not at my own desk, in the office I share with just one person. But I do now. It feels like “it” — coronavirus, germs, illness, something — is lurking and, if I slip up just once, it’s coming for me next.

As one of millions of people who grapple with anxiety and OCD under normal circumstances, I’ve found the pandemic to be an interesting mix of eerie calm (my anxiety helps me function sharply in fight-or-flight situations) and total alarm (my anxiety exaggerates all dangers, or invents them completely).

Talking to my husband at the end of a long day, I realized where part of my panic was coming from: the mask itself. Being masked all day reminds me of being in labor with Oliver, when I was sick and terrified and had to wear an oxygen mask for the duration of my 15-hour labor and delivery.

I’m claustrophobic, and the oxygen mask overwhelmed me. I kept trying to rip it off so I could breathe, goddammit, but of course I couldn’t. Every scream, every shout, every cry was muffled and held tightly in that plastic pressed to my face. I didn’t have my glasses on; everything was blurred and strange. One of my sharpest memories after that ordeal was my relief when someone finally removed the mask so I could squint at the amorphous shape of my tiny baby, blindly pressing a kiss to his forehead before he was NICU-bound. Then the mask was back.

Approaching Oliver’s 5th birthday next week, my mind would have already been turning over and over these difficult memories — heavy stones now worn smooth with handling. This year is easier, because more time has passed; this year is harder, because we’re all cooped up now. Distractions are scarce.

Now that Spencer and I talked through why the mask has been freaking me out so much, I think I can accept that it was just the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. When I let myself shed some tears — for the past, for the changed present, for the unknown future — and accepted that I don’t have to always be so relentlessly optimistic during a worldwide pandemic, I can dust myself off and begin again.

Today is a new day. It’s Friday. Weekends don’t have much meaning at the moment, but I’ll be home with my family and helping my husband, who is shouldering so much of the parenting load right now.

The sky is tinged with dusky rose and pastel blue. I’m wearing a new necklace. In an hour or so, my children will be giggling while their dad makes breakfast and I pull into the hospital’s parking lot.

I’ll slip the mask over my ears, take a muffled breath, and go on.

Every tremor, every pulse

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The work truck was parked on the shoulder, door ajar.

I saw it long before I actually reached Allens Fresh — a stretch of marsh off the Wicomico. My commute takes me straight through this lowland daily. I might not have noticed the vehicle on a “normal day,” when fishermen crowd this strip and drop their skiffs. But this wasn’t a normal day. This is life in the time of COVID-19.

The roads haven’t been empty this week, but traffic has certainly been lighter. I’ve continued to report to the county hospital where drive-through COVID testing is now set up, working on communications. I’ve had a low-grade headache since Monday. Adrenaline has temporarily replaced caffeine. Sleep rushes up at me hard every night, thick and dreamless. Everything is surreal.

I noticed the truck because our vehicles were the only ones on this stretch of road. He’d pulled over just by the bridge — the one wiped out in the back-to-back tropical storms of 2011, the floodwaters erasing everything in their path.

I noticed the truck because, these days, I notice everything. Daily life has halted. Routines are totally disrupted. I’m hyper-aware of every sea change, every tremor, every pulse. Like all of us, I am waiting.

The sun was just cresting the horizon, painting Allens Fresh with warm orange light. Everything felt still. I was listening to The Killers — my current COVID coping mechanism — and trying to tune my brain to only white noise.

At first I thought the man was sick. He was so hastily stopped, not bothering with hazard lights. Not bothering to close the driver’s door. His work van was crookedly parked on the shoulder, like he’d skidded to a halt just in time. He couldn’t wait another second.

He was taking a picture.

On that strange morning, he’d hopped out to catch the sunrise. He was still.

I slowed as I passed, looking over to see the clear morning as he saw it. Miles later, I stopped to take a different picture: the tractor, the message … a reminder in strange times. Maybe a hopeful one, too. If everyone sees it, will they listen?

I got back to work.

And yes, I washed my hands.

Life in the time of corona

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What a week.

Has it only been a week?

Sort of. It’s really been longer. But only a week since what was once a distant, abstract concern sharpened into a serious concern that has dwarfed everyday life … making “everyday life” here in Maryland seem quaint.

It’s like a natural disaster is unfolding, only it’s a beautiful spring day. Like prepping for a blizzard, but without radar to monitor … and no obvious way to know when the danger will be over. At least after a hurricane, the sun can be counted on to guide us out of the gloom.

This is love and life in the time of COVID-19. Never have I felt so unsettled about what lies ahead. My human neighbors and I are all in the same boat. And I can’t distract myself or get away from it — not at home, certainly, where the kids are camped out. And not at work, where I’m still reporting to our hospital. The front of my office building has been turned into triage. Marketing, too, is needed on the front lines.

Even in my mid-thirties, I fight the urge in challenging times to run “home.” Back where my dad has a plan and a fridge full of food. Where my mom has crafts, People magazines, and a backlog of Hallmark movies on the DVR. Back where I am not in charge. Where I don’t need to worry about making the wrong decisions.

Despite the mounting concern and media frenzy, I’ve been trying to keep it together. For now, at least, I’m still needed and expected at work, and so is my husband. We have the relief of knowing the kids are taken care of, tucked at home while we wait to see what the rest of this surreal time brings.

When my mother- and father-in-law arrived, I thought I was going to cry.

“I can breathe now,” I told Spencer’s mom. “I feel like the grown-ups are here.”

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At home, I try to stay “normal.” We have been cleaning like crazy, finally cracking into some of the cleaning products we’ve had for ages because I keep dragging in more after forgetting we own them.

Though I don’t want pandemic anxiety seeping into the kids’ lives, there’s no way they aren’t picking up on it. Day care is still open but, with Spencer’s parents in town, we’re keeping them home in the name of social distancing. Hadley and Oliver are both old enough to understand the departure from routine; my son especially struggles with change. Still, with their grandparents visiting (thank god), Hadley and Oliver have company and novelty to distract them.

They have walks in the woods. Coloring books. Easter crafts. They have snacks and “Peppa Pig” and LEGO blocks for days. They have Play-Doh and puzzles. When desperate, they have tablets. And if I were home, too, I’d have my books.

Like parenthood, there’s a great lesson of life in the time of corona: so much is out of our control. Things that would have seemed unimaginable a few weeks ago — closing schools; shutting down restaurants and bars; postponing elections — have already happened. These are strange times, friends. 

I fluctuate between “everything will be fine!” and “wow this is bad,” and I’m learning to be OK with that. One day at a time. We can only stay calm, scrub up, and carry on. Give our phones a break. Pause the newscast.

No one knows what will happen, but we can hold on and help each other through a turbulent ride. So wherever you are and however you’re reading this, I’ve got a light on for you. For all of us.

May we see ourselves swiftly through to the other side.