I didn’t know it at the time, but my coronavirus journey started in December, in Amsterdam. It was the city my childhood friends chose for our annual pre-Christmas trip. But my festive mood turned sober after we visited the Dutch Resistance Museum and the Anne Frank House. I kept wondering what I would have done in those circumstances – could I endure a cramped attic for 761 days with no reasonable expectation of getting out alive? Would I break the rules to help someone else? I flew home worried that I would have been brave and strong, but only if not too much were asked of me.
In March, I had a chance to prove myself wrong. Isolate for two weeks? – I can do that. Four weeks? – well, OK. But four months? Until we bend the curve? Flatten the curve? Until there’s a vaccine? From the start of lockdown, I followed the rules, and then some. I didn’t see my children or my friends. I wouldn’t even stand close enough to my neighbors to hold open the front door when their arms were filled with packages. I bleached the mail and wiped down groceries before bringing them into my Lower Manhattan co-op. I taped the loose kitchen faucet to the wall rather than have the plumber come into my apartment. I declined the request of a neighbor who had moved her young family out of the city to go into her apartment and water her plants.
Even when summer arrived and peaks on the blasted graphs blessedly flattened, I remained frozen in place. Before the coronavirus, when not too much was asked of me, I thought of myself as a risk taker. I jaywalked and rode the subway after 1 a.m. I ate from food trucks and kayaked on the Hudson. I talked to strangers and held doors for people with packages. Now I wanted reopening rules that were as clear as the rules that locked me down. When it became OK to gather with five people, 10 people, 25 people – I wanted to know how to make sure it was safe. I looked for certainty in the reopening plans, but Phase 1 had exceptions, Phase 2 had restrictions, Phase 3 had qualifications, Phase 4 had exclusions. I could get my air conditioners installed, my hair cut, my teeth cleaned and my grimy windows washed – but would I be safe? Maybe. Possibly. With exceptions.
I watched in awe, from a distance, as my fellow shareholders began to emerge. I passed them eating at outdoor restaurants, exercising with trainers in Hudson River Park and walking new puppies. Adult children were coming to the building to visit their parents. Parents were going out of state to visit new grandchildren. When I asked how they moved forward, they all had the same answer: “Take reasonable precautions – and then just go.”
No Risks to Weigh
I thought about Amsterdam again. Here I was, living in troubled times and not stepping up. And then one day I did. It happened when my phone rang just after dawn. “Ma, I think I have appendicitis.” I sat up in bed as my younger daughter spoke carefully chosen words in a tight, strained voice. “I’m on my way to the hospital. Don’t come. It’ll make it worse worrying I’m putting any of you in danger. I’ll call when I know more.”
I found out later than she’d been having stomach pains since the day before. When they got worse, she called my older daughter, who supported her remotely throughout the night. I understood. Even though New York City was on the downward side of the COVID-19 curve, she had spent intervals between pain and vomiting weighing the risks: Would seeking care for a possibly serious medical condition put her family in danger if one of us went to the hospital with her? For me, there were no risks to weigh. I was going to the hospital. Just as I had seen others do, I took every precaution – extra masks, gloves, hand sanitizer – kissed my husband goodbye, promised to call, and left. I was on my way to hospital when my daughter called again. “You don’t have to come,” she said, “but the surgeon said if you want to, one person is allowed. But you should come now.”
And just like that, months of isolation were over, and I was sitting beside my daughter, making her laugh (once the meds kicked in), and showing her (in person) that she was not alone. My sudden ability to move didn’t come from a reopening rule with a safety guarantee or from the dose of courage that I would have needed in Amsterdam 80 years ago. It came from Isaac Newton. I went from being a body at rest to a body in motion because I had been acted on by an outside force – a threat to my child. The phrase I had been hearing for months was paying off. I followed the science.
While our daughter was in surgery and recovery, I went back home to help my husband rearrange our apartment so we could care for her, even if she tested positive at the hospital. A perfect quarantine? No. But like everyone inching forward, we took every possible precaution – and then just went. This time to the hospital to bring our daughter home. When the car pulled up to our building, our older daughter was standing out front, her dog on a leash. “I wanted to be part of the team,” she said. And I knew exactly what she meant. We were on our way out.