I’m writing this dispatch from Portland, Oregon, one of the first cities in the US to be hit by community spread of the coronavirus. This morning, my daughter sneezed and I froze. Should I send her to school? She didn’t appear otherwise sick. No snot. No fever. My partner, Don, spent the morning scouring Portland for Cold-EEZE, which he read can coat the mucus membrane with zinc and so minimize the severity of the illness. It was sold out everywhere, even online. Yesterday, I went to buy quarantine provisions—dry beans and oatmeal—but there were no dry beans or oatmeal to be had. All the bulk beans were sold out, all the brown rice, all the toilet paper, all of the oatmeal.
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I’d expected an empty store yesterday since the panic seemed to have reached its apex over the weekend. I figured all the prompt preppers would be home boiling their beans, but there were still plenty of people doing their regular shopping. One elderly woman stopped her mechanical cart to admire my 9-month-old baby, who, objectively speaking, is adorable, and toward whom I feel acutely and fiercely protective. Annie is tiny, partially as a result of her rough start. At 5 weeks old, she failed to thrive and was hospitalized for a hypotonia that got so bad she could not nurse. The root of her problem was hard to pin down, and for months it felt like we were teetering on the edge of a flaming crater; but gradually, we moved to safer ground. Then, four days ago, a doctor who knew about Annie’s rough start told us to keep our older daughter home from school, do online grocery orders only, and stop all play dates for three weeks, in case Annie’s immune system remained fragile.
In a panic, I wrote to our pediatrician. She told us not to go into lockdown mode (yet). Babies and children were not falling very sick with Covid-19, she said. Just follow general good hygiene protocol: wash your hands and don’t be around sick people. The babies, then, would probably be all right.
Meanwhile, outside Seattle, three hours north, 10 deaths have been reported as the virus sweeps through a nursing home in Kirkland, Washington. The elderly, it seemed, are more at risk than the fragile babies. I’m hardwired to worry about my kids. I do it even when I’m not doing it, which any mother understands. Worry in the other direction, toward my father—that is less instinctual.
My father is 74. He lives alone in Eugene, Oregon, about 90 miles from the first novel outbreak in the Portland area. In 2016, he was in a catastrophic bicycling accident that left him with steel-plated ribs and reduced lung function. I still think of him as a stubborn and athletic ox of a guy. He was a cardiologist and mountaineer, a skier, hiker, and general adrenaline junky. His father was a histrionic type, eternally crouched against imagined (and experienced) tragedy. My father defined himself in the face of this. He is never histrionic. If he panics, he does it silently, then makes a joke. He wouldn’t be the one looking over his shoulder to see what pursued him. He’d be the one looking forward, toward what beckoned. Once, when I asked him why he’d chosen the heart as his specialty, he told me he liked the feeling of being on the edge. The edge is a vivid and exciting place to be, so long as you always stay on it, and don’t fall off.
I called him and asked how he was. He told me he’d been keeping busy. He’d gone to his class on the poetry of the Vietnam war, two fundraising parties, and a basketball game.
“I guess you’re not worried about the coronavirus,” I said.
“Well,” he said, taken off guard. His dog has cancer, and he’d thought I was calling for another update on his status. “We don’t have it here,” he said. “Why should I be worried?”
“People in Portland are worried,” I told him. I described the run on toilet paper and dry beans. The empty shelves where children’s ibuprofen ought to be.
“Well, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I can’t very well lock myself inside my house,” he said.
Couldn’t he, though? I mean, he could. It really might not be a bad idea. Though it came with its own risks. Depression, isolation—other plagues of modern life.
I said I’d been worrying about the baby, because she’d been so fragile, but that the doctor said not to think of her as being fragile anymore. Then I mentioned that elderly people had been dying in the nursing home in Kirkland.
“Oh,” my dad said. He hadn’t heard about it. “That’s a nightmare scenario, to have a virus sweeping through an enclosed space with so many compromised people.”
We sat in our respective living rooms.
“I wouldn’t want you to get a respiratory illness,” I said. I thought of him after his bike accident, on paralytics and a ventilator, his lungs filled with fluid. He’d been in an induced coma for two weeks while we waited to see what would happen. He had been quite literally living on the edge. Now, though, he was back to life as an active, social retiree.
“That would be a disaster,” he said. “I’m also compromised.”
“Please be extremely careful. Wash your hands. Try not to be around anyone sick.”
“Right,” he said. “OK.”
It’s strange to tell your physician ox of a father to wash his hands. There’s an admission of frailty in both the act of saying it and the submissive reception. Vulnerability is not our bag. Usually, when we talked, I followed his lead and we bantered, swapped wise-cracks, paraded achievements if there were any to be paraded. That verbal currency felt familiar. But genuine concern is what I felt. We’d lost my mother years before. I’d almost lost him. My baby had hung onto this life, not a sure bet. I was no stranger to loss. The edge, for me, held no allure.
I talked to him again a few days later. “Thank you for checking in,” he said to me. “I’m washing my hands six times an hour now.”
“Good,” I said. I asked if he had enough food and things to drink, enough of his medication to stay out of pharmacies for at least six weeks. Last winter, during a snowstorm, he couldn’t leave his house for three days and he told me he’d subsisted on the calories in wine.
“Why?” he asked. “Where are you reading this?” (Where was he not reading this?) I explained that we were all being told to prepare for quarantine, and to self-quarantine if we fell ill. The last thing the community needed was a bunch of coughing, sneezing people shopping for supplies.
“I can send my dog to get medication if I need to. He’s a good boy,” my dad said, very obviously supine with the dog. I didn’t say anything. “OK. I guess I will work on that, then.”
“OK,” I said.
“I appreciate your keeping an eye on me, sweetie,” he said. “I love you.”
These moments of raw care—they still kind of freak me out. They feel abnormal, but these are abnormal times. Don just came down with a fever and has locked himself in his basement office with a bottle of Lysol. At my daughter’s gymnastic class, all the parents discussed homemade hand sanitizer and canceled birthday parties. The world has us all on edge—that overrated place. I’m deeply sick of it. But I guess it pushes us to connect. Wash your hands, stockpile beans. It’s the intimacy of 2020, love in the time of coronavirus.