How deep is the well?
On January 2, someone close to my family passed away from Covid. Like every Covid death, it was a tragedy. Like every Covid death, the space available to grieve afterwards felt woefully insufficient.
The night he passed away, I thought: Okay, here’s another thing I need to integrate and process, mostly alone. How many more can I take? That was before another national lockdown in the UK, an insurrection, an impeachment, an inauguration. I shudder to think what will come next.
His death happened suddenly, but also slowly enough that his closest loved ones had the option to go see him through glass. They opted not to. After all, going to a Covid ward is a bad idea at the best of times, but one of the people in question was particularly vulnerable. So instead, the nurse held a phone up to his ear so they could say their goodbyes. I couldn’t stop thinking about this: As a gesture it is deeply human in its inventiveness and totally inhumane in its detachment. The loved ones on the other end of the phone were no more than 20 minutes away.
That’s the thing about Covid: It upends our instincts about what to do when life gets hard. Where we crave connection and touch, it forces us into isolation and distance. Where we want to hold physical space for our collective experience, it forces us to process things on our own, to detach from the tangible world and the way it helps us integrate things — even sadness and loss. In the name of saving human life, it forces us to be a little less human.
On that same night, the one person I am in a support bubble with came over to comfort me. I craved the kind of human connection and presence that simply cannot happen over Zoom or FaceTime. I craved the comfort that comes not from talking to, but from being with, another person. The moment he walked in the door, his presence offered bone-deep relief.
It’s also possible that was the night where I myself got infected with Covid.
When I told people, they were surprised. “But you’ve been so careful!” And it’s true, compared to most people I know, I have been on the more cautious end of the spectrum. I have not dined inside a restaurant since March (except for once in the summer, next to a large window, and I was anxious for a week afterwards.) I have decided it’s not safe to go on an airplane, and thus have missed the entirety of my sister’s first pregnancy, a fact which makes me want to cry at least once a day. I can count on one and a half hands the number of people I’ve spent time indoors with since March, and each of them were interrogated by me to assess their level of caution beforehand. I’ve become evangelical about ventilation, as anyone who knows me can attest.
When it comes to me and my support bubble getting Covid, we were fully transparent with one another about our actions, and I had made peace with the cost benefit analysis of mixing. Staring down another lockdown — this one during an English winter — and months more before I get a vaccine, it was simply not tenable for me to spend more months without touching another human, especially a lovely and caring one at that.
Of course, it is more apparent to me now that this new variant in the UK is far, far easier to catch — yes, even with a mask, even outside — meaning my previous assumptions about what was safe for us perhaps no longer applied when I made those calculations. We’ll never know precisely how we got it, but we were lucky that our symptoms were mild; we’ll have to wait and see if they linger. But far worse than the symptoms, for me at least, was the dread. The dread on day two, three, four, five that this may yet get worse in ever weirder and unpredictable ways. Every time an ambulance whirrs by — which is relentlessly often — you think about what might happen to you if you’re unlucky enough to end up in one. You don’t think about that when you have the flu.
When I consider the choices that led to me getting Covid, I feel conflicted. What I wanted — to not be alone all the time, to have another being help me co-regulate and absorb the massive amount I am being asked to absorb myself — was human and not selfish. What I got in return made me feel guilty for taking any kind of risk and for putting more strain on an already-strained system. But if Covid is anything, it’s wildly unfair. As my friend Katherine helpfully said, “you could’ve literally stayed in a bunker for the year and got it from a piece of junk mail. Better to have risked love and community in a safe and thoughtful way.” She’s right.
There’s another way this is unfair though — one that I feel has been simmering within me long before I got sick — and that’s the fact that some people seem to think they are exempt from the “safe and thoughtful” part of taking risks. To be clear, I’m not talking about QAnon conspiracy theorists who don’t think Covid exists; I’m talking about people I know in many cases. You see it all the time on Instagram — people who not only feel like they can go on holiday amidst immense suffering, loneliness, and two million deaths, but also post about it. (Imagine!) People who think that getting a rapid test immediately gives them the free license to do whatever they want. (Rapid tests are wrong as often as they’re right; just ask the super-spreading Trump administration). It’s possible those people anguish, risk mitigate, and cost benefit analyze over those decisions before they post them on the internet in the same way I did my decision, but it sure doesn’t look like it.
In my more gracious moments, I keep coming back to the difficult ask of this strange period of history: The humane thing to do is to be a little less human. When I boil it down to that, view it as temporary, and acknowledge that it is unnatural but nevertheless still the right thing to do, it helps me find more compassion for myself in this moment.
But even with that compassion, it’s hard every day. I imagine each of us now as a well filling up with watery grief. The ground water is rising, and instead of water being taken out, fresh buckets are being poured atop everyday. Some people’s wells are overflowing, understandably unable to take any more on. Some, like the healthcare workers, seem to have wells so deep they defy explanation. Some are using the limited space they have left to absorb others grief, even if it’s just droplets, to lighten the load. Still those others seem to take a different approach: Rather than risk the pain of overflow they have filled themselves in with cold hard cement.
Some days, I honestly can’t blame that last group. It’s unrelenting and unbelievable how much we are asked to take on. I find myself wishing I could tune it out, jump on a plane, go see my parents, not worry about passing on a virus that has killed so many people in their age group. But I can’t. My well is uncovered, but it’s also deep. Like many, I am not sure how much more I can take. But I’d rather keep trying, taking on droplets of others when and where I can, waiting for the day when the top-ups will become less frequent, and the ground water will settle at the bottom in a still pool.
I’m confident that day will come. When we can go back outside, begin to air out everything we’ve taken on, and trust our most human instincts again. I just wish more people would be patient enough to wait for it.
No links this week because all of the above. I hope to be back in your inbox in a couple of weeks with the usual fare. In the meantime here is my advice: double mask in high-risk settings, start taking vitamin D, and buy a pulse oximeter — you’ll be glad you have it if Covid comes for you. Lastly, remember that pandemics always end.
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