Facing the Fears

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I’ve noticed a number of people being very honest about their anxieties with regard to Covid-19. I was raised to be stoic about such things. My mom never complained or showed her worries until she had a mental breakdown and then in a state of psychosis she could not stop talking about her fears. I suppose that it was that point in life when I realized that we should not have to keep our concerns to ourselves. Bearing the unbearable alone does not always lead to a situation as dramatic as my mom’s was, but it can have both physical and emotional consequences that sap the very energy out of a person. I think it is quite healthy of my friends to admit that they are worried and afraid. I admire them for asking for help in dealing with the losses and frustrations that they are feeling.

I’ve been rocking along being rather proud of myself for bearing up and adjusting to the temporary normal of Covid-19. I’ve kept myself busy, made sure that my husband’s recovery from recent surgery has been smooth and upbeat, created distance learning for my math students, checked on members of my family and circle of friends, kept a written record of this historical event, and generally rolled with the ever changing punches that we are experiencing. I had considered myself to be immune from crushing worries because I’ve handled many crises in my lifetime. So it was a wake up call when I had a dream a view nights ago that made me realize that I was a bit more concerned than I have been willing to admit.

My nightmare began in my old home on Anacortes Street. I was a younger version of myself and my two girls were still children. As I walked down the street to meet them at the bus stop after school I waved at my neighbor Betty Turner who was smiling at me from a lawn chair in her front yard. I told Betty I would be back in a few minutes and I would sit with her and have a little chat. The school bus pulled up just as I arrived at the corner and my daughters hopped off with their book bags and lunch boxes. I was happy to see them and I gave them both hugs before starting back home. That’s when the fun or, should I say, the horror began.

Somehow our straight and quick pathway had become blocked and we had to take an alternate route. At first I wasn’t worried because I knew the area well and there was more than one way to get back home. Unfortunately no matter what I tried we could not find a way to the safety of our house. In fact we were getting farther and farther away and I was doing my best not to frighten my children. Instead I attempted to turn our adventure into a game which worked for a time but eventually they grew weary and begged me to take them home so that they might rest and see their friends and enjoy some playtime.

I kept trying my best to protect them from the reality of our situation but it was beginning to feel hopeless. Our wandering even took us back to the old neighborhood where I grew up and when I searched there for someone to help I only found strangers who ignored me when I attempted to speak to them. I was exhausted and on the verge of hysteria when I awoke and realized that it was all just a dream, but it helped me to understand that I had been denying the impact that this pandemic was having on me and the people that I love.

I suppose that most of us are longing for the comfort of that yesterday before any of this happened. As a mom I still worry about my still grown and very capable daughters. I long to see them and hug them and protect them. It’s difficult for all of us to be so separated and to feel so helpless. I am a person who takes control of situations and suddenly much of that control is in the hands of others. For now I am mostly doing what I can from afar and not being the responsible person in the room makes me feel a bit lost.

My dream has helped me to visualize and vocalize my fears. I don’t intend to dwell on them because that is not my style, but by allowing myself to feel them I have become stronger in my resolve not to allow any of this to defeat me. I think that it is important for each of us to find that honest part of our minds and then deal with the demons that haunt us. It really is okay to long for the normal times and want to rewind to a happier moment. It’s normal to want to protect our children even if they are grown. It’s a very human thing to want to get back to a dear friend like Betty where we can just sit and feel ourselves returning to a sense of safety and contentment that feels threatened by the specter of Covid-19.

I think of myself as a superwoman and I know I have a backbone of steel, but I am in reality just as human as anyone. I believe that it will be our very humanity and empathy that gets us through this crazy time. I’m thankful for all those dear souls who have been courageous enough to admit their fears. They have helped me and others. If we are honest we all know that hearing someone voice the feelings that we have pent up inside assuages our own worries. There is nothing more normal than being a bit anxious right now. Once I admitted it to myself I knew that I would be okay. It’s time to keep calm and remember to practice self care.

The Mathematics of a Pandemic

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I had been teaching math all day long to eight youngsters ranging in age from seven to teens. One of my lessons was on statistical data and how to find different kinds of averages. I used Covid-19 as an example for my student. It was a bit of a stretch but he got the idea. We even talked about what exponents do to numbers and how data can be used to analyze situations and make predictions. It got me to thinking of how differently people are reacting the the virus and the restrictions associated with them based on where they live and sometimes even their political leanings. The truth is that many of the conclusions that people draw do not take all of the information and intervening factors into account. So forthwith is a very elementary discussion of what I believe is happening, but first I want to talk about what occured with the Spanish flu of 1918.

World War I was at an end and the troops were coming home to the United States. Since the fighting was mostly confined to Europe it was natural that the ship first came mostly to ports along the east coast. Additionally some cities like Philadelphia were initially rather lax in enforcing rules to keep down the level of contagion. As a result the highest incidence of contagion and death trended in cities in the eastern part of the country first. As the flu moved westward more stringent efforts of social distancing resulted in fewer illnesses and deaths. In other words the people learned from the mistakes of their fellow citizens in the east and profited by being more vigilant. There were still may deaths but the numbers were mitigated by the measures derived from observing the problems in the places where the flu first presented itself. 

Today we have massive numbers of people traveling across the globe with places like New York City, Seattle, and Los Angeles serving as ports of call for cruise ships and air travel. It appears that the first cases of Covid-19 in the United States were travel related, but because there initially were few attempts to change our normal activities the virus soon spread through community interactions. It took a bit more time than it should have to approach the realization that people needed to protect themselves and thereby flatten the exponential curve of contagion by staying at home.

Only a little more than three weeks ago spring break was in full swing. The Houston Rodeo was still packing in tens of thousands of people on a daily basis. My grandson went to New York City with his orchestra to perform in Carnegie Hall. Mardis Gras had attracted massive groups of people. It was already a bit too late to eliminate the suffering that now plagues many cities in the country but the heartland of middle America has been somewhat spared by finally closing down schools, businesses, churches and all unnecessary gathering. Sadly, some people have misinterpreted the slowdown of cases in those areas as an indication that the whole pandemic is nothing more than a hoax, much ado about nothing.

I’ve been looking at pie charts for the Houston area. Rather amazingly the sixty and older crowd makes up very few of the current cases. My guess is that people in that demographic hunkered down rather early for fear of catching the virus so they have mostly stayed well. I for one have been outside of my home fewer than five times for the past month. One time I accompanied my husband to Methodist Hospital for his heart surgery. On another occasion I went to get a Prolia shot for my  osteoporosis and twice I went to pickup  groceries at HEB. Aside from that I have been home watching the world go by from my windows. It’s little wonder that most of the cases in our area are younger than is typical because they often tend to be the ones who seem to think that they are safe from infection or having a serious case.

It is incredibly important that we not get overly irritated about having to stay home. We are the defense against a surge of Covid-19 as long as we follow the guidelines. If we start to get lax we will undoubtedly experience an unnecessary surge in cases that will only result in prolonging any agony that we may be feeling. I sincerely believe that each of us has a moral duty to work together to keep the numbers at a manageable level.

There are a many things that greatly disturb me, but most egregious of all are the people who insist that this whole ordeal is some vast political conspiracy designed to make our president and our country look bad. Many of these folks are refusing to stay at home even as the numbers of infected individuals grow. They don’t appear to notice that even President Trump has finally abandoned his wishful thinking that we will be back to normal by Easter Sunday. So far the facts demonstrate that the medical community has been right on target with both their predictions and their recommendations. It’s time for us to listen to the mathematics of the pandemic.

I’m as worried as anyone about what a prolonged period of isolation will do to our economic well being. I suspect hard times even once we are able to resume our normal routines. Nonetheless I keep reiterating my observation that it is rather doubtful that all the leaders of the world would be willing to trash the global economy on a whim. This is serious or as Angela Merkel said, “Es ist ernst” and we need to treat it as such. It would be even better if we might do it in a spirit of harmony. It’s the patriotic thing to do.

Living In the Twilight Zone

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Do any of the rest of you feel as though we have been caught in an infinite loop of The Twilight Zone? I know I do. I find that I awake each morning feeling rather good until my brain reminds me that nothing is exactly as it was only a couple of weeks ago. I won’t be planning a camping excursion any time soon nor will a trip to the grocery store be as unremarkable as I had grown accustomed to it being. As long as I am in the quiet and safety of my home I don’t feel anxious at all but as soon as I turn my attention to the outside world I am stunned by the extent to which we are all grappling with the unknown and my cockeyed optimism is rattled just a bit more.

I keep thinking of Rod Serling’s greatest stories and how they have stuck with me even though they seemed to be only the stuff of science fiction, unlikely to ever transpire. There is the tale of the young woman stuck in her New York apartment as the world is slowly and painfully coming to an end. Then I remember episode featuring a man who is a lone survivor of some cataclysm making the best of the situation by planning to read away his loneliness only to drop and break the eyeglasses that allow him to see. When I see the photos of empty shelves in grocery stores I am reminded of Serling’s take on the effects of panic in a cautionary story of a once friendly neighborhood that turns on itself at the first sign of trouble. Those shows had a way of stunning us with their shocking endings but we never thought that any of the creative scenarios might possibly come true.

Let’s face it. Despite all of our past grumblings about the unfairness of the world most of us would be more than happy to rewind to September 2019 if only we might never have to face the unraveling of the world that has slowly enveloped all of us in fear. It’s difficult to go the the dark possibility that maybe things will never be quite the same again. If there were indeed a way to undo all that has happened would we remember how it felt to be threatened with loss and privation? Would we be more willing to be appreciative of our good fortune and then share it with those who have not been as lucky? Would we be more attuned to working together to solve problems. Would we always be generous and less wasteful, eager to slow down to enjoy our families and our friends? Would we treasure life more now that we have seen how fragile it and our institutions can become? Would we be able to see how destructive our hubris can sometimes be and begin to value our differences?

The human experience is riddled  with instances of grave mistakes as well as stunning victories over injustice and evil. We seem to slowly work our way toward better versions of ourselves as long as we don’t get lost to temptations that interfere with our focus. We work best together when we are willing to tap into our more enlightened natures by a willingness to admit that we rarely have all of the answers. Perhaps we have been moving too quickly of late. Maybe we have been to busy competing with one another and building resumes of our accomplishments that are not particularly important. We have scurried about too quickly, forgetting to take the time to be still and hear the beating of our hearts and see the simple beauty that surrounds us.

This is indeed the most incredible event of my lifetime and I have seen quite a bit in my seventy one years. It has the potential to define us in the long stretch of history. We will eventually move on from this, but will we have learned from it? I know that I have been continually reminded of the wonderful people who are part of my life during the last few weeks. I have felt their love surrounding me. I want to cherish that feeling and never forget what it has meant to me. My hope is that the whole world will find renewed pleasure in the simple act of spreading kindness and understanding every moment of every day.

I am not so naive as to believe that this is a kumbayah moment in which humankind will shed every aspect of its darker side. People have endured plagues, wars, economic depressions and holocausts many times in the past and yet we still haven’t found a way to prevent those things from ever happening again. We fall back into our bad habits again and again which is why I find it somewhat hypocritical to denounce our ancestors when our own modern track record is not free from sins. Instead we must attempt to learn from mistakes and rectify them as best we can.

We’ve seen hoarders and thieves and individuals who have attacked Asians in the misplaced belief that they are somehow responsible for our present woes. At the same time we have witnessed even more signs of generosity, courage, brilliance and understanding. When all is said and done these are the qualities that will remind us of who are and should be as the human race.  Our questions right now should not dwell on judging others, but rather on how each of us might help. These are the things that will provide us with the optimism we need to build the future and take us out of the twilight zone.

   

Understanding Why

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On Wednesday, I had an opportunity to observe the world of doctors and nurses during the time of Covid 19 from a close up perspective. My husband Mike was scheduled to have a stent placed in one of the arteries of his heart. I had initially argued that I did not want him to have this procedure done at this time. I worried that he might be exposed to the virus and then have a difficult time recovering from it. My youngest daughter, a nurse, had a different point of view. She insisted that fixing his heart actually make him more likely to survive a case of Covid 19 if he were to become infected, and that furthermore it was time to get the surgery done now rather than later before the hospitals potentially become overwhelmed. Since my husband was eager to have the repairs done and my daughter supported his thinking, I did my best to overcome my many anxieties and fake the optimism that Mike had.

We arrived at the Walter Tower of Houston Methodist Hospital at the appointed time. The usual valet parking was unavailable, no doubt so that there would be no close interaction between employees of the garage and the patients. We found a spot to self park and proceeded to the main building where we were greeted by two nurses sitting at a table sporting surgical gowns, gloves, masks and plastic headgear with clear screens that covered the length of their faces much like I had seen during the ebola virus outbreak.

They asked us to stay at least six feet from the people both in front of and behind us. Once we reached the station they scanned our foreheads to determine whether either of us had a fever. If we had not passed that test both of us would have been told to return home and quarantine ourselves. Since our temperatures were normal we next answered a series of questions about travel and any symptoms of illness that we might have. I was honest in admitting that I have been coughing at night but noted that I do that all the time due to acid reflux. The nurse understood what I meant but nonetheless asked me to wear a mask inside the hospital.

There were few people in the hallways and every entrance was blocked and guarded by hospital personnel and security guards. Each incoming patient was allowed one and only one person to accompany him/her. Social distancing was being strictly enforced even as we lined up to check in at the admissions desk on the fourth floor where the catheter labs are located. The business administrators were kind and friendly and did their best to ease our anxieties and hide their own.

There were hundreds of chairs for patients and their families but fewer than twenty people who were waiting. We all kept away from one another with no problem and there was an unusually quiet and tense feeling overall. The smell of bleach was quite noticeable and a hard working woman circled about continually cleaning areas that people had left. The machines that might have provided us with coffee, tea or hot chocolate were unplugged. There would be no communal gathering around any part of the building.

We waited for quite some time and I observed that all but one pairing of patient and visitor was in what the world is now calling the elderly demographic. I sensed that nobody felt particularly comfortable about being there but understood that there were few other acceptable options. We simply stared blankly at one another pretending that the strange scene was normal.

Once my husband was called to prepare for his surgery I was allowed to accompany him to learn what was in store for both of us for the remainder of the day. The smell of disinfectant became ever more noticeable and the nurses and aides while very kind and determined to allay our fears became more clinical. I found out that once my husband left for the surgery I would have to return to the waiting room where I would stay until he was released later that evening.

By the time I found my way back to the holding area there were only four of us remaining and we avoided one another like the plague, no pun intended. In other circumstances we might have conversed about our common situation but on this day there was a more somber and silent tone to the environment. So I busied myself with my laptop and my phone until I would learn about the results of my husband’s surgery.

Eventually I was accompanied to a more private room where the doctor informed me what kind of damage he had found in my husband’s heart. I learned that all three of Mike’s main arteries were blocked at a level from eighty to one hundred percent. I could hardly breathe as I thought of how likely it had been for him to have an heart attack, a terrifying prospect in the middle of a pandemic. The doctor explained that he had opened up two of the arteries with stents and left the third as is because Mike’s body had actually developed new arteries around to compensate for the blockage. Then the cardiac surgeon indicated that he wanted Mike to get back home with me as soon as possible rather than staying in the hospital overnight as is the usual process. He noted that the times were strange indeed.

I went back to the waiting room and watched one after another person leave. Before long I was the only one left in the huge area that now felt eerie in its emptiness. A nurse came out periodically to assure me that my husband was doing well but apologized that it would be at least ten o’clock before he would be ready to leave the hospital. When I asked where I might get something to eat I was told that there were no open eateries in the hospital because of the virus and the snack machines were one floor below. I was cautioned not to go down because I might not be able to return to the floor where my Mike was recovering. Luckily I had brought two apples and an orange with me so I settled into a nice dinner of fruit while watching programs from Amazon Prime video with my laptop.

About the time that I began to believe that I would be spending the night in the cold and abandoned room a nurse came out to announce that we would soon be able to depart. She walked with me to procure my car because she feared that I would not be able to find an exit. In fact, we had to walk around the hospital for about twenty or thirty minutes before we were finally able to find a way out. All of the entrances and exits were locked up tight so that nobody might enter or leave without notice.

It was with enormous relief that I got into my car and drove to the main entrance of the Walter Tower where I texted the nurses to let them know that I was ready to take my husband home. They told me to be safe and to take it easy because everything was so crazy right now. I had an urge to hug them but knew that I could not. As I drove away I had a sense of their worry and their courage in overcoming the fears that were so obviously in their minds. I thanked them profusely for all that they had done and literally prayed that they would be okay.

Following their instructions my husband and I stripped off the clothes that we had been wearing as soon as we got home and put them immediately in the washing machine. I wiped down my phone, my laptop, my glasses, and the handbag in which I had carried everything. We were exhausted and literally collapsed into bed but I could not sleep as I thought of those wonderful people who had so lovingly cared for us all day long.

They are no doubt back at it today, not knowing how bad things may ultimately become. I will be rooting for them and doing my part to self isolate in an effort to prevent them from being overcome by sick and dying patients. I now understand their concerns and the processes they want us to follow that may save many lives. It’s not about me at all. It’s about everyone. 

Celebrating the Good and the Blessings

bucket-of-cleaning-suppliesWhen I was a young girl spring brought a massive cleaning effort in our home. My mother would engage our youthful energy in days of tackling every nook and cranny of the house. She’d issue bucket of sudsy water and old rags showing us how to wash every baseboard and how to insure that we reached every square inch of the walls. We revelled in seeing the dirty refuse as we poured our cleaning  down the toilet and refilled our containers with a clean batch of water for the next attack on grime.

Everything came out of the closets and the drawers and anything that was no longer of use went inside paper bags from the grocery store to be handed down to a family member or friend or to be donated to the St. Vincent de Paul Society.  We laundered the curtains that hung over the windows and hung them on the clothesline to dry in the sun. Perhaps the most taxing job of all was carefully cleaning each slat of the venetian blinds until they gleamed like new.

We’d scrub the grout of the tile with old toothbrushes and put new shelf paper in the cabinets. Mama created a mending pile and spent evenings with a needle and thread making sure that every seam and button on our clothing was once again secure. As a finale she waxed the floors until they were shining with a warm patina.

Our efforts took many days but we always felt a sense of pride and accomplishment once we were done. Mama made housekeeping seem fun by playing recordings of symphonies on our Victrola, an old 45 rpm record player, while we worked. She made special meals as rewards for our hard work and praised us if we passed her inspections. She had high standards when it came to spiffing up our home and we did our best to meet them.

Somehow I have very fond memories of spring cleaning when me and my mother and brothers joined together to keep our home in tip top shape. My thoughts of those days are so pleasant that I still feel a sense of joy whenever I engage in a deep cleaning of my own home. I enjoy the process of repairing things, organizing, restoring. As someone who prefers to be in control of my situation cleaning offers me the reward of instant gratification. In the midst of confusion and chaos cleaning soothes my soul. I’ve used it time and again as a panacea for my anxieties.

A long day of physical labor around the house may strain my back or wrinkle my hands but it sends thousands of happy messages whirring inside my brain. Somehow the simple act of putting my home in order helps me to temporarily forget any cares or woes that I may have. Now that threats of Covid 19 have literally changed the normal functioning of the world I have filled my bucket and tackled the nooks and crannies of my house just as I did when I was a little girl. The regimen that I learned from my mother back then has become a kind of gift and a way of getting away from the worries and fears that seem to dominate daily life these days.

I have used the old ways that helped me to feel more secure when the world felt so uncertain after my father’s death. I find solace in reading, praying, reaching out to others, and cleaning. We all need to feel a sense of dominion over our circumstances and when all of the things that we normally do suddenly change it helps to find activities that bring comfort and occupy the mind. For me that has meant keeping to a schedule and accomplishing something each day.

I am one of those souls over seventy that the whole world seems intent on protecting. We are supposed to stay home or at least limit our contact with others as much as possible. The young folk in my life are being so lovely. They want to comfort and help me. I am moved by their gestures of love and concern. I am obediently following the guidelines for people in my age group. It will be the younger generation who will have to deal with people like me if we get sick in large numbers. It will tax their energy and maybe even their futures. I want to do my part to cooperate in the efforts to win the battle against this virus, and so I stay home and I clean.

It my be many weeks before I am once again free to travel and enjoy the freedoms that retirement has brought me. I’ll eventually run out of things to scrub but I have other ideas to keep me occupied. I have students to teach which means I have lessons to plan. My garden will fill with weeds unless I tend to it. I will cook my quarantine meals like beans and soups. I may even put together some puzzles or spoil myself with some binge watching of television.

I’ve learned that even bad things eventually pass and that I am strong and resilient when I need to be. I believe in the goodness of all humans and I am certain that together we will do whatever we have to do. If the good people of London were able to endure fifty nine straight days of bombing during World War II then surely I can stay inside my home as much as possible until the danger passes. If the citizens of Italy can still sing in the face of grave illness and death then surely I can turn on the music like my mother once did and celebrate the good and the blessings that I have while I wait out this virus.