Our theme for the month of June is “Top Ten.”

It almost seems like old news—the pandemic, the lack of ventilators, world leaders scrambling to prepare for the worst global spread of disease in one hundred years. But for many, the pandemic still casts a crippling shadow over daily life. In the last few weeks, South and Central America have suffered a huge surge in positive cases. And as a microscopic viral parasite silently multiplies and spreads, communities with the least wiggle room, the least ability to alter their routines and work from home, continue to be impacted with the greatest severity. The caste system of white privilege makes it too easy for many of us—myself included—to turn off the news and move on to a different topic. 

Yet, ignoring reality does not make it disappear. So if we are truly in this together, then act like it. Give blood, wear a mask in public, offer to pick up groceries for your elderly neighbor; do whatever you can given your circumstance. The virus is still here. There is no second wave, because this one has not yet fully crashed. 

Unfortunately, there is no ten-step procedure to cure the world of this disease. Riding this wave will take time, diligence, and patience. While we wait, be thoughtful about how you can be active, and slow down to appreciate what you have. Take nothing for granted as you feel the breath in your lungs enter in and flow out.

1. Breathe in.

COVID-19 came to our house like a thief in the night.

I can’t remember many of the details of that day. It could have been a perfectly fine March evening, cool and clear with bright stars. It could have been the first day skunk cabbages rose up from their wintery sleep, or the day the first migrating ducks pit-stopped in Michigan’s ice-crusted wetlands. But I do remember the warmth of being with my family. I remember jokes being told and my uncle’s laughter echoing through the house. I remember the taste of homemade cheesecake and the warmth of Grandma’s smile. She beamed of contentment.

It was mid-March and cases were still so low.

2. Breathe out.

No one knew what was coming.

“I don’t like what’s happening either, but I guess it’s necessary, right? Some schools are thinking about closing for the rest of the semester, not just a delay,” I said. Mom and I were in the kitchen. At that point in March, positive cases were hovering around seventy but climbing fast. The number had doubled from the night before.

“We’ve got a three-week closure, but I’m thinking we’ll reopen once this blows over. I mean, there’s only three positive cases in Kent County,” Mom said. 

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” I said, and took a bite of a cheese sandwich. “Sheesh. I hope so.”

3 Breathe in.

The human body is breakable.

There are moments in life when you feel shaken awake with the realization that you’re not invincible—that you are, in fact, vincible. When mortality knocks on the door it can be thrilling, like standing at the edge of a cliff and recognizing a strange urge to leap—L’Appel du Vide—feeling your will to live push against the mystery of the inevitable beyond. It can also come as a shock, like being tossed around underwater by a crashing wave. 

My mom looked up at me from the bottom of the stairs holding the thermometer. 

“I have a fever.”

4. Breathe out.

I wore a mask and gloves when I brought food to her room. 

“How’s your temperature today?” I asked.

“100.1” she said. Her voice was weak. 

“Take it easy, mom. Get some sleep.”

I closed the door. Meticulously peeling my gloves off to keep my hands clean, I dropped the clear latex in the trash and scrubbed my hands with soap. I sang a song in my head to mark the two minutes needed for thorough washing—here comes the sun, doo do do doo. But it was too late, and no amount of handwashing could change that. 

That night I took my temperature after slumping onto the living room couch, completely sapped of energy.

The thermometer blinked 99.8 °F. 

…It’s alright…

5. Breathe in.

The crashing wave came on March 19.

I spent the next three days sleeping for nineteen hours and struggling to keep my eyes open for the other five. Of the three of us in the house, my dad was, literally, the last one standing. Mom and I were bedridden, both straining to move from exhaustion and sore muscles and bones. My dad suited up for battle with gloves, a bottle of Clorox, and an N-100 mask because they were all out of N-95s. He prepared meals for us throughout the day, which were delicious until I lost my sense of taste and smell. Every time he brought a meal to my room I felt like I was being visited by a masked alien who couldn’t breath earth’s toxic atmosphere.

He never did get sick. Thank you, Ace Hardware, for the N-100.

6. Breathe out.

I started keeping a journal.

Day 4 – March 22, fever leveled to 100°F, still feel cloudy and dizzy. Energy is there when committed to moving. Took a Tylenol and felt great. Then it started to fade.

Day 5 – March 23, no fever! Temp was 98.6°F and got lower throughout the day. Had high energy in the morning but then zonked out in the afternoon for a nice four-hour nap. Had energy to stay up past 11 p.m. 

Progress came in increments. Mom and I celebrated our small victories together, like when our temperature readings came below 100°F and when we were able to go on a walk through the woods. We must have looked like pale zombies walking, so steady and slow.

7. Breathe in.

The next few days happened so fast.

First my uncle became sick, then my aunt, and my cousin pretty soon after. Another uncle developed symptoms, another aunt, and another cousin after her. The virus had spread through to nearly every member of the family who had gathered at our house back in March. When we heard that Grandma was having trouble breathing, the earth stood still.

In all of this, my sister gave birth to a precious baby boy, Rowan. He had nothing to worry about but eating and sleeping, and the pictures of his pale face made you stop and remember the cuteness of the world.

8. Breathe out.

I don’t often think about my breath.

It happens so naturally and effortlessly, day after day. Breathing might be the easiest thing to take for granted—but the second it’s gone or obstructed it’s unmistakable. Even a mask, designed to be breathable and protective, I find irritating because it slows the flow of air. Out flows carbon dioxide, a byproduct of respiration and making energy. In flows oxygen, photosynthesized by the generous greenery of the world.

9. Breathe in.

I came back to health and full consciousness in time to say goodbye.

Since the virus had spread throughout my family, many of us were able to be with her on her last days. We sang her favorite hymns with our croaking voices just recovering from coughs and tight chests. We held her hands and hugged and cried. But we knew to be with her was an incredible privilege—saying goodbye is a rare gift.

10. Breathe out.

Grandma died April 1, as the spring sun was beginning to warm the soil with new life.

The early leaves were just starting to unfurl, and the white flowering serviceberry petals drifted across dark green grass, wet with melted snow. It was as if the earth was shaking off its cloak for winter, waking up, and, after a long exhale, finally taking one deep breath in.

4 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Jon- your writing is always beautiful, thank you for that. This was an especially touching piece, it brought tears and peace all in one. Entirely unique. Thank you for sharing with us and for letting your community help you hold this.

    Reply
  2. Geneva Langeland

    Shimmering and powerful, Jon. Thank you for this.

    Reply
  3. Kyric Koning

    Truly a powerful story, evincing again the need for stories. We tend to not care about the impersonal (oh, it’s a virus effecting people out there) but the personal? (oh, that guy on the blog that I write on, his whole family had it, AND they lost someone). Our hearts beat with yours and we breathe on.

    So beautifully told. I especially like how you add your own little focus on flora and fauna, a lovely touch.

    Reply
  4. Paula Manni

    Beautiful and tender–wow.

    Reply

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