Coronavirus Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring how the coronavirus is affecting people’s lives. For the latest public health information, please refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. If you have a story we should tell, email email@example.com.
I leave James’ dinner outside his door, knock gently, and scoot back upstairs.* In the dining room, the rest of the family waits at the table while I set up our FaceTime with James. We start to eat, but James’ phone is flat on his desk, camera pointed straight at the ceiling. “Can we see your face?” I ask, trying to tamp down the pleading in my voice. Exasperated by my neediness, he grants me this favor, hovering over the screen just long enough for us to get a brief, fisheye view of his face, including a glimpse up his virulent nostrils. Then he settles back, out of frame, and we continue chatting with his ceiling.
These are our family dinners since our 12-year-old came down with what we presume to be COVID-19.
James is the oldest of our three kids. At first, he did not appear much in my sleepless rotation of coronavirus fears each night. Those thoughts were instead populated by my parents, who as older adults are more at risk for a severe case, and by my husband—healthy and in his 40s, but who has had severe pneumonia in the past. Most of all, I worried about Edmund, one of James’ younger brothers. Edmund has a genetic disorder whose many complications include poorly functioning lungs. He is especially vulnerable.
James, though, has always been healthy, and is now fully in the throes of tweenhood. He alternates between curiosity and boredom, enthusiasm and jadedness, affection and diffidence. He is too kind—or perhaps still too young—to show his parents contempt, but he sometimes pities our cluelessness.
After we started social distancing, the family got into a rhythm. We held scavenger and treasure hunts in our backyard on nice days. James found online classes easier to manage than middle school and took to his new chores equably, if not cheerfully. Mindful of the danger the coronavirus poses to Edmund in particular, we created a vague family plan that if one of us got sick, that person would self-isolate.
Then, about a week and a half ago, it happened: James complained of an upset stomach, nausea, and a sore throat. But he had no cough, and his temperature was only 99.5 degrees. I’d been hypersensitive to any sign of family illness, yet I assumed James was probably fine. Though we live in a COVID-19 hot spot, he’d had physical contact with very few people in the preceding 10 days, and none of them had shown symptoms.
Still, in my overconsumption of social media, I had read other people’s descriptions of their symptoms, some of which had included upset stomachs and sore throats. I told James, “Let’s get you isolated,” assuming that he’d feel better after a night’s sleep and would emerge from his room grumbling about having to do his online schoolwork. But he awoke still sick. In fact, he was worse. His head and eyes ached. It felt like an elephant was sitting on his chest, he said. So he stayed isolated.
My instinct when my kids are sick is to be with them—to sleep near them, cuddle them as much as they’ll allow, spend all my time with them. During the periods when Edmund has been hospitalized, I’ve planted myself by his side for the duration. But we can’t risk closeness with James, especially with Edmund in the house.
James is too old to cuddle for more than a second, but there’s still an alienation in being apart from him, not binge-watching TV with him, not resting my hand on his forehead. Once or twice a day, my husband and I enter the room wearing masks and gloves to refill his humidifier, or change his sheets, or take out his trash. He keeps his distance, and we leave quickly.
At first, James was chatty with us by text and FaceTime. He didn’t love being locked in his room, but he reveled in getting to use screens all day with no parents looking over his shoulder. After a few days I took him to the doctor. My concern that he had the coronavirus seemed dramatic, like we were trying to horn in on a trend. But the tests for strep and flu both came back negative. We couldn’t get a COVID-19 test, but the doctor said that considering his symptoms and that we live on Long Island, where the virus is rife, we should assume he has it.
Since then, his symptoms have grown to resemble those of COVID-19 even more. He has developed a mild cough. He sleeps all the time. He rarely answers texts and FaceTimes. When we do communicate, his illness and isolation prevent me from knowing exactly how he’s doing.
“How do you feel?”
“I don’t know.”
“On a scale of 1 to 10?”
“4 to 7.”
“Worse than yesterday at this time?”
“I don’t know. I don’t remember.”
Friends and family text me to check in on him. I answer, “I think he’s the same,” but I’m not really sure. Every so often, he’ll FaceTime me out of the blue and chat volubly about all the stand-up comedy he’s watching. I try not to overwhelm him with gratitude for the contact. Then the silence returns. I’m reassured whenever I get a barrage of requests to approve new apps and in-app purchases. At least he’s up to something.
I’m amazed none of the rest of us is showing symptoms yet. I’m panicked at every itchy throat, every stray cough. For once, it’s rational to be worried. We are all at risk. What if my medically vulnerable kid catches it? What if my husband and I both do? Who would take care of our kids? How would that person keep from getting sick too? At any moment, a mindless hand to my face after being in James’ room could upend the relative peace we’ve managed to preserve.
This could be our family’s primary memory of the coronavirus, the weeks without James at the table. Or it could be the calm before a much more damaging storm. In the meantime, we wait for the symptoms to pass, for James to emerge. Then I’ll hug him as much as he’ll let me.
*James’ first name has been changed.
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