About a year or so ago, I enlisted in the worldwide movement to avoid contracting and/or spreading the Corona Virus (affectionately known as COVID-19). A big fan of medical thriller author, Robin Cook, I had read Outbreak, Pandemic, The Andromeda Strain, and others, so I knew to take this sh-t seriously.
As a self-anointed lay expert in the spread of disease, I adhered to every known CDC guideline, going so far as to make up a few of my own. I avoided crowded places. I wore a mask everywhere I went, even while driving alone, outdoors, and to bed. I washed my hands raw. I only touched my face with the inside of my own shirt or my elbows. I did my best to keep six feet from other humans, including my wife. I put hand sanitizer in each of our cars, in every room of the house, and all my pockets. I stopped short of burning our clothing upon returning from the dangerous and dirty world. This virus didn’t stand a chance against my assiduous protocols and stalwart defenses.
Then one day my wife got a text that her stubborn, thick-headed, 72-year-old-boss – director of a public aid organization that provides meals to senior citizens, no less – tested positive for COVID-19. My wife wasn’t surprised as the woman had been walking around the office coughing all week, blaming it on allergies. Three days before Christmas, half the office staff was experiencing symptoms, including my wife.
My now contaminated spouse blatantly refused to participate in our household COVID disaster plan which required anyone who tested positive to move into the garage and conduct all their toilet activities outside. One day while I was at work, my kids unlocked the door and let her in. This was my worst personal nightmare.
I’m no stranger to illness. Born without the good sense to know when I’m pushing myself too hard, whenever illness visited, I always seemed to not only catch whatever was going around but the worst possible strain of it. Since contracting bronchial pneumonia in college, I’ve made it my mission to remain healthy and to protect myself from contagions. I became an unqualified success in this undertaking; until I had kids.
My wife gave birth to our first child when I was pushing 40 and our second when I was 43, putting us at the older end of the parent-age spectrum and on the downslope of the immunity bell curve. I quickly discovered that children were a breeding ground of the most virulent microorganisms to be found in the universe. I remember like yesterday that one Thanksgiving I spent on the couch with a raging fever while the rest of the family enjoyed my favorite meal of the year. Or that particular Christmas night in the ER with my flu-ridden 6-month-old watching while doctors tried to start an IV in her tiny arm because she stopped eating. Then there was the time I shared a popsicle with my other daughter, afterward discovering she was ripe with norovirus, subjecting me to five days of such violent nausea I prayed for death to take me.
Is it any surprise why I went to war against microorganisms? Over time, I developed the ability to “see” germs as they spread from person to surface to hands of the next person. I fashioned a duct tape holster with a can of Lysol on one hip, Clorox wipes on the other. I spent the cold weather months disinfecting, cleaning, and monitoring the kids’ hygiene. “Don’t touch your face,” was my battle cry. “Wash your hands!” “Don’t hover over each other when you’re not feeling well!” “Cover your cough!” “Sneeze into your elbow!” “Stay away from sick people!” “Don’t eat that!” “Do eat this!” “Quit breathing near your sister!” I was an anti-germ Nazi.
In my defense, our extended family is quite small, so we never had a reliable support system in times of emergency. When it came to needing help with the kids, the buck stopped with me and my wife. And because we’re self-employed, when we don’t work, we don’t earn, nor do we have sick days or paid time off. Our financial solvency has always fallen to me while my wife attended to the children, which is why every illness that entered our home sent a shockwave through our little world. It was bad when the kids got sick because my wife typically caught it. It was even worse when I got sick because I was the last line of defense when it came to keeping our tiny two-person enterprise afloat.
When COVID invaded our sanctum, I instinctively launched into crisis mode, handing out N95 masks, cans of Lysol, tasers. I visualized the hideous viral spores attaching themselves to the microwave, toilet seats, TV remotes, couch cushions, and dogs. I was at my wit’s end. Nobody in my family shared my sense of urgency. My kids were so cavalier as to appear to be going out of their way to get infected. What was wrong with them?
It then occurred that perhaps something was wrong with me. Could it be I was suffering from PTSD over of all those traumatic experiences from when the kids were small? My kids blame me for making them germophobes, causing them to believe illness is wrong and unnatural. My oldest tells me she feels guilty for getting sick; that when she catches a cold, she feels like she did something wrong or in some way failed me. Back in the day, my wife scolded me numerous times, telling me that my way of reacting to illness wasn’t normal. Were they right all along?
Nah. This is a pandemic, remember? Our very government has sanctioned – even encouraged – my behaviors as they relate to protecting myself, my family, and others from this dreaded illness. It is my duty to God and country, is it not? Then again, it seems the government is every bit as despicable, untrustworthy, and imbued with evil as COVID-19.
The father doth protect too much, methinks.
Maybe I do need to reconsider my approach to getting sick? I remain unwilling to underestimate the importance of good physical health and mental wellbeing because if we don’t feel good, we are rarely of much benefit to each other or society as a whole. But when illness does strike, perhaps it is time I learned to embrace it as something normal and natural and human, as opposed to something to be feared or battled or disinfected?
Going forward, I will continue to be smart about disease, taking reasonable steps to keep myself and my family well. But when illness does come knocking despite my bold efforts, I vow to let go, let God, and allow the healing to begin. Although I will miss the smell of Lysol.
By Mark Layne