I get that I’m supposed to remain calm.
It’s what I said at the start of each of my classes on Thursday. “There is no need to panic,” I said, looking directly at my students. “We are going to get through this. We just need to plan.”
That afternoon, my school announced that we would be shutting down next week. Spring break would follow, and we hoped to resume classes in early April. I breathed a sigh of relief. My kids’ school would soon follow with a similar announcement, and we could all just stay at home.
“Remember, 99% of young people with COVID-19 recover in a few weeks,” my sister texted me when I sent her a worried note. “You’ll be fine.”
I knew she was right. I forced myself to focus on that fact.
I talked to my dad on the phone. He had taken a walk and gotten food for his house. He played golf alone. He was doing great, and he was perfectly fine. “Do not worry about me,” he said.
I spent the afternoon packing up my things at my desk, trying to plan some distance learning, and touching base with other teachers. Our staff meeting after school was calm and orderly, though that was disconcerting – high school teachers aren’t exactly known for their passivity. Even the push-back was soft. Everyone understood that these are unprecedented times.
When I left the meeting to walk home, I started to cry. I really didn’t know why. The sky was clear and the sun was bright and I was sobbing as I walked down the street.
I haven’t done that in a long time.
“My head is spinning,” I texted a friend. It was true. It was hard to say if it was due to the sleep deprivation of the week or the shock that I was living in a time when even my church had been shuttered. I felt untethered to the ground, worried that I might physically fall over. I sat down for a minute, and pulled myself together. I had to go home. Claire was there watching her brothers after school, and who knows what kind of a mess Tommy might have gotten into.
Everyone was eating a snack when I got home. “Did you wash your hands when you got home?” I asked, and Tommy’s face told me the answer was definitely no. I sighed, and had them wash their hands and then I turned to Claire. Had she remembered to give the extra hand sanitizer to her friend at the start of school today?
She had remembered. I told the kids to go and run around outside for a bit, and I sat down to relax for a few minutes. I had asked Claire about the extra hand sanitizer because I needed to make sure it got to my friend Kevin’s family. His kids were in school with mine, and I knew that his family needed it. I opened up my saved articles for the day, and started to read what Kevin had written in the Washington Post.
He told the story of his life with psoriatic arthritis, the life-changing drug he takes and the compromised immune system that came with it. It was powerful to read, even though I already knew much of the story. But one line really stuck with me, and I read it over and over again:
“Do I keep my elementary-school-aged children out of school for fear that they will bring the virus home with them?”
I thought about his family. When Shawn died, Kevin and his wife Meg both checked in on me consistently. Their kids played with my kids at school and in sports and we had great conversations in those in-between moments. Kevin and I would run into each other in the coffee shop sometimes and talk about life and kids and writing. And each year, we threw a great 90s party together to raise money for the kids’ school where Kevin would grill sausages dressed like some 90s movie character.
And now he was worried about simply sending his kids to school. He was worried about simply living his life as he always had. He was worried about ending up on a ventilator.
For a brief moment, reading the article made me feel a bit ashamed at how much stress I’ve felt over the past week. Who was I to worry? My kids and I would likely be okay.
But then I realized that a lot of the reason that I can’t sleep is because I know what this virus might mean for other families. Yes, 99% of people my age will be fine, just like 99% of people my age don’t watch their spouses die of cancer.
But some people aren’t going to be fine. Some people, like my friend Kevin, are going to have to hide away from the rest of the world until this passes, fearful of every sniffle that comes from their children’s direction. Some people, like my dad, are going to have to live much more of a life of solitude, since they cannot risk extra exposure. Some people, like my sister who is an ER nurse, will be exposed over and over again, especially as the supplies of protective gear run low (as they are for her.)
I guess the reason that I’m so worried – the reason why I’m up at 3:45 in the morning writing this blog post – is because I know that bad things can happen. I know that people can get really sick, even if the statistics mean it’s unlikely that I’ll get really sick. It means that some families will ultimately suffer like my family has.
Yesterday, when I was teaching, I tried to explain to my students why they needed to stay home, even when it was unlikely they’d get very sick. “It’s about ‘flattening the curve,'” I said, drawing the image of what happens when a community practices social distancing.
The students asked why it mattered, and I explained (as best I could) about how lives were saved when everyone stayed home. I told them that it wasn’t about never getting sick, but about protecting those around us who didn’t have the same ability to fight disease.
I’m not a scientist or a doctor, and my knowledge of these things is pretty rudimentary. But my understanding of illness and death is very real. And what I know about this virus is that if we don’t do something now – if we don’t stay home and stay away from each other – people will die.
99% is a reassuring number. But it’s just not good enough.