Last month, just before school began, my daughter tested positive for Covid. My family had returned two days earlier from an end-of-summer trip to the Poconos — our first vacation in a year. We had stayed in a private home, engaged in only outdoor activities and worn masks when we were around other people.
We thought we were safe; we had planned this trip specifically to be safe. Then, suddenly, my throat felt scratchy. Later that day, my 7-year-old daughter had a 101-degree fever. I ran her in for a Covid test.
That night, on the phone with the on-call doctor from our pediatrician’s office, I burst into tears. After 18 months of taking every precaution — of shunning indoor playdates and indoor restaurants and indoor anything except school; of wearing masks; of regularly waking up in the night with panic attacks — the enemy was now here, inside my child. When I got off the phone with the pediatrician, I sat on my dining room floor and sobbed.
Later that night, my PCR returned positive, too. It felt surreal, like a bad dream. By the next afternoon all four of us had positive tests. In a strange way, this was a relief. Had our asymptomatic son tested negative, for example, we’d have to grapple with the decision of how to isolate a 5-year-old — whose best friend is his sister and whose favorite way to sleep is in the trundle bed in her room with his head on his mother’s belly — from the rest of the family. At least we were all in this together.
The following week was a physical and emotional journey. My husband’s and my flu-like symptoms worsened, stayed, and then slowly left. Our daughter’s fever and headaches persisted for several days, and then thankfully went away just as I was on the verge of panic. We realized how lucky we were.
The feelings of shame, guilt, anger, fear… those ran a somewhat different course. We felt embarrassed, ashamed and worried about what people would assume — that somehow we had been irresponsible and that getting Covid was our fault. We worried about who we had seen who we might have unintentionally infected — my in-laws, my husband’s co-workers, the doctor I had visited the day before. Thankfully, all remained negative. But every night for the first week of our isolation, I woke up with vivid dreams that I had forgotten we were quarantined and gone somewhere I shouldn’t have, infecting our kids’ school or the local library.
More than anything, I felt scared. The unknowns of a post-Covid future have always caused me particular angst: My father survived polio, which he contracted when he was 5 years old (the same age as my son), just six months before the vaccine came out. He missed months of kindergarten but thankfully recovered — only to be hit with life-altering post-polio syndrome some 30 years later. Among his symptoms: constant pain, chronic fatigue, muscle weakness, and respiratory issues. Post-Polio syndrome is progressive; what started as vague complaints of leg pain in his mid-30s developed into needing two crutches to support his unsteady legs. From there, my parents moved to a ranch-style home with wide doorways so my father could use his motorized wheelchair around the house.
Nobody anticipated this when he was 5 years old, in the hospital with polio. Everyone — except maybe my grandmother, who always seemed to have a foreboding that something terrible was around the corner — had thought the worst was over.
So while many people have spent the past year-plus finding comfort in the fact that children seem less likely to fall gravely ill or develop long Covid, I fretted — and I still fret — about how little we know about this virus. When my kids had active cases of Covid, I didn’t just worry about what might happen the next day — I also worried (and still worry) about what may happen in 10, 20, 30 years.
Yes, I know that such dramatic, long-term effects are unlikely, that my baggage was pushing me to the verge of the irrational. But the prospect of the medically unknown is not an abstract concept to us — my family has watched it and lived it and feared it in our depths. We had spent the past 18 months trying to avoid history repeating itself, and yet it found a way. I will spend the next 30 years wondering just how much.
Even so, while we recovered and finished out our quarantine I could not retreat into my anxiety. Every morning, I was reminded that our children still needed to be parented and comforted and fed. They still needed to maintain a routine, and they needed to be entertained so they didn’t go crazy with boredom. I realized that, while I cannot control what happens to my children’s health in 30 years, I could control how they experienced this, here, right now.
So, we laughed. Between work calls and emails we did art projects, played Frisbee in our backyard and ran races. We read “Holes” and my childhood copy of “Anne of Green Gables” with our daughter, and many, many chapters of “Junie B. Jones” with our son. The kids watched hours of “Carpool Karaoke” and “Crosswalk Musical” videos. (James Corden, if you are somehow reading this, you are a true hero in this house!) I read a book about the pandemic while recovering from it; my husband read a book about antisemitism while walking laps around our house. He ran miles around our third of an acre; friends texted me about the spirograph he posted on the app where he logs his runs. We answered calls from contact tracers, we responded to concerned texts, we found solace in the warmth, well-wishes and humorous gifs of our friends.
Most of all, we felt thankful for the vaccines that kept this out of our respiratory systems and for the miracle of our children’s mild cases. We felt thankful for our village, for the friends who sent cookies and fruit and kosher deli and chicken soup. For the friends who made a CVS run for us and left children’s Tylenol in a paper bag on the front stoop. For the friend I’ve had since I was 5 who called from the grocery store, demanded to be put on the phone with our kids, and then took their ice cream orders directly so that we wet blanket adults couldn’t tell him that we actually didn’t need anything. (It turned out we did need something — a head of cauliflower — and he brought us that, too.) For the neighbors who organized an impromptu concert on our front lawn, complete with cello, keyboard and a sign that read “We Miss You,” and who later left a plate of new fruits for Rosh Hashanah on our deck. For the many more friends who made us feel loved even when we were legally and morally obligated to stay far apart.
Now, four weeks later, our family has returned to school, to work and to our community. In many ways, our Covid experience is just a memory — a blip on this rocky year — but in other ways, it is ever-present. We are told that after having Covid, there is a window of time in which even the unvaccinated children are safe from the risk of reinfection. So while part of my brain is filled with worry about our long-term future, it has been freeing to let go of the constant fear about the present — ventilation and droplets and so forth. We are managing the anxiety about the next 30 years by cramming as much into these three months as we can: vacations, visits with friends, tickets to a Broadway show.
Someday this pandemic will end and our lives will return to something closer to normal, if not exactly what they were before. I hope that we will leave these pandemic times — as my family has emerged from our Covid experience — with greater appreciation for time spent together, love for our family and friends and neighbors, and a renewed enthusiasm for all that the world has to offer.