My family is practicing social isolation on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Outside our apartment, the sidewalks and streets are strangely quiet, except for the insistent screech of sirens that permeates the walls and windows as emergency vehicles hasten to their frequent calls, each a possible calamity. I’ve no doubt that sound will unsettle me long after COVID-19’s current devastation ends.
As a typical weekday in our improvised pandemic protocol begins, my husband Rich commands a plastic folding chair at a rectangular table in the unfurnished home office; I sit on the bedroom rug in front of a coffee table with my laptop; and our daughter Nicole, 23, spreads her assignments out over the dining room table at which we will also eat our evening meal. Once the dog, a nine-year-old Jack Russell mix named Bennie, has decided where he plans to lounge, we close the doors between rooms. Nicole and I prefer to work in silence, but Rich spends his days on conference calls with clients that are terrified about the pandemic’s impact on global markets. We hear his voice rise and fall, the knowledgeable insistent tone in which he provides advice and the calm reasonable intonation he uses to address concerns. After business hours he reappears with a cheery, “Honey, I ’m home,” but it’s impossible to miss seeing the lines of exhaustion etched into his face.
Nicole normally shares an East Village apartment with a college friend, but is staying with us for the duration of this crisis, however long it lasts. Rich and I moved back to Manhattan last fall after 28 years in the New York suburbs. Our apartment ’s physical space is incomplete, and without history, it lacks the patina of a family home. City rhythms are different. We need new routines and fresh stories to tell, but I wonder how you build a happy life in the midst of so much sorrow and uncertainty.
The walls of the room where Rich conducts business are lined with unpacked boxes, knick-knacks, and cleaning supplies, annoying reminders of tasks we’d planned to tackle once we were settled in. His temporary desk in the not-quite-yet office served as a tailgate and party table when football games and parties were allowed, which seems like years ago. He concedes that his morning walk down the hall from the bedroom in fresh work-from-home attire beats even his usual short subway commute and that past frustration at frequent suburban transit delays is becoming a distant memory.
On weekdays I take care of Bennie. Strolling around the neighborhood streets and parks tires the energetic canine, while I uncover the pleasures and essentials of urban life. I chance upon a nearby restaurant that serves an addictive Popeye pizza loaded with fresh spinach and smoked mozzarella. I discover a local retailer a few blocks north on Broadway that stocks every hardware and home essential known to man. Until now. When I last stopped in, wearing gloves and a face mask, they’d sold out of paper napkins like all the stores.
For dinner, I prepare simple meals with what’s on hand given limited availability and less storage space. Soon after we reunite as a threesome, Nicole points out that we always eat specific side dishes with certain main dishes “at home.” She means the house she grew up in. I hear the remark as griping and respond in anger. I shouldn’t have reminded her that the house no longer belongs to us or that the entire world is changing.
It’s clear that this pandemic is a turning point. Its overall historical significance can’t yet be determined, but numerous societal changes are ongoing and obvious. Necessity forced businesses to develop work-at-home options that weren’t available p re-COVID-19, for example. I’m sure their success or failure will contribute to the creation of future workplace structures and opportunities. Our collective memory will delineate time into before and after.
Each of us can name individual turning points; milestones like graduation, marriage, having a child, or losing a family member come to mind. When I visited with a close friend whose husband had died unexpectedly, she broke down. “Before I lost Daniel we had Friday night date nights. On Saturdays we went out with friends. Now I don’t know what to do on weekends.”
Not all are as distinct. Something happens. We may forget the details, but the event gains significance through its lasting impact. I’m navigating the Hudson River path, a paved pedestrian and bicycle route from the George Washington Bridge to the southern tip of Manhattan, when I’m reminded of one such juncture. Bennie and I are not alone in venturing out on that misty morning, despite a chill that belies predictions of a pleasant afternoon. In addition to dog walkers, we encounter cyclists, runners, elderly couples strolling hand-in-hand, power-walking women in pairs and trios, and parents with young children in strollers or on scooters. While much of the city appears devoid of residents, it’s apparent that the need for fresh air is universal.
South of the 79th Street Boat Basin, I notice the barricade that separates the busy pathway from the Hudson. Its top rail is a weathered wooden beam the color of aged oak and the lower portion consists of heavy fencing wire woven into a crisscross pattern. Deeply entrenched support beams stand at intervals along the entire stretch. That fence, or its predecessor, is a piece of my story.
I was 48 and had completed marathons in each of the previous two years. On this humid July day I was running in the 2008 New York City Half-Marathon, an event that I’d prepared for in conjunction with training for my next fall marathon. Through the early miles I ran a little/walked a little, the average pace a trot, conscious that I’d never b e competitive in a race of this distance or size, yet confident that I ’d finish with relative ease.
The stabbing began after the left turn from West 42nd Street onto the Westside Highway, where the race continued south along the Hudson. Once, twice, then over and over and over again, invisible knives tore through my right shoe and sock en route to savaging the flesh at the bridge of my toes. Shudders of pain coursed through the foot as I inched to the right and off the course. Weakened and trembling, I hobbled on for a yard or two, but the foot gave way, and I crumpled to the ground in the gravel at road’s edge. My chest heaved and as I exhaled, I heard a strange sound that resembled the song of a humpback whale. Sweat and salty tears clouded my vision as I struggled to right myself, but by magic, help appeared. A fellow competitor slowed and stopped beside me, grabbed my arm, and pulled me up. A quick wave and he ran off. I hope he saw the gratitude in my smile and heard my whispered thanks.
I limped forward, clutching the guardrail while the daggers lodged inside my sock continued their ceaseless barrage. I watched dozens of racers speed by. How many miles remained to the finish? Three? Four? I’d run twice the full distance several times, but worried that I wouldn’t reach the end.
Another overpowering jab crippled me. I couldn’t think, couldn’t walk, could only lean on the rusty barricade between the highway and the Hudson until the next agonizing thrust of those merciless knives drove me to rip the sneakers off of my feet, first the right, then the left. Steadying myself on the fence, I continued on with a shoe in each hand, stumbling through pebbles, over potholes, and across uneven pavement, blackening my socks with grime. Street grit ground into my soles and forefeet, a sensation like stepping on hot coals. How odd I must have looked, limping amongst the mass of competitors with my feet on fire. At some point a chatty stranger joined me, gabbing about everything and nothing, as if we were becoming acquainted during a group workout in Central Park. She slowed down while I maintained forward motion with short steps and long swings of my arms. She kept pace when I dared speed up in the final yards. I never learned her name, but her strength got me to the finish line.
I waved my useless shoes in the air and smiled for the camera, as though those tortuous miles had been a grand and pleasurable adventure. My official race photo, still buried in an unpacked box, documents the effort, but the remainder of the day is lost to memory. I have no idea how I got home or what I did then.
More misery follows, until simple walking becomes intolerable. I am diagnosed with Morton’s Neuroma, a common foot ailment. “Like the steakhouse,” the podiatrist chuckles, but the humor is lost on me. The recommended surgery fails. I consult podiatrist number two. He suggests another surgical procedure, also unsuccessful. A third podiatrist operates and there is relief, at last. To my dismay, she then retires. My right foot is scarred, but I can walk and I am grateful.
There may have been further respite before the back problems arrived, but the agony continues. Two cervical spine surgeries, lumbar spine degeneration, and years of chronic pain. Medications, pain pills, and injections; physical therapists, chiropractors, and pain management specialist s; a hypnotist; and countless recommendations from well-meaning friends and colleagues to try this or that therapy or treatment. Acupuncture will do the trick, they’re all sure. My eyes tear up when I spot acquaintances out running as I drive through the area or watch the high school cross-country team training on our hilly street. Until we leave the suburbs and sell my car, its license plate boasts, “IRUNALOT,” but I can ’t, and that hurts all the time.
Occasionally, when the medical tactics and strategies align, the discomfort eases. Rich and I join my college alumni group in hiking a portion of the Appalachian Trail in Harr iman State Park, where the expansive mountain vista from the fire tower takes my breath away. I make plans with faraway friends that I don’t see often. I attempt to jog. The psychiatrist who has treated me throughout this interminable period notices. You haven’t mentioned pain this entire session, she remarks. I feel the depression, anxiety, sleep issues, and lack of energy dissipate. The sadness ebbs.
Normality doesn’t last. If I spend too long sitting, standing, walking or lying down, my lumbar spine protests. It begins as a tolerable ache in my lower back. In an instant, I feel a rapid succession of bullet-like projectiles explode down my right leg. I’m lucky to finish one or two of the inane tasks that clog my daily to do list, but have no stamina for anything else. Had there not been proof, I’d think I was hallucinating about the remainder of 2008, when I started graduate school, cared for our elementary school age child, and finished the New York City Marathon, my last, despite foot trouble. Now I can’t picture doing a single one of those things well, much less all three.
There are no current restrictions on walking, running, or cycling outside for exercise, other than maintaining a minimum of space of six feet between individuals. Unlike the past, when I met and talked to other dog owners during my outings with Bennie, conversations are rare and dog-initiated exchanges lead to uncomfortable looks and awkward apologies. The sidewalks grow emptier each day. Essential businesses, like a nearby smoke shop and the newsstand up the block, are shutting down. Restaurants that tried to operate through pick-ups and deliveries alone are closing their doors, some announcing the decision with handwritten signs saying they will miss us. Analysts warn that next month ’s job losses will be staggering. The loss of lives is catastrophic.
With little distinction between workdays and weekends, it ’s becoming difficult to get out of bed. Rich and Nicole have specified responsibilities and deadlines that keep them busy from early morning until late. My primary commitments consist of exercising the dog, wrangling household supplies, and preparing the evening meal. On Thursdays, I have a Zoom happy hour with girlfriends. I’m pain-free, but have little motivation and less focus. On an ambitious morning, I begin to edit an essay after breakfast. When I look up, I notice that laundry is piling up. I sort through the hamper before tossing a load into the washer. Afterwards I return to work, but the dust motes gathering in masses between the washer and dryer niggle at me until I sweep them away. With broom in hand, I might as well tackle a few crumbs in hallway, and so on. I return to the writing, but have lost my place. I move the wash to the dryer and start a second load. Now the dog needs to go out. It’s lunchtime already? The essay screams for attention but I’m deaf to its cries.
I have the impression that the doors of our apartment building lead to a different dimension with its own language and customs. The isolation rules intended to keep our communities safe cause a peculiar detachment that is unfamiliar to residents of a metropolis like New York. This morning a middle-aged woman on Riverside Drive calls out, “Is your dog lonely, too?” “It must be hard on them,” I reply, but she has cast her eyes down and veered away. I continue north to find the Joan of Arc monument that I’d spotted on a Riverside Park map, almost missing the sizable sculpture that sits on its own plot of parkland in the middle of the usually busy thoroughfare. I’d hoped to get closer, but a weary-looking young man is loitering nearby and his vigorous coughing scares me away.
Fleeing from others is a new behavior. I don’t invite danger by wandering around desolate blocks at off hours, but in daylight I smile at strangers, exchange greetings when prompted, and offer directions to tourists who look lost. I’m unhappy with the presumption that city dwellers are an unfriendly bunch and take pleasure in disproving that expectation. There is no room for natural human interaction while we sequester ourselves in individual mobile bubbles that, we’re told, are an appropriate protective measure and best for all.
I don’t question it, but the wealth of information disseminated daily makes it difficult to separate reality from fiction. The prevailing science is complex and changing, and it’s impossible to escape the fear that today’s guidelines will prove wrong tomorrow. I’ve fallen into the habit of assuming that the state of the world is worse than we are told. As a result, I’m struggling to maintain a positive attitude. Optimistic tropes like “every cloud has a silver lining” irritate me. When I find myself humming “The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow” on repeat, I wait in vain for its usual uplifting effect to take hold. Even a well-known Broadway anthem that represents a young girl’s resilience and hope lacks the power to carry me away. The sun does come out, but that just makes it a sunny day, and people are still getting sick and dying.
Lead news stories feature rule-breakers, such as members of the clergy who continue to hold massive services despite a universal ban on large gatherings. I’m familiar with the phrase “blood leads” from a friend in media. Titillating previews lure viewers who stay tuned to hear more. Kindness merits a brief segment at the end of a newscast, like a math teacher who responds to a young student’s request for help by going to her home to demonstrate the theory on poster board from outside on the front porch. That makes me smile.
Those moments are rare. The longer our family shelters at home, the more irritable we become. Ordinary discussions about what to have for dinner morph into lengthy arguments. We part decisionless and angry, unless someone relents and apologizes. Bennie is best at easing the tension. Late one afternoon he jumps onto a vacant chair at the head of the dining room table near several pens and a pad of paper, as if waiting for a make-believe meeting to begin. Nicole is first to notice and snaps a picture that we share on social media with comic captions. Laughing at the dog together restores temporary sanity.
What I’m feeling, what we’re all feeling, my psychiatrist tells me, is grief. Grieving, she says, for the loss of our former lives. How simple it sounds. I wish I’d understood earlier. She forwards an interview with David Kessler, co-author with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross of On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stage s of Loss. I learned its substance in a long-ago psychology class, but Kessler focuses on a sixth stage: meaning. My doctor asks me to describe something positive about the current situation. Easy. Rich and I have the unexpected opportunity to witness Nicole functioning in the adult work world. More than once I’ve been amazed at her expertise in her field and her ability to overcome the dual challenges of a new job and telecommuting.
How many hours have I obsessed over inconveniences like the effort required to secure certain foods, personal care products, protective wear, and cleaning necessities? The loss of in-person social, sports, and cultural opportunities is frustrating, but trivial compared with the bigger picture. My immediate family is healthy and employed. We’re grieving for the past, but we’re lucky. We can imagine a future.
Rich is the first to become ill. We wonder if the demon alit during a weekend grocery-shopping excursion. Could it have landed during dinner out with friends in the weeks before dinners out were disallowed? We’ll never know. Although his several day fever, harsh coughing, muscle aches, and overwhelming exhaustion are symptomatic of COVID-19, testing in New York is limited to the severely ill seeking hospital admission. At his doctor’s advice, Rich quarantines himself in the small room that doubles as his office. Nicole and I deliver meals to the door. We eat dinner together over video chat. He works when he can, but devotes himself to rest and recovery. In two weeks he emerges. His face is pallid and even minor exertion, like talking or laughing, causes coughing spasms that lead Nicole and I to cringe and move away.
A day or two later, before we’d dared to close the six-foot gap between family members, Nicole develops a low-grade fever. It doesn’t last long, but like her dad, she suffers from headaches and tiredness. If she snuggles on the couch with the dog, I find her fast asleep minutes later. Although Nicole toughs it out and gets through her long workdays, she experiences stomach upsets and lacks an appetite. We can’t confirm the cause of her misery either, but she remains indoors in semi-isolation until well after her temperature returns to normal.
It’s unsurprising when I too develop coronavirus symptoms. It starts with a slightly elevated temperature, a sore throat, and a days-long headache, followed by intense tiredness. Of course I suspect the world’s current number one villain, but the strain of caregiving could also have caused debilitation.
Around the three-month anniversary of the first known case of COVID-19 in the United States, we learn that the virus arrived sooner than was thought. Newsfeeds continue to overflow with changing guidelines and rules, new science and random fiction, inactivity and finger pointing, disparities and sacrifice, every story further testimony to the all-consuming fear and desperation that overspreads the world. Blood leads. Heartache and death are inescapable, but I listen less.
I’m continuing to look for positives while we navigate a path through the present murkiness toward the after. The Governor announced an Executive Order to expand statewide testing, bringing hope that we’ll learn whether the virus resides in our home. The symptoms have lessened, and thanks to my family’s care, self-quarantine provides a unique opportunity to write without interruption. There are stories to tell. Still, I’m reaching for the moment when we discover that we’ve stumbled across the finish and no longer require a guardrail for balance.
Christine Ritenis is a reading, writing, art, and nature enthusiast who loves to find adventure in daily life. Her work has appeared in such print and online publications as Still Crazy, The Writing Disorder, Brain, Child (Teen), and Hippocampus Magazine. Christine has also contributed to Connoisseur magazine as a New York Arts correspondent. She holds an MFA degree from Sarah Lawrence College.