Waiting. A journal entry by Christine Ritenis

Week of Sunday, 4/19

I’m fairly sure that I have contracted COVID-19, probably from my husband, Rich, who was the first to become ill, or our adult daughter, Nicole, who is staying with us and began to experience symptoms about two weeks later. As the third member of our household to get sick, I claim the master bedroom and start self-quarantine on Monday. Despite the strong likelihood that it’s coronavirus, I’m eager to confirm my unscientific diagnosis. Neither result, positive or negative, will change the protective measures that we are taking as a family. The risk of infection, reinfection, or transmitting the virus to others is too great. But in this muddled and confused interlude where the days all resemble each other and the future is uncertain, I yearn for a single definitive answer.

Current testing in the State of New York is limited to the severely ill seeking hospital admission. Fortunately, none of us qualifies. I wait for something to change in our socially isolated, but social media intensive microcosm in Manhattan while the pandemic rages on around us. The tumult of clapping, cheering, and clanging noisemakers bursts through the open windows of the bedroom each evening at seven as people in neighboring buildings and streets celebrate the heroic service of medical personnel and frontline responders during the crisis. In an earlier period, a mere month ago, this sort of jubilant hero worship was associated with sporting events and concerts held in vast stadiums and arenas, but those activities have also fallen victim to coronavirus and are in their own holding pattern. While I enjoy spending time alone, my hours in quarantine creep along in an anxiety provoking silence that is unfamiliar to residents of a major metropolis.

The City takes baby steps toward slowing the spread of the disease, but remains a national hotspot with a staggering loss of life. I follow the news, but try not to obsess over our federal government’s every action or inaction. The partisanship and politics of the pandemic are a mind-boggling distraction from what should be a universal goal. Absent serious discussion of new developments directed at stopping the virus, I sometimes tune out. That must be why the Governor’s announcement at a recent press briefing comes as a surprise. His statement reveals that plans for a widespread expansion of testing are complete and he encourages residents statewide who suspect having COVID-19 to schedule an appointment. For me, his words have the effect of cracking open a door to the outside. I doubt that I’m alone.

Week of Sunday, 4/26

On Sunday I complete the State Health Department’s online symptom checker. My responses suggest infection and generate an appointment request. The next day I receive a text informing me that I’m scheduled on Tuesday morning at eight in Albany. For an instant I consider the two-and-a-half hour drive, but the opportunity disappears before I decide. A second text notifies me that the appointment has been cancelled, as though some computer algorithm triggered a correction. A day or two later, I’m advised of another Albany opening. This time I decline. The automated response is curt, stating that due to my cell phone settings, they are unable to help.

I wait, with little hope, and call my doctor, who advises that based on the symptoms I’ve described and the probability that both other members of our household had coronavirus, I should assume that I do too. I’m to continue to self-quarantine for one week after my fever subsides, with fever defined as a temperature of 99.5 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. He doesn’t routinely recommend testing because the results are proving unreliable, but doesn’t discourage me if the opportunity arises. He suggests that I also consider an anti-body test in a week or two, although they aren’t perfect either, and a statistically significant number result in false positives. It’s clear from his cautious tone that coronavirus testing is an evolving science and that maybes are an unavoidable component.

My phone rings on Thursday. The call is from area code 518, a live representative from the Health Department in Albany. She’s probably spoken to hundreds of New Yorkers demanding a response and sounds frazzled, but persists through various computer glitches and minor confusion over my legal name to schedule my test in nearby Mt. Vernon the following day.

Friday, 5/1

I allow extra time for the short drive to Westchester County and arrive about 15 minutes early for the 10:00 am appointment. It’s obvious from the manned police vehicle sitting sideways across the healthcare center driveway that I must park on the street. To my relief, I find a legal spot a block away and succeed in parallel parking the family car, a skill that occasionally fails me under stress.

As I walk through the morning drizzle toward the testing area, I see a rope-guided path leading to a group of white-topped tents that are clustered together on a broad expanse of blacktop. The set-up of the site seems familiar, I assume from the many similar images on television. A man wearing a hazmat suit who holds a few sheets of paper greets me outside the first tent. I provide my name and birthdate. He checks the appointment list and waves me on. At the second tent, I’m asked for my confirmation number. Several staff members standing behind a temporary wall of transparent plastic watch me fumble for my cell phone and scroll through recent texts to locate the information. They have both masks and heavy shields over their faces, and are dressed in medical scrubs with a clear rain suit type garment on top. I’m relieved to see the personal protective wear after hearing continuing reports of dire shortages.

A medical technician standing behind a tall transparent panel with a circular opening to the outside at roughly forehead level greets me at the next tent. She warns me to expect brief discomfort before swabbing my right nostril. Someone else leads me past several unoccupied areas to the final table, where I reluctantly accept one of two remaining bright blue tote bags from a man sporting serious protective equipment. He also hands me instructions for obtaining my results through the laboratory’s patient portal.

I notice one person checking in as I leave, but no one else precedes or follows me through the desolate labyrinth. Where are all the people who could benefit from testing, I wonder? By 10:15, I’m wearing disposable gloves and rifling through my new bag in the car. It contains a pen, a water bottle, and a promotional flyer. We laugh when Rich pulls the plastic bottle, a newly melted and misshapen mass, from the top rack of the dishwasher after the sanitize cycle. Lesson learned: never accept a gift from a stranger in a hazmat suit.

The reason for the peculiar sense of recognition on entering the site becomes apparent before I leave. The tents and tables grouped together like a temporary village, cordoned off entry lanes winding to the start, a check-in table, the team providing directions, another group answering questions, private medical tents, a marked exit, the swag bag. The tent city resembles the staging area of large road races and charity walks, without the happy anticipation that dominated those events in the carefree pre-pandemic world. Except for a few encouraging remarks to me and occasional chitchat between technicians, this venue is oddly still. Its lack of patrons, along with a dark sky and impending showers surely contribute to the grim atmosphere, but it’s impossible to imagine true joyfulness until we exterminate coronavirus for good.

The Weekend, 5/2 and 5/3

I return to self-quarantine and wait. We all wait for something—for answers or comfort or for the crisis to end. The City and State are “on pause,” one of numerous expressions that have gained life in recent months. It’s as if we’ve been told to stop breathing. We need relief. The lab’s instruction sheet tells me that results will take approximately 72 hours, but on Saturday, I receive an Email stating that they are available if I click on a link. The link doesn’t work. I can’t access the patient portal and the customer service center is closed until Monday. Its website warns of backlogs in responding to messaging platforms and extensive delays in reaching a telephone representative. There is no obvious number to call, so I wait some more. Based on my symptoms, on-line research, and discussions with the doctor, essentially everything I know, I believe that I have COVID-19. That won’t change.

One of the major broadcast networks announces the return of Sunday night family movies. This week’s presentation is Steven Spielberg’s, “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” I’d hoped that we could watch together from our separate rooms, but Rich and Nicole are streaming the reality show, “90 Day Fiancé” together, and are uninterested. I remember loving the blockbuster film in 1981, the year I graduated from college, but the early snippets I watch remind me that the film and I have both aged. The anticipation and excitement of a first viewing can’t be repeated and the result is disappointing. Is it possible that I never noticed the cute little monkey clinging to the hero’s back at his meeting with a bad guy?

Ignoring the screen, I resume focus on my online shopping. Our kitchen spice cabinet requires serious reorganization. With measurements in hand, I scour the web for ideas. When I next glance at the TV, the chimp has suffered a terrible death. I flip to a 10:00 pm newscast, as though I’ll find solace there. I don’t locate a better storage solution and go to bed frustrated and annoyed.

The weekend highlight? While my temperature hovers a bit higher than average, especially in the late afternoon, it doesn’t rise to fever-level for three days straight.

Monday, 5/4

Monday begins with tears. I’m on the wrong side of an ongoing debate about household rules for self-quarantine. When Rich was ill, we were rigid in applying the Centers for Disease Control guidelines. He didn’t leave his office/sleeping quarters for over two weeks, while Nicole and I delivered meals and snacks, clean loungewear, and encouragement. We also kept our dog Bennie away. When Nicole too began to exhibit symptoms of COVID-19, we adjusted a bit. She plodded through her lengthy workdays at the dining table, the only surface with sufficient space, but confined herself to her room at other hours. We maintained the recommended six-foot separation throughout, although the mutt, who has become our unofficial emotional support animal, roamed around the apartment at will.

Now it’s my turn. The symptoms come and go. While most are mild, frequent headaches, general weariness, and the occasional elevated temperature wear me down. In an attempt at optimism, I remind myself that if the fever fails to return, quarantine ends in four days.

I set up a small desk for work and keep to myself, with two exceptions. Our washer and dryer reside in a closet just outside the door so I tackle the laundry when I feel well enough, being careful to avoid infecting clean clothes, towels, and bedding. I also make my own breakfast. I’ve eaten a close approximation of the same meal every morning for years. No one else knows how to prepare it, and I’m reluctant to ask for help, particularly given Rich and Nicole’s all-consuming job responsibilities. It consists of a generous scoop of Kashi Crunch cereal with a tablespoon or two of vanilla/almond granola sprinkled on top, plus berries and a generous splash of skim milk. I always have a cup of coffee and often a glass of orange juice. My fixed menu changes only when I travel or meet friends for breakfast outside our home. This simple routine provides a reassuring constant that I’m reluctant to abandon in a period of daunting unpredictability.

Just as I rely on a familiar morning meal, Nicole depends on consistent household rules. I try to finish in the kitchen the others arrive, but today we overlap, unsettling her. She woke up with a sore throat and worries about becoming sick again. My fault. I understand her concern, and suspect that under different circumstances, we’d talk and find compromise. On this day we argue and shed tears, designating Rich as mediator, an assignment he declines with spectacular vigor. He then retreats to his workspace. Near bedtime, when we are calm, I promise Nicole that I will stop making breakfast for now. We consult with her dad and they agree to take charge.

Tuesday and Wednesday, 5/4 and 5/5

“Are you up?” Rich texts from the kitchen at 8:00 o’clock on Tuesday. To my “Yes” reply he responds, “Breakfast?” I provide a detailed explanation of its components. After he delivers the food, he rushes down the hall to the spare room to start his business day. The cereal combo is delicious.

After another excellent breakfast on Wednesday, this one courtesy of Nicole, I participate in a museum-sponsored online art class. The 45-minute session flies by. I devote the daylight hours to creating a journal of my pandemic experience with collages of found materials, rough sketches, and text. Applying a hands-on visual process to comb through the messy tangle of emotions relaxes me, as I’d hoped. By day’s end the journal is complete, giving me an unexpected sense of accomplishment and purpose, positive feelings that had gotten lost in the depths of my self-pity and feigned busyness.

Given free time, I often piece together a complex jigsaw puzzle that takes days or weeks to complete. When it’s done, I snap a quick picture, pull it apart, and start the next one. I also read and solve crosswords. After the successful journal project, I realize that I need alternative activities that provide a similar satisfaction. I think about the creative pursuits that my friends share during Zoom happy hours, like painting, crafting, woodworking, baking, and renovating their homes. A college classmate is taking guitar lessons and a few acquaintances are relearning musical instruments they abandoned after their school band careers were over. The possibilities are more numerous than I’d expected. I start small and order an abstract paint-by-number kit for adults. It should arrive by mid-June, barring pandemic-related shipping delays.

Thursday, 5/6

An awful headache and an absence of energy spur me to call for my COVID-19 test results, despite the predicted wait for customer service. My ambition is rewarded—a live representative is on the line within minutes. Once I answer a few questions, she authorizes my access to the lab’s online patient portal. I create a password and log in. A single word appears: negative. I refresh the page to be sure. Still negative.

Luckily my physician is available mid-afternoon for a telemedicine appointment. After listening to my concerns he reminds me that the results reflect one moment in time. In that moment, the coronavirus was not detected. The tests aren’t infallible, he warns, and based on previous conversations about my family’s recent health issues, he believes that I was infected sooner than we thought. In that case the virus was gone by test day. Since I haven’t had a fever in seven days, he feels confident that there is little risk if our threesome reunites within the apartment as long as we continue to follow social distancing guidelines, wear masks outside, and avoid non-essential errands. His recommendation is an exciting next step for the family, but my disappointment lingers.

Although there were no guarantees, I’d put all of my hopes into validating the one thing I thought was certain, that I had COVID-19. It turns out that I don’t know anything.

Another Weekend, 5/8 and 5/9

My freedom is delayed based on another precedent established by Rich, who stayed in quarantine for an extra day after his symptoms subsided. I emerge for good on Saturday morning, two weeks and five days after I started. We continue to maintain a six-foot separation between us, but share a celebratory dinner in the same room that evening, the first in weeks. For a short time, apartment life returns to normal, or rather, the pandemic version of normal.

I’m grateful that all three of us appear to have recovered without serious complications. Although we have no intention of discontinuing protective measures, the possibility that each of us has developed antibodies to guard against a possible future bout of coronavirus is encouraging. I’m as near contentment as I’ve been in over a month, until Bennie gets sick.

We adopted the energetic Jack Russell mix, now nine, from a local shelter when he was two. We know little about his background, but he displays a compulsive need for human contact, as if people were missing from his early life. If the American Kennel Club held a competition in snuggling, Bennie would win the grand prize. The 20-pounder, whose genetic makeup also includes rat terrier, cuddles with the same ferocity that he devoted to hunting chipmunks and squirrels when we lived in the suburbs. It’s not unusual to find him and a guest curled up for a nap on the couch on a lazy Saturday afternoon, even visitors with a questionable to nonexistent affection for most canines.

Bennie seems unusually sluggish during our post-breakfast walk on Sunday and his tummy is sensitive to touch. There haven’t yet been reported cases of coronavirus in dogs, but I worry about physical contact between the lovable pet and his family and the possibility, though slim, that he’s been infected. To my relief, his belly issues resolve themselves and his energy returns within 24 hours. According to household protocol, we should allow him an extra day to rest, but he insists on resuming his duties as the family’s snuggler-in-chief. That is essential work, by any definition.

The hoped-for antibodies? Rich’s test results are negative, a surprise, since he experienced the most characteristic symptoms of the three of us. I think I’ll wait to schedule mine.


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.

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