The cough began in earnest on Nov. 10, a Tuesday. It was a dry hack, and it got worse as the day progressed. I went to bed early and awoke the next morning feeling as if I had been hit by a truck and left for dead by the side of the road. My fever was nearly 103 degrees, and I didn’t want to move.
This would be just the beginning of my descent into covid-19, an equal-opportunity disease that rips lives and families apart, regardless of whether you believe in it or not. I do believe in it. I studiously tried to avoid it. I wore a mask everywhere I went. With the exception of two visits back in June, I didn’t dine indoors. When I ate outdoors, I made sure to cover my face whenever I interacted with people. If I walked into a retail store, I followed two more rules: Don’t stay long, and don’t enter if it’s crowded.
I’m not the first food writer and critic to get the coronavirus, and I probably won’t be the last, given what I know about infection rates and the work ethic of my peers, who continue to move about their communities to tell you about the good, the bad and the tasty. Since Nov. 1, nearly 3.7 million Americans have come down with the coronavirus, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, representing 29 percent of the coronavirus cases in the United States to date. Those numbers tell us one thing, which we ignore at our risk: We are just entering the maw of this monster. Many more will get chewed up by this.
We are also entering prime holiday season, and despite the skyrocketing cases and the governmental warnings to avoid gatherings, hundreds of thousands of Americans decided to jump on an airplane ahead of Thanksgiving and visit family and/or friends. What drives this behavior is part human — the desire to surround yourself with loved ones at this time of year — and part a staggering level of denial about a virus that does not give a flip about your family get-togethers.
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I’ve read the stories about people who have died of covid, arguing with their caregiver that this is all a hoax, even as they’re hooked up to ventilators and unable to breathe on their own. This is four-star-level denial, but there are many levels below it. When I first suspected I had covid — a good two days before the diagnosis arrived — I never let myself entertain any worst-case scenarios. I simply couldn’t imagine that I might be among the minority of people who get more than flu-like symptoms, even though I’m in my late 50s, slightly overweight and have bad allergies that sometimes trigger asthma. My lungs were an easy target.
My most immediate worry was whether I’d lose my senses of taste and smell, common symptoms for those affected with covid. Some patients have waited months for their olfactory senses and taste buds to return. I had no idea how I’d do my job if I suffered a similar fate. Fortunately, I never had to worry about it. I lost my appetite for a couple of weeks and I lost weight, but I never lost my ability to taste or smell. It’s a cruel space to occupy as a food writer: You can smell the aromas of homemade tomato soup, chocolate chip cookies, Persian rice, fresh-brewed coffee, tonkotsu ramen, and none of them hold any appeal. I drank mostly water and orange juice for two weeks.
Covid had other surprises waiting for me instead. On Wednesday night, just 24 hours into this nightmare, I woke up around 4 a.m., feeling generally uncomfortable. I sat up in bed, and within a matter of minutes, I could feel my body start to turn against me. I felt warm, so I slid to the floor to let the hardwoods cool my skin. That’s when I experienced a pain so profound and all-encompassing I couldn’t put it into words for my wife, Carrie. All I could do is cry, “Oh God,” over and over again. I knew I wouldn’t be able to stand the pain for long. I also knew I couldn’t move from the floor.
Then the nausea hit me. It felt like something dark and sticky were trying to exit my body, and I couldn’t move myself to the bathroom. Carrie instead brought me a bowl, and I began imagining that this is where it would end: curled up on the floor, in my “Exile on Main Street” T-shirt, head slightly perched above a stainless steel mixing bowl, crying out to a god I never understood. And then, just like that, as if by divine intervention, the pain and nausea disappeared. It was replaced, almost instantaneously, by an overwhelming anger at the current administration, which would prefer that we all experience our own private covid hell.
By Friday, I was starting to feel better, but my friend Lou, a scientist and biotech executive, warned me that this could be a lull. I should be prepared for a second wave. He was right. If Wednesday night’s episode was a brief glimpse into death, the coming days were prolonged physical and psychological battles during which I was never sure if I would land in the hospital that evening.
Carrie’s sister, Molly, is a nurse, and at her suggestion, Carrie bought an oximeter to keep an eye on our blood oxygen levels. The mornings were the worst. I’d wake to do my usual chores — monitor the dogs as they went outside, make pourover coffees and feed the pooches. These simple tasks could take up to three hours unless I asked Carrie for assistance, which I was increasingly hesitant to do because she was getting sick, too. I would frequently feel faint after standing for only a few minutes at a time. I knew I wasn’t getting enough oxygen. I started to dread every time I put the oximeter around my finger, fearing this would be the day that the measurement dropped below 95, the bottom end of “normal,” and Carrie would have to take me to the emergency room.
By the time Carrie was diagnosed, I started to joke that our home in Hyattsville was White House East. We didn’t leave our little sick-bay bunker for two solid weeks. We’d only open the front door for delivered groceries and the many meals and care packages that friends, family and colleagues left for us. It was like a fever dream: Unlock the door, turn the handle and — bam! — food would magically appear on the front porch. Chicken soup. Lentil soup. Breads. Brownies. Cheeses. Breakfast tacos. Bottles of wine. Bags of coffee. Burmese curried noodles. After years of chasing around the DMV for my meals, I was grateful to find some of the finest foods literally at our doorstep.
Two sets of friends dropped off food for Thanksgiving, more than Carrie and I could ever eat in one sitting. We enjoyed the spread by ourselves, surrounded by our two perpetually greedy hounds and warmed by the thought that, with the help of friends and family and ungodly amounts of Tylenol, we had escaped the worst of this thing. Our temperatures are down, our blood oxygen levels normalizing and our energy slowly returning.
For me, Thanksgiving has never been about the feast. Maybe as a food writer, I shouldn’t admit this. The traditional parade of beige foods has never held much appeal to me. It was always secondary to the experience of sitting around the table and listening to stories from the people I love, fueled by a second bottle of wine and a shared history of joy and sorrow. So many of us didn’t have that experience this year, but the sacrifice was an act of love, as if to say: I can endure one empty Thanksgiving to make sure the family table will be full of life for years to come.
This life, and the people with whom we choose to share it, are all that we have. I feel like I have my life back. I can breathe again, and once we’re on the other side of this pandemic, I plan to spend as much time as possible occupying the same airspace as the people who helped us through this ordeal. We will laugh together, eat together and breathe freely together.
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