Several weeks ago I developed a few mild symptoms that I didn’t pay attention to, and a few weeks ago I tested positive for COVID-19. My symptoms remained mercifully mild and hanging out by myself to take naps felt somewhat like the kind of vacation I should have rewarded myself with years ago. The lingering fear, though, and knowing it could go downhill quickly, kept me on edge.
Thankfully, everyone who lives in my house is currently healthy. My isolation period ended some time ago. Though I’m still cautious and a bit nap-prone, I didn’t plan to write about this at all until a few days ago.
While waiting for my no-contact grocery order, I sat in my vehicle at a local market, mask on, windows half-down to enjoy fresh air on a warm-enough afternoon. I heard someone in the parking lot holler to another person, presumably a friend, “Do you know anyone who has actually tested positive for covid?”
I turned to observe, drawn by the topic. Both folks, dressed casually, appeared to be in their 30s. The second person shrugged and yelled, “No. Not a single person. You?”
The first person sounded disgusted. “Nope.” And, after a pause, shouted, “This is ridiculous. A scam. I’m tired of this bullsh*t.” The other person said, “We’re young, we’d never get it even if it was real.” For a moment I thought about shouting at them Oh, it’s Real! but my grocery order arrived and I popped the trunk so the friendly shopper could stow my items.
I remembered my parents’ terror during the polio epidemic. We went from going to the local lake every weekend from Spring through late Autumn as toddlers to staying home all the time. My dad, tired of feeling exiled, initiated family Sunday Drives then to avoid going stir-crazy. During those early drives, we had zero opportunities to leave the vehicle, but they still felt like freedom.
At that time, everybody seemed afraid of polio. Nobody thought it a scam or created in a lab or the work of uber-wealthy folks. If they did, they certainly didn’t say it aloud.
When the latest (Salk) vaccine was announced in the mid-1950s, my brother and I were barely walking and my mother admitted she remained deeply suspicious because early vaccine versions had problems.[i] However, around that time the daughter of a close family friend contracted polio, and at age 4 Nancy ended up in an iron lung.
My father took me and my brother to get the polio vaccine a couple years later at an overflowing city-wide event hosted by what would become the March of Dimes. Doctors and nurses handed out information and administered vaccinations. Mom stayed home, worried. But though Nancy was a couple years older and I’d only been allowed to talk to her from a distance, we considered ourselves friends. Dad told me to be brave for her because “Nancy’s dad said he would never forgive me if I didn’t get you kids vaccinated.”
Our families connected periodically, always at Nancy’s house because she needed her iron lung[ii] to survive. At some time after being vaccinated, dad and mom approved of me connecting more closely with Nancy. Sometimes I brushed her hair, but mostly we talked a lot about what we would do when she could run again, the freedom of double-digit ages, how she would never complain about having chores, how she imagined her ponytail flying behind her as she sprinted down the block and I chased her on my bicycle. When we drew pictures of that future, Nancy sketched with a pen in her mouth. I never imagined she would die at the barely-double-digit age of 10, before her dream of running again came true, but I learned life is precious and fragile. When I think of her, though, even now, I see her running so fast her long ponytail is airborne behind her.
Her parents disappeared from our lives after Nancy’s death. My mom told me that the family had lost most of their friends when she contracted polio and that people gave them a wide berth, leaving them feeling a bit adrift. All I knew was that they had moved on.
And that day, sitting in the market’s parking lot, I moved on, heading home with my groceries. I thought about how people may have unintentionally shamed Nancy’s parents and how lonely they must have felt after she contracted the disease. And then I wondered how many people now know someone who tested positive for COVID-19, but the person quietly isolated and didn’t share the info.
After all, folks who get ill have additional worries, more pressing than how to deal with potential unfair judgement, like how to protect others while they recover and surviving the virus. Some, like essential workers who can’t afford to stop working, admit feeling guilty about taking the risk, even when they’re wearing PPE and scrupulously following protocols. Others feel shame because some folks invariably assume those who got ill did so because they didn’t take precautions. Add to that a sufficient number of general nay-sayers, like the folks I observed. It’s not so simple as it seems.
From the polio epidemic, I remember the fear of the disease and, later, the relief about the vaccine. But for the record, if anyone asks you if you know anyone who had the virus – and you didn’t know anyone before – feel free to say you know of this grandma who had COVID-19.
More next week on my kooky symptoms, how that went, and what I learned from this unexpected off-path interlude.
Until then, may you find the flexibility to deal with those moments when life seems to go off the rails, adjust to the time away from your usual path, and still know contentment.
May you be healthy, happy, safe, and strong. You deserve it.
Last words: Please remember that neither my opinions/experiences nor resources I mention are meant as cures or treatment. This is intended to uplift and educate, not as counseling or professional advice. If you’re in a moment in your life when most efforts feel huge, consider finding a mental health professional to support you.[iii] If you’re considering ending your life or if you are in crisis, please reach out to emergency services (9-1-1) or a crisis hotline[iv] to connect with someone who will have your best interests at heart.
Copyright 2021 D.R. deLuis
[i] There are many more complex explanations and histories, but this easy-to-read and brief article shows people had reason to worry at that time. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/salk-announces-polio-vaccine
[ii] For more info on this device and photos, see https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/01/what-america-looked-like-polio-children-paralyzed-in-iron-lungs/251098/
[iv] If you’re uncomfortable speaking with someone, try reaching out to the Crisis Text Line. In the US and Canada text “HOME” to 741741; in the UK text 85258; in Ireland text 2050808. To speak with someone, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or visit the website to text/chat at https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat/.