When I walked into the emergency room of New York-Presbyterian on March 13, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was gaining steam in the United States, I had a fever and felt awful, but I had no idea that I was in any serious danger. I stumbled into that ER more as a precaution than anything. I had nothing useful in my bag—no toothbrush, no book, no change of clothes—just my wallet, a half-empty water bottle, and a magazine I’d already read.
And then: two weeks of hell. COVID-19 was hell. My mind couldn’t, wouldn’t grasp it while it was happening. There was no escape from the fever, the pain, and the nausea. My ears rang, my head hurt, my back ached—and I was stunned. I was absolutely in shock that COVID-19 wasn’t just an illness that would happen to someone older or someone with a compromised immune system. It was happening to me.
Prior to this illness, I did not have any real basis for understanding sustained physical suffering. That the body can so completely give out, collapse, go into extreme physical distress for weeks and longer, sure. I already knew that. But I knew it in the same way that you know that there are earthquakes in California: it’s theoretical until you feel the ground drop out from beneath your feet and you’re left scrambling for cover on a sidewalk turned liquid. Physical suffering—sustained, torturous—is only theoretical too, until it’s your body lying in that bed, your skin searing, your bones aching, your stomach rebelling.
The nurses and nurses’ aides, who were so supportive and kind, told me with the very best intentions to “fight.” Fight the illness. But I was so tired, so very, very tired. I couldn’t understand “fighting” or “battle.” What I understood was only now. I only had room for Now:
Breathe in. Notice: burning, burning skin, body a furnace blasting.
Breathe out. Notice: pain. Pain. Pain. Bones aching.
Breathe in. Notice: nausea. Stomach rebelling, rebelling, nausea ugh.
Breathe out. Notice: I’m lying on this bed, this bed that nicely supports my legs. And the sun is shining in the window and I suddenly see, underneath my suffering is
A river running through me, a river of certainty, something deep within that knows the path, knows how to heal, is already healing, moving towards wholeness, and I don’t have to do anything but—let go. Don’t fight. Surrender. Yes the fever yes the breath yes the pain yes the nausea, just be. Be with. Be with all of it. Don’t try to escape. There’s no energy to escape. So stay.
Accept. Be. Be With.
And the river, the Chi Spirit Life Force will do the rest. I cannot push a river. I cannot, with my own small body, pull a river. So
Accept, knowing that all is well, that even death is just another doorway. And even in death, the river still holds me. Just accept what is.
And the river runs pure and clean, the river runs pure, the river runs clean, the river holds my life and preserves my life and all is well. All is truly good and fine. Allow.
This is why, lying in that hospital bed, I was stunned, but not (consciously) afraid. I felt my life force, that irresistible river, and I knew I wasn’t going to die.
And I didn’t.
I have been marveling at the love and care I got while I was sick and during my recovery. First, I am grateful to First Unitarian Congregational Society in Brooklyn, my church, for the food deliveries, calls, emails, and prayers. Over the past weeks, I’ve also gotten supportive phone calls, text messages, and Facebook responses from friends and family. There have been prayers for my healing, prayer circles of every description, prayers even from people I didn’t know, praying to a God I don’t believe in. Yet I appreciate every single one of them. I believe they all helped knit me back together.
I don’t breathe in love like that very often. As a writer, I’m a bit of an introvert. Further, earlier traumas from my life as a lesbian make me want to isolate, rather than connect, at times. But my COVID experiences reminded me that we all want to share love and kindness and care with each other. These have been lavished on me. It’s amazing and beautiful. It lifts me up and helps me heal.
My recovery has been slow—glacially slow. For three months after my hospitalization, my body was a foreign country of weakness and fatigue and an itchy full-body rash. Today, thankfully, only some respiratory problems remain.
I am overwhelmingly grateful to be alive. But I am also sharply, painfully aware that my race, and the fact that I had good insurance at the time I got sick, probably contributed to my survival. My friends of color have related stories of the different treatment their family members received, and it’s simply enraging. I know how hard it was just to live through this illness, but to have to live through it and racism? It’s unthinkable.
We have a long way to go. Yet every day we wake up breathing is another day to work for the world where everyone gets the love and care that they deserve and that I was lucky enough to get.
May that world come soon.