Day after day of solitude leads the mind in strange directions. As I prepared for bed the other night, it struck me that a public health class might benefit from studying me as a model of vulnerability to the new coronavirus.
I can check off all the boxes: I’m 65 years old. I have an underlying medical condition — more than one, in fact. My immune system is compromised by the anti-rejection drugs I’ve taken every day since undergoing a liver transplant in 1998.
And as a bonus, I am weakened by two unrelated infections — one viral, one bacterial, both nasty — that latched onto me just as the coronavirus was shifting from one concern among many to an all-consuming, globe-spanning obsession. I was hospitalized for five days in early March and I’m now taking antibiotics at home. I’m better but still far from well.
You know those fishing lures that mimic the movement of injured baitfish? That’s me, except the infirmity is real. The shark stalking me is an incomprehensibly tiny particle seeking a path into one of the cells in my body, where it can get to work replicating itself and making me sick.
As I struggled to figure out just how scared I should be over the past week or so, I was bemused by the Boomer vs. Millennial coronavirus smackdown. Members of my generation, it was alleged, were disregarding advice to stay away from other people, endangering others with their reckless behavior. The evidence for this seemed mostly anecdotal, and the argument lost much of its relevance as activities like eating in restaurants or attending church services became unavailable or unlawful across much of the country.
I can’t speak for a whole generation, but this Boomer has been behaving himself.
As a retired widower who lives alone, I’ve been more isolated for the past two weeks than at any time in my life. I stopped going to restaurants even before the city closed them. Friends or relatives deliver my groceries. I emerge a few times a day to walk the dog, and I keep my distance from anyone I see. I wash my hands obsessively. I take my temperature (normal so far) every evening.
I have a handful of regular visitors, close friends and immediate family. They are cautious in their daily routines; when they’re here, we refrain from touching, and there’s a flurry of disinfecting as they arrive and depart. The smell of rubbing alcohol lingers.
This week, after reading this terrifying article, I decided that even these precautions might not be enough. For the time being, I will meet my visitors outdoors on my back patio, where we can talk to one another from a safe distance without the risk of touching any common surfaces.
The survival instinct is a powerful motivator. Of course I want to do my bit to “flatten the curve,” to keep this illness from overwhelming our medical system. But I also want to stick around long enough to do the things I planned for a retirement that began just five months ago: travel, write, read, exercise, learn new stuff, spend time with interesting people.
Adding COVID-19, the illness caused by this virus, to the list of burdens my body is already facing would lead to . . . well, I can’t be sure. But it wouldn’t be good. This pathogen is new and fraught with uncertainty. Would the drugs I’m taking for my other infections hinder my recovery from COVID-19? If I got sicker, would any hospital beds be available? Would the highly qualified specialists who cared for me during my recent hospitalization all be occupied with the coronavirus crisis? This is not just panicked speculation; these issues have arisen in other countries where the virus took hold sooner.
I’m pretty good at being by myself. One day bleeds into the next. A routine of sorts sets in. With a steady supply of books, a keyboard to type on, a couple of streaming services and a reliable broadband connection, I can churn through many hours in relative contentment.
But these amusements are not enough. I need human connection, and I savor the time I spend with my visitors, even with this odd new protocol.
I’ve never been much for talking on the phone, perhaps because my years as a newspaper reporter required so much use of this instrument. But this aversion vanishes in the absence of alternatives. I’ve spent more time on personal phone calls in the past few days than I had in the previous year. I’ve had 20- to 30-minute chats with half a dozen friends, and I’m looking forward to more conversations soon. I have limited experience with the various video chat platforms — I have never used the FaceTime feature on my iPhone, believe it or not — but I expect that to change soon.
With so much time on my hands, it’s all too easy to immerse myself in news and social media, which all seems to focus on the same topic. I’m trying to limit myself to a couple of hours a day for my own sanity. I know what I need to know to protect myself and do my bit to avoid contributing to the broader problem. Everything beyond that is just emotional self-abuse.
The other danger, or course, lies inside my own head. I’ve been sleeping pretty well most nights, but in certain moments, worries about matters utterly beyond my control become insistent. Inevitably, two questions muscle their way to the front of the line: How long can I live like this? How long will I have to?
A good strategy is to count my blessings. I have a steady income that isn’t dependent on getting to a job every day. My retirement nest egg is taking a beating, but for now these losses are theoretical. I have a home with all the creature comforts; I’m blessed with friends and family who care about me. My health, while fragile, is OK, at least today and probably tomorrow.
Humans adapt. Our expectations change with circumstances. To a prisoner in solitary confinement, a window with a view of the sky is precious. On a good day, a bird might alight on the sill.
I can open my front door right now and hear a riot of birdsong. Later I can walk the dog and smile and speak to a passing neighbor — from a distance. Perhaps I’ll share laugh on the phone with a friend after lunch. Before bed I can lose myself in a good book, a lifelong pleasure.
It’s enough. It has to be.