PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA—In the summer of 2019, after I gave birth to my son, I flunked the postpartum depression screener. A multiple-choice questionnaire, all new mothers were required to fill it out before leaving the hospital: In the past seven days, have you felt scared? Panicky? Had difficulty sleeping?
I was a first-time mom past her due date. In Philadelphia, it was 111º F. Yes, yes, and yes.
Five months later, in January, I sat on the couch holding my son and tried to convince myself I was just being paranoid. Coronavirus had leveled China’s Hubei Province, had even landed in the US, but Washington state was far away. Maybe, I thought, they’d be able to contain it.
I texted my friend, a respiratory therapist, hoping she’d talk me down. “I don’t think you’re being paranoid,” she said. “You’re right to be concerned.” When, not if, it gets to the East Coast, she said, she would stop going out in public and find a way to avoid taking the bus to work. This was not what I wanted to hear.
Was it the pediatric nurse who coughed violently through the administration of my son’s flu shot? My student, who’d been relegated to quarantine after a roommate returned from Seattle with odd, flu-like symptoms?
It started as a tickle in my throat, then a warm, uncomfortable pressure spreading through my chest. Allergies, I thought, but I wasn’t congested. Then the cough—forceful but disconcertingly dry. I was feverish, my face tingled.
Mother to an infant, I was no stranger to tired, but this was a fatigue I couldn’t fend off. For the first time, I actually napped when the baby napped. I taught my writing course online and afterward felt as if I had been bludgeoned. In the past seven days, have you felt as if things are getting on top of you?
I’d grown up with asthma and knew the feeling of constriction. But this was different—it was not a tightness in the bronchial tubes but in the lungs themselves, pain and pressure razing up my sides beneath my ribs. My inhaler didn’t help. I’d come up short of breath reading a storybook to the baby.
This was the second week of March. On Monday, when I called the doctor, they were still asking whether I had been to Wuhan. Four days later, Philadelphia had announced its school closures and the doctor sent me to urgent care for a chest X-ray.
The medical staff ushered me into a mask, tested me for the flu, and closed me in an exam room for an hour. The mask made it harder to breathe and I worried I would pass out. They gave me an X-ray, swabbed me for Covid-19 and a panel of other respiratory diseases. They handed me a note to excuse me from work and told me to self-isolate, then sent me out the back door.
Over the next ten days, I’d feel better, then worse again. I’d breathe easily then feel woozy and have to lie on the floor. I considered going to the hospital, but didn’t want to leave the baby. Difficulty sleeping? In the middle of one night, awake and struggling to breathe, I wrote an emergency will.
Finally, when my fever had broken and I could walk around the house without running out of air, my husband’s boss called to lay him off. My husband pleaded that they allow him to work unpaid if he could just keep his health benefits. She was sorry, his boss said, but the position had been eliminated. Have you been so unhappy that you have been crying?
My test results returned fifteen days later. I was negative for the flu and the other respiratory infections. My Covid-19 results read, “CANCELED—deterioration occurred during specimen handling.” The doctor called and apologized, said it was not the first time the lab had botched the test. Given my symptoms, she thought I’d had the virus. Maybe, when one was available, I could get an antibody test.
Maybe, I thought, studying my husband warily for signs of illness. We discussed whether we could purchase insurance on the Obamacare marketplace, debated two plans, each more costly in monthly premiums than our mortgage payment.
Rainy days in isolation spent navigating the unemployment and IRS stimulus systems are claustrophobic, the future uncertain. But in April, our son cut his top two teeth, learned to army-crawl backward around the house and pull himself to his feet, and grins wildly whenever he hears Creedence Clearwater Revival or Lizzo. In the past seven days, have you been able to laugh? Here in quarantine, in our little row-house, our precarious world is also opening.
Sara Nović is the author of the novel Girl at War (2015), which won an American Library Association Alex Award, was an LA Times Book Prize finalist, and is available in thirteen more languages, and the nonfiction project America is Immigrants (2019). She holds an MFA from Columbia University, where she studied fiction and literary translation, and lives in Philadelphia. (May 2020)