We’re pretty sure she got it from the bowling alley. My little sister, Josie, had joined the bowling team after the pandemic rendered basketball virtually unplayable. In retrospect, I can’t believe that my former high school sanctioned weekly bowling practices and meets when our city was crawling with the coronavirus. Bowling alleys, much like Chuck E. Cheese, sports bars and all those other places where people drink and eat greasy food and then touch all the gaming equipment, are the most fun petri dishes that I can think of. Bowling ball germs or otherwise, the doomed trip to urgent care came two days after Christmas, and five days after we waited three hours to get tested at a high school in downtown Rochester.
We waited in our car the entire morning, creeping closer to the entrance of the school with every car that exited the parking lot and flew by the line looping around the block. I was in the back seat, slumped over and dozing on the flip-down cup holder and drooling all over my blue medical mask, furious that my mom had dragged me out of bed to get tested. “What did you expect?” I asked when we got our results back. Three negatives between my mom, my sister and I. “What did you expect? I’ve seen no one since getting home. I’ve been nowhere, I’ve done nothing.” It’s almost funny looking back, the drama of our pre-holiday testing experience, the waiting, the overtired tears, the sharp words exchanged between the driver’s seat and the back seats — all for three ultimately useless test results. Thank goodness they were ultimately useless and not ultimately fatal, because they could’ve easily passed into that territory. As we all know, the virus has very different consequences for the elderly and those with vulnerable immune systems than it does for healthy teenagers. Floating on the misplaced confidence provided by those three negatives, we spent the Christmas holiday with my dad, and then my grandparents and my mom’s boyfriend. Except for my mom’s boyfriend who, by some deft maneuver or bulletproof immune system, evaded it, we all caught the virus.
When Josie, crying, got back into the car, I knew I was next on the list. After all, it was only a few days before when she, enjoying a Christmas cookie, spit directly into my right eye as my head was on her lap. When I woke up the morning after her test, my whole body screamed as I slid out of bed and I knew for sure. Masked up, my mom lasted a few days, dealing with my fever-dream ramblings and goading my sister and me into eating a handful of soda crackers, before catching it too. Then it was my grandparents, and then my dad, although he was as cryptic as usual about his symptoms. One morning, after I had passed the worst of it, I remember asking him how he was feeling. “Well Mads,” he said to me, “I usually feel like I could get up and run four miles, and I don’t feel like that today.” I’m still not sure if he was being sardonic or sincere, but I thought it was so funny.
To be fair, I never feel like I could get up and run four miles, even at the peak of personal health. But when I was sick with the coronavirus, I had trouble moving my limbs. It was bizarre. Somehow, my bones, muscles and skin all ached in unison, as if someone was playing a sadistic symphony with my nerve endings. My legs were swollen and pink, and they gave off so much heat for the first few days that my mom made me call the doctor twice in case there was any blood clotting. But I think anyone who has had the virus will tell you that the worst part isn’t the eclectic collection of uncomfortable symptoms. As much as it sucked, there were some okay parts. The high fever gave me an almost pleasant head buzz, and I slept more than I have in years. Since my sister and I contracted it at roughly the same time, we quarantined together, which meant we stayed under the covers all day like Charlie’s bedridden grandparents in “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” and rewatched the first few seasons of “Adventure Time.” I feel like I miss so much of her life while I’m at college, so I consider myself lucky, in a sick way, to have spent that extra quality time with my sister — even if she did pick up the virus from the bowling alley grime and pass it on to our entire family.
By far, the worst part of my experience was the ambiguity that comes with the coronavirus. My parents and my maternal grandparents had all contracted it, with a viral load large enough to inspire moderate symptoms in each. I come from tough stock. There was not a moment where I seriously feared one of my relatives would brush against death. But looking back, things could’ve gone differently. Losing a parent or a grandparent to the pandemic is horrifying and terribly sad, but it’s no longer surprising. We’re far beyond the point where a coronavirus-related death would be splashed across the front page of our local newspapers. This is a pandemic, which means that tragedies are no longer expressed in individual stories, but in numbers. I’m fortunate enough that the biggest concern when I’m sick is, how is this going to inconvenience me? Will I be able to get my homework done? Will I be able to enjoy my lunch? Will I have enough energy to take my daily walk? For better or worse, those were the biggest questions I faced when we all were sick this winter. I didn’t think I needed to face the bigger, scarier questions of mortality. Thankfully, I was right. But when I think back, I know that my refusal to face them doesn’t mean they weren’t there, or that they weren’t very much relevant. I just got lucky this time and, like the rest of us, I hope I never have to acknowledge the presence of those questions again.
Madelaine Hastings is a sophomore majoring in cross-cultural communications and is assistant Opinions editor.