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Community COVID-19 Stories ➔ COVID-19 Story, Cassandra Oeverman

I am not a runner. But three days ago, on a brilliantly crisp October Saturday, I dug out my cross-trainers. I made good time from my centennial home on the edge of Grand Rapids’ Midtown and Heritage Hill neighborhoods, across the blue Bridge over the river, and to the GR Public Museum and back. A total of 4 miles, including hills. I was relieved to notice it felt easy. Satisfied with my physical condition, I then I spent a couple hours alone in my yard working. Rhythmically raking the butternut orange maple leaves from our tiny, urban front yard and piling them in the brown paper compost bags. Squashing the leaves down with a satisfying scrunch, so I can fit more in each bag. The new grass I had planted under the leaves just beginning to sprout, despite the cool autumn weather. The physical work soothing my nagging preoccupation with the fact that I was merely waiting to get sick. Running had been my way to prove to myself that the slight congestion in my chest was not, in fact, COVID.

I hadn’t seen my husband Jonathan since the previous Wednesday, when he commented that he felt like he was coming down with a sinus infection. Well, I’d seen him on FaceTime. But that was about it. He was in the basement. He had chosen to self- quarantine, curling his 6’4” frame onto the hand-me-down loveseat in the small sitting area.

I was getting into the habit of calling down to him three times a day, that I had left him a plate of food at the top of the steps. Pasta with meatballs and homemade sauce from the last of the garden tomatoes. Macaroni and cheese that our 17-year old daughter Maya made for him for lunch. Vegetable quesadillas from the Hello Fresh meal kit that arrived on our doorstep that week. Lots of water. The occasional beer.

The basement is the one area in our 1910 Victorian that we are yet to fully renovate. Jonathan planned to stay there just until he felt better. It is not a nice basement. The basement bathroom is so bad, that when the other bathrooms were under construction, I would walk to the coffee shop on the corner rather than use it. I do not know how he is doing this. I think to myself, “this is love.”

Unfortunately, Jonathan kept feeling worse. By Thursday, he was running a fever, and had called in sick to work. He decided it was time to submit himself to a COVID test. Just to rule that out. I asked him to wear a mask and gloves to drive in my car. Alone. He did it. This is love. By Friday evening, still quarantining and still awaiting test results, we received a call from my brother-in-law. His wife, Kelsie, had tested positive for COVID. We’d seen Kelsie the previous Sunday, at a family dinner at my in-laws.

Jonathan was positive.

I text this news to some close friends. They ask me how he is doing, speech bubbles popping up on my phone.
“Does he sleep a lot?”
Well, I don’t exactly know. I can tell it’s quiet down there, but of course I can’t see him. I try not to text, call or FaceTime him much because I don’t want to disturb him if he is asleep. I hear him coughing. I think to myself “well, at least it’s not a bad cough.” I don’t even feel like leaving my house. If he gets sicker, I think I should be home.

One evening, sitting alone on the sofa reading by myself after the kids had gone to their rooms for the evening, I hear Jon laughing hard, alone in the basement. I realize he is on his cell phone with his friend Chris. I can tell its Chris by the speed of the conversation, the quick cadence back and forth, and all the laughing. The words are too muffled to hear, but his laugh makes me smile. Jon is almost in hysterics laughing, no doubt at something funny Chris has said. This too is love. I’m grinning to myself, alone on the blue sectional sofa with the chaise lounge. Room enough to seat all four of us and some friends. Listening to my husband happily cackling away into his phone in our dank basement.

It was now the following Tuesday, late evening. Three days after my 4-mile run. I sat alone on our front porch swing, a round little private nest, hanging in a nook out of view from my neighbor’s homes. Earlier that day I had received my COVID test results: Positive.

Despite all our best efforts.

Despite being the only family that skipped our grandfather’s funeral visitation last March. Despite being the only family to wear masks to his funeral service in late August, while my teenagers endured stares and comments from family members, most of them living in rural communities or brand sparkly new homes in brand new neighborhoods, springing up from former farmland on the outskirts of Grand Rapids.

“I didn’t know who you were in those masks.” Hahaha.

Jonathan stayed in the basement for a total of 6 days. He came out earlier than we had planned, because I was positive too, and the kids no doubt had already been exposed anyway. I was in the kitchen trying to put together lunch for him and the kids, shortly after my positive test results, when I heard him come up the stairs. He hugged me from behind in a big bear hug, enveloping me in his arms. As a tall woman, I’ve always loved his size. Both sick, we laughed as he exclaimed “How I’ve missed human contact!”

It was now late into the evening of my first night knowing I had coronavirus. Sitting on my beloved front porch, the chilly October air felt just lighter and easier to breathe than the recycled, furnace-heated air in my house. I concentrated on each breath. Slow In. Slow Out. Slow In. Slow Out.

Later, Jonathan would describe this shortness of breath as “a mechanical issue with the lungs.” We both agreed that the shortness of breath didn’t seem to come from the sensation of being so congested, despite feeling like I was amid the worst sinus infection of my life.

It felt as if my lungs had forgotten how to drink the air.

While I was able to fully fill my lungs, the oxygen was no longer being processed in the same way. I could feel my body speeding up my breath rate involuntarily. My lungs were now driving my body, instead of the usual other way around. I think of all the times I have heard others complain about wearing a mask, “But I can’t breathe with the mask on.” Well, try breathing when you have the coronavirus.

Slow In. Slow Out. Slow in. Slow Out. I tried to hold onto each breath just a little longer than I wanted. Picturing my own alveoli from college biology classes. Those tiny air sacs, shaped like raspberries; the workhorses of the respiratory system. Willing my lungs to drink. It. All. In. Slow In. Slow Out. A hospital is mere minutes away, if I really think I am getting in trouble. I don’t think I will need it.

I am now face to face in my own personal battle with the Thing. The Thing that has caused so much destruction and controversy and upheaval worldwide. Right now. In my body. The coronavirus.

The disconcerting thought is that I don’t know where I’ll find the “bottom” of this breathless sensation. Is this as bad as it gets? Or in a few hours, will I desperately miss when I could breathe as well as I can in this very moment? Will I be breathing normally in a few hours? Or will I remember this current ability to breathe like I remember the Ellis Island ferry on my trip to New York City just a year ago. The ferry steadily steaming away in the opposite direction, with Ellis island getting smaller and smaller in my periphery.

The virus doesn’t discriminate. It’s just as neutral as can be. The Thing does not care that I wore the mask in late August and others didn’t. It doesn’t care that my kids haven’t been to school since March, while my sister-in-law’s kids go to a school that has decided to be “mask optional.” The virus has no opinion about a friend that said on Facebook page that she was proud to go into a gas station without a mask, because of “her rights.”

The coronavirus is just a machine. The machine does what it is designed to do without thought or care. It is incognizant of self. If it could talk, it would not say “I want to cancel all your plans for 14 days.” It would not say “I want to make it hard to breathe.” Or “I want to steal your sense of taste and smell.” It would just say “I make it hard to breath” and “I steal your sense of taste and smell.”

It’s our humanity that has made our response to the coronavirus political and controversial. The virus itself is a neutral as can be. The virus isn’t happy when it starts or stops replicating. It just is.

It’s now been a week from last Saturday’s run. It’s another sunny, brilliant Michigan October day. The leaves are falling like giant flakes of snow on my tiny front lawn. I can hear the wind rustling through the remaining leaves. I can’t see the sprouts of new grass anymore, because the butternut-squash-colored leaves are thick as January snow, despite raking it all up a week ago.
My car is also covered with yellow maple leaves, littering the dashboard like monochromatic confetti. I wonder if my neighbors have concluded that the virus is in our home? I normally drive about 500 miles a week for work. But this week, my car has only left it’s on-street parking spot twice in the entire week. Once to get myself tested. Once to get my 2 children tested.
It’s been a week like none other. I had to tell all the people I saw in the days prior to my positive test that I was now sick. This was difficult. The people I saw in the last week, of course, are my dear friends and family members. I saw their anxious questions, in the form of text messages, jump across the screen of my iPhone.
“Did you by chance wear gloves when we walked our dogs together last week?”
Friends also texting me Door Dash gift certificates for dinner delivery from one of the many excellent restaurants in our eclectic neighborhood. Dropping of groceries, medicine, paper towels, toilet paper on our front porch. Texting to ask how we are doing. This is love.
They are also patients that were in my care. Due to the nature of my work, I also know each of my patient’s families, to some extent. I received an email that my recent patients are now quarantining. All therapies cancelled or moved to telehealth for the entire week. Because of the virus. My virus. Because my patients and their dear families saw me.
Fortunately, as far as I know, each of them has tested negative. Thank you, PPE, contact precautions, and social distancing. And maybe luck? The hand of providence. I don’t know.
My mom and I ate lunch together at a local restaurant last week. Prior to that, we hadn’t seen each other or caught up in a long time. I had missed her. I have a crystal clear memory of dipping my fork into my mom’s soup last week. It was a fork and not a spoon. I had ordered a sandwich, and they didn’t give me a spoon. I was curious how that butternut squash soup was seasoned. Sweet, or savory? Sweet. Cinnamon. Nutmeg. Before I dipped the fork in the soup, I was sure I hadn’t used that fork to eat my sandwich. I had used my hands. I was sure of it. Right?
My mom tests negative.
It seems odd that the restaurants are open, but my kid’s schools are not. Then I wonder if I have the right to have an opinion on this, because I do love going out to eat. I really do.
For the past week, I have been grateful that my kids have been doing online school since March. At 14 and 17, they are old enough and responsible enough to be mostly independent with schoolwork. Their school week continued this past week uninterrupted. Same as it has been since March; all virtual. At least some stability for my kids.
I am grateful for any stability for my kids in this unpredictable world. I realized last Friday that the 2020 election would be over by the time I was out of quarantine. We could have a new president by the time I am out of quarantine. I will not be free to move about the world until this has been decided.
My breathing is better. For the most part, my lungs seem to have remembered how to drink the air. My breathing satiates. Mostly. I still have a raw, strange pain in the middle of my lungs when I take a deep breath. I certainly will not be running today. It’s going to take some time to recover my stamina. Jonathan and I joke that it is enough to climb 3 flights of stairs within my home multiple times a day. Goodness, why are there so many steps in this house? It never felt that way before!
I realized I still had absolutely no ability to smell when I went to do some laundry yesterday. There were all these random piles of laundry in the laundry room. Force of habit, I took a deep breath to see if I could smell the fabric softener on them, to indicate if that pile was fresh and clean, ready to be folded and put away, or if it still needed to be washed. But I smelled nothing. Absolutely nothing.
It is not that I am congested, like a regular cold. Someone has flipped a switch and I no longer have the ability to smell. At all. I asked my 14-year old son to smell the laundry for me.
“Clean or dirty, buddy?”
“I dunno.”
So, I had no idea what to wash again or what to fold and put away. I ended up just leaving the piles.
If this is temporary, that is one thing. But all at once it hits me. The statistics show a small portion of COVID-19 survivors never resume their sense of smell. What if I can never smell clean laundry again? Or fall? Or spring? The morning air after the first snow of the season. My favorite shampoo. That first cup of coffee brewing in the morning. The earthy scent of my beloved horse? The smell of fresh hay. Someday I hope to have grandchildren. Tiny newborn heads covered in that first newborn downy hair. Their “first fur.” Will I miss that smell too?
Obviously, living without a sense of smell (and of course, the accompanying loss of taste) is not the same as being profoundly blind or deaf. Yet this new loss bothers me significantly. Our sense of smell is our sense most connected to memories. For now, my God hopefully just for now, mine is completely gone.
November 15 2020
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Gift of Cassandra Oeverman

Cassandra Oeverman
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Grand Rapids