December 14, 2020

Sheltering at Home

This story by Laurie Lewis is a finalist in the 2020 non-fiction writing competition, Alone in the Time of Covid-19

Perhaps – probably – I am fortunate to be, mostly, a loner. I am used to being alone and am more or less comfortable with that. But these few days have been bewildering. Assuming that I can stay healthy, I will turn ninety this summer.

About a week ago, in early March, I returned to Canada from my usual winter in Mexico. I left Oaxaca before any local Covid-19 outbreak, so I felt reasonably secure about my health. But I tried to avoid crowds as I travelled through three international airports to get home. Those airports were remarkable open, already saturated with empty fright-filled air.

One of my daughters met me at the Kingston airport, transported me home, fed me roast chicken and veggies with a glass of wine, and settled me into my big cozy bed. I took my poor dehydrated body into something resembling a sleep state. She stayed overnight on the fold-out couch and when I woke at about six she provided me with a cup of tea, bedside, before she left to go back to work. I was astounded by her efficiency, and by her willingness to put herself into the lock-down of isolation at her home some kilometers away.

I was also astounded when I looked in the mirror that morning. … My hair, thin and white, was standing up on end, electrified. Clearly, the dryness of the air in Mexico had parched me thoroughly, both inside and out, and my body needed help. Anyone would have laughed to see me, my hair standing on end as if I had been terrified by the sight of my own face. I no longer look like an aged Canadian female, the classic little old lady.  I look like some kind of zombie-creature, spiky white hair bristling from my head, my face a sandy desert of deep pathways and valleys.

That was Tuesday, my first full day at home. I posted a sign on my apartment door: I will be in “self-isolation” for 14 days, of which this is day 1 2 3 4 .. etc. Please leave packages in front of the door. I included a phone number. Every morning I opened the door and circled the appropriate number. I wrote a note to myself as a reminder. I am remarkably efficient, I think. I put the note in the kitchen, near the teapot, to remind myself of  progress of this isolation period. I began to hydrate myself, drinking water, water, water. Parched, it seemed, and disoriented. Efficient. I was efficient, somehow, then.

I don’t know what happened to Wednesday. Perhaps there wasn’t one this week. On Thursday afternoon I sat on my seventh floor balcony in my cozy down jacket, bundled up against the weather for ten minutes. I drank tea and watched the city of Kingston shut down as I sat there. Four young people in shorts & T-shirts pranced at the traffic light at the corner at Johnson and Ontario, not yet practicing “social distancing”. The last sign of a carefree life. I hope they aren’t going to visit their parents this weekend.

Friday: I have been home for three days (I think). I need to focus somehow, and give myself a lift. So I have ordered some food delivered, planning for myself a “formal Friday”. I will dress-up for my solo dinner ... long black skirt, fitted black turtle neck because I am still cold, a bright satin vest, sparkly earrings. I’ll put on some makeup and try to calm my frizzy hair. I will have a glass of wine, and have a nice meal delivered from a local restaurant.

I put the radio on to catch up with the world as I “tart myself up”, as my mother used to call it. CBC says it’s the news for Saturday. How can it be Saturday? Isn’t it Friday? What did I do yesterday? What happened to yesterday? It’s a surreal moment. I go to the computer to look at my calendar. Yes, my computer tells me it’s Saturday, and I have to believe that. MacBook never lies. It seems that all along I have been a day behind! I try to figure it out, try to re-orient my brain: I arrived home on Monday night, but it seems that in my mind I called the next day, my first day at home, “Monday”.  The three days of travel muddled my sense of time. I can see that now. I have been a day behind all the time. I start to number the days instead of naming them.

The idea of a Wine-and-Cheese telephone date occurred to me along about day 7, when I had been alone here for a week. I set up an appointment with a friend, to chat on the phone, each of us with a little platter of cocktail nibbles and a glass of wine. I really need a break from this aloneness. I need to be with another person. The visit worked very well, and I felt less isolated. So I did it again on day 8, with another friend. Oh, how great it was, just to visit, just to chat, each of us in a comfortable chair in our own home. And it gave me a way to begin catching up on what has been happening in Kingston while I was away all winter, walking calmly through the warm streets of Mexico.

I am still rather bewildered by time, by these days of being isolated in my apartment. Oh, I look forward to my first walk down Ontario Street to the farmers market. Is the market still there? Will there be a market in this time of social distance, that new phrase so alienating. More distant than social.

I think this is Day 8. A big day, full of good things. Oscar from our local bookstore delivered some books I had ordered from Mexico over the past couple of months. I now have really fine reading to look forward to, including Hilary Mantel’s final Cromwell volume, and that one about the brain of an octopus. Thank you, Oscar!

My second daughter made the trip from Westport. Was that yesterday? She delivered several bags of groceries from a list I sent last week. But, of course I can’t open the door because I am still in isolation, so we talked through it for a bit, our voices muffled by the wooden barrier. Then I waited for her to go down the hall to the elevator before I opened the door and lifted into my apartment three or four large bags of groceries. I swabbed everything down with my hand-sanitizer – all those cans and boxes – stashed all the food away, and swabbed the counter down. We are all learning new survival skills. I now have fruit juice and milk and olive oil, some kitchen soap and cleaners, an assortment of salads, and a newly-roasted chicken.

I have lost count of the days, but am now capable of focusing on the actual date. It is, my computer tells me, Wednesday April 1. I saw the sun rise this morning at about six. I made some tea, put on a warm jacket, and dashed out onto my balcony, where I huddled and froze for a few minutes. The sun rose quickly out of my range, with my north-east facing balcony.

I look toward City Hall, where I know Market Square is lurking, and I realize how much my life will change now, at this age. I can be confident that after all these days of isolation, I will not be passing along the virus, but once I am out there in the big wide world, I might catch it. And then what? As feisty as I am, I am in the “vulnerable” age group, turning ninety this summer.

I feel a need to tell someone, to tell my family, that after my long and complicated life I’ll be more-or-less happy to be out of it, whenever the time comes. But I’d rather not die in a hospital hallway, wheezing and coughing. And I have promised my daughters that I won’t leap off the balcony. My isolated life will go on, as we all try to figure out this new strange illness. But after a lifetime of experience at “coping”, I know I can do this, too. I look forward to the summer, and will try to stay healthy, try to stay alive.

By Laurie Lewis

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