Once upon a time there was a virus. Hundreds of thousands died and are still dying all over the world. The president wouldn’t speak its name. When asked about the virus, President Reagan’s press secretary said, “What’s that?”
“The gay plague,” a reporter said. The room broke out in laughter. Live. On TV.
That happened just after the CDC had renamed GRID (Gay-Related Immune Disease), AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). I was in 5th grade.
AIDS made coming out something worse than taboo— having sex could kill me.
After my first sexual experience, in my late 20’s, I asked my doctor for an HIV test. She refused. She told me that if the test showed up on my insurance claim, I could lose coverage. And I could lose control of my privacy.
She referred me to a clinic.
Two weeks later the test came back negative. I was so relieved that I cried.
On April 5th, 2020, I got my COVID-19 test result. Over the phone.
Was positive a death sentence?
After a long inhale, feeling the burn of the double pneumonia in my chest, I looked up at my husband.
“Positive,” I said. I felt weak as the one person in world who could still hug me folded me into his arms.
Three weeks before, Jim and I had returned from New Orleans with coughs. He had a low fever. I had some sinus stuff. I brushed it off as normal. Allergies won’t kill me.
Despite my inner bravado, I wasn’t sure.
What if it was COVID-19?
But it’s not. Right? I kept myself calm by meditating, breathing, and practicing Reiki. I avoided thinking.
We had been in New Orleans March 10-14. There was one known COVID-19 case in Louisiana when our flight landed. When we left, four days later, New Orleans had hundreds of cases.
On our last day, a man on the street pointed out a heron perched in an ancient oak between lanes of Esplanade Avenue. They were building a nest, he told us. We stopped and looked.
“Well, where are my manners,” he said, turning to us and clapping his hands together at his heart. “I’m Michael Ray.” He shook our hands.
“Why don’t you all come up on the porch and sit a spell. Come on!” He waved us through a gate and onto the front porch of one of Esplanade Avenue’s pillared mansions. His southern way, his two-name name, and his swish and lisp – I was glowing as I lowered myself into the decaying wicker chair on Michael Ray’s front porch. He poured us champagne and he told us stories.
Michael Ray told us about life in New Orleans in the 1980s, “My sister, Linda Faye, well she used to say that anybody could get murdered at any minute in New Orleans! And you know she was right!” Michael Ray said, “But oh muh-gawd, get caught kissin’ a man and you were dead, honey! Instantly! Didn’t matta who caught ya.” He sipped his champagne and then set the glass down on a wobbling rattan table. “Things have changed,” He closed his eyes for a moment.
“Let’s toast to that,” he said, scooping up his champagne flute just as the slow tilt of the rattan table tipped it over. The three of us clinked glasses.
On the second day of the trip, sitting in what we consider ‘our’ seats at our favorite bar, we noticed the mayor of New Orleans giving a press conference. Disco music kept thumping. There were no captions, but all the men around the bar were staring at their phones and reporting out. “They might close bars and restaurants!” Ridiculous! Everyone laughed. Soon after the mayor, President Trump’s was on the screens. The world was turning upside down.
I texted some friends back in Tucson. “They say they might quarantine travel—maybe we’ll be stranded in NOLA! JACKPOT!”
Changes seemed to be unfolding so fast that moments after sending, the text haunted me. No one texted “LOL” back or sent a funny Bitmoji. I felt guilt. Shame. People were dying. Did I really want to be stranded this far from home? What had felt distant, confusing and not-real was sinking in.
Getting into bed at our AirBnb, my sinuses were feeling full and both of us were coughing. I laid on my back and stared at the ceiling fan. The airlines had started sending emails about canceled flights. A fear was creeping up from deep inside of me. Fear of being trapped? Of suffering? Fear of death?
“Maybe we should go home early,” I said. Because I had to say something to keep the dark thing from rising any further.
I felt relieved when Jim poo-pooed the idea.
I used a relaxation meditation to get to sleep—to turn off an unwelcomed inner dialogue.
How sick will I get?
Don’t think about your sinuses or the cough. Its allergies. It’s normal. Just go to sleep.
What if it kills Jim?
What if I need to go to the hospital and no one will help me? What if I die?
Just go to sleep.
On Friday night, we sat on the bar’s balcony, looking up Bourbon toward downtown. It was a little emptier than usual. Some young men were fooling around in a dark corner of the balcony. A drunk guy was sitting on the sidewalk with his head on his knees. A brass band came by. A bridal shower second-line parade. People on stilts. Drag queens. I snapped the same pictures of Bourbon Street I’ve taken before – city lights, old buildings, people – normal things.
On Saturday, as we flew home, the police cleared the French Quarter and emptied Bourbon street, closing restaurants and bars. Unthinkable.
Reading about it the next morning, at home, we were stunned. That evening, Jim got a fever. He didn’t feel well. He went to bed early. Jim is sixty-seven. High risk category. From his breathing I could tell he was sleeping, but I was pacing the kitchen. Terrified. I texted our neighbor, Pat, a physician’s assistant.
“He went to bed with a fever. We’re kind of freaking out,” I wrote.
“Call your doctor right away tomorrow,” she wrote back.
I woke throughout the night and listened to him breathing. He was warm – too hot for me to wrap my arms around him. I did Reiki on us both until I slipped back into fitful sleep.
Jim hates nagging. But by 8:30 I had reminded him of Pat’s advice twice. When Jim called, the office manager took the message to the doctor. Later, she called back.
“Go to the ER and get tested,” she said.
Had I ever been to the emergency room before?
That was the first time we tried to get tested. We arrived at the hospital, parked the car, and looked at each other. It took a few back and forth questions for the person at the ER window to understand that we were not that sick, no severe symptoms, but our doctor had told us to come and get tested.
“So, you want to be admitted?” she said.
I wasn’t sure of the right answer. We thought you could walk in and get a test. It had not occurred to us that we needed to become full-fledged patients.
“Yes,” I said.
“Okay, but you probably won’t get a test.”
I got a bracelet with my name on it, and Jim and I were taken to different rooms. My heart was pounding. Everyone was kind, but no one was wearing masks or gloves. Nurses and doctors shook our hands. It took three hours to know for sure that regardless of what the President of the United States was saying, there were no tests in Tucson, Arizona. Not for people with flu symptoms and mild fevers. Jim and I both got flu tests (negative). Jim got a chest x-ray (clear). And we were sent home.
“The lungs are the thing,” a smiling nurse giving us our papers told us. “Keep an eye on your breathing. You guys are gonna be fine.” He patted my shoulder as we left.
It was confusing.
Outside, the sun was shining. Flowers blooming. I breathed. I felt as if I had not taken a breath the whole time; every breath was an influx of germs. We came home, baffled and not saying much. Soon after, I logged into a work meeting. It felt like the right thing to do. The normal thing. I told the group of colleagues that I spent four hours in a germ-filled, scary, mostly empty hospital for nothing.
A week later being sick finally knocked me down. Fever. Coughing. Sinus drainage. My ears plugged up. Aches and pains. Exhaustion. The works.
This is normal. I told myself. Allergies.
At the doctor’s office, I told him this was all normal, sinus infections in March. Normal.
“Not COVID, right?” the doctor said.
“No,” I said. I felt relieved as we laughed together, and he wrote a prescription for the sinus infection.
Five days later I went back, feeling worse.
I was convinced that it was the sinus infection. That was all. But, some symptoms were unusual. I mentioned that I had lost my sense of taste.
The doctor sat down. We stared at each other for a few seconds.
“That’s a COVID symptom,” he said.
“I know,” I said. A cold, dark thing was rising inside of me.
“I think you should have a chest x-ray?” He said.
“Oh,” I said. Chest X-ray. Why? I felt confused. I couldn’t form coherent questions. “What?”
“You have a very suspicious case,” he said. “I want you to go get an x-ray.”
“Okay,” I said.
Trudging out of his office, I felt afraid, but pushed that down. Why didn’t I ask why? I tested how it felt to breathe.
How sick will I get? Will it kill me?
Outside, in the sunshine, I called Jim. I wanted to distract myself.
“I’m going for a chest x-ray.”
“I know!” I wanted it to be nothing. I needed it to be nothing. “I’m sure it’s nothing.”
In less than an hour a tech outside the imaging center door screened me for fever, handed me a mask and then unlocked the door. The waiting room was empty and silent. It was creepy. As I sat down I imagined I was in a science fiction movie – apocalypse – or maybe post rapture – how many humans are left on earth? But the room stayed empty and quiet. And fiction started to feel too real. I worked to turn those thoughts off. I saw the radiologist, but no other people.
When I got in the car to drive home, I took off the mask, breathed. I looked around at the same trees, the same asphalt, the same sunshine and clouds. And it all felt strange. Different. Unfamiliar. Am I fit to drive? I thought for a moment. Of course you are! I shook my head and turned the key. The pressure of the clutch on my foot—the vibration of the engine—the warmth of steering wheel—familiar. I breathed. Relieved. Put the car in gear and drove myself home.
The doctor’s office called two days later. He wanted me to get a CT scan of my chest.
“Why?” I asked. “What did the doctor see in the x-ray?”
“Well, he didn’t say. Just that you should go right away.”
I felt a coldness flow across my body. Pneumonia? What if I have pneumonia? I was breathing fine. My oxygen levels had been good each time I was tested. But why else get a CT scan of my chest?
I had a hard time engaging my inner bravado. It could kill me, if it’s COVID-19.
I went to the same imaging center. It felt emptier. No one was waiting for me outside. I’d never had a CT Scan; I was both fascinated and terrified. I wore my own mask.
The doctor had the results in less than two hours and he called me.
“You have pneumonia in both lungs,” he told me. “I want you to go to ER and tell them you need to be tested for COVID-19.”
In normal times, I run two miles every morning. I ran every morning while we were in New Orleans. I had run after we got back until I got sick. Five days later I have pneumonia in both lungs.
My vision went blurry. My mind skipped and danced and ran ahead of me. I went out to the porch where Jim was in his hammock.
“The doctor says I should go to the ER.”
Jim put down his book and looked at me.
“I have pneumonia in both lungs.”
“Okay, we’re going right now.” Jim got up and went inside to wash his face and put on shoes.
Suddenly, it felt real. COVID-19. It’s killing people.
“No,” I said, following him to the bedroom. “I don’t want to go.”
“No. We’re already sure we have it, right? We were in New Orleans – we’re both coughing. What difference does it make to get a test?”
I was scared. I monitored the sensations of inhaling and exhaling. Do I feel something? Is that what pneumonia feels like?
“What if we go through it all and they don’t test us again?” I was pleading with Jim. “Let’s at least have lunch first.”
“Okay,” Jim said. “But then, we’re going. We’ll have peace of mind.”
This time, when we parked at the hospital, the sun was brilliant, and the flowers were beautiful. All of nature was bursting, joyful. And the hospital had changed, a tent in the parking lot, tape on the ground to show how far apart we should be from each other. As Jim and I walked into the tent, we could see it was empty of patients but a swarm of nurses in gloves and masks with plastic visors rising above their foreheads swept us inside. My double pneumonia got their attention and I was sent to a room in the ER before Jim.
“I was so scared,” Jim told me later.
Restrictions had just been put in place: If admitted, if put on a ventilator, if pronounced dead, Jim could not be with me.
I wasn’t scared. I felt healthy—I was buoyed by the fact that my oxygen levels were pristine.
Jim and I texted. Once admitted, he ended up in a nearby room.
We were not there long. I got a COVID-19 test. Jim got a chest x-ray (clear, again.), but despite his age and pressing the point that I was getting a test (“We LIVE together!” I heard him say), no COVID test.
The ER doctor told me that we likely were exposed in New Orleans – three weeks ago.
“You’re probably past the worst of it,” he said. The pneumonia, for example, a perfect COVID-19 formation in my lungs, was unlikely to get worse. Though it could linger for weeks.
We were to isolate for 14 days.
Released at sunset, we were home before dark.
Sunday morning Jim woke up with conjunctivitis. More evidence that he had COVID-19. That evening, I got the official word.
“How are you feeling? How are you doing?” the kind voice on the other end of the phone said after we talked a bit about the positive test results.
“I’m okay. My breathing seems to be fine. My husband also seems like he is doing okay.”
“I’m so glad. Please, monitor your symptoms, particularly your breathing, and if anything gets worse, come in to the ER right away.”
And that was the end of the call announcing that I was positive for COVID-19.
It’s good to know, I told myself as I hung up the phone. But my mind raced: How sick will I get? Will it kill me? Will it kill Jim?
Stop this, I thought, recalling the gentle voice on the phone.
“Positive,” I said aloud, after a long inhale.
Folded into Jim’s hug, I remembered a friend that I had not thought of in years. Back when I knew him, he would not get an HIV test. Talking about it paralyzed him with terror.
I don’t know if he tested positive. I don’t know if he is still alive.
That evening, I saw an Instagram post – a picture of a waiter from one of our favorite New Orleans’ restaurants—the caption reported that he had recovered from COVID-19.
Recovered! I exhaled in relief. I showed the Instagram post to Jim
I was the 400th confirmed COVID-19 case in Pima County, Arizona. In a county of nearly one million people, 400 is a low number. As Jim and I started telling people, we were met with shock.
I was the only person in my workplace – one of the largest employers in the county – to be a known case. I was the only person my family members knew. I was the only person Jim’s family members knew.
Twelve days into quarantine, which would have been 30 days since we left NOLA, Jim went out to get a prescription refilled. On his way home, he saw some neighbors talking in the street. Like any other day of our lives, Jim stopped to say hi to our neighbors.
In the course of the conversation he told them of my diagnosis, and that we assumed he had it too. Jim, being Jim, I’m sure he told it in an offhand, jovial way, expecting a laugh. The neighbors backed away from the car. Away from the open window.
“You have it?” one them said.
After he got home he read me an email from that neighbor.
“You have no right even to be leaving your house, let alone stopping and rolling down your window to talk—without a mask—coughing on all of us!”
It was painful. It brought things up for us, and it was hard to talk about. I kept thinking about AIDS. I didn’t say anything. Jim had known people—helped people—who died of AIDS.
Jim replied to the email and apologized to the neighbor, who is vulnerable because of a health condition. We determined to stay hidden, even though my Pima County Health Department case worker, Kiki, told us that our quarantine was officially over since we had not had fevers in seven days.
Still, it was clear that a sneeze or cough could freak people out.
Jim and I had mild cases. We recovered. COVID-19 positive was not a death sentence—for us. A friend in Spain, still in quarantine, but healthy said, “Wow! You’re a survivor!”
It felt awkward. We got lucky, I thought. But, hundreds of thousands have not survived. So, yes. I suppose I am a survivor.
I’m still trying to understand how I feel about that.
One night, I dreamt of a child. He was terrified. He vomited into a sink while sobbing and trying to talk, trying to tell me everything that was wrong. My heart was breaking. I loved this child so much. But nothing I did comforted him. I stroked his silky ponytail and felt useless while he heaved.
Awake, and unsettled by the dream, I felt aware that I was healing, becoming well enough to reflect on what was happening to me. I was positive for the virus. And inside me, a child Adam was terrified of the idea of being positive for a virus. Panic rose inside of me from an old place; would people be scared of me? Not want to hug me? I rolled over and wrapped my arm around Jim, who was sleeping, his breathing deep and even. His skin felt cool. Comforted, I pulled myself in against him. I felt my chest tighten. Pneumonia? Grief?
HIV positive never ends. When does COVID-19 positive end?