Black Belt Mind — Notes From the Front Lines of COVID-19

March 19th continued

Notifications ping on DH’s phone. Staff are upset that technicians are using the N95 masks when they’re not in direct contact with patients. A frenzy of texting ensues. Everyone is afraid of running out of equipment. DH gets it. “They’re scared,” he says.

March 20th

I’ve made big plans to bake regularly. I make challah dough with Mouche. Last time I baked challah, I ended up with what my kids refer to fondly as a “challah brick.” We re-start the yeast mixture twice. On our third try, I peer closely at the yeast pond, searching for bubbles. “Is it shimmering?” I ask DD. “I think so,” she answers.

The dough doesn’t rise. When DH comes home, I rage about my failed challah. Exhausted, he snaps at me. “Perspective,” he says. We put the challah in a warm oven. Several hours later, it rises slightly. DH braids and bakes it. It fills the house with a sweet, soothing smell.

Mouche has branched out from his current favourite, Curious George, and is watching Super Why! Now he’s obsessed with it. When we take walks, he asks me if I can find some “super letters.”

March 21rst

Impossible to get online grocery delivery. I grocery shop for a friend who’s been quarantined with her family. She opens her window to talk to me. We exchange news. I tell her DH and I have been arguing. “It’s the same for everyone,” she says. Shouting from the sidewalk, I feel as though I’m sharing my life with the entire street.

DH has a day off. It’s cold but sunny, so we go on a three-hour hike outside Toronto. It’s much snowier here than in the city. Toward the end of the hike, we hit an icy cliff. DH and I start passing Mouche back and forth to each other as we cling to the trees for support. At one point, DH, who’s got Mouche in a football hold, starts sliding down the slope. DS starts to cry and DD squeals. DH thrusts his foot out, hitting a tree and stopping his slide. Mouche giggles the rest of the way down.

Near the bottom of the cliff, a stranger offers me his hand. I’m so terrified of slipping that I take it, only to regret it moments later, since I’ll have to wash my glove. Once we’re all safely down the cliff, DH smiles. “Now didn’t that just put COVID-19 out of your mind for a few minutes?”

At DH’s work, more discussions about masks. Many physicians believe that the N95 masks should be used only for high-risk procedures; others disagree. “What will you do if you run out of masks?” I ask him. “I won’t do the procedure,” he says. “And the patient will die.”

March 23rd

In Italy, 14 doctors have died. I ask DH: “Did they take safety measures?” “I have no idea,” he says. Not for the first time, I quiz DH on his own practices. He doesn’t want to be a hero, and he won’t work if he doesn’t feel safe. I don’t know whether I want him to be a hero or not. It doesn’t seem fair to ask health care workers to make these kinds of choices.

For the first time, someone we know  – the father-in-law of another emergency doctor – dies of COVID-19. Both his son-in-law and his daughter are physicians, so he was well-connected. He died anyway.

March 26th

Upon reading one of my husband’s charts, a colleague stumbles on what she mistakes for DH’s positive COVID-19 results. She burst into tears, then realizes that the chart isn’t my husband’s, but rather belongs to a patient who has been seen by him.

One of my colleagues at the Toronto Academy of Karate runs an online class. I decide that my injured hip has had enough rest. After dinner, I don my Gi (karate uniform). Immediately I’m bathed in what feels like an elemental joy. Run on Zoom, the class is short – only 30 minutes – but I train enthusiastically, and by the end I feel better than I have in days.

March 27

Unable to sell his wares to shuttered restaurants, a food distributor brings 200 shucked oysters to DH’s emergency room and distributes them to the entire staff. The staff struggle to find the time and the means to eat them. Prohibited from eating (and drinking) in the emergency department, they are forced to go to their small staff room, where they must practice social distancing. A food enthusiast, DH manages to go to the staff room and eat a dozen oysters – he finds them delicious.

An email is sent around to DH and his colleagues: A legal firm is offering free wills for front line health care workers. The letterhead is attached to the email. Its subject line actually reads: “Free wills for front line health care workers.” DH shows me the email and we both start laughing maniacally, for an offer that is as macabre as it is generous.



Black Belt Mind or Notes From the Front Lines of COVID-19


March 17th

I sleep poorly. At 6:30, I give myself a talking-to. I can’t train due to my injury, but I can train my mind. I decide to create some structure for myself and my kids. I draw up a list of rules that include daily exercise, schoolwork (my son has started online school,) outdoor time, piano practice, and chores. Evenings will be filled with board games and movies. In an effort to create opportunity (I still have the drive to think about opportunity, and I wonder how long this state will last). Borrowing a friend’s idea, I vow to screen classic films for my older kids.

I try to do yoga with my four-year-old, but he sits on my head when I get into downward dog. I allow him to watch a show so that I can practice alone. Thinking of expanding his horizons, I try to persuade him to watch something other than Curious George, his current favourite. No dice. When I try to turn on a new show, he screams.

I choose pseudonyms for all my children. My daughter will be DD, my son DS. My littlest one will go by his nickname, Mouche, the French word for fly. The name comes from a song we used to sing him when he was a baby: Mouche Mouchelette. When I was a kid, my favourite version was sung by Anne Sylvestre.

Yesterday two stores in my neighbourhood ran out of bread. I wanted to bake some but I’d left the yeast at home (as our house is under renovation, we’re living in a rented apartment). I texted a friend who replied: “we’re all going to become homesteaders during this pandemic.” At 8 a.m. the following morning, I ask my middle son to watch Mouche for the first time while I leave the house to shop. I walk into an empty Cobbs, which fills after a few minutes. We scatter about the store, trying to keep a metre between us in the tight space. I buy a loaf, leave, then retrace my steps and buy another for a friend.

I come home, only to have DH text me that Ford has declared a state of emergency. “If you can get groceries now, that would be great.” I leave Mouche with his brother again, shop, return with enough groceries for one week.

In the afternoon DD plays with Mouche so that I can write. I take my journal outside, hoping to find some quiet. People walk about. Most move out of the way as I approach them. Cafés are still open, although the barista at my local café tells me that they will soon close indefinitely. I find a secluded spot near a technical school and settle myself on a bench with my notebook. On a wide slab of pavement at my feet, small children circle on scooters. I try to focus. After a while, it starts to rain, large drops smudging my ink. It’s close to 0 degrees and my hands feel frozen. I give up and walk home.

We Facetime DH. He appears on the screen in his a mask and plastic visor. “Why are you wearing a mask?” asks Mouche. “So I don’t get sick.” I ask him how things are at work. “The calm before the storm,” he replies.

March 18th

I take Mouche to the playground. We wash our hands regularly so at this point I figure it’s okay (a few days later I will change my mind about the safety of playgrounds, but for now I still think playgrounds are safe, especially if they’re not busy.) I sit and watch him scoot around the park. Mouche wants to socialize, and he sidles up to two older boys taking turns pushing each other on a tricycle. A boy puts a hand on Mouche’s scooter, and I spring up from my seat. “I’m sorry, boys, but we can’t share with our friends today.” They shuffle their feet and stare at me. “Because of the virus,” I say. Feeling like a terribly mean person, I pull out some alcohol wipes and wipe down the handles.

DH comes home from work and makes dinner, then leaves for a second shift at another hospital. I kiss him goodbye. We haven’t had any intimate moments for days – usually we’re so exhausted we can barely speak to each other.

March 19th

DH comes home sometime in the middle of the night, then leaves again at 6:30 a.m. At breakfast Mouche and I Facetime him: this time DH has removed his mask, and it looks as though he’s speaking to us from a large closet, though it’s probably just a small staffroom.

I make pancakes. I figure if we’re going to be stuck at home, we might as well eat well. I’m grateful that both DH and I are decent cooks, and that we can rustle up a dish from practically any ingredients: the near-empty shelves at the supermarket don’t bother us – at least not yet. Last night I made Poulet Basquaise – a cheap dish of chicken legs, peppers, and a single tomato. When I explained to Mouche that the dish comes from the Basque region of France, he petulantly said: “but I don’t want to go to Poulet Basquaise.”

March 19th

No more playground.

Black Belt Mind or Notes From the Front Lines of COVID-19

March 10th

On what seems to be, in retrospect, my last normal evening, I meet a friend at a restaurant. Under dim lights, we eat noodles and drink white wine. My friend has a cold, and I’m surprised that she’s out. My husband (I’m going to borrow from maternity chat groups of yesteryear and call him DH, or Dear Husband) has already told me that COVID-19 can be asymptomatic – but most people don’t know it yet.

We discuss whether she should cancel her teenage son’s March break trip to the U.S. I want to tell her to cancel it, but I balk. For the first time – but not the last – I weigh the pros and cons of giving someone advice against the need to preserve someone’s right to autonomous decision-making. For two weeks after this moment, I will constantly revisit the ethics of speaking up versus remaining silent. As time passes, I speak up more frequently, even knowing that I’m alienating relatives and friends.

At the end of the evening, we jokingly refrain from hugging each other, blowing each other kisses instead. I take the subway for what will end up being the last time in several weeks – possibly several months.

March 12th

Another friend emails me to say that she’s starting to get anxious. In the days that follow, people reach out to ask DH his opinion on social isolation. People also commend him for his work. I feel a sense of pride, even while being anxious for his safety.

My daughter has a bad cold and we tell her she can’t see her friends until she’s symptom-free. She cries.

Schools close. Even before we get the official word, we parents at my son’s middle school start to make plans. Social isolation is still a foreign concept and we don’t know what’s permitted. How large can groups be? Is contact even allowed? I volunteer to host small groups of my son’s friends a couple times a week so that other parents can work. Friends create a roster of parents who have volunteered to provide childcare.

March 13th

Several weeks ago, I booked a shiatsu massage for a hip injury. As an athlete, I consider massage a regular and necessary part of my routine. I also adore massages. Now I send my shiatsu therapist a text confirming my appointment. “With kids off school, I’ll really need it,” I write, and add a smiley face. ☺

March 14th

My daughter has planned to visit one of her best friends who lives outside Toronto who’s celebrating her birthday. After much discussion around the meaning of social isolation, my husband and I decide that she can’t attend the party. I text the friend’s parent, letting them know that if the party remains small, we’ll allow my daughter to attend. There will be 10 girls; our daughter is not allowed to go.

DH and I are out driving, and by the time we return, our daughter’s friend has called her and given her the bad news. Devastated, she cries.

I think I can imagine the other parent’s perspective: the party is to be a bulwark in the face of what has been, for that family, a very difficult year. I feel terrible for them and for my daughter and keep trying to come up with solutions. I start a plot to call the other parents to ensure that everyone is healthy, in which case I could allow my daughter to attend – knowing that this plan is a dead end. For the sake of my daughter, I start to hope that the party will be cancelled.

March 15th

We’ve concluded that we can’t meet or see anyone at all. Responding to several inquiries from other parents, DH sends an email explaining what he thinks is the science behind the concept of social isolation. We can no longer share childcare with other parents. One by one, parents (including myself) take their names off the volunteer roster. My friend, a writer who, like me, has three children, texts “Fuuuuuuck. Can we day drink.”

For the rest of the day, we struggle to explain the concept to our children. “What about meeting outside, in the ravine?” we ask.

I turn to DH. “Is that okay?”

“With one metre apart, maybe.”

But by the end of the week we’ve already abandoned the idea, only to take up new ones, which we take to be creative solutions to an untenable situation. These solutions are eventually discarded, too. I start to understand that we’re going through the early stages of grief. The denial goes on and on.

March 16th

I call my littlest son’s caregiver and tell her to take two (paid) weeks off – I’m still thinking our current situation might blow over. She’s been with us since my son’s birth and we consider her to be part of our family, but we feel it unethical to ask her to take the TTC to and from our house, especially since we’ve decided to stop taking public transit ourselves.

A few hours later, I text her to see if she would feel comfortable being picked up for work, as my in-laws have offered me their car. She tells me that she wants to take a leave of absence. We dance around her reason for staying away for a few seconds and then I ask her, “do you want to stay away from children?” After all, children are, as my DH calls them, “germ factories.”

“Yes,” she says.

As soon as I let her go I feel my world closing in. I don’t want to lose my childcare. At heart I know this situation is not going to change anytime soon, and I’m afraid. I love my children; as an introvert, I also love my solitude. Childcare has permitted me to write; now I’ll have to slot my writing into minuscule pockets of time. I remind myself that Carol Shields wrote while raising four children. Then I remember that she wrote while her kids were in school, between “picking up their socks” [sic] and preparing her kids’ lunches. School is done for the month, and possibly for the year.

I cancel my family members’ appointments, including my daughter’s orthodontic appointment. She was supposed to get her braces fitted, which I’d already delayed by two years. I cancel and hope that a long delay won’t result in crooked teeth.

I abandon my treasured shiatsu massage. My therapist has a private practice but also works at Body Blitz. Once I get the news that the spa is shutting down, I text her to ask if they’re paying her. A few hours later, she confirms that they are. “They’re good people,” she texts. I begin to think that the pandemic will compel us to categorize people as either “good” or “bad.”

The river cruise company my parents booked change their mind about accommodating their customers who want to cancel. Until now they have stuck to their usual cancellation policies. Hoping that the virus will have run its course by September, my parents decide not get a full refund, but rather to postpone the cruise until autumn. I tell them what DH told me, which is that these types of viruses usually peak twice – he expects a summer lull, followed by a resurgence. My mother is reluctant to cancel it completely, and wants to play it by ear.

My daughter’s friend cancels her party. I text “Great news” to the parent and immediately feel like a jerk. I backpedal: “But not great of course.” I write that she’s made the right decision “from my perspective.” She doesn’t answer, so in the evening, I reach out again: “I know it was a difficult decision and I’m sorry you had to make it.” She doesn’t reply.

Black Belt of the Mind or Notes From The Front Line of COVID-19

Sunday February 23rd

My husband, an emergency doctor whose work place is preparing for COVID-19, tells me that we may want to stock up on essential supplies. “I’m not afraid of the virus,” he says. “I’m afraid of people panicking.”

In the end he’s the one who does the shopping, as I’m tied up with our three kids. He texts me that the grocery stores are packed. He returns with enough legumes, rice, eggs, and milk to last us two to three weeks. He orders a normal (for a family of five) supply of toilet paper from Amazon. We don’t want to over shop – we just want to have a buffer.

I text my best friend, telling her to stock up. She’s a psychologist who lives in New York with her two children; her physician husband, an infectious disease specialist, works long hours. His hours are about to get longer, and I don’t want her to get stuck. I send her a list that my husband and I have created. “But he forgot to include tampons,” I text.

I call my parents and leave a message, telling them to let me know if they want us to buy them groceries. My father, who was a child living in Normandy during the Second World War, remembers long weeks of privation. “There was never enough soap,” he says, “nor enough food.” Once, the neighbours dug up a recently deceased horse and cooked it. When I was a child, my father always stocked the pantry with dozens of bars of soap. I’m not surprised when my mother calls me back and reports that they already have enough supplies to last them several weeks.

Wednesday February 26th

My husband advises me to cancel a long-awaited girls’ weekend in Washington with my best friend. “You don’t want to stuck with a bunch of people in a confined space right now,” he says. This trip took weeks of planning, especially on the part of my friend, who works in an American psychiatric hospital and only gets one day off a week and who, because she has just started to work in this hospital, has no extended time off. Reluctantly, I cancel my trip and inform my friend. She texts me that it makes sense, particularly because, she writes “your husband isn’t an alarmist.”

My parents are scheduled to fly to France mid-April to visit my grandmother, who has just moved into a retirement home, and plan to combine the visit with a French river cruise. A few weeks before, my father, who’s eighty years old, flew to France to be with my grandmother, who had taken ill. Around the world, borders were starting to close. For days I worried about him getting home. Then I worried about him being cooped up in a plane. Finally, after several weeks, he made it home, healthy. “Nobody was wearing a mask on the plane,” he tells me. “Not the flight attendants, nor the passengers.”

Now my parents are planning to leave again. I call my mom to ask her to cancel their trip. “It’s a cruise,” I tell her. “That’s the worst possible scenario. Have you been following the news?”

My mom is in a chronic state of exhaustion caring for my sister, who has special needs. Although my sister lives in a group home, she needs constant input and care-taking from my mom. My mom refuses to cancel the cruise. She adds that she still has time to change her mind. “I really need this,” she says.

Tuesday March 10th

We’ve been aware of COVID-19 for a while now, but we’re not yet taking it seriously. I go about my day. My daughter is on March break, so we take the opportunity to shop for her grade eight graduation dress. My husband is on a day shift at one of the three hospitals where he works, so I text him photos of our daughter, whom I barely recognize in her slick, semi-formal dresses.

“She looks happier in option 1,” he texts. “But looks great in both.”

When I ask my husband what time he’ll be finished work, he texts me that he’ll be late. “Lab here is broken.”

Turns out that someone pulled a fire alarm and the sprinklers went off. Lab work is delayed.

“Argh,” I reply, and send him a grinning smiley face. “Kind of funny though.”

My husband send another text: “That + COVID = very bad.”

Black Belt of the Mind or Notes From the Front Lines of COVID-19

Having been confined to my home with my three children, and being married to an emergency physician, I’ve decided to shift my focus from writing only about karate to the situation at hand.

On the other hand, being a karate-ka means practicing mental strength. A few days ago, after the reality of the pandemic and what it meant for us as individuals and as a family sunk in, I realized I had to begin practicing mental resilience. I needed to develop a “black belt of the mind.”

My shift from practicing karate to working on mental strength started earlier this year, due to a persistent hip injury. In early March, my injury unresolved, I decided to take a month off karate. Telling my students that I’d be back in April, I arranged for my colleagues to take over my class and prepared myself for an enforced rest.

Now, with many of us stuck inside, barred from gyms and exercise classes, I figure we’re all in the same boat. Time to share our stories.

The situation will probably get worse before it gets better. If you follow the news, or if you know a health care worker (or, in my case, are married to one and suffer an onslaught of regular health care updates), it’s clear that our 2-week isolation period is likely to be extended to several weeks and possibly several months. At some point, like the Italians, we might be confined to our living spaces (if we’re lucky to have a living space – many are not.)

For the next few weeks, I’ll post my COVID-19 diary, taken largely from my personal journal.