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

April 3rd

I leave Mouche at home with DD so that I can shop for groceries. Her Friday classes are mostly asynchronous, so she can help me with Mouche. DH doesn’t want our kids (particularly Mouche, who compulsively picks up every item across his path) to go into stores, and we’ve been taking turns shopping. Online shopping is impossible as all the slots appear to be chronically full.

I’m shopping for my parents, my aunt, and my family. For the first time in 3 weeks, each of us is inordinately fussy about getting exactly what we want. As the pandemic worsens, we cling to small comforts such as our favourite deodorant or, in my case, a treasured vegan chocolate treat. I don my mask, which has been sitting and off gassing for a few days, ever since my last expedition. Experiencing a low hum of anxiety, I make stops at three different stores. I manage to buy everyone what they want, including sugar-free organic cranberries for a relative. My favourite chocolate treat, however, is sold out.

I pick up Mouche and we make the drive to deliver groceries. My mom suggests that together we walk into a ravine by her house, while staying far apart. Mouche scoots, I jog beside him, and my mom power walks several metres behind us. Once, Mouche gets too close to her and I ask him to step away.

We head for a field we’ve visited twice in the last week. We’ve never seen more than a handful of people here. Today it’s deserted.

“You’re not allowed to go there,” my mom says.

“Really? There’s no one here.”

I venture into the field, Mouche behind me. Near a picnic bench is a Parks Canada COVID-19 sign, warning us that all playgrounds, etc., have been closed due to COVID-19. The signs are so common that Mouche has taken to pointing them out whenever he sees them; he can now read the word “coronavirus.” Recently, when I tried to tell him about the “big germ”, he corrected me in an indignant tone: “it’s not the big germ, it’s the coronavirus!”

I don’t know what to do. I can’t imagine how being in an empty field could possibly constitute breaking the social isolation rule. I feel as though I’m constantly weighing common sense against rapidly-changing regulations.

I turn to Mouche. “Should we go throw sticks in the river and watch them float?”

He puts down his scooter. “Let’s play soccer!”

“I’m worried that the police are going to get mad at us for playing soccer,” I tell him.

He picks up his scooter again. “Let’s go throw sticks in the river.”

On our way home, we drop off groceries for my aunt, who uses a walker because of a recent hip replacement. I debate carrying her groceries up to her apartment, but I know I shouldn’t risk being in an elevator, especially with Mouche (who can’t resist touching elevator buttons), if I can help it. I also don’t want to run the risk of contaminating her. My aunt makes the trek downstairs, and I leave a bag for her on a bench outside her building. As Mouche and I pull away, I watch as she slowly picks up the bag and places it in her walker’s basket.

DH comes home early. The E.R. has been quiet, save for a handful of COVID-19 patients. Traffic is sparse: DH tells me he hasn’t seen an accident victim in weeks, a situation unheard of before the pandemic. Others are avoiding the E.R. as much as possible, choosing to consult their doctors by telephone or online communications.

When I tell him about my failure to find my chocolate baked good, my indefatigable DH goes online and orders a package of 6, directly from the manufacturer.

April 4th

We take our weekly hike outside the city. During a three-hour hike, we see a total of five people. The paths are more than wide enough to accommodate all of us and we slide by each other at a safe distance.

Mouche yells for the first 40 minutes of the hike. DH tries to show him how to count the rings on a felled tree trunk; Mouche slips and scratches his knee. It takes fifteen minutes to console him.

“Let’s go home,” says DH.

There’s a chorus of agreement from the kids.

“I wanna go home,” Mouche says, through tears.

“What the heck would we do at home?” I ask.

Eventually, DD takes Mouche’s hand and calms him down by telling him stories. We walk under a densely-woven canopy and filtered light, our boots making sucking sounds as we pull up the mud. Birds call out among the trees.

I’m starting to read reports, mostly from NYC, that health officials are recommending that no-one leave the cities, for fear of spreading the virus to rural communities. I begin to worry that we shouldn’t be hiking. But we’re not stopping anywhere along the way, and we rarely encounter people during our hikes.

Later I read that York region, north of Toronto, has closed their hiking trails. I’m furious – I don’t see the sense in closing largely deserted trails. I fear that our public spaces will diminish further, our freedoms increasingly curtailed.

An E.R. doctor friend posts on FB that the shipment of masks they were expecting at his hospital will not be delivered after all. For the hundredth time, I ask DH if he and his colleagues have sufficient masks. “That’s all everyone is talking about,” he says.

April 5th

Today DH planned on taking the kids for a bike ride. Normally we keep our bikes locked up on our porch, and we had assumed that they were all accounted for. But when we went to get our middle son’s bike, we couldn’t find it. With our house under construction, many of our possessions have been scattered about, in various locations. After spending an hour searching, including calling relatives to see if we had stashed the bike with them, we were forced to conclude that it had been stolen.

We discuss buying a new bike, contemplate our diminishing funds. Since the pandemic (DH gets paid mostly on a fee-for-service model, and people have stopped visiting emergency rooms) DH’s salary has dropped, even as he works under worsening conditions. We put off buying a bike. Demoralized, DH takes the boys for a drive and a scoot so I can write.

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

March 27th

I grocery shop for a friend in quarantine and for my parents, whom I’ve ordered not to go into stores. DH insists I wear a mask, instructing me patiently on how to use it. Because I’m not performing high-risk medical procedures, I can re-wear the mask several times, as long as I take precautions. “I feel ridiculous,” I tell him.

“Get over it,” he says.

I stand in line at our local grocery store, careful to keep my distance from other shoppers, resentful when a man behind me stands too close for my taste. For the first time, I experience anxiety. I call my friend in NYC, and she reassures me. “You got through SARS,” she says. “You can get through this.”

But SARS was another world. DH was quarantined then, after having been exposed to a sick patient. We didn’t take the situation seriously. We were living together, but he didn’t always wear his mask – we may have stopped kissing for a few days. Once, I used his quarantine as an excuse to return a videotape (!) late. I don’t even remember which movie we watched. Now, we have kids, we have aging parents whom we want to protect.

After a long wait, I enter the store. My heart beats rapidly the entire time I shop. The expedition takes me twice as long as usual because I’m shopping for three families. It’s also not my usual grocery store – I’ve chosen it because of its strict hygiene policy and effective crowd control – and I waste a lot of time locating groceries at opposite ends of the store. Then, joy at finding a coveted item: disinfecting wipes!

DH begins a daily routine of working with colleagues at three hospitals crafting policy around safely treating COVID-19 patients. He reads widely, attends simulations, leads SIMS for nurses and respiratory therapists. Negative pressure rooms (hospital air comes in, contaminated air goes out through ceiling vents), usually used for patients who have respiratory illnesses are being used for COVID-19 patients. Staff entrances and exits are choreographed carefully to prevent contaminated air from escaping through the front door. If they need equipment, they have to plan ahead. Each person is assigned equipment they will bring into the room, usually at the same time as patients are brought in. Properly using protective gear properly is equally complicated: staff need to know when and how to use it, how to safely remove and dispose of it. (DH hasn’t brought his scrubs home in weeks, instead throwing them into the department’s laundry bin.) Getting dressed for DH’s job now needs to be systematic and meticulous. In this new world, the price for sloppiness is high.

March 28th

As per our new family rule, we leave on our weekly hiking expedition. It’s raining, which is perfect because the trail is deserted. We only meet one other family. Like us, they’re fully equipped, with full rain gear, including rain pants. Not for the first time, I feel that our family habits (crafting, cooking, hiking) are highly adaptable to our new situation.

In the mild spring air, we walk through mud. Rain drips from maples and pines. A wild turkey bursts through the bushes a few feet in front of us. The kids gesture excitedly. We return to the city refreshed, ready for another period of isolation.

In the late afternoon, DH takes Mouche to an empty parking lot, where for the first time he rides a pedal bike. DH sends me a video. From then on, we go on twice daily practice runs, during which Mouche perfects his balance. Until one day, the parking lot is closed, sealed off like many of the open spaces in Toronto. I will always associate his first bike rides with the COVID-19 pandemic.

March 28th continued

We’ve started family conversations about supporting local businesses. The kids want to support our local pizzeria, Napoli Centrale, so we vow to buy pizza from them on a weekly basis. We also want to support small independent bookstores, some of which have moved to a delivery and/or curb side pickup model. I’m going to plug them here – after all, they’ve done a superb job of adapting to their new reality:

Blue Heron Books

Book City

Type Books

Queen Books

My collection of short stories, This One Because of the Dead, can be purchased for delivery from any of the above bookstores.

March 29th

More rain, this time thunder showers, so impossible to go out. DH takes Mouche for a couple of hours so I can work on my novel. DH does the morning craft with him and sends me a photo of the two of them, which I, the consummate procrastinator, see when I sneak a look at my email.

A local library has a 3-D printer, and DH begins discussions with the CEO about the possibility of printing protective masks. The CEO is willing, but the logistics are daunting. Because the government has ordered the library’s closure, there’s some question as to whether staff will be allowed back into the library to use the printers. In addition, only a few people have keys. DH asks him to try out three prototypes – even if he succeeds in printing one, the CEO isn’t sure how to distribute them. He suggests leaving the finished product in the entryway of the library for doctors to pick up.

March 30th

DH leaves to attend a SIM at another hospital.

My middle son’s school has set up a limited online school for its incoming kindergarten students, and Mouche has an online class! I’m amazed and grateful to the school for setting it up – both my older kids are in school, providing them with much-needed structure. Despite our numerous technical difficulties, we catch most of the lesson. Mouche enthusiastically puts his hand up several times, even when he doesn’t know the answer to the teacher’s question.

At midday, I put Mouche in front of a show so that I can attend a virtual meeting for a potential work opportunity. My laptop’s video camera doesn’t work, and I wrestle with it for half an hour before giving up and getting onto DH’s device. While I get to know a potential employer, Mouche peers over my shoulder, grinning into the camera.

DH returns for lunch and a midday walk with us. He also bakes bread, timing his walk between baking steps. In the afternoon, he goes back to work at the hospital. I need to run an urgent errand, so I leave DD with a recipe for waffles (comfort food). When I return she’s made the batter: she’s even tracked down the oversized package of baking soda, the only one I could find on my epic grocery run. She makes all the waffles – they’re delicious.

I don’t write a word – by the time evening arrives I just want to lie down. I call my best friend in NYC. A field hospital has opened in Central Park, and the reserves have arrived. “New York is a ghost town,” she says.

March 31st

DH leaves at 5:30 a.m., long before we’re awake.

Due to a planned power outage in our house, we have to move out for the day. We’ve rented an apartment so the kids will have somewhere to do their online schooling – besides, with museums and libraries closed, we have nowhere else to go.

The Hydro worker arrives forty minutes before schedule. I open the door in my housecoat. When he asks if he can turn off the power early (he has another planned disconnection and wants to get ours done quickly), I look at him as if he’s out of his mind. “I have 3 kids to get out of the house,” I tell him. “And I’m on my own.”

“Never mind,” he says.

As we leave the house, I notice that someone has dumped a bag of garbage in front of our house. The animals have torn into it, and McDonalds’ paper bags and cannabis containers are strewn in front of our house. I march the kids to our rental space, leave Mouche watching Super Why on my laptop, and return to our house. Furious and gloveless (our local hardware store is closed), I spend a half-an-hour cleaning up the mess and despairing over human nature.

Human nature is salvaged later that morning, when my friend calls to tell me she’s placed an order with a gourmet grocery store, and that my groceries will be delivered Friday. Touched by her kindness, and relieved that I won’t have to make another trip to the grocery store – at least not for the next week or two – I thank her over and over.

In the evening I read aloud to my middle son. We’re reading the second book in Madeleine L’Engle’s Austin chronicles. Not for the first time, I’m struck by how even-keeled the Austin parents are (they are fictional, after all) and feel flawed in comparison.

April 1st

For the first time since the crisis began, I watch a news story. In a Madrid hospital, there are no beds, and patients lie head-to-toe on hallway floors. Health workers are clad in protective gear they have made themselves out of garbage bags. Most of them fall ill; many die. I find myself wishing I hadn’t watched.

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.