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 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.