Faith Gong: We all fall down

“Mommy, what do two lines mean?” my nine-year-old daughter called across the kitchen. 

And just like that, the Bad Thing entered our house: the coronavirus, COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, the Omicron variant. Call it what you will; it was here, among us, infiltrating our family’s immune systems. 

Against all odds, we’d managed to fight it off successfully for two-and-a-half years — no small feat with seven people in our household going off to work, to school, to activities. We were cautious in the beginning, abiding by the CDC guidelines for masking and distancing. As those guidelines relaxed and vaccines became available, we started to relax, too. We gradually resumed our social lives, we started to travel again, we dropped our masks. 

Even as we puzzled over why we didn’t get sick, we suspected that we couldn’t avoid it forever. All around us, people continued to test positive for COVID; the cautious along with the reckless, the unvaccinated and vaccinated alike. The noose was tightening, the virus circling ever closer. But the more people we knew who got sick, the less frightening it felt: Nobody seemed to be getting hospitalized for COVID anymore, and everyone we knew recovered after experiencing symptoms that spanned “a throat tickle” to “a bad cold.” When our youngest child — our two-year-old son who is at increased risk for respiratory issues — was vaccinated in July 2022, my husband and I stopped worrying and started placing bets on when the pandemic would arrive at our door, even joking about the optimal time for our family to get sick.

We took rapid at-home tests numerous times over those two-and-a-half years: whenever we had a sniffle, before guests came to stay with us, anytime we went on a trip, after learning that we’d been close contacts with someone who’d tested positive. And every time, dozens of times over, those tests came back negative. We started to wonder if we could get COVID; it seemed like our family might be weirdly immune. 

Until we weren’t; until the day my daughter looked down at her sister’s rapid test on the kitchen table and saw two pink lines.

“That means we have COVID,” I told her. I felt almost relieved. This is not an unusual experience: Most people will tell you that they worry most in anticipation of the Bad Thing, but when the Bad Thing arrives there’s a strange sense of peace. It’s here at last, that Thing we’ve been dreading all along. What is there to do but keep calm and invite it in for tea? 

What took us down was an outbreak at the small school my two oldest daughters attend, a school with 26 students spread between 7th, 8th, and 9th grades. COVID raged through the school like wildfire: We received the first email notification of a positive COVID test on Thursday, both my daughters tested positive on Saturday morning, and by Saturday afternoon half of the school had COVID and the administration decided to close down entirely for the next week.

COVID ripped through our family in the same way it ripped through the school: no mercy, just scorched earth. I’d always figured that if one of us got sick, we’d all get sick. With five children sharing rooms, quarantining individuals after a positive test didn’t make sense. I just hoped it’d move through our family quickly, instead of dragging out over a long period of time. I needn’t have worried: All seven members of our family tested positive between Saturday and Monday. 

I spent the next ten days wondering what happened to the “throat tickle” and “bad cold” I’d been promised. Not a single member of our family escaped unscathed: Our symptoms ran the gamut from high fevers to horrifically sore throats, coughing and congestion to vomiting and diarrhea. (We think even the dog got COVID, which took the form of some messy gastrointestinal symptoms.) 

Our two-year-old was the least symptomatic of the entire family, for which we were deeply grateful — and confused. This is the kid who’s been hospitalized twice with respiratory viruses that left him gasping for breath. Perhaps it helped that he was most recently vaccinated against COVID? We’re not sure, but we’re not complaining. 

My husband and I, as the oldest members of our family and the ones farthest from our COVID boosters, were hit hardest. We spent a week taking turns napping and trying to keep the family running — a family bookended by a two-year-old and two teenagers who all felt fine and were increasingly stir-crazy. 

We emerged disoriented from our week of illness and isolation; my daughter said it felt like a week of our lives had disappeared into a sort of fog. We heard of dozens of other local COVID cases that had popped up during the week, of people getting COVID for the second or third time. This made it almost funny when one of my daughters, who was wearing a mask in town because she was past her isolation period but still testing positive for COVID, was confronted by a woman who shouted, ‘The pandemic is over, you know!” 

All I could do was laugh weakly. 

The truth is that I am still not back to normal two weeks after my positive COVID test. My voice is hoarse and I have coughing fits that double me over. The hardest thing has been the exhaustion, a bone-deep tiredness that forces me to sit down multiple times a day. It’s frustrating: So much of my life depends on my ability to power through, to scrape the dregs of my energy reserves and carry on. I suppose this comes from my Puritan forebears, but when I need to rest I feel like I have failed. 

In the end, perhaps the most valuable part of COVID is that it’s forced me to confront the lie that my value is based on my productivity. When my body compels me to nap on the couch, I discover that the world continues just fine without me: My older children help with their little brother, my husband picks up my slack, my friends and family members bring food and send messages of love and support. 

Our family has taken to sharing what we’re thankful for at the dinner table a couple of times a week. One night, in the midst of our COVID isolation, when I was feeling about as awful as it’s possible to feel, I found that I still had something to share: 

“I’m so thankful to all of you, for being so helpful. And I’m thankful for my body, because even though it feels terrible right now, I know that it’s working so hard to fight off this sickness.”

I was thankful; I am thankful. Still, I’d rather not repeat this experience.

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her “free time,” she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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