Viral Anxiety

Anxiety is a funny thing. I know how it can look and how it can can feel. I have tasted it in a few varieties, from the panic attacks that require Ativan and work-at-home days, to a racing heart, to mild reflux. Somehow I am never prepared for the kind that sneaks up, though: anxiety over something I did not know was worrying me.

As I talk with different people about Covid-19, including my own high school students, I realize that the emotional response to a pandemic seems as diverse as the physical response to infection. Some folks are completely freaked out and have become increasingly agoraphobic and paralyzed by mysophobia, so much so that they are likely to need treatment for that when we are at last “freed.” Others, whose lives remain miraculously untouched by the virus, don’t feel frightened, feel like everything will be okay.

Most of us fall somewhere in between.

Most of us, I think, fall somewhere in between, exercising caution in ways we considerable reasonable. Making human mistakes. Hoping for the best. Washing our hands, wearing masks.

So when my husband told me he’d been sleeping all day, when he wasn’t in the bathroom or nursing his headache, my reaction took me by surprise.

I was so angry!

I couldn’t decide where to send my rage first–at the fact that I would now have to deal with everything in our household on my own (you’ll just have to take my word for it that this is A LOT), at the fact that he didn’t refuse to teach his college courses in person, at everything that has ever been difficult in our marriage, or swirling around our weekend plans (now up in the air) to join the extended family for our annual trip to the mountains.

When one day became two and three, I insisted he get tested. He had one test at a drug store at the end of day two, and on day four of his illness, no results in yet, I suggested he might want to go to a doctor to find out what he did have, even if it wasn’t Covid. He had a rapid test in a doctor’s office, and it came back negative. Then the drug store test came back negative, too.

He had a bug.

I would love to celebrate that (I do, I really do!), but all I can think about is how I could not calm down because he was disabled and I was not able to handle that. He slept and slept, and everything that was wrong in my world was exploding, imploding, breaking down. I was breaking down.

I have never been good about illness in the people I love. When my kids are sick, it makes me anxious. I am much better now than when they were little. When my elder child was wee and caught a stomach bug, it took everything I had not to run away from the house. I am not exaggerating. The first time that ever happened, my good friend Estee was there with her daughter Eva for our kids’ first play date, and she helped me through it. A time of firsts. Neither of us has ever forgotten. Nor have I ever stopped being grateful.

Even now, when the kids are 18 and 15, if they get a fever, I worry a bit more than I should. If my husband gets sick and is anything less than stoic, I now know, I am a mess.

My hair is falling out by the fistful. Despite a low-fat, low-calorie, healthy diet of whole foods and regular exercise, my body holds onto weight like it really doesn’t know when it might need this tire around my middle. I take my meds; I meditate. I make things. I go for walks. I color in my coloring books. I even take naps here and there.

Anxiety has hold of me like an invasive plant, tendrils of a root system winding their way through every system in my body.

Like the virus, it attacks, sometimes without warning.

Mom and Dad & Pedagogy

I’ve written about my father before, and as is so often true when writing about someone who is gone, he has taken on a mythic quality. I try not to overdo that; to be fair, my father had some of that while he was alive, too, at least with his children. I’ve written about that, also. I know this is my own youngest-child-only-girl perspective, so if my brothers disagree, that’s entirely fair. It is certainly true that the four of us had each our different relationships with Dad.

My father loved to play with me by rattling off made-up Latin names of flowers and weeds along dirt roads in eastern Long Island, explaining their origin in such detail that it always took me a while to realize that I had fallen for it again. When I began learning Latin in seventh grade, he’d give me phrases to repeat out loud until I noticed “what a goose I am.” One

“He’d give me phrases to repeat”

subject my father really did know was Shakespeare. This wasn’t like the pretend play he did for his own amusement and mine; this was true learned (pronounce that “learn-Ed”) passion for the Elizabethan bard. He earned his PhD and taught for close to thirty years, and his first published novel centered around the production of a play by elderly Jews at a retirement home on New York’s Upper West Side.

You might then imagine his disappointment when, the first time I had to read a Shakespeare play for school, I complained like any other school kid that the text was boring and impossible to decipher. It wasn’t me he was disappointed in, though; it was my teacher. Of course it was boring. It was about 1980. How was some 20th-century kid supposed to sit down with the text of Macbeth and read it cold? And actually get something out of it? She needed to approach the play differently.

My parents listened to operas on the record player in our living room, and I thought it was terrible.

Why not listen to Donna Summer? Or Queen? So my father took me to the opera, where the sets, costumes, and gigantic voices held me in thrall. My mother took me the ballet. My parents talked about court cases in the news and other issues that did not interest me. So my father took me out of school, and we rode the subway downtown to the courthouse to watch a trial. These experiences offered me the most important aspects of my lessons that had been missing—the appeals to the senses that make experiences lived experiences. I have never forgotten the judge asking the man who said his gold chain was stolen why he was eating rice and beans on his stoop at 2 am.

His honor was laughing.

The same was true of Shakespeare plays. What I learned from Dad and eventually from an excellent professor at Hunter College, CUNY, was that these plays were written to be seen. Sure, I had to learn about iambic pentameter. But my favorite lessons in William Shakespeare had to do with who his audiences were, what they did while the plays were being performed, what sort of show they expected, and who was on stage. And what a surprise it was to find that I could follow the action of the play when I was watching and listening to actors!

My parents always drew me in. If I was watching my mother cook or bake, I soon found myself stirring or chopping. I wanted to sew like her, too. And when I went to work with her, I wanted to use all her office supplies, and the ginormous copier that had its own room, and sit behind a desk and look important the way she did. If my father was grading student assignments and needed me to be quiet, he would give me the same assignment to “see what [I] could do with it.”

It’s easy to think about parenting mistakes, flaws, and wish-they-hadn’ts. Lord knows my own kids will be able to list quite a few.

The more time I spend as a teacher of teenagers, though, the more I see how much my mother and father did to make sure I was a well-rounded, functional adult.

I have tried to repeat these lessons in my own home, with my own kids, but it is a different time, in different circumstances, with quite different kids.

I keep trying.