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When COVID comes knocking

I want to tell you what happens. Your whole world shrinks. You're caught up in the prospect of two weeks in isolation, while you wait for the other shoe to drop. Will I catch it?
Illustrative. A Magen David Adom paramedic swabs a person for COVID-19 at a drive-thru testing site in the central city of Lod on July 15, 2020. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)
Illustrative. A Magen David Adom paramedic swabs a person for COVID-19 at a drive-thru testing site in the central city of Lod on July 15, 2020. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

“I have a temperature”, says my 24-year-old son, standing in the doorway to his room, hair ruffled and his face pale. I am standing in the lounge, my work bag in one hand and my coffee flask in the other, one foot out the door.

A long pause.

“How high”? The atmosphere gets a little strained.

“37.9.”

Silence. You can hear a pin drop.

Me, thinking to myself: “37.9 isn’t 38, so it’s probably not that.” Then I catch myself. 37.9 IS 38!

Carefully, trying not to sound panicked: “How do you feel?”

“I have a headache and I’ve been to the bathroom twice.”

OK, that’s three for three.

I look at my wife. She looks at me. I’m thinking about all the work I know I have waiting for me. I need to go. We both look at our son. “How?” I think to myself, silently.

Me to my son: “You should get tested.”

To my wife: “We don’t know yet. I’m going to work. Let me know what’s happening.

I get in my car and drive off. I work in an essential business that serves the public. I get about a kilometer from home and I pull to the side of the road, thinking, arguing with myself. It is intense. I really have a lot to do at work, some of it urgent. But if it IS the coronavirus, I might already be infected. And if I am, then the whole office will have to close down for two weeks. This is crazy. It’s a clash of conflicting responsibilities. But which responsibility is greater?

I can’t risk it. I turn around and drive home.

The time is 6:30. It’s too early to phone my superiors or the office. So, I sit at the table and drink my coffee, watching the arms of the clock s-l-o-w-l-y approach 7:15, when I know that my direct superior has left home and is on the way to work. The wait is interminable, and thoughts are bouncing around in my head.

At last, 7:15 arrives and I phone my boss. We start discussing what-ifs. I feel really uncomfortable and in my present state of mind, I am absorbing nothing of the conversation. So, to cut it short, I say, “Let’s wait for the results and talk about this on Sunday if it’s relevant.” He agrees.

“Bri’ut (health),” he says before he goes.

Coronavirus cells seen through a microscope (Courtesy of Times of Israel (NIAID-RML / Wikipedia, 18/3/2020).

What follows is a flurry of phone calls and WhatsApp messages to all the people who depend on me at work — in 10 branches, the central office, and some customers. There are a lot of conversations all going on simultaneously, while I try to organize my day of absence remotely. I think to myself, “Is this what two weeks is going to be like? Every day?” I am taken back to when I was an operations officer on the Lebanese border during the First Lebanon War when there was an “incident.” Tens of people to report to. Hundreds of orders to convey to different units, then reporting back to the commanders and coordinating actions. And then, more reporting back. It. Was. Exhausting.

At last, it is done, and the time is 10:30.

Meanwhile, while all this is going on, we are trying to get hold of Kupat Holim (the health center) to find out where the nearest testing station is, and if my son can get tested. At last, a nurse answers. We need a doctor’s referral. You try to get hold of your doctor before 8:00 a.m. Mission Impossible. She doesn’t answer the phone and doesn’t respond to the texts. And we are on the edge of our seat, waiting.

At long last, my son gets a text that she has sent a referral. I ask him if he took his temperature again. It hasn’t gone down. So, we decide to go. We sit in the car, all the windows down, wearing masks. I sit behind the wheel, he sits at the back behind the passenger seat, as far away from me as he can get. The hot air blows through the car and rushes in my ears. My face is burning hot and my glasses don’t stop steaming up. And while we are driving, people from work phone me with questions of what to do with this, and that. Have you ever tried holding a professional conversation on speakerphone while wearing a mask and the wind rushing through the car? Never mind concentrating on the subject, when a thousand thoughts are bouncing around in your head with worry? Don’t. It is not recommended.

At the station, about 30 people are standing around in masks, trying to social distance, but with only a small area in shade, as the sun beats down. I stand and feel the drops of sweat trickle down my back, and my face burns behind my mask, in the sun. This is Israel. There is no queue. One needs hawk-eyes to keep your eye on the person before you. One more item of stress, weighing down on you.

Testing for coronavirus. (Courtesy of Times of Israel, photograph released by the IDF, 4/8/2020).

Surprisingly, the queue moves fast. And we find ourselves on our way back home.

At home, he takes an Advil and goes to lie down, and I am left with my thoughts.

I want to tell you what happens. Your whole world shrinks. It becomes a long, narrow tunnel, where you cannot think beyond the prospect of two weeks in isolation, while you wait for the other shoe to drop. Your entire conscious existence revolves around thinking, worrying about the work piling up while you are away. You think about two weeks of taking your temperature, anticipating, dreading to see what it will be. Is it going to go up? Will I catch it? How can I not? It’s inevitable, we are living together. Even as you do things, like making the shopping list, you are in the tunnel. You ask yourself, “What’s the point? You can’t go shopping, you are going to be in quarantine.” Or you write a post on Facebook, but half your mind is somewhere else.

And that’s how the day passes. Come evening time, and his temperature is still high and he still has the other symptoms. So, you resign yourself that this is it; this is your reality for the foreseeable future — isolation, hoping your son’s symptoms won’t take a turn for the worse, hoping you won’t get sick — and what if you do? Will you have time, or energy, or the capacity to deal with all your private stuff?

I got through the evening, half-watching a football game with my son, but my mind was elsewhere.

I slept, but I didn’t rest. I woke up early and couldn’t get back to sleep. I was exhausted even after sleep from being constantly tense, like I used to be when I was out on an army outpost in the heart of Lebanon during that dreadful war. And, I lay awake, apprehensively waiting for my son to open his door so that we could find out if he got better or worse. Sighing. Conscious breaths. Watching the sunlight on the sheets, sweating slightly.

“36.9”!!!

I am out of bed in a flash, allowing the relief to wash over me.

“Let’s wait for the test results before we celebrate,” I say. Cautious, not wanting to set me up for an unpleasant surprise.

Later, I sip my coffee, waiting to hear the results with barely controlled patience. I allow myself to look at the shopping list. We usually shop at Yirka, but the news says Yirka is closed because of the rise of COVID-19 cases. It’s just one more interruption to our comfortable routine.

“Dad, the results are negative”.

And I feel like I have come out of the tunnel into the bright sunshine. I bask in the relief and allow myself to smile. The world is beautiful again. WhatsApps to my boss and colleagues — this time with happy emojis.

And as we drive to Karmiel to go shopping, I look at the beauty of my home and appreciate it all anew, my corner of paradise.

COVID came knocking. But, it didn’t come in.

About the Author
Paul Mirbach (PEM), made aliya from South Africa to kibbutz Tuval in 1982 with a garin of Habonim members. Together they built a new kibbutz transforming rocks and mud to a green oasis in the Gallilee. He served in infantry during his army service, serving in both Lebanon and the West Bank, including on reserve duty during the first intifada. Paul still lives on Tuval with his wife and two sons.
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