Faith Gong: A letter from quarantine

I wasn’t sure what this column should be about. Then, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to write it.

Last week, I thought, “Everyone’s writing about the new coronavirus, so perhaps I shouldn’t. Maybe my column can be a refreshing break from the news of the world.” But it quickly became clear that to write about anything other than the COVID-19 pandemic that’s sweeping the world would be to ignore an enormous elephant in the room, as the number of confirmed cases rose across the nation and entered Vermont, and as the first Addison County resident tested positive. 

As the COVID-19 numbers climbed higher, our family’s world got smaller each day. Middlebury College, where my husband teaches, began spring break a week early and will recommence classes remotely. Appointments and events were crossed off our calendar until there was nothing left. Our typical movements around town were restricted as restaurants, shops, and the library closed their doors. 

At some point, it hit me — as it probably hit all of us — that this was a BIG DEAL. By the end of the week, I was suggesting that my daughters keep journals to record their experiences during what will surely be considered an historic event.

So, although there’s surprisingly little material to write about in being at home with five children — at least, not much material that I haven’t mined already — I decided to try.

Then we got sick, and suddenly I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to write anything for a long time.

It began slowly: My husband, our four-month-old son, and I had some sniffles. A few days of mild congestion, the kind that makes you think, “Huh, I may be coming down with a cold, or maybe it’s allergies.” When we all improved for a day or two, I figured we’d dodged a bullet. 

But then it came back. Yesterday morning I woke up to a fever, horrible body aches, bone-deep fatigue, nausea, a splitting headache, and the feeling that something was sitting on my chest. I usually pride myself in being able to power through illness, but when I got out of bed to get the baby a bottle, I stumbled back to bed moments later, moaning to my husband, “I can’t do it.” My husband, who was experiencing the same symptoms, was able to fix the bottle. We made it through the day in shifts, one of us attempting to care for the kids while the other was collapsed in bed. It was the sickest I can remember feeling in decades. At one point, when washing my hands, I noticed that even the skin on my hands ached. 

The baby, thankfully, was in much better shape than his parents: His only symptom has been a hacking cough. And our four daughters, who have been champs at amusing themselves, are just fine as of this writing. 

Based on the fact that I am writing, you can probably intuit that we are doing better. This morning I was able to get out of bed, get dressed, and function. My husband and I are still fatigued and achy, and the baby still has a cough, but we are on the mend.

We may not ever know what knocked us out; we spent a great deal of time on the phone with our respective doctors, and we learned two things:

1.     Because Vermont is preparing for a large outbreak of COVID-19 and doctors have only a limited number of test kits, testing is currently limited to those most at risk (which, thankfully, we are not.) Even testing for other viruses like flu and RSV is limited at this point, since those tests use the same medium and swabs as the COVID-19 test.

2.     Because of the pandemic, even if we don’t know exactly what we have, we should treat it as if it were COVID-19. What this means is that our family will be in quarantine for the next 14 days.

So here I sit, trying to wrap my brain around all that has changed in a week.

One week ago it felt like spring was coming early to Vermont. The bulbs were poking through the soil, temperatures soared (by Vermont standards) into the 50s, and the sun shone longer and brighter. Today, a snowstorm has blown down on us: From where I sit at my desk, I can’t see the treeline on our property through the fast-falling flakes, and the ground is covered completely with white.

The weather seems to be reenacting what’s been happening in the world. One day we were all engaged in our normal lives, going to work and school, shopping in stores, eating in restaurants, hopping on planes and trains, hugging and shaking hands. Now, all of that is off limits or deeply suspect. And beyond those temporary inconveniences, people are out of work, businesses are in crisis, and people are sick and dying.

Still, there are buds under the snow. 

Many hopeful quotations are being offered up these days, but a particularly potent one for me has been this excerpt from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring:

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

It has been hopeful to see what people have decided to do with the time that is given us.

A couple of weeks ago, many of us were still bemoaning how the internet and social media were disrupting our communities and destroying our capacity for genuine interpersonal relationships. Now, I wonder how we would get through this pandemic without the internet and social media: Our church services are happening on YouTube, my husband is teaching via Zoom, and everything from my girls’ piano and Latin lessons to my book club is happening online.  

People are turning to email and picking up the phone, checking in with each other and offering to pick up groceries for those who need it. They are also supporting local business whenever possible: When we ordered take-out from American Flatbread last week, we were thrilled to hear that they were swamped with orders.

Based on the number of cards and letters we’ve received this week, the art of letter-writing may be getting a boost.

I’m not the only one to suppose that, when we are able to meet each other face-to-face again, it will feel all the more precious.

My mother tells me that, over on South Street — the road to Porter Hospital — signs have been put up celebrating our medical professionals, and every night residents are going out on their front porches and lawns to bang pots and sing songs to doctors and nurses during their shift change. 

My daughters wrote a one-act play called, “Lady Corona’s Evil Plot to Take Over the World, Crash the Economy, and Kill People,” which disturbed me…until I remembered that children throughout history have reacted to crises in similar ways, turning tragedy into play (think “Ring Around the Rosy” during the Black Death in 14th century Europe.) 

Throughout this time, I’ve been re-reading the Harry Potter series in order to keep up with my daughters’ current obsession. Might I recommend these books (or really any others in the epic quest genre) as the perfect accompaniment for these days: Tales in which good battles evil, and just when it looks like evil will win, love triumphs. 

Love has always been stronger than fear and illness and difficulty. Also: The Canada geese are coming back, the red-tailed hawks are soaring above our field while our daughters fly kites below, our baby smiles and shrieks with joy, the snow will melt and the flowers will bloom again. Look closely, and there is hope everywhere. 

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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