Viral Voyage: The Anniversary Awakens
Here’s my pre 9/11 post. It’s about anniversaries that need a different name. Has one of these anniversaries happened to you?
What do you call an anniversary you don’t want to celebrate? Memo-versary? Recall-athon? Most definitions in American English refer to an anniversary as a celebration or cause for same. For persons who have suffered the loss of a loved one and the ensuing grief, for persons with PTS (there are so many of us now, PTSD might be considered a pandemic), and for those who have survived life-changing illness, accident, or injury, the calendar anniversaries of these events are often not something we want to celebrate. We appreciate our survival, when we’re reminded, most of the time. Yet the body’s way of remembering dates and times, and its way of convincing the mind and heart to process yet again the aftermath of life-altering loss can’t be ignored. I’ve learned it’s better to recognize it, face it and proceed with the processing.
I don’t understand this, but I know it’s true. The body remembers, even if the mind forgets or wishes to, or thinks it has forgotten. The body has a mind of its own, and it does not forget.
Last month, almost a year to the day of being wheeled into a rehab hospital, unable to speak, move, eat, or drink, this happened: The characters on my computer screen began to pulsate. I felt a strange spinning in my forehead. I moved to my living room couch. I felt a dizziness that grew stronger and stranger. My skin felt like it was vibrating with a mild electrical current. A tsunami of nausea claimed my core, my stomach felt on the verge of a somersault. Then came the eruption of throwing up. Thank goodness for vinyl floors. Too dizzy and light-headed to stand, I stayed on the couch, spooked and alone. This was exactly how my Covid case had began: dizziness, weakness, nausea and throwing up, followed by a loss of oxygen, increased nausea and sharp stomach pains.
“Oh God, I have it again,” I thought; not hard to believe, given our city’s low vaccination rate and the massive refusal of people, vaccinated or not, to wear masks. Why was this happening exactly one year later? It doesn’t feel accidental or random. Why not two months ago or two months from now? Why this date? Why would something this visceral obey a calendar? I texted a close friend to find out where to go for a test. “I’m free now,” she said. “Do you want me to take you?” “Yes, please.”
While we sat in the waiting room, next to an unmasked mother and her coughing, unmasked daughter, my friend chatted with me, masterfully steering my thoughts away from dark possibilities. A nurse took us to a room, did the test. A nurse practitioner entered soon after and gave me the result: negative. Her advice: “Given your history, if you continue to feel bad, get retested.”
Although my body had survived Covid-19 once, I live with as much paranoia as faith or optimism. When I knew I still had active antibodies, after leaving the hospital, I felt confident and relieved, but I continued to wear a mask and distance. With Delta and my city’s mixed response to virus protocols, I’ve stayed nervous. After the test, I woke the following day with chest pain and my oxygen level dipping into the high 80s. I called my home health nurse to get another test. She did a great job. I want the person doing the test to make the swab reach high into the nasal passages. Some research indicates that this provides a more accurate result. The previous nurse had swabbed only the front portion of my nostrils. I’m sure she put up with many patients unwilling to endure even that brief discomfort and swabbed “diplomatically.” Once the second test proved negative, I let go of some of my fear.
My symptoms didn’t clear up though. In fact, the list grew longer. My lips and tongue swelled and became numb, my throat hurt, the nausea and a slight dizziness returned. I felt like ants were crawling in my head. Breathing took effort, even though my O2 level was in the low 90s. What was happening?
When I stepped outside later to get my mail, the acrid, mouth-curdling smell of mothballs accosted my nostrils. Our apartment complex stands near an open field, home to snakes, spiders, field mice, rats, squirrels, and coyotes. The coyotes came to town during the catastrophic droughts prior to 2015 and never returned to their country homes. No small dog or cat of any size is safe with coyotes near. One late night, I heard loud noises in the breezeway and heavy thumps against my door. That’s the only time I thought a coyote might be near. Our consistent visitors are spiders, mice, squirrels, and snakes.
There’s an urban legend that mothballs repel unwanted spiders, insects, and critters. One of my neighbors had crushed a great quantity of mothballs and scattered them in front of her door. She thought this would repel our smaller visitors, from squirrels to spiders. The chemical stench filled the breezeway. Mothballs’ smell comes from a gas called naphthalene. Long-term, it can cause cancer, lung damage, and hemolytic anemia. Short-term, it can make you dizzy, nauseated, light-headed, and cause vomiting. It can also make your tongue swell, lips go numb, and interfere with breathing. The National Pesticide Information Center recommends using it only in contained spaces, because it’s the gas that kills moths. The balls are simply carriers. Outdoors, naphthalene can remain in soil up to 80 days, enter ground water, and be carried by wind.
This wasn’t my first encounter with naphthalene. In the 1980s, I lived in a charming house in Dallas’s M-street neighborhood. Soon after moving in, I learned there were squatters in my attic: lots of squirrels. The noises they made late at night terrified me: squealing, claws scraping wooden floors, bodies knocking into things, and (I guess) each other. They were so loud, it sounded like they would break through the ceiling. I’d endure the noise silently for a while, then shout at them and hit the ceiling with a broomstick. That would quiet them for about half an hour. By day, they were silent — sleeping, or maybe out, running errands and counting nuts. For a few mad moments, I thought about pitching a title to Stephen King for a novel: The Squirrels.
In Texas, it’s illegal to poison or harm a squirrel. Various experts came to my house and blocked holes or gaps in the eaves or near the foundation with wood, steel wool, or foam. We all searched for the open-sesame the wily rodents found. Not even a man experienced in trapping squirrels could find their entry. A neighbor told me mothballs would repel squirrels. They’d hate the smell and wouldn’t come back, she said. I bought an obscene amount of mothballs. I tossed them all through the spacious attic, across the floor and into every corner. The noxious smell and poisonous gas spread through the entire house. I was the one that had to move.
I couldn’t discern the cosmic reasoning why mothballs would appear on the anniversary of enduring Covid and cause me to relive the same scary symptoms Covid can cause. But, never mind the cosmos. I needed to talk to my neighbor, and soon. I told her what I knew about naphthalene and described my symptoms. In less than an hour, the mothballs disappeared, though the naphthalene gas left its imprint in the air for a week.
If this small chain of events had happened at some other time, I might have gone through some worry and fear, but it would never have occurred to me that I might be having a deadly disease for the second time. The dates did that for me. It sounds irrational, crazy. I wouldn’t be writing this, though, if I hadn’t experienced this countless times and talked to friends and family members who’ve had the same experiences. One friend of mine suffered a knee injury on the anniversary of his son’s death. Nothing outward occurred to injure the knee. It simply happened on that day, years after his son had died. A few days later, it disappeared as it had occurred.
We need to know more about the workings of these anniversaries that take us into difficult mental, emotional, and physical territory. This is one of many I’ve lived through. I expect there will be more, and I expect this to become an issue for those who have lost loved ones to Covid, have had Covid, and especially for people who are now known as Covid long-haulers. We need to know how to make these conspiratorial coincidences which obey the calendar a positive experience, even when they’re neither easy or reassuring. This particular anniversary occurred in two parts. The first came from mothballs. The second, as though expertly designed to push me through more discomfort, involved a short trip to the hospital.
Despite the discomfort, distraction and fear I experienced, magic did happen, thanks to my kind neighbor. After making the mothballs disappear, she began spraying a safe, liquid mixture of peppermint, vinegar and detergent on the breezeway’s cement floor. I thanked her profusely. She seemed taken aback my gratitude. She didn’t know what a difference she made in my life simply because she listened to me and cared enough to act on what I said.
My experience has often been the opposite. When I told four different cardiologists that my congenital heart defect was causing serious problems, each told me that it wasn’t possible. After two years, I found a fifth cardiologist who listened. She and her colleagues at Mayo Clinic repaired the defect and made it possible for me to do many things again, including my work. In the past, when I’ve told someone about my reactions to a chemical, mold, or other substance, they often just stared back in response, as though waiting to see me break out in hives, or provide some visible, outward sign of the problem. Most often, I was the one who had to make a change — sometimes a radical one — in order to stay safe and healthy.
Thanks to some treacherous mothballs, I had the opportunity to be heard. Talking with my neighbor helped me literally breathe easier. Her understanding and response returned my lips, tongue, and throat to normal, and guaranteed my stomach wouldn’t go volcanic again. Our conversation led to a better situation for all of us in our fourplex. On a practical note, this anniversary warned me to stay vigilant in a mostly unmasked, largely un-vaccinated community.
Back to the cosmic scheme of things, I believe this anniversary represented restoration. Covid literally took my voice away, and my sense of smell and taste. I could use my voice now to protect myself and my neighbors from a pesticide whose dangers are invisible. Unless someone lights a match near the fumes and the resulting fire forces naphthalene to show its character, it bears no visible warning sign. The mothball incident reminds me to trust what I know, but cannot see. As we’ve become an ever more visual culture, tethered to screens of all sizes, we jeopardize our three-dimensional lives and diminish their quality by not paying more attention to our other senses. How can anything that smells as revolting as chemically loaded mothballs be good for us? Cedar, lavender and peppermint repel moths. Isn’t it enough to simply make them go away? Do we have to kill them? And endanger ourselves in the process?
Think about how much of our lives has become invisible. I believe some, if not many, lives have been saved, thanks to lost taste and smell advertising the presence of Covid. Otherwise, the viral villain is invisible. We trust so much that is invisible to make our lives work, and then refuse to believe in an invisible virus that manifests itself with remarkable damage to the body. Before Covid, I had an extraordinarily keen sense of smell. If it took an ugly smell like naphthalene to let me know my nose was working again, so be it. It’s good to know I can smell something harmful or dangerous.
Why these physical and stressful anniversaries? Multiple answers exist. As part of this voyage, I’ll address them from time to time, as I did in the previous post.
Until then, take note of your calendar, past and present. Be proactive. Whatever an anniversary of any kind of loss brings your way or makes you remember, look intently for what it restores to you. Anniversaries will happen. They have a life of their own, but they don’t have to hijack our mind, health, or spirit. I invite you to trust in the goodness that made all life, look for that goodness everywhere, even when circumstances conspire to make us face loss again or the temporary return of a piercing pain.
Anniversaries may be joyful. Anniversaries that mark loss of any kind are usually hard, or sad, even though we can find some joy and gratitude in the memories the anniversaries bring. They may make you cry all day, run a fever, or snap at your child or spouse. These are signals to pause and re-acknowledge the pain, not so that we will hurt again, but so we can come closer to healing. The healing doesn’t happen unless we participate. I believe our bodies, never separated from our minds, have their own way of helping us heal. It may not always be easy, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t good.
Blessed Julian of Norwich wrote a jewel-like passage eight centuries ago still used often today. Although this contemplative woman wrote of sin, I find it helpful to replace that word with pain. She must have known the cutting contours of pain, having lived through two periods of the plague herself. She became ill and nearly died during one, and lost loved ones to that cruel disease. Here is my adaptation:
“It is necessary that there shall be pain; and All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” May it be so.