Red herrings

At 5 p.m. yesterday, Hilary began to cough. She couldn’t stop herself. The fit didn’t last long — maybe five minutes at the most. She had no fever or aches. After some water, a cough drop, and some work on our puzzle, the tickle in her throat went away. She didn’t cough again for the rest of the night.

In acute crises, I’ve learned, time slows down. The precise dimensions of every second become palpable. Their total contents are revealed to you all at once, like an upturned drawer. March ’20 might feel to you like the longest month you’ve ever lived through. If it does, you probably know what I’m talking about. The goal of each minute becomes reaching the next. It’s no way to exist. Sometimes free spirits will talk glowingly about living in the moment, with no sense of history or consequence. Our cancer experience has taught us is that this is baloney. I know what the moment feels like. Life lived in the moment is shallow and scary. The only comfort is faith in a future, bright and beautiful, scrolling out before us like a golden road.

One of Hilary’s medications makes her sniffly. This has been going on for a many months, but it takes on a different meaning in the midst of a respiratory pandemic. Cold and dreary weather exacerbates the problem, and look at us, shivering through the damp start of another April. As the month goes on, I know my allergies will accelerate. Beyond the usual psychosomatic obstructions, my breathing is fine, but soon enough I’m going to start feeling wheezy. My pollen allergies are so bad that they’ll sometimes cause me to run a fever. Each May, I’ll spend about a week trying to figure out whether I’ve got the flu or if it’s just the usual. With stakes as high as they are, how will I differentiate between allergy attacks and symptoms that might be indicative of something more dreadful?

Last night I lay awake for hours, conscious of the rhythm of Hilary’s breathing. I didn’t feel particularly scared, but I felt conscious that each one of those breaths were precious, and I tried to align myself with their sacred rhythm. Thank God for every breath you blow, Stuart Murdoch tells us, and often I do — but if you never take your next heartbeat for granted, it’s going to be hard to get any shuteye.

When I did get to sleep, I dreamt about John Prine, indirectly, but meaningfully. We were at Madison Square Garden for a concert. A shaken Miranda Lambert came onstage, did a few Prine songs, apologized to the crowd for crying. She didn’t want to show us that she, too, was afraid. Suddenly I realized that I was putting Hilary in jeopardy by bringing her to an arena. My uncle, who is an ophthalmologist and has always represented New York City to me, appeared in the corridor and announced an evacuation order for the building. We found a side elevator and hurried out to 33rd Street. I was desperate, breathless, plotting our route home when I opened my eyes to daylight.

The good news is that my cousin is finally home from the hospital. Her discharge took awhile. It is one of the cruelties of this virus that it refuses to resolve in a predictable fashion — one day you think you’re getting better, the next, symptoms return with new ferocity. We choose to believe she’s off the rollercoaster at last. Her appetite has returned and her daughters are delighted. They’ve gotten to the other side of the ordeal, and our hope is that she’s now the possessor of antigens that will ward off further trouble.

The more upsetting development is that my sister has a toothache. She contacted the family dentist this morning, and he was disinclined to see her: he’s clearly just as frightened of getting the virus as he is of transmitting it. If she continues to feel pain, they’ll both have to risk it. I know I have major dental work that needs to be done. Right now, I’m asymptomatic. At any moment, things could go south. For my own health, and the sanity of those around me, I need to forget about that. I need to reclaim a sense of the future. I need to bring back tomorrow.