On March 13th, 2021, I hugged a friend, usually nothing remarkable. But it was the first time I had hugged anyone for a year. My last hug had been on March 12th, 2020. The next day was the day I really understood that we were all seriously vulnerable to the Covid-19 virus. I knew I had to take steps to protect my own life and the lives of my loved ones.
The pandemic forced me to acknowledge my vulnerability. It reminded me of my own mortality on a daily basis. It put into stark relief the ways in which political realities can threaten all of us: our physical health, mental health, and indeed our ability to avoid death.
Since my life—our lives—were at threat, I became compulsive about reading and watching the news, in spite of my efforts to stop. I turned on NPR the moment I woke up. I stayed up too late watching news programs. I knew I was living in a time like no other. and developed an intense need to be a witness to this time. I needed to understand what was happening to me, to my community, to the nation, and the world.
On the day of my last hug, I was about three weeks from celebrating my 80th birthday. My entire family was planning to come from places far away. We hadn’t all been together in the same place for several years. There would be a big music gathering when the family arrived with local friends and musicians. The next day there was to be a party with 100 friends. To top off things off, I had rented a beautiful 6-bedroom lodge on Lake Keowee in South Carolina for a week with the entire family. It was perfect—but it was sadly, not to be. I was extremely disappointed.
The disappointment faded as my focus shifted to what it meant to be living in the time of a pandemic. With this pervasive consciousness of my own mortality, I began to take stock. I needed to update my end-of-life preparations, such as my will and final directive for healthcare. Should I refuse a respirator if I had Covid? And what should I do about all these books I’ve collected? How could I get the basement cleaned out so my family won’t have to worry about that? I felt the need to take action, but at the same time I felt stymied. Frozen. Overwhelmed.
In July, my cardiologist’s office called and urged me to come in for an overdue appointment. I was uneasy about it, but I agreed to go. It was terrifying. At that time, that physician’s practice had not gotten up-to-speed with the precautions that many had put into place. They did not allow me to wait in the car until they were ready for me. I had to choose between taking the stairs or riding the elevator. Elevators were dangerous so I took the stairs and felt winded. I needed to use the bathroom —which I did—but that felt scary. There was not a hook for me to hang my purse, so it hung precariously from my shoulder as I took care of business. Should I flush the toilet? Maybe that would whoosh Covid-19 germs into the air. I would have to touch the soap dispenser in order to wash my hands. Maybe I should just use Purel instead. I used a paper towel to open the bathroom door.
When I reached the office, they had me sign in physically on a touch screen (not safe) and placed me in a waiting room with about 15 other patients. Later they sent me to a small, grim examination room where I waited a full hour for the doctor, becoming more and more anxious about the poor ventilation in the room and the generally dangerous conditions. When my cardiologist finally came in, I told her how concerned I was. She didn’t apologize. She said she was detained at the hospital and that I should be glad that she was able to be there for folks who really needed her. She did a cursory examination. I was fine. The appointment wasn’t worth the risks.
I had learned about the vulnerability of my age group to Covid-19 and I felt certain that if I caught it, I would be toast. A few days after my appointment with the cardiologist, I developed a fever. Not an extremely high fever, but it was unusual for me. It went on for several days. I called my doctor and she scheduled me for a Covid test.
In the meantime, I talked with my daughter, Alice. She thought I had really lost it when I pointed out that they might have to have my memorial service on Zoom if I got Covid. It seemed like an outrageous thought to her. I understand why she didn’t want to hear that idea in that moment, but was that an unreasonable place for a worried 80-year-old mind to land in a time of pandemic?
Thankfully, my Covid tests results came back negative. The important lesson I had learned from this scare was that I was not willing to risk exposure. The resulting anxiety was more than I could bear.
I needed to educate myself about how to survive a pandemic. I listened to NPR, and read the NYTimes, the Washington Post and The Atlantic. I watched CNN, PBS and MSNBC. Basically, I figured out that I needed to pull in from most social contact. I stopped attending in-person OLLI classes even before they all went to Zoom.
Zoom saved me. I’ve basically zoomed my way through the pandemic. I have regular Sunday evening zoom meetings with my family and I treasure the new-found continuity that this new tradition enabled. I zoom with two different book clubs, and also with “The Keepers”, a group of UGA colleagues.
For about 15 years, I have participated in reunions with a group of ten friends who graduated from Tulsa Central high school in 1958. (We began calling ourselves “The Outcasts” when we had a slumber party on a Saturday night and noticed that nobody among us had a date.) During the pandemic we zoomed monthly and have grown even closer despite weathering some deep political tension during the election.
More zooming has been required for meetings with the OLLI@UGA Board of Directors, the OLLI Curriculum committee and two committees of my church. I attend virtual Sunday morning services. Additionally, I zoomed each Monday and Thursday afternoons at 4:00 with two dear friends, , and most every evening at 8:00 pm with another friend.
Yes – I have sometimes suffered from Zoom overload. But the technology enabled me to feel grounded and connected and to continue some of my volunteer work in the community. I have gotten my money’s worth from $14.95 monthly fee to Zoom.us that enables our groups to meet for more than 40 minutes!
It didn’t feel safe to shop at the grocery store so I learned how to order groceries through Instacart. I subscribed to the delivery service at Publix. I ordered masks and stocked up on gloves and toilet paper.
Worrying about the supply chains for pharmaceuticals, I had my prescriptions shifted from the Kroger Pharmacy to the Humana mail order service. Subaru came to get my car to be serviced and then returned it to me.
I stopped going to physical therapy and my exercise gym—and my body has suffered from that. I feel noticeably weaker and have developed some new back issues. I will soon be able to go back to PT. My modified routines have subtly reduced my daily activities and I’m renewing my commitment to make up for that.
My dog, Max, had curbside service from his vet and his groomer. Max. How would I have gotten through this time without him? He is twelve pounds of sweetness—a white, cuddly, funny and devoted Bichon-type rescue dog. He insists that we go out for walks—which has been very important for my physical and mental health.
As I write this, I have now received two Pfizer vaccinations. We’re not out of the woods as a community, a nation, or a world, but I’m in a much safer place personally. I’ve hugged a lot more friends and I intend to catch up more on hugging. Human touch is so important!
It looks like I’ve made it. I haven’t had to worry about infecting others in my home. I haven’t been responsible for guiding children trying to do online schooling. I haven’t suffered from challenging emotional environments or financial distress that many have experienced during the pandemic. I didn’t die. I’m so very lucky.
Athens resident Penny Oldfather wrote this story for her OLLI Guided Autobiography class in March 2021.
Wonderful article. It seems you suffered somewhat more emotionally than I did. You also enjoyed ZOOM a great deal more than I did. And somehow the both of us survived this past year and a half. Hopefully we will continue to be well. Best, Annette
A very thoughtful–and touching–essay, Penny! I am so glad you survived! You are a gift to the community!