By Eisa Ulen Richardson
March 18, 2020: I wake up, look at my phone, and realize my son Ralphie has 3 minutes to get to class. I gently tap his warm body. He lies between my husband Ralph and me, his foot jammed against my legs, his arm flung across Ralph’s neck. He has slept with us for weeks, just steps from his loft bed on the other side of our Brooklyn apartment.
Ralphie’s asthma has not been well controlled. He looks at me, eyes wide, and I know my child cannot breathe. Over two weeks, and without a precipitating event like a cold or flu, I’ve had to rush him to urgent care. We’ve gone to the ER about four times, to PM Pediatrics once, and, after numerous calls with his pediatrician, to his doctor’s office, where she rested her stethoscope against his back and listened to his lungs crackle, spasm, wheeze. Had you asked in January, I would have told you Ralphie was growing out of his asthma. No tracheal twitch, no rib recession, no tummy tug, no barking cough for months, so that in February, when he and I flew to Costa Rica, I almost forgot to pack his inhaler. Now that we are back from the rainforest and sea, we are in a crisis.
He is on a cocktail: Albuterol, Prednisone, Flovent, Zyrtec. We bought a nebulizer to give him more medicine, like a shot after a drink. All to keep him out of the hospital because, at Brooklyn Hospital, the tent is up, the line stretches outside, and we can’t go for help there. He could die there.
And here? If he wakes up in his loft, gasping for air, will I hear him? There is no nightstand, no space near the ceiling to place his rescue inhaler. So, he sleeps with us, has slept with us this month, and this morning we are exhausted.
I am sure my husband’s alarm went off at 7, and equally sure my phone pinged at 7:15, but I don’t wake up until over an hour later. I am always the first to wake up. I rub his back. “It’s 8:27, sweetie.” I whisper, he moves, then jolts forward. He rushes out of the bed to wash his face and brush his hair. He has 3 minutes to get to school, and he makes it just in time.
School is just a few yards away. He fires up his laptop, blinks into the screen, and enters his 5th grade advisory. My son is 11, carries his own phone, and is responsible enough to walk on his own to Edmonds Playground, where he plays basketball, wander through Fort Greene Park with his neighborhood friends, and run to the corner bodega when we need milk or cat food. But he has done none of those things since February, since we returned from Costa Rica, retrieved our luggage, and rode a yellow cab home, into what would become Ground Zero of the nation’s coronavirus outbreak.
Since February I have curbed his freedom, gripped his hand, kept him close. I have hovered, fretted, even before the quarantine, before his school closed, before we sat, gripped in shock and fear, staring at the news and making plans to survive.
March 9, 2020: My head is spinning. I drop my son off at school, push my body into a crowded subway, grasp the pole, and tunnel underground. I arrive at Hunter College. The class starts, my phone pings, and I already know it is the nurse. I step away from my students, hear “he’s here again” and “he seems to be okay,” and return to take attendance. One third of my class is missing. I teach, my phone pings again, I step away from my students, hear “he’s still wheezing” and “we will let you know if you need to come get him.” I return to my students, and I try to teach. “Where was I?” I say, and my students laugh. My phone pings a third time. I step away from my students, hear his voice, hear him say “Mamma,” hear the nurse say “come and get him.” My students understand, their faces crease, their eyes widen. They are also in crisis. I do not know this, but I will never see them in person again. I rush back underground, back to Brooklyn. My train stalls for just a moment at Bowling Green, my phone pings, and I answer, hear “Mamma, where are you?” his voice seeking mine. Mamma is coming, mamma is spinning, “mamma is almost there,” I say as the train lurches and the tunnel swallows our sounds. I rush upstairs at Borough Hall, enter his school, and, as I rub my hands with sanitizer, gaze, assess comfort. I hold my son, feel his face, “let’s go home” I say as the nurse says his chest is clearer. I thank her for everything, exit the school, hold his hand, hear my phone ping. An alert: The school building will close “out of an abundance of caution.” We wait for a bus. I do not know this, but I will not ride another bus or train for I don’t know how long. We arrive home, shower, snuggle. I turn on the TV, tuck my son on the sofa. I sit nearby, fire my laptop, email my chairs, explain that my child’s school has shut down and that I will not be able to bring him on the trains to my classes and that I will not be teaching in person and that I would like to move my courses online. I am given permission. Quiet as it’s kept, I’m told, I am just days ahead of the CUNY announcement. I email my students, I text my husband, and I feel my son’s face. I wring my hands. My hands prefer doing. My husband comes home. I kiss his face. I rush out, race to Atlantic Center, place wipes on a cart handle, wheel through Stop N Shop. I panic buy. I scour the shelves. I am spinning. I snatch napkins instead of toilet paper, grab sardines instead of fresh fish, load in Ragu instead of Newman’s Own. I buy toilet bowl cleaner because the Clorox is gone. I get what I can get. I taxi home, I wash everything down, I squirrel away. I pack napkins under my skirts. I stack cans next to shoes. I hoard.
It has been weeks since I have seen a bottle of hand sanitizer on a store shelf. The local pharmacist tells my husband to mix alcohol and a touch of aloe vera. I mix the ingredients in a spray bottle and pack it in my purse, along with rubber gloves, extra masks, baby wipes and Albuterol. Prepping my purse is a waste of time. I will go nowhere for three whole months.
I panic buy. I scour the shelves. I am spinning. I snatch napkins instead of toilet paper, grab sardines instead of fresh fish, load in Ragu instead of Newman’s Own. I buy toilet bowl cleaner because the Clorox is gone. I get what I can get. I taxi home, I wash everything down, I squirrel away. I pack napkins under my skirts. I stack cans next to shoes. I hoard.
For three months I will mostly sit, and yet I am so tired. This fear is exhausting. It is almost March 10th, and my head spins as I try to sleep.
February 17, 2020: I lie to my students. I push my body into crowded subways, grasp poles, breathe underground. Every gesture is a deceit. When I get to the city I stand before them, and I say that this thing is no more than a bad flu, that they will likely never catch it, that, even if they do contract COVID, they will likely survive. “You are all young and healthy,” I look in their faces and tell them. I am their teacher. I know things. They believe me. “Don’t freak out,” I say, and they calm down. “You’ll be fine.”
March 12, 2020: My students are not fine. Today the CUNY system has shut down. Classes at Hunter and Baruch are cancelled, but because Ralphie’s school closed on the 9th, my students and I had already planned to have class online. We meet via BlackBoard Collaborate, and my bright, shining students look sullen, washed out, even ashen. “I am sorry,” I tell them. I see them on the screen, wrapped in blankets, hair disheveled, eyes ringed by stress. “He said it was like the flu.” He is the president, they know. I am sorry I allowed a reality television personality to dupe me. I read The New York Times, I listen to NPR, I enjoy Frontline, and still I believed his lies. We were in crisis long before March 9th. My every step in this beautiful city was a deception, a betrayal made by the man who had the most information.
I am forgiven. I am told, “I first learned about COVID in your class” and “you were the first to warn me” and “I was so focused on my studies, but I started to prepare because you told me to.”
March 16, 2020: We should have been better prepared. We should have been told to stock up, hunker down, and mask. I am pissed.
In this crisis, all I know is I can’t expect my students to discuss the water motif in the work of Afro-Caribbean writers when their grandmothers have COVID, their employers are not giving them PPE; their status complicates everything. I can’t expect them to support their assertions using integrated quotes when they are undocumented, they are on the front line, and they do not want to die. “This class is my therapy,” they say. I post videos for asynchronous learning and just let them talk, listen, connect to one another through my synchronous sessions. One or two withdraw from school. It is all too much. When I drop the midterm from the syllabus, they cheer.
We should have been better prepared. We should have been told to stock up, hunker down, and mask. I am pissed. In this crisis, all I know is I can’t expect my students to discuss the water motif in the work of Afro-Caribbean writers when their grandmothers have COVID, their employers are not giving them PPE; their status complicates everything.
March 11, 2020: I shouldn’t even be here. In an alternate universe, in my imagination, in my fantasy life, we have a summer home, a large pantry, even a heated pool. In the part of my brain that tends to wishes and dreams, we are out of this hot zone. I am pragmatic, and so in the part of my brain that plans and figures for the survival of my family, I have an apartment to sanitize, canned food stockpiled in closets. I open mail in the back courtyard, and wash my hands when I get back upstairs even though I’m wearing gloves.
And I still have to call my mother. I have been calling her every day. She, a Boomer, believes she might live forever, that she is forever young. She is across the country, in Nevada, and it is too late in this crisis to try to get her nearer to me. So, I daughter her from afar. Each day we talk, I ask if she has gotten supplies. Each day we talk, she tells me anew why she has not: I like my fruits and vegetables fresh, I am just one person to feed, I like my weekly shopping and the store is so clean, and, Eisa, it is one of the few reasons I have to get out of the house.
You will not be able to get out of the house, I tell her. I send her this text:
The entire country of Italy is on lockdown, the NBA is cancelled for the season, and there will be no more flights from Europe. Please, get your food, toiletries, and medicine stored up and only go out for fresh air and sunshine.
But panic does not motivate her. Chaos creates a stubborn refusal to adapt to too much change. So, I appeal to her sense of control. “Think of it like this,” I say, voice soft, “you may never need to use all the things I am asking you to buy. Maybe the virus will just float away, and you can do your weekly shopping; but, if it doesn’t, and you don’t feel comfortable going out, then you won’t have to. You won’t have to worry about how to get your provisions.”
Maybe it is my use of the word provisions, but somehow or another this approach begins to work on her. I soften my texts:
Did you order food and toiletries through Fresh Direct? Let me know when you stock up. We still have a few more items to buy.
And then later that same day, after I talk to my cousin, a medical professional:
According to Chester, the public is not being told how bad this is. I just want you to be able to relax and chill no matter what.
The next day she calls me. Triumphant, she exclaims, “I did it. I stocked up.” “Great,” I say, “what did you buy?” And she lists Lysol, Clorox, paper towels, and Tide. She lists more cleaning and household supplies and how, I ask, are these things going to taste when you run out of food? She tells me that next week she is buying food but the sirens are wailing in New York and I say to her in Nevada, “Mom. Go tomorrow, please.” I am on the verge of ordering her food and having it delivered to her door, but I have known my mother all my life and she would likely refuse the delivery because, after all, she is a grown woman who can take care of herself. So, instead, I remind her that tuna and sardines are good protein sources, that peanut butter lasts forever, and if I could eat frozen string beans growing up, she surely can now. We laugh, and I remind her that she can always donate canned food that she does not eat through this crisis.
All the while, I am texting my family. The messages are wild and unwieldy. This one has heard that New York is going into quarantine, and I pass it on. That one learns that the supply chain is broken, and I pass it on. Another says get ready, the entire nation is going into lockdown. I have too many text threads. I share everything I hear with everyone I love.
March 3, 2020: I need more information. I call my cousins who work in health care, administrators who are on the calls and nurses who are on the front lines. I share more information. I tell two aunts, my in-laws, to please stop reporting to work, that no job is worth the risks. All the while, I am managing my own little family, telling my own son to breathe breathe breathe breathe.
My son’s pulmonologist has reduced his medication. The doctor makes his decisions based on my careful reports from home. I am pleased when he tells me that the only medicine he wants my son to take is the daily control inhaler, but he wants to increase the dosage, and I am alarmed. Why more medicine when we are giving him less, I want to know.
My son’s doctor does not want to create a public health panic, does not want to sound alarms, but he does tell me this: In a couple of weeks, maybe a month, we will not want my son to go to a hospital. I hear him. I hear the inflection in the doctor’s voice, his calm and mild yet certain statement about the future, and I tell him to say no more. My husband runs to the pharmacy to get the higher dose inhaler.
Before the end of the month, my friend tells me seven senior citizens pass in her Crown Heights building. Before the end of the month, my panic expresses in the wail of sirens, followed by a complete and eerie silence, that we endure in the county of Kings. Before the end of the month a line snakes around Elmhurst.
February 29, 2020: Did my son and I catch COVID just 20 days ago, when we stood in line at JFK, waiting to touch the machines that process passports? Is that why his asthma, which was so well controlled, suddenly terrifies me so much that now, two weeks into this crisis, he sleeps in our bed like he is a baby again? We are in the hospital, and I ask if we should be tested. “After all,” I say, “we did travel recently, and he has had to be nebulized several times since our return.” I am told that a test isn’t needed, that there is no reason to swab for SARS-Co V-2.
March 20, 2020: I learn there were no tests. There are no tests, even now. I suppose it didn’t make sense for an emergency room nurse to explain, very plainly, that though we absolutely should be tested given my son’s diminished lung capacity and the concomitant rise in coronavirus cases, there simply were no tests for a boy who could, for the most part at least, manage to breathe on his own.
Common sense planning by the White House months before his first wheeze should have enabled this basic protocol. I blame poor executive decision-making, the dismantling of Obama’s pandemic preparedness, and Trump’s remarkable ineptitude. What a failure. Sheer horror unleashed by dishonor, immorality, and a refusal to act.
Bodies pile in trucks flung open on street corners. Wrapped in each bag is a person. Black and Brown people are the sacrificial essential workers, the dispossessed and disposed, the dead orderlies, dead meat plant workers, dead grocery clerks. Those who scrub the toilets after we’ve fled to our home offices, those are my people.
COVID is stressing the structural racism, the inherent inequalities, already in place. COVID is forcing non-BIPOC to sit still, is forcing them to focus, to see how bad it is. But of course we Black folk already know. As the city spikes, higher and higher still, one thing has not changed: As for us, my family, all my people, and my precious baby boy, we still can’t breathe.
Eisa Nefertari Ulen Richardson is the author of Crystelle Mourning (Atria), a novel described by The Washington Post as “a call for healing in the African American community from generations of hurt and neglect.” Eisa is the recipient of a Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center Fellowship for Young African-American Fiction Writers, a Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center Fellowship, and a National Association of Black Journalists Award. Her essays on African American culture have been widely anthologized, most recently “Black Parenting Matters” in Who Do You Serve? Who Do You Protect? (Haymarket), which won the Social Justice / Advocacy Award for 2017 from the School Library Journal’s In the Margins Book Committee. Eisa graduated from Sarah Lawrence College and earned a master’s degree from Columbia University. She has taught literature at Hunter College and The Pratt Institute. A founding member of ringShout: A Place for Black Literature, she lives with her husband and son in Brooklyn.