Fear easily permeates the mind and sentences you to exhaustive thought. The unknowing is what bothers you and plays with your mind. Hope, so often championed, now plays tricks on you. Controlling your apprehension slowly becomes more difficult and finding an absence of finality tortures every thought. To an onlooker, it may be outlandish, but to you, it’s still so pertinent to your wellbeing. Have I condemned the ones I love to needless suffering?
An otherwise foreign issue had finally latched onto the university’s consciousness, but more specifically, onto mine.With finals and Spring Quarter confirmed to be online, I now meandered between dread and denial. There certainly was a poignant concern, but I had localized it to the back of my mind: at the fore was predominantly dismissal. Not that I didn’t accept the reality that was setting in, but I held out hope that it would blow by promptly and the issues we faced would be solved in a matter of weeks. I had too much faith.
Some of those around me brushed it off and acted as though it would be nothing, while others were packing their bags and preparing to go home as quickly as possible. With all the changes in my schedule, I found more free time and chose to use it to help a friend organize his things to move out of his apartment before we drove home together.
I remember spending a few hours rummaging through his stuff, moving them all into their respective bins; I was just providing support, but the act in itself felt surreal. The warm yellow light of the sun faded as the last of the items were moved into the nearby closet space. Once finished, I nonchalantly threw myself onto his living room couch and saw scattered medicine and a bottle of Pepto Bismol.
“Whose is it?” I asked.
“Just my roommate’s. He has been sick for a while.”
And I thought little more of it afterwards. I merely found it funny that his roommate was trying the whole gamut of over-the-counter medicines to subdue his illness.
Days went by and I felt an ever pressing yearning to go home. It wasn’t so much the change in circumstances, but the reality of how little time I had left with my family before I would graduate and venture out into the world. For this brief moment, I was a bird in search of a cage.
On my last evening in San Diego, I sat alone at a picnic table by the seashore. The orange tint of the fading light whispered a final goodbye through the salty air. What replaced it was a sky of cotton candy, the truly last strokes of intense color before dusk set in, and all I would see were faint freckles of distant worlds.
A week later and I found myself resting in my childhood bedroom, looking out the window at the scattered white hues of an otherwise blue canvas. A year earlier, I was chasing the super-bloom in Anza Borrego while taking in the beauty of thriving resilience in the harsh desert climate. The midday reverie was cut short as I received a phone call from the same friend I drove home with.
“You remember my roommate, right?” he said. “He’s being tested now and I just wanted to let you know.”
His roommate was sick, and I was in his living space. His breath circulated that room and he interacted with my friend but only now did I feel suffocated. It made me question whether the nightly coughs and itchy sinuses I had weren’t just from allergies. By now, I had already been home for two weeks, and I live with my grandmother. I had talked to her and spent time with her. All I could think about was “if” and “when.”
Am I an unwitting carrier? The oppressive thought fell upon my shoulders and the fear of the unknowing plays with my mind. How was I supposed to tell my parents without letting them into the same sphere of anxiety? But I had to. I’ve read stories of entire families dying and the thought of that happening to me now seemed in the realm of possibility.
In the three days that followed, I pulled away as I found necessary and maybe even beyond so. I isolated myself to my room, trapped with just my own racing ideas. I ate. I slept. I talked to Kaiser for a brief e-visit, but nothing really pulled me out of my fear and my guilt. I knew I couldn’t blame myself, yet all I could do was ask myself all the small changes I could have done to avoid this reality. I sat staring at the wall, wondering if I had just condemned my family.
My much younger sister, who didn’t know any better, would try to come peek inside my room to tell me things about her game or to just give me a hug. But in my fear and frustration, I irritably cut her off and pushed her away. She knew I could be infected, but I don’t know if she fully understood the gravity of my isolation.
Hours and hours passed by as I just sat in my room. The rancor of disquietude was unending. I could not just take a calm breath when every now and then the thoughts would permeate my mind and my heart would begin to race. Perhaps I had mild symptoms, perhaps I was asymptomatic. I could very well have been an unwitting carrier. It was the fear of contagion, and not of the sickness in itself.
On the fourth day, the university informed us that we had our first case. It was no coincidence that my friend’s roommate was tested. People would message me knowing some fragment of the story and some would even call and ask how I was. However, their comfort simply was not enough, and I carried anger without anywhere to direct it. There was no one to blame. All I could do was stare back out the window, finding that the panels’ muntin now formed the beams of an inescapable cage.
I wanted to be home, but not like this, not with all of these thoughts plaguing me. But hours turned into more days and with each passing, it became more apparent that my fear was what pained me, not an illness. It takes a toll, and torturously waiting for something to change, at least to give some closure, is unnerving. A disease is already a dreadful enigma but the unease of unknowing carries its own burdens. When I became a victim of my mind, the worries sometimes seemed endless.
14 days went by and I let myself hear the melodic voices of the dawn chorus; I could finally feel the breeze gently brushing by. The world be as it may, for in that moment, even if ephemeral, I no longer felt the burden. However, I know that I am lucky in many respects. My mind game is but a portion of the struggle for those who actually become sick or must man the frontline. Their suffering may be tenfold than what I have endured. I merely know the beginning of the pain.
But for that brief moment, my thoughts no longer rushed about. I could focus on what was before me: the birds weaved the clouds into a silk strewn sky, and for now, we were ok.
Art by Anthony Tran