Purgatory - A close call with COVID-19 teaches a valuable lesson

What if I had COVID? At 61, I was still young enough to get off easy, though, I couldn’t take that for granted, but what about Mrs. G.?

COVID-19 face mask (photo credit: UNSPLASH)
COVID-19 face mask
(photo credit: UNSPLASH)
Once a week, I visit Mrs. G.
Our friendship started just a decade ago when she moved to our small Jerusalem suburb. Because we were both ex-New Yorkers – we’d attended similar schools, shopped in the same stores, and even spent a summer in the same camp – it felt like we’d been friends forever.
Mrs. G. is 87, so I considered my visits part fun and part mitzvah, good deed. Now? Going to her house has come to feel like taking a deep dive into Gehinnom.
The medical profession claims that home visits to elderly friends are “moderately risky,” flirting with disaster as opposed to handing it an invitation, the way that people who go to large indoor religious services or bars do.
I have been careful. Since March, I’ve stayed away from hairdressers, eyebrow waxers and nail salons. I haven’t even hugged or kissed my grandkids, but I won’t give up on Mrs. G.
Heavily wrinkled with pure white hair and velvety brown eyes, Mrs. G is the closest thing I’ve got to a mother. She’s wise, a good listener, and she believes in me. When I share the rejections that inevitably come my way as a writer, she tells me that I’m terrific. But she’s not a phone person. If I want her in my life, I must visit.
On chilly days, I shivered outside Mrs. G.’s doorway while she sat in the hallway, swaddled in blankets. On warm days, we socially distanced in her garden, but last week it was cool again and we rendezvoused in her living room. Mrs. G’s mask was off – at 88, she hates the discomfort. Foolishly, I copied her facial striptease and peeled down my mask, first below my nose and finally to my chin.
Why? COVID weariness and faulty reasoning. I hadn’t been near a sick person, and I showed no signs of illness. My sneezes, once at home and once en route to Mrs. G’s, didn’t count.
Two days after my visit, I had come down with a cold, not COVID, right? Blowing into a tissue, I reviewed the symptoms in my mind.
Fever? No.
Dry cough? No.
Loss of taste and smell? No.
I issued myself a clean bill of health.
Then, while talking on the phone, my friend Ruth commented on my sniffles.
“Get tested. Any upper respiratory illness is suspect.”
Her words planted a seed of doubt. Ruth knows more medicine than most people. Until she retired, she’d been a doctor’s secretary. My next visit was to Google.
On healthline.com, Dr. Lindsey Elmore, a board-certified pharmacologist, decreed that sniffles and sneezes were not signs of COVID.
Hah. I knew it.
Hooray, right?
Maybe not. Now I began to wonder. Who was Dr. Lindsey Elmore? A human or a bot trolling in cyberspace? I needed to do more research.
The World Health Organization site listed the usual symptoms with a frightening caveat. “Some [COVID] patients may have nasal congestion and runny nose. “
Now I was sunk.
What if I had COVID? At 61, I was still young enough to get off easy, though, I couldn’t take that for granted, but what about Mrs. G.?
How would I live with myself if my negligence had brought the Angel of Death to her door?
I BURIED my face in my hands, temporarily immobilized.
“Don’t jump to any conclusions,” said my husband. “Take a test.”
A foreign object shoved up my nose? The idea freaked me out, but now it presented my only hope.
I ran to the testing center, but where was it? The public service announcement on our town’s public address system said it was in the gan. Gan park? The park was completely empty. Where was it? Out of breath, I ran to the next park. It was empty, too. I started to head home. Maybe I was off the hook.
Then the proverbial light bulb went off in my head. They meant gan – kindergarten – not gan as in park.
Outside the kindergarten, a small crowd of my neighbors had gathered, waiting for their turns. Things moved quickly. Before I could change my mind, a young man in full PPE was pushing an oversized Q-tip up my throat.
“That’s enough,” I declared, lifting myself from the chair.
Medical Darth Vader shook his head.
I sat back down and squeezed my eyes shut, mumbling a chapter of Psalms as he violated my right nostril.
He promised results by the next morning. That was only 15 hours away. Not much time, right? Wrong. When you suspect you may have killed your best friend, every minute feels like a year, maybe even a decade or a century, and it got worse. While I waited at home, I realized that I had been in contact with at least a half-dozen people, some of them family, others like Mrs. G., close friends. That may have made me COVID Mary, a possible mass murderer.
What if I tested positive? How would I break the news? How would my victims respond?
Not well. Who in their right mind would blithely accept a visit from the Malach HaMoves?
What would come first, I wondered, their lynching of me or my lynching of myself?
For the rest of the afternoon and into the night, my mind churned with guilty thoughts and prayers.
I needed a miracle.
“Help. I’ll be good but don’t make me a super-spreader,” I promised.
Early the next morning, I phoned the testing center.
“Not ready yet.”
“When.”
“Call back.”
I did – 20 more times. In between, I spent the day praying, beating myself up, and zoning out with YouTube and online shopping. I felt like I was in a branch of hell that had good Wi-Fi.
Finally, at dusk, my answer came.
“Negative,” spoken by an anonymous female voice. No word could have been sweeter. For a few short moments, I basked in the euphoria, but like fluffy clouds or birthday-party balloons, it soon floated away, leaving me with a new moral dilemma: Would I continue to see Mrs. G.?
Mrs. G. loves my visits, and she hates Zoom. With current research indicating that elderly social isolation may be as deadly as COVID, I will continue, but I have learned my lesson. No more Russian roulette. Until I get both vaccine shots, I’ll be careful. 
Even the slightest sign of illness will keep me away. 
And I’ll wear my mask.
I’ve opened the door to Gehinnom and I’m not going back. 
The author is a prizewinning writer. Her work appears frequently in these pages, and she facilitates a memoir workshop on Zoom. ungar.carol@gmail.com


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