Waiting for the Bees

May 27, 2020

Today, we dig. Bees circle our heads and our hands, inspecting our movements in the grass, their grass. Ella, my fairy-like child, wants to plant a whole field of sunflowers on our front lawn. We have purchased a single pack of seeds. Perhaps it is too late in the season to plant sunflowers, but Ella is determined to try and we are determined to make her dreams come true.

Her white, wispy hair falls into her eyes as she digs in the dirt with her miniature shovel; her green gardening gloves are so large her hands keep slipping off the shovel. Our baby, Mara, coos from the carrier on my back and spreads her fingers out to the sky; she’s determined to grab a shovel for herself. My wife, Hayley, puts a toy in her hand and the baby bops it against the back of my head and laughs.

At five months old, we already know Mara will be the cause of many grey hairs, maybe even premature hair loss. She’s a happy, portly, and fiercely independent baby who refuses to be ignored or left behind. She’s also a red-head, like my wife, and as much as I fight against falling victim to stereotypes, I’m a firm believer in the validity of the red head’s fiery reputation. Ella, however, with her white-blonde hair, ghost-pale skin, and slight build is shy and cautious. She talks non-stop at home, telling us stories of unicorns and fairy princess and the threat of wolves or broken ice, but at daycare, she’s so silent her teachers once thought she was mute.

“Ahh,” shrieks Ella. Hayley and I wince as Ella falls forward; her chin almost collides with the handle of her shovel.

She looks up at me and smiles. “I’m fine, Mommy.”

“Be careful with that.”

“I am careful.” She adjusts her glove for the hundredth time and then looks at me and whispers, “Hey, maybe fairies live under here.”

“Maybe trolls,” I tease.

“No.” She scrunches her eyebrows, skeptical of scary things because the sun is out.

While she daydreams of pink and purple fairies with silky wings and backpacks that are made from seed pods and spider’s web, I sift the rocky dirt through my fingers and think of my grandmothers, who are now newly buried beneath the earth. My grandmothers—both fierce women in their own ways, women who’d rocked me to sleep, given me advice for the last 33 years, and loved my babies with the same fervor as their own—were both laid to rest last weekend. My mother’s mother died of pancreatic cancer, and my father’s mother’s mind struggled with the COVID-induced isolation. She once wrote in her high school yearbook that it was her goal “to get Abe,” the man she would marry a few years later. Now, she was determined to get back to him. She’d refused all of her medications and her lungs—already stretched thin with COPD—drowned quickly, while her heart was determined to beat on. She struggled into death.

The last time I saw my father’s mother, before the care facility she’d only been in a few weeks shut down to visitors, she begged to see our new baby. I didn’t want to chance an exposure, but there was something in her voice that made me run out to the parking lot and return with her. I held Mara high and away, while my grandmother told me the story of her very first doll. She collected dolls; she had a whole room full of them, but I’d never heard this story. She spoke in a high-pitched whine of her child’s self. I imagined her with braids and bright eyes, tall-necked dresses with bows. She lived in a pre-masked world of the past; now that I think of it, she was already visiting that mysterious place, riding to it on the back of synapses she thought were long dead but had now come alive. She’d meet my grandfather there for the first time and the thousandth time and there they would stay.

“Do you think these will grow as tall as a beanstalk, all the way up to the sky?” Ella asks, pulling me out of my recollection.

I laugh. “Maybe!”

Together, we look up. The sky is blue. An isolated pack of clouds hurry over the blaring sun so quickly that the shadows they create over the newly tilled soil are kaleidoscopic. My wife and I make eye contact and smile. The baby cries in her carrier. Hayley pulls her out and bounces her up and down, up and down.

Let at least one sunflower grow, I think, scanning the lawn. A bee lands on my forearm, and Ella gasps, “Mommy, be careful. It might sting you.”

“If I stay still and don’t scare him, he will eventually fly away.”

“He’s pretty,” she says, inspecting his wings and fuzzy striped hair and big, buggy eyes with her own eyes about an inch from his back.

“Is that where he’d sting me from?” she asks, pointing to his barbed stinger.

“Yes, but he doesn’t want to sting you.”

“Why?”

I hesitate, not knowing if I should bring up the topic of death with my three-year-old. “If a honeybee is scared enough to sting you, he…dies.”

Her face grows dark. “Will the coronavirus fly away from us if we don’t make it mad?”

“No, viruses are parasites. Like vampires!”

Ella’s nose scrunches up, and then asks, “Is Grandma Mary dead?”

I feel like I’ve been hit in my stomach with a soccer ball. I remember how her golden urn reflected the light of the bright summer sun in the cemetery, blinding us.

“Yes, honey,” Hayley says.

“Is Grandma Shirlee dead?”

“Yes,” I say, remembering her in her coffin, her body shrived like a prune around her bones due to the cancer, her too pink lips and her hands folded, one over the other.

“Can we go see them?”

“We can’t go anywhere right now,” Hayley diverts.

“Are you going to die?” she asks, looking at me.

“I…,” I begin.

“I hope not,” Hayley says, saving me. “Not for a long time.”

The sun through the clouds brings about a strange light and I imagine my mother’s mother riding her horse in the distance; she’s wearing green flannel, farm gloves, and tall boots. She looks like she’s ready to corral the cows back into the barn. While she gallops away, I imagine my father’s mother by our cedar tree, except the tree is no longer a cedar, it’s a blue spruce and it’s covered with Christmas decorations. She’s dancing by the tree, holding up a bottle of Spumante. She’s wearing white-washed blue jeans and an orange Life is Good shirt. Her mouth opens and I anticipate the sound of her laugh, but the sun emerges from a break in the clouds and she disappears.

I poke the last seed into the ground and wipe sweat off my forehead.

“Mom, you have dirt on your face. You look like a monster!”

I growl and chant, “fi, fie, foe, fum, I smell the blood of—”

Ella screams and runs. I chase her across the lawn until I catch her. We laugh until our lungs burn.

 

July 19th, 2020

I am hot with fever and my stomach hurts. I hold Mara. She was born in January, just before the pandemic reached the United States. We can visualize the buildup of days in isolation in the growth of her fatty thighs and rounded cheeks. Time is measured in growth charts and the accumulation of bags of pumped milk in the freezer. Otherwise, the days blend together as the borders of the house are rarely breeched. I teach college students from home in a makeshift office a few feet from where I sleep.

Mara developed the fever first. Her flushed cheek rests against my breast as she sucks mindlessly. The heat from her skin sends waves throughout my body.

The fever cannot be COVID-19. Surely every fever cannot be scapegoated on the sharp back of this novel illness. Sweat beads off her bald head and her long, red eyelashes are damp. Her blocked tear duct is backed up again. I feel a twinge in my stomach and my heart pounds.

The thermometer reads 102.5; Mara and I burn at the same timber. Ella is building a castle with blocks. She seems fine. Ella has asthma. The last time she got a virus, she had to go by ambulance from our rural hospital to Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh because she had trouble breathing. I had ridden in the back of the ambulance nine months pregnant, wondering if the EMT would soon have three patients instead of one. I am haunted by Ella’s voice repeatedly screaming—her body strapped to the transport bed—“hold me, Mommy. Hold me!”

Stop, I tell myself. Mara’s first virus can’t be COVID-19. Stop jumping to conclusions. That’s what Hayley would say if she were here. I can’t deny that the worldwide pandemic doesn’t have me on edge regarding physical ailments. I check our temperatures regularly and make everyone take a smell test, shoving a jar of peanut butter under their noses, to everyone’s mortification. I make Hayley strip in the basement after a shift at the hospital and put her clothes on high heat in the wash, and I sanitize everything coming in or out of the house, from hands to cereal boxes, to watches and wedding rings.

On Tuesday, the babysitter—the only person we’ve seen in months—called to say she was sick. Allergies, she thought. But better to be safe than sorry. She’s been at home for six days and she’s already feeling better.

My phone beeps. Maybe it’s my wife. Maybe she can come home from work early. I set the baby down and, as I search for the phone in the depths of the couch, the baby starts to scream.

My phone says it’s Lauren, our babysitter.

It reads, “I am so sorry to tell you this. I got tested for COVID and I am positive. Idk how it happened and I feel terrible I put your family at risk, especially your kids.”

I dial Hayley’s number. I imagine her holding a laboring woman’s leg up as she pushes, too busy to take the call, but she answers on the first ring. Whatever she’s doing, she will need to come home. She will need to quarantine.

“Who’s dead?” she jokes, a dark testament to recent days when news of loss has been the status quo.

Before I speak, I pause at the window; I am taken by the beauty of the one surviving sunflower on the front lawn. Its yellow petals are curved, half-open, and leaning towards the sun. A ripe blossom is heavy on top of the stalk and appears ready to burst.

 

July 20, 2020

“Are you sure there aren’t any closer testing sites?” I ask into my phone. I am on my stomach on the bed with a blanket over my head to block out the light. My heart beats faster than after one of my sprints. I am a runner and I like to go fast.

“If you want the tests to be covered by your insurance, you will all need to report to our UPMC Pittsburgh location,” says the COVID testing scheduler.

“That’s a three-hour roundtrip drive and my wife and three-year-old aren’t displaying any symptoms. We have no one to leave the three-year-old with. I don’t want—”

We should have expected this, living in western, Pennsylvania where UPMC has a monopoly over the medical care. Over the years, they’ve cut one service at a time out of the local hospitals and filtered them into the city where they have mega hospitals with “cutting-edge technology.” If only they would share a bit of that with us out here in rural America. We had to have Ella transported by ambulance to Children’s Hospital from a local hospital last December because it was the only pediatrics unit in an hour and a half radius. I remember being in the back of the ambulance now, as I sometimes do in my nightmares. I feel acid rising in my throat.

“Can’t you drive yourself and the baby, and your wife and daughter can come later?”

“Not unless I’m transported to the testing site by ambulance.” I try to chuckle, but I’m not sure how big of a hyperbole this actually is.

“Ma’am, would you like to keep your appointments or not?” she asks, tersely.

Growing up in Central New York, I don’t remember the people being so harsh, but here in Pennsylvania people seem as cold and withdrawn as the winters. But, then again, I’ve been away from home for a very long time, bent on building a family and a career.

Home. In New York, my parents are boxing up their childhood homes, the homes they lost their first teeth in, the walls standing witness over bedtime stories, sibling rivalries, words that went unsaid. These were the homes we sang in at holidays after eating too much pie, buzzed on Spumante or cheap beer. Soon, a lifetime of trinkets will be boxed up, divided, and stored, and their houses will be sold. When I go home next, their doors will be locked and the dark shapes wading past the windows, unfamiliar.

 

July 22, 2020

Mara breastfeeds in the parking lot of the testing site in downtown Pittsburgh as we wait for our different testing times. As I feed her in the front seat of the car, I pick up my phone and scroll through the news, looking for the weather. “Young and middle-aged people, barely sick with COVID-19, are dying of strokes,” says a headline in the Washington Post. I click off the screen and toss my phone onto the floor.

“It’s your turn,” Hayley says from the back hatch of the car where she’s playing with Ella.

I pull Mara off my breast. She is flushed, but content. I hand her to Hayley and walk alone toward the building. There are arrows painted on the ground showing which way to enter and leave. When I approach the double glass door, it opens with a loud swish. Inside, the people who stand behind an intake desk are dressed like astronauts. They have tubes hooked into their helmets filtrating the air. I’ve seen these on TV; they are called powered air-purifying respirators, or PAPRs for short. The astronauts are all young, in their twenties. If Ella was with me, I’d tell her we are going on a space adventure. To the moon we go! Imagining this keeps my mind off the headache that’s creeping up my neck, over my ears, and into my temples.

The lead astronaut takes me in, asks me to pull down my mask, tells me to hold my breath as she prods a stick up my nose. It tickles, nothing more. She steps forward and motions for me to exit through two more automatic sliding glass doors. They swoosh open. As I walk back to the car, I try not to think about the fact that I already have to pee. I try not to think about the fact that I know the test is positive, and that this may only be the beginning, or that Hayley can’t go to work for the foreseeable future, or that I suspect I’m the first faculty member from my college to contract coronavirus. To think of it, I don’t know anyone who has had this novel virus; it sure feels a whole hell of a lot like I’m walking on the moon.

 

July 23, 2020

I am quarantined in the bedroom with our almost-crawling baby. It is day 7. My fever broke two days ago, but now my immune system is in overdrive. A cytokine storm, or so I postulate by reading online reports. My legs are twitching uncontrollably, my bones hurt, and my head sears with pain from the back of my neck in a rope over the top of my right ear. My feet are cold and colorless. I survived a medication-free labor with Ella, multiple sports injuries including spinal stress fractures in high school, dysentery in China while working at the 2008 Olympic games, and a bad reaction to the meningitis vaccine where I hallucinated that thousands of spiders were crawling across my childhood walls.

However, I’ve never felt like this. The virus has infiltrated my brain, I think, imagining the spikes of COVID-19 as legs and feet and arms and hands, swimming through my blood, and pounding at the barrier at the vertebra at the top of my neck, making their way into loops of grey matter, pinching nerves and choking synapses.

Picking up my phone, I squint at the too, too bright screen and, in the “Notes” section, I create a new file called “Will.” I type, “Hayley gets everything, including the kids. Tell them I love them. Publish my book somewhere after I’m gone.” We never went ahead with the second parent adoption to ensure Hayley’s full rights over the kids. Hayley is on their birth certificates, but birth certificates are only state documents. They hold little value for gay parents in court, but the second parent adoptions were just too expensive, too invasive. Why should we have to have home visits to prove she’s a fit mother when she’s already their mother? A really good mother at that. And the kids look more like her; neither of them have my darker Italian features, my patience, or my penchant for flannel. We like to joke that we are the first lesbians to make biological babies. All jokes aside, there had to be some magic involved in turning all my dominant alleles into revealing Hayley’s recessive ones. The Punnett squares just don’t add up.

I stand, trying to get my balance. I can only open my left eye. The sun is far too bright. I take a few steps to my dresser and I sift through a pile of clothes. My hand lingers over two of my grandmother’s shirts. My aunt gave them to me at Grandma’s house after her funeral when we’d all picked out a doll from her doll collection. The shirts smelled like her house; they smelled like her after she’d gotten her hair done on Sundays. They smelled like the popcorn balls she made at Halloween and the lasagna she cooked at Christmas.

“Life is Good,” the shirts both read. One is orange and the other is grey. They both feature cats. I lift them to my nose and breathe them in, breathe her in, but nothing registers. I put the fabric on my face and suck them in. Still nothing.

I pick up the baby from the floor. I hold her to my neck while I weep.

 

July 24, 2020

“I think maybe I should go to the ER,” I say into the phone. My brain boils. It feels like Hannibal Lecter has uncoiled my brain and is searing it on the stove with cilantro and rosemary.

Hayley doesn’t respond, but I can hear her pacing in the living room. We live in a one-level house. The sound carries easily down the hallway between the living room and kitchen area, and the bedrooms.

“What’s your oxygen level?”

“It’s not my lungs. It’s my brain.”

“They don’t think it can get through the blood-brain barrier. Check your oxygen level.”

I snap the red pulse oximeter that my mother had delivered to our door when we got ill onto my finger.

“93-94. Heart rate 123.”

“Temperature?”

“Down. 100. My neck hurts…my head. My legs are moving on their own.”

“What do you mean?”

“The muscles. They are twitching…and my heart…it’s going so fast.”

“Trish, you have COVID-19.” I know she’s trying to ease my worries, but I hear the fear in her voice. She’s not sure if I should go or not. “I’ll bring you Advil.”

Mara starts to sob in the bassinet, but I can’t stand to pick her up. I try to open my eyes and catch a slice of blinding sun bursting in through the window and almost cry out. Hayley opens the door slightly and I pull my mask at my chin over my nose. She leans over to set a plate and a drink on the floor. When she stands up, I catch a glimpse of her black mask. She looks like Hannibal with his muzzle that keeps him from cannibalizing people while incarcerated.

“It can’t cross the blood-brain barrier,” I chant to myself, moving to the plate with the pills and a pile of cut up fruit.

I swallow the pills, and breathe in and out, in and out until I fall asleep. When I wake, Hannibal stands over me with his hand over my face. I can’t feel my legs. I can’t move. I can’t breathe.

“Help!” I yell, but no sound comes out. I hear footsteps in the hallway and when I search the room for the muzzle-faced figure again, he’s gone.

I have no idea how much time has passed or how long the baby’s been crying.

 

July 25, 2020

“Mommy…”

The sound is quiet and distant. The sound blends into the hum of the air purifier.

“Mommy…”

I think of my own mother. When I was a baby, she used to rock me, trace my heart-shaped lips, and hum the song “A Dream is a Wish our Heart Makes” from Cinderella. The sound of her voice rises from deep within me, like an ancestor speaking through my DNA. I see myself running barefoot on the grass in front of the trailer I lived in as a young child. I am four years old with an uneven haircut my mother gave me at the kitchen table. I wave at my dad who’s sitting in a lawn chair next to a grill. He has a short, dark beard and he waves back with a spatula he’s holding. I am wearing a black and white one-piece bathing suit. My feet are bare and I am chasing after three girls my age and my younger sisters follow behind me. Laughter ebbs and flows in the air, mixing with smoke from the grill cooking hamburgers and hot dogs.

Wait up! I yell and the three girls turn and laugh.

I recognize one of them—the one with long black braids and bright eyes—from a photo I saw of my grandmother Mary at her funeral.

Wait up! I shout again, and stop running, afraid to get any closer. My little sisters run into my back and we fall like dominoes. While my sisters laugh and roll on the ground, I rush to my feet to see where they have gone. The strange girls—girls I don’t remember ever playing with as a child—head towards the beaver ponds up the unmarked backroad, chasing after a monarch butterfly.

Be careful, I yell. There’s a big curve up there!

I hear the girl with brown hair say, “let’s go help them build a dam.”

Her voice is soft and familiar; even though she doesn’t turn, I see her face. Grandma Shirlee? I think. Who are you? I shout. This time the third girl, a girl with chin-length hair as black as licorice, turns and runs back.

Are you all right? she asks. With the curiosity and care of a nurse, she inspects my knees, my arms, my forehead hidden under too many bangs, and hums the song from Cinderella.

Mom? I say, while also searching for the adult version of her somewhere on our front lawn. She smiles and runs ahead, still humming. I sing the words in my head to the notes rising in the air—…no matter how much your heart is grieving, if you keep on believing…—until they go beyond the sharp corner at the end of the road and disappear into the chorus of peepers from the pond.

“Mommy!”

I turn over and shoot up in bed like the NEOWISE comet that’s supposed to be still be visible in our skies, though due to the virus I have yet to see its appearance. The baby, I think. The baby is asleep in her bassinet. She can’t talk yet, you idiot. I sigh.

“Mommy!” It’s Ella outside the door. My sweet little Ella.

“Yes, Elle?”

“I came to say goodnight.” I imagine her in her footie pajamas, holding onto her two stuffed Minnie Mouse toys under her arms.

I stand up and walk, unsteadily, to the door.

“I love you to the moon and back,” she says.

My legs are weak. Putting my back to the door, I slide down until I’m sitting on the floor.

“I love you to the moon and back,” I say with the most energy I can muster.

“I hate the coronavirus,” my daughter says, her voice distant now.

“Me too, Elle,” I hear my wife say. “Me too.”

“Sweet dreams,” I whisper to no one and everyone.

I put my open palm on the door and listen to the sound of Hayley reading Ella “The Bear Snores On” for the hundredth time until I almost fall asleep myself. The baby fusses in the bassinet and I startle, moving to her more quickly than I think I’m able. Her cheeks are red, but the rest of her face and almost-bald head is drained of color. Even her tiny specks of red hair look like clear glass. I am startled at how much she looks like Ella.

“My little Marzipan,” I coo. Mara’s lips are heart-shaped, perfect, like a doll’s, like mine. If my dead body ever needs to be identified, I know it’s my lips that will close the case in a dark kiss of death.

Moving to the window, I push up the shade and look out into the depths of the northwest sky, and search for the NEOWISE comet. NEOWISE is named after NASA’s NEOWISE project that uses a space telescope to search for comets and asteroids to ensure the discovery of those that could pose a threat to Earth. 65 million years ago, an asteroid or a comet around 5-10 kilometers wide likely caused the extinction of the dinosaurs, and dinosaurs were way more badass than we humans. The NEOWISE comet would only have to change course ever so slightly to change the fate down here on Earth. It is 2020, anything is possible. We’d be toast.

Meanwhile, as we have telescopes aimed at the sky and mathematical equations evolved enough to take us to the moon, we’ve been slow to believe what scientists spotted under a microscope months ago. In the battle for life, we don’t want to imagine how close we might be to extinction. As the temperatures on Earth rise and the coral reef is blanched white under the ocean and a virus spreads and mutates, I look up and wonder if there’s anywhere else we can go once it’s too late.

 

August 21, 2020

“Ma’am,” says a voice and I open my eyes. A man in green scrubs, a mask, and a clear face shield stands by the bed I am in. Looking down, I see that I am wearing a hospital gown and my feet are bare and cold. I am hooked up to an IV and something colorless is going into my arm. “We’d like to ask you a few more questions before we take you down to imaging.”

“Your note here says that you contracted COVID from your baby?” He points to a handwritten note.

“Ella is three now. She’s not a baby anymore. Where’s my wife?” My head hurts and I can’t feel my legs. My heart beats so fast I think it will stop. At some point, it will have to stop.

“Family members can’t come in. Do you know where you are?”

“A hospital…in Pittsburgh.” Yes, I remember now. Hayley dropped me off at the door of the ER of Presbyterian Hospital. I had kissed Ella goodbye, and told her not to be afraid. I remember that much. “My head hurts.”

“Yes, we gave you the migraine cocktail. It should help, but it can cause drowsiness.”

“Yeah, I don’t feel right,” I slur, but I don’t know if he can understand. “My heart…”

“You are tachycardic and your blood pressure is high, but I’m a neurological intern. I need to ask you a few questions, okay? Who is the President of the United States?”

“Maybe that’s not the best question to start with.”

He laughs. “Please say his name.”

“Trump.”

“What is the capital of the United States?”

I ponder this. I see a white house, but my brain hurts. I shake my head.

“Your note says you contracted COVID from your baby a month ago?”

“I don’t have a baby.”

“Is this your handwriting?” the man asks.

“Yes,” I say, taking it and skimming the notes. I see her face, then. Mara’s. “Oh, my gosh, I have a baby. Mara…” Suddenly, I feel that my breasts are full, maybe even leaking. I search the room for my pump and I see it on the counter by the sink.

“The on-call doc did some tests and your lungs look fine.”

“I’m not having trouble breathing, but I keep yawning all the time and my legs feel numb. My toes feel like bees are stinging them. I thought I might be having a stroke. I forget things.”

“Well, hang in there a bit more. Someone from imaging will come to take you to MRI.”

 

August 22, 2020

It’s 1:40 am and I am in a hospital gown lying inside an MRI machine with my head strapped to the table like Frankenstein’s monster. The numbness in my feet is spreading to my arms and I have muscle fasciculations. They want me to be still but my legs keep jerking. Before contracting COVID, I was an athlete, a runner. Now, I can barely walk around the block. I even have trouble forming words.

It is my job to form words. I am a writer. I am a teacher. It is also my job to form worlds. I am a mother. However, my synapses are lost grandmothers and unmarked trails in the forest. Today, I am Little Red Riding Hood. I am in the woods, but I cannot find Grandma’s house and sometimes I can’t remember my destination and when I do, I can’t remember if she’s already been eaten or if she can still be saved. If I think on that too long, I even forget about the wolf, but I still feel the dread of the dark and my skin braces for sharp teeth.

I open my eyes and, although the air is hot and stiff, it appears I am imprisoned in an igloo. I am blinded by whiteness and my head is searing with cold sensations. A disembodied voice over a radio tells me I am not keeping still enough. The MRI machine’s severe song pauses.

Dun—dun—dun, the machine bellows to life again. It sounds like the deep song of a church organ. The medication the nurse gave me in the ER for the migraine made me drowsy, but my heart keeps charging ahead. I feel a scream building inside of me like a wave. Instead, I force myself to imagine Mara’s smile. Mara, the baby I forgot just a few hours ago, appears easily in my mind now. I imagine Ella, saying, “I have an idea! Let’s pretend we are fairies and we can cast magical spells.” I imagine Hayley’s hand over my chest, and I tell my heart to slow down.

I repeat these images again and again. Mara’s smiles. Fairy hunts and magic wands. Her hand suspended above my chest. The images kaleidoscope together until my mind buzzes with white noise. Suddenly, the hand is no longer Hayley’s hand; a girl with two long braids and straight bangs across her forehead reaches out her hand.

Hurry, she says. Her smile is crooked and happy; her two front teeth fight over space in her mouth. Her eyes are bright and dark, the same as my dad’s. She has on a white, leaf-patterned dress with a black bow at the collar. Her legs and arms are long and lanky.

Let’s go build a dam, says another girl who appears beside her, reaching out her hand. She has on brown cloth overalls with a collared tunic underneath. Her pant legs are a little short, revealing folded white socks and brown loafers. She’s holding a shovel over her shoulder. The silver end gets lost in her shoulder-length light-brown hair. Her hair is as fine as silk.

Who are you? I ask.

I’m Ralph. Ralph the plumber. Let’s go play at the crick.

It is always harder to recognize Grandma Shirlee in this dream space; Grandma Shirlee didn’t look like my mom does—my mom looks like her Italian father—and as long as I can remember, Grandma always had a chronic disease that affected her well-being long before they found the cancer. However, as a child she was called Ralph. She grew up on a farm, coming from a long line of rugged individualists. In the summers, she built dams in the nearby creek so that she could fish and go swimming. She wanted to grow up to be a construction engineer.

I have so much to tell you, I say. Grandma was one of my best friends. I used to call her, or sit at her kitchen table, and we’d chat until the minutes turned to hours.

Come on, she says. She grabs Mary’s hand and they run off. I chase after them until I am standing over a coffin and they are nowhere to be found. When I peer inside, it’s like looking in the mirror. It’s me, but it isn’t me. That is my hair draped over my eerily motionless chest, but my lips are an unfamiliar peach color and they’ve been sewn together at a straight angle—no longer heart-shaped—and there’s so much foundation on my face I look like one of Grandma Mary’s dolls in her collection. I look strange, but familiar. I try to take in air, but I can’t breathe. I blink and I am no longer standing over myself. My heart is a stone in my chest. I am in the coffin and the shadows are getting longer. I ready myself for the top to close.

 

The MRI machine drones dun—dun—dun, slower and a bit quieter now. Suddenly, it wanes into silence and my heart charges ahead again and I almost gasp.

Let me out.

“Hold on a few more minutes. I haven’t heard back from the doctor about whether they want to get the MRI with contrasts. I have to keep you in the machine until they call.”

I open my eyes. The machine’s skin is white and the inside of my head and neck feel frozen. I close my eyes. I feel milk leaking from my breasts and down my sides.

I am a blizzard.

 

August 22, 2020

“We don’t know when your symptoms will subside.” The neuro intern pulls up the edge of his mask and scratches his cheek. “You are probably getting migraines, exacerbated by stress.”

I take a deep breath. “I can’t feel my feet and legs because of anxiety?”

“We’ve had a lot of people like you come in after getting COVID, but we often find nothing wrong.”

Maybe you don’t know that you’re looking for, I think, and look at the note that I brought with me to help me remember. “What about occipital neuralgia? My head feels like there’s an icy-hot snake from my neck to my temple.”

“No,” he chuckles. Doctors don’t like when patients search WebMD. Suddenly, I feel like a creative writing student in one of my fiction classes during a workshop critique. My narrative is starting to feel like artifice, pushing too hard on their concept of believability, upon the science of possibility.

“What about my heart? Should it be going that fast?” I point to the monitor; it reads 150. My regular heart rate before COVID was in the 50s. And my blood pressure has always been normal, even throughout both of my pregnancies.”

“I’m not a cardiologist. Your Primary Care can get you referrals to a cardiologist.”

“She still won’t see me in the office.”

“We will give you a referral to see two types of neurologists, one for the headache and one for your legs. We might do a spinal tap and test for Lyme or syphilis, but I have to check with my attending.”

I am taken aback. My wife—

“You can get syphilis at birth and have symptoms later on.”

From my mother! No and no. They have got to be kidding, I think, but I nod. This is wild. The world really doesn’t want to believe this virus has any skeletons in its closet. It feels safer somehow thinking it just affects “old people,” that it lasts 10-14 days, that it’s like a typical cold. It’s sometimes hard to see what’s staring us in the face. They have no idea what they’re dealing with and neither do I—that’s what I’m most scared of.

“You’re young. Just give it time,” he says, maybe more to himself than to me.

 

September 15, 2020

Today, I sit on a blanket on my front lawn. The baby crawls to the edge, eager to get her fat fingers around the sunflower’s stalk in front of us. I glance from her to the sunrise over Brittain Lake, and back to her. The medications I’m on now for multiple post-COVID symptoms are depleting my milk supply.

We are hungry. We still cannot sleep.

I watch the steam rise over the lake as the brilliant red-light bleeds through. Red leaves have started to fall around the lake’s edge. The blackberries that haven’t been picked by birds or cooked into pies are browning and shrived. The sunflower’s head is drooping and dry, but the bees are still buzzing overhead.

My legs burn with icy spasms. My feet feel like white noise, like they have fallen asleep, but my mind is active. The symptoms come on in waves. I have a few good weeks and then I have COVID again, anew, as if my body has never experienced it before. They have a name for it now: post-COVID syndrome. I am a long-hauler. There are others like me. I am not alone. The internet has better advice than any doctor I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a lot. The question we all want to know is if our bodies will ever heal, or is this a chronic disease? I don’t know how much more of this we can take, and the medical bills are piling up. I see the light draining from my wife’s eyes; her shoulders are tense.

A few bees buzz overhead. My daughter crawls to the edge of the blanket again. She shoves a handful of grass into her mouth and laughs as I push a finger in her mouth to take it out.

Meanwhile, Ella stands up and runs to Hayley as she pulls the garbage bins back toward the house, out of the road. Ella is bare foot and half-running, half-dancing. Suddenly, she screams, and we are paralyzed in fear, but unable to process what might be wrong. It doesn’t look like anything has happened. She hasn’t fallen and there doesn’t seem to be blood.

I pick up the baby and run to her. Hayley gets to her first. She’s holding her hand.

“Ella what’s wrong?”

“My hand!”

“What now, Ella?” What could she have done to her hand? She has a history of being dramatic. She is four now, going on thirteen.

“A bee stung me!”

I bend down and see the spot, and guilt rushes over me. I’m just like all the doctors; if they can’t see it or explain it, it must not be there.

“He is a meanie!” She stomps her foot to the rhythm of each word, each word a missile, absolutely enraged, her body erect and ridged. “Why would he do that?”

Hayley inspects her hand—it is red and swollen—and Ella cries and cries. Hayley goes into the house to see if she can find Benadryl.

This is Ella’s first bee sting.

Suddenly, she’s quiet; it’s the eye of the storm, I know.

“Is the bee dead?” She whispers and drops to her knees and brushes her hand over the grass, searching for his body.

“Yes, Elle. But I don’t think we’ll find him. Come here. Let me hold you.”

Holding the baby on one hip and Ella on the other, Ella weeps until she’s hyperventilating. I look over her shoulder and study the sunflower.

When the sunflower buds turn brown, we will bring their regal heads inside until they are dry. We will pull out their seeds and store them. They will remain dormant throughout the winter, waiting and dreaming of the sun.

 

January 4, 2021

Mara sits in her new red sled and my father pulls her through the snow in front of our house. It is almost Mara’s first birthday. My mom and dad have made the seven-hour drive to Pennsylvania to drop off the kids’ Christmas gifts. It is still not safe to hug them, or to see their smiles, but we stand outside and talk in excited voices as our glasses fog.

My mom pulls Ella’s sled and laughs as Ella tells her to “be careful not to fall in the ice,” that we are nowhere near. As we walk over to the sledding hill at the college, I try to ignore the throbbing in my right temple; my last COVID relapse started on Christmas Eve. The symptoms cycle much like an autoimmune disease or the phases of the moon. Between COVID relapses, I almost feel like myself, and when the relapses come I know what to expect now: the stomach ache, fevers, the muscle fasciculations, the numbness, the fatigue. And, the migraine never really goes away. But that’s because of the occipital neuralgia, something that was finally diagnosed thanks to my chiropractor. The inflammation around my heart is healing.

“We doctors don’t like it when we can’t crack a case,” my neurologist told me at my last visit. “And this virus really is something.”

We have come far enough along in science for NASA to discover black holes and sister planets and alternate galaxies, but no one really knows how to stop people from dying from COVID, nor why people are experiencing long COVID. Perhaps the virus has crossed the blood brain barrier through endothelial cells broken down by the spike proteins of COVID-19. Perhaps autoantibodies are attacking our organs when inflammation in the body increases. Whatever the cause might be, I must come to terms with the fact that I may never know what’s going on inside me. That it might never go away. The old Trisha is gone, but I am searching for a new version of her. I mourn the loss of the person I once was. Despite this, I need to find new joy. Sooner or later, my body will return to the earth. That is the way of things.

A few days ago, I brought Ella on a ten-minute outing to Apple Castle, a local orchard gift shop that stays open year-round. We went in the morning on a weekday when no one else was there. Ella ran to the wall with the live bees behind two plates of glass making honey. She loves to see them tunnel through the honeycomb while I shop. However, the glass was covered with Styrofoam and a note explained that since it was so cold, the bees needed insulation to stay warm.

“Are the bees eye-bernating, like bears?” Ella asks.

“No, I don’t think so. They make what’s called a winter swarm. All the women get together and surround the queen to keep her warm and they totally eat honey all winter.”

“Where are the boy bees?”

“It’s a ‘girls only’ sleepover.”

“I wish you, me, Mama, and Mara could eat honey all day and all night.”

“Me too,” I say. As we walk out of the store, I think about how hard this winter has been for all of us. Due to the pandemic, we’ve all been wintering alone, without our winter swarm.

 

“Mommy, come down the hill,” Ella yells, standing by my mother.

“Knowing my luck, I will break my leg.” My glasses fog up and I am temporarily blind.

“Go down the hill, Trish.” Hayley says, and my dad holds up his phone, ready to record the disaster.

“Oh, all right.” I get on the sled and Ella jumps on in front of me. I grab the reins.

“1, 2, 3, liftoff,” I say, and for a moment, we are weightless, flying over the snow and ice like a new deer standing for the first time, headed for some faraway planet. The sled first drives straight ahead and then it drifts right so much that we are aimed right at my father.

Ella screams and I shriek. He jumps away just in time. I tumble off the sled and into the snow.

“See, I told ya’,” I say from the ground, laughing. I stand and they are quiet. I have a feeling they are inspecting my pants, which are covered in ice and mud.

“Mommy, your butt is wet!” Ella says and we all laugh and laugh.

My feet are frozen and wet, and my underwear surely is covered in ice chips, but I am surrounded by my swarm, and the honeyed sounds of our joy taste so good.

 

After my parents leave, I sit at my desk looking out over the partially frozen Brittain Lake. The snow falls at an angle and the grey sky hangs low over the water. Today, I am driven to write. My fingers curl over the pen and I write myself back into existence.

Tomorrow I may not be able to feel my legs, and my head may burn with strange fires, and I may not remember what task I need to do next without a list. Tomorrow, my face may droop like our sunflowers. Tomorrow, my heart might become a time machine, beating so fast, my hair will turn stark white. When the symptoms return, I will search for the sounds of the bees at the stalk of the flower, and listen for their buzzing until the song is so loud I can hear my ancestors screaming, Let’s go build a dam!

Okay, Ralph! I have so much to tell you. But, I have more things to do now. You go on ahead.

Today, I write and I am healed, even if it’s just for today. I look out the window and study the tracks our boots made earlier in the snow. I reach inside my desk drawer to find a new pencil and my hand brushes against something cold. I pull it out and find a bag full of sunflower seeds—hundreds of them. They are the seeds from our summer sunflower. I don’t remember putting them in my desk, but they are here nonetheless.

In the spring, we will plant them all, imagining a future of sunflower fields forever. A few will push towards the sky, fighting for water and sun. One stalk will grow thick and heavy with a budding flower. We will study it as scientists and as artists. We will stand our children by it and take their pictures until it looms over their heads—and ours.

We will put a blanket beneath it and wait for the bees to come.

Comments
  1. Rosie on

    Hi, there, I was a college classmate of Hayley’s and you and I met briefly a couple times! I saw that she had posted your writing, and I wanted to learn more about the long-term effects you’re facing. I read your piece, and bawled my eyes out. What a strong person you are. Thank you for sharing, and I wish you all the best in the healing process. I hope it is over soon.

    Rosie

  2. Shelley Cowen on

    I’m so very sorry you have had to endure this horrible disease.
    I’m so very glad that Mom and Shirley were there to watch over you.
    I hope that the Bees, like you, can survive.
    I’m so very glad that you are writing again, and that you were able to share this story.
    Mom and Shirley are very Proud, as am I.
    Love you Trisha

  3. Jennifer Atkins-Gordeeva on

    Oh my god. This is great. Thank you.

  4. Jean Heidel on

    Could not wait to read this and as usual I was feeling like I was right beside you, feeing everything you described. God blessed you in many ways.

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