During the uncertain first months of quarantine, ELLE.com asked several novelists to chronicle their new normal with a tribute to the person helping them get by. The results—heartfelt and harrowing—are presented here as a grateful salute to those who kept the world spinning in the year’s darkest moments.
When the new coronavirus pandemic first roared to life, my husband and I had all kinds of expectations about our anxieties. Dan’s father is a Type I diabetic; his mother is a nurse who works in a retirement home in Dublin. We foresaw weeks of fear and uncertainty—more for their wellbeing than our own. The pandemic had flipped the tables on my lifelong battle with OCD. I was already the kind of person who bought veggie wash and nitrile gloves in bulk, and had a three-stage protocol for the washing, peeling, and cutting of pineapple. It would take almost no effort to shed years of CBT training and revert back to my natural state. An upsurge of my most debilitating tendencies would surely follow, bringing with it days of soap-split knuckles and scalded hands and insomnia, of endless checking and counting and protective rituals. I anticipated months of sleepless spiraling from unanswerable questions:
“How long does coronavirus survive on a coat sleeve that may have brushed up against the subway pole?”
“How often should I change my gloves while running errands?”
“When will this end?”
But COVID-19 has shown us that foresight is an illusion. One of the most universally binding things about this pandemic is that our January selves could never have foreseen the world we are now living. Back then, Dan still had a ticket home to Ireland; my spring tour was still on the books; our friends in hospitality and retail still had jobs; and the worst we feared for the nurses and doctors we love was that they weren’t getting enough sleep.
Dan and I would never have imagined that we would find ourselves back home in Wyoming, working remotely and suddenly responsible for an eight-week-old Springer Spaniel named Gulliver.
Quarantine seems to have spurred a record number of Americans into finally welcoming that long-awaited animal friend into the house. Each passing day assures us it was certainly the right call for our own household. Gully highlights the good fortunes of our present—health, safety, the fact that, despite losses to our work, we’re lucky enough to be able to afford to open our home to a 12-pound cannonball with a spotted nose and a little grove of hairs arched sagely over his right eye. Watching his development—the recognition of his name, his discovery of peanut butter, his growing rage toward his great nemesis, the couch—keeps us focused, fills our days. New love binds us, diverts us from all the terrors that would, and probably should, occupy us; but since love is terror, of one thing or another, it is perhaps inevitable that all my anxieties have now relocated to this small, reckless, vulnerable being.
My January self could never have foreseen that the people keeping me together throughout the spring and into summer would be the veterinary technicians at the animal hospital up the street. My indebtedness to them is boundless. Without these women—sainted, in my eyes, essential in every way—Gully wouldn’t last five minutes, carried off by some calamity my pandemic-shocked brain can’t help but conjure.
It’s simultaneously unbelievable and utterly of the moment that I have never seen any of these women’s faces, for by the time Gully had his first and only real vet appointment, the practice was already running as a curbside pickup, and a masked technician emerged from behind the tinted glass to whisk our little guy inside. There, I imagine, a group of colleagues crowded around him to coo at his ears, his too-big paws, the silly way he cowers with excitement when he meets new people. They offer him endless delight, because to be born in a pandemic means to be born in a time of distant endearments from strangers who would love to say hello, but can’t.
How often do the veterinarians and veterinary technicians keeping our pets safe during this time wonder about their own safety? They know they’re on the line, laying hands, day after day, on living creatures who are in constant physical contact with the mouths, hands, floors, and food of possible COVID carriers. How much protection do masks and gloves offer from the licks and bites of creatures who scrabble endlessly at the faces and arms that hover at home?
How often do people in a veterinary practice Google, “Does COVID survive on animal fur?” and “How vulnerable am I, really?” and then carry unfalteringly on? Taking our pets into their arms. Taking nicks and scratches. Taking calls from me whenever I ring the hospital with my latest crisis, real or imagined:
“Is puppy poop supposed to look like this?”
“Are midnight hiccups normal?”
“I think he scarfed a pebble—should I bring him in for surgery at once?”
The softly sympathetic answer is always: “Keep an eye on him. If he’s eating and drinking for you, he’s probably okay.”
If the women who pick up the phone feel a wash of frustration every time they hear the words, “Hi, this is Gully’s human again!” they certainly don’t show it. How grateful I am for their patience, their kindness, their understanding. How grateful I am to be asking questions with actual answers instead of the stuff that keeps me up at night:
“Is it normal for him to look a little despondent, like maybe he’s starting to suspect we have no idea what we’re doing?”
“What odds would you say the pair of us have of keeping this dog alive until his first birthday?”
Between now and Gully’s first birthday in January 2021 lies a gauntlet of unimaginable social shifts, personal and economic losses that will reverberate through our lives for years to come; a recovery we are only just beginning to envision; a reckoning with social inequities this crisis continues to lay bare. Even the most cautious and pessimistic among us could not have anticipated the uncertainties we now face, or the people to whom we find ourselves turning for knowledge, the essential workers holding us together at the seams. Regardless of job description, they are the people going out of their way to offer at least some answers in a storm of questions we never imagined we’d be asking.
“How do I make sure this puppy is properly socialized in a pandemic?”
“Will the diapers be restocked this week?”
“Is my mother getting better, nurse?”
“When will this end?”
Let us remember, when life finally does return to normal, who was truly essential; who put themselves at risk to keep us sane and give us the dependability we needed; who kept us believing that there were any answers to the questions that plagued us when life was at its most unforeseeable.
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