The early February sun envelops my skin like a blessing. I inhale a salty breath as I listen to the beat of the waves. I look out at the Atlantic Ocean and think of the hidden life below this body of water. My toes stretch and curl in the damp sand as if coming out of hibernation. At last, a real beach.
Pre-pandemic, I resisted the beach. Afraid of the sun, I would hide under a big floppy hat and umbrella. I was the one who returned from a beach vacation without so much as a freckle. If my family forced me to go, I squirmed in my beach chair, sticky with sand and sunscreen, and tried to focus on the serious novel I was reading, to little avail. I am a triathlete, a writer, a useful person with a sense of purpose. I prided myself on being in a state of perpetual motion. The lack of productivity made me grumpily search for a glass of wine at the end of the day. I told friends I just wasn’t a beach person. Little did I know the time would come when I would yearn for the beach and the warmth of the sun on my shoulders.
I always preferred activities that were structured and involved an element of self-improvement: a yoga trip with friends, a tennis camp for grown-ups, and hiking for miles up difficult, rocky trails with friends and family from our home in Colorado. Yet six months into the pandemic I yearned for the beach. I craved it with a hunger I didn’t know I had. For the first time, I wanted to stare at the horizon, listen to the waves, and just be still.
Like everyone else, we had watched COVID news on TV until it knocked on our door.
Our risk increased when our son came home from Denver for the Christmas holiday to join his two sisters who were taking high school and college classes online. He had been living and working in his apartment alone and the solitude was taking a toll. We were happy to hear that he had gone skiing with a friend, and they’d enjoyed an apres-ski beer outdoors afterward. The next day, the headline of the local paper announced that our county had the highest COVID incident rate in the state. Both boys came down with the virus six days later.
My husband and I went into extreme lockdown mode. We drove into Aspen to be tested—the girls in one car and Jim and me in another. That afternoon our older daughter had an upset stomach and she became winded walking to the bathroom next door. Our younger daughter slept twenty-one hours and then texted me photos of her slightly purple toes. The downstairs level became the quarantine floor and no one was allowed to use the internal stairs. The first day my husband wore ski goggles above his mask and winter coat as he carried foil wrapped hot dinners, vitamins and Tylenol outside and around the house to a downstairs sliding door, his winter boots crunching in the snow. In the morning, the kids brought up their dirty dishes and left them outside the front door in exchange for breakfast trays laden with fresh fruit, coffee, yogurt, cereal and vitamins.
Our normally energetic, Viking-like kids looked pale and weak and they shivered in the cold as I placed the pulse oximeter on their finger to check their oxygen levels and their temperatures with a digital thermometer. It felt removed and unloving to nurse them outside, socially distanced and with a mask on. It was impossible to interpret their expressions underneath their masks and I had to resist the impulse to hug them. I consoled myself that if Jim and I could survive the contagious period we would make it up to them. A week later, we thought we had outsmarted the virus because Jim and I had tested negative for COVID while the kids tested positive.
Alas, it was not to be. Just as the kids recovered and resumed their lives, Jim and I were the next to get sick. I had extreme muscle pain in my hips and lower back the first night along with the brain fog I had read about. I’d medicate my aches and pains and fever with Tylenol but still I tossed and turned in a feverish sleep. Every day, despite our waning energy, we dragged ourselves out of bed for short masked walks outdoors. We marveled at the nature around us: the red-tailed hawks and herds of deer and elk. The walks stand out in my memory—the rest is a blur of naps, cooking simple meals, and folding laundry.
My husband had a mild case—he barely felt a symptom but I got good and sick. I lost my sense of smell and had a reduced sense of taste for many weeks. Terrified of becoming a long hauler, I checked my pulse and used the pulse oximeter daily. If I felt my heart skip a beat, I googled COVID heart symptoms and myocardial inflammation and imagined my changed, enlarged heart. My Garmin triathlon watch informed me that even though I was getting the proper amount of sleep and exercise (the masked walks), my training status was decreasing by the day. Maybe take another day off? my watch suggested.
As if the illness were an ocean, I didn’t know what was happening below the surface. It was all so mysterious. As the weeks went by, I got better and slowly emerged from isolation. I rejoined the world, hiked with friends, pondered whether my heartbeat was faster or slower, wondered if I would ever taste again. I would exchange COVID stories with friends like I was a veteran returning from battle—but I longed for the meditative rhythm of the waves and the warmth of the sun.
Our COVID antibodies allowed us to travel to Florida before vaccinations were available. I have noticed that people talk about being careful and safe when they discuss COVID and there is an element of shame in testing positive. I didn’t want to be judged as the kind of person that is reckless during a pandemic and I stressed to any person I met that we had followed CDC guidelines.
Walking on the beach feels different this time. I’m not thinking ahead to the next activity or researching museums and restaurants on my iPhone. I am finally present at this place. I watch my toes disappear in the surf. The tide recedes, and my toes reappear. The waves and my heart beat: Still here, still here, still here.