Learning to live with the unknown: Things I learned from COVID

It was a COVID Christmas in Florida with mom, from the moment I landed on Dec. 24 until my departure on Dec. 31. I could not outrun the virus: After three years it had kept close to my heels — through innumerable hospital visits for multiple family members, rehab facilities, late-night grocery shopping, avoiding airports or travel, never eating out or with friends, through gallons of hand sanitizer, five and counting shots and boosters, living in small pods, double masking through it all. Through four family deaths. The COVID years had been tragic, achingly beautiful and relentless.

COVID is also the most efficient teacher — it is a forcing mechanism. Much like a tight parking space that you have no other choice to parallel park into. COVID forces us to focus and to learn to live with the unknown.

When I was reporting in Mexico in 2015, I did a profile on Miguel Angel Jiménez Blanco, a community leader and political activist in Guerrero whose preferred weapons for community organizing were the Internet and his mobile phone. Powerful criminal elements wanted him dead for reporting on elections, and then he disappeared on Saturday, Aug. 8, 2015. No one was surprised. 

I was with him weeks before he was murdered, riding through impossible mountain switchbacks at night with one headlight, the fuel flashing red for empty, one tire going flat from the nail in it. I was sure we were being followed, so I had to ask him. Of all the jobs to do in the world, why would he choose to be a community organizer in one of the most dangerous states in Mexico?

“I am doing this for love,” he said. “If I didn’t have a clue about what I loved, why would I struggle? Something has to sustain you for the struggle. We all have a dog that chases you, a purpose to your struggle.”

Perhaps our collective “dog” now is COVID. It was becoming clearer that it was more of a chase than a battle won with viruses and everything in nature that fights for its survival, adapting faster than we ever can to become anti-fragile. Life is fragile, ants are washed down the drain, birds die suddenly, squirrels don’t make it across the road, healthy people die midrun. I don’t think the gods are intentionally trying to break our hearts, but nature governs by its own rules, and we have such a small clue of what those rules are. Sadly, our delusion is that we do. 

I tell this to my mom while I’m recuperating with her in Florida, downing instant Nescafe coffee (her favorite!) in the morning and trying to ignore my throbbing throat. “Don’t you see?” I tell her. “There’s so little we have any amount of influence or control over in life. I’m surprised more things don’t implode suddenly! The fact that we persist in our mundane efforts thinking what we do is either tragic or madness — doing the same thing over and over in the same way and expecting the outcome to be different.”

Mom just wants to know if we’re going to the mall or Mass that evening. We end up hanging out with the Unitarians, wearing masks while pretending we’re sheep in the stable for the Nativity scene, and then go home to sing rancheras over karaoke in her sunroom. Mom gives me more coquito, the Puerto Rican equivalent of eggnog. I don’t know if it’s the drink, but I start to have a feverish hallucination of being a mother-daughter duo on stage and the crowds roaring for an encore. I tell mom I’m going to bed; she says, no more coquito for you.

On Christmas morning, I can’t get out of bed, and mom brings me tea with half a cup of honey I’m sure, Advil and VapoRub — necessary. I tell her, it’s COVID; somehow, I know it’s caught up with me. I test positive and sink into a sea of endless sleep. This is the way it is for days, and I simply surrender. “You got me,” I tell the growling dog.

Mom makes two pots of soup and, not being much of the nurturing type, she informs me that El Covid better be gone by the time the second pot is empty because she’s not cooking anymore — she has telenovelas to watch. The memo has been sent.

In the humbling surrender to COVID, I write down these lessons:

  • Vulnerability is the compass.
  • Rest, rest and when in doubt, rest some more.
  • Healing takes time, so be patient.
  • Since you can’t get out of it, get through it.
  • We have a shared fragility, so be more human.
  • COVID laughs at VapoRub.
Photo: Mother and daughter in post-COVID recovery, December 2022.

On day seven, I start my trip home to North Carolina, dragging myself past the giant pink flamingo legs in the Tampa airport and the throngs of unmasked families all walking in my direction. I duck into bathrooms, hugging my double masks closer to my nose. At home, I sleep for days. The first day of the year, the most humbling thing of all happens — even though I’ve masked through it all, I gifted COVID to mom and my spouse.

Defeated, I call mom, and she reminds me that we know so little and have so little control over COVID. “Or much of anything else,” I say, ending her sentence. 

“We’ll just have to learn to live with it,” she says.

Maybe that’s the last lesson, how to live freely in the midst of something, everything, we cannot control and to trust our own experience. 

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