“I ruined Christmas!”
The tears burst from my nine-year-old’s eyes as she blamed herself for the ramifications of a global pandemic that has lasted for three years. All kids go crazy for Christmas, of course, but my daughter is certainly in the highest percentile of Santa fanatics, so having her holiday plans dashed was especially difficult.
It was Friday, December 17 and her SARS-CoV-2 / COVID-19 test came back positive. She had awakened on Thursday morning feeling crummy, so we kept her home from school and I immediately took her to get tested.
Upon receiving the news, we sadly told her she had to quarantine in her room, especially in an effort to keep her three-year-old sister safe since there is no vaccine available to her. Ten days of isolation would take us past Christmas, so we canceled all of our plans, which included a visit to my sister’s house on Christmas Day bookended by visits with my in-laws on December 24th and 26th. We didn’t want to risk it, particularly for my wife’s parents, her nonagenarian grandmother, or my own parents, all of whom were considered high risk due to their age, a few of whom also had some manner of health issues.
More than a year after we had hoped we had gotten past it, our holidays would be spent in isolation. That night, we watched Home Alone on GroupWatch — us in the living room, our daughter in her bedroom — and kept texting comments back and forth, trying to make it as normal, or at least as palatable, as possible.
One question remained: would she have to spend Christmas alone?
We were so careful.
From the beginning, we took this pandemic very seriously. I work for a hospital, my wife is a teacher, and we have two young children, so we are considered essential both at work and at home. I’ve been doing the daily COVID reports for twenty months, so I have seen firsthand what this virus has done. We never once took it lightly.
We eagerly awaited a vaccine and the three of us that were eligible became fully vaccinated and boosted as soon as we could. We wore masks everywhere, even when restrictions were lifted, and even made our older daughter wear hers during gymnastics. We kept her schooling virtual as long as we could (through June 2021) and avoided large gatherings and restaurants.
The schools did their best — living with a teacher has allowed me to see the difficulties from the other side — with mask breaks outdoors, but lunch is still inside and nothing is completely effective against being near a contagious child for eight hours a day.
Every time there is a confirmed case, we receive an email notification. As the the weather turned cold, and Thanksgiving approached, we noticed the notifications increasing. Then, as the calendar turned and we moved into the middle of December, the Omicron variant (or was it the Delta variant? Maybe it was the the original vintage Coronavirus?) arrived and it felt like we were getting emails every single day.
We were hoping we’d stay unscathed long enough to get through the holidays.
The morning after my older daughter’s test results came back, I woke up feeling absolutely horrendous. It felt like the flu, only somehow worse. I had a fever, headache, extreme fatigue, felt achy all over, and had stomach issues. I dragged myself to our testing site as soon as it opened and it felt like something out of movie with people in containment suits helping all of us pale and sickly folk that thought we might be infected. I came home, and began to isolate in my attic office.
We were a house divided. My wife now had to care for both of us, leaving food, water, and aspirin for me on the steps for me to retrieve after she left like a monster in a bad horror film, while also handling all of the household duties and wrangling the toddler, which itself takes a village. Hearing my younger daughter banging on the attic door, crying, and yelling, “I want my daddy!” broke my heart, but I didn’t want to risk infecting her.
Thirty-six hours later, on Sunday evening, my unsurprising test results popped into my inbox.
That night, my toddler developed a fever and was crying in her sleep. She was clearly battling something. My wife was fighting her own cold symptoms but, as a mom, was too busy keeping the house running to really notice.
I’ve spoken to friends who had similar experiences and their actions after testing positive varied. Some figured they had exposed their families already, so why isolate? Others, like us, wanted to see if we could keep at least parts of the family from being infected.
The next morning, Monday, they went to get tested. Why not?
After all, if they tested positive, we could all quarantine together. If we all had COVID, we could cough and sneeze on each other with impunity.
When it was bedtime on Monday night (December 20th), my older daughter finally began to show signs of strain. She had been fine being in her room and doing her thing, but she wanted someone to hug before bed. I told her to come hang out with me. It occurred to me — too late — that the two of us could quarantine together, so she came upstairs, told me some stories, and immediately fell asleep. Nothing like the comfort of a parent being nearby to make you feel a bit safer.
On Tuesday, my wife’s results came back positive. A few hours later, my younger daughter’s did as well. We had hit for the COVID cycle. Weirdly, it was actually the news we were hoping for. I actually yelled “Congratulations!” to my toddler for completing the group. We were all in this together.
Now we could interact again and I could help take some of the burden off my wife, especially now that I was finally out of bed. We were lucky that my wife’s symptoms were more like a cold and, aside from that one night, my toddler only really had a stuffy nose and some coughing. My older daughter was sick for about two days, but even her symptoms were tame compared to my own. I was confined to my bed from Saturday morning through Tuesday and while I still worked that whole time (no days off!), I couldn’t really function otherwise. I was famished, but didn’t want to eat anything. I couldn’t sleep and I didn’t have a TV in my office — only had a laptop with a DVD player (no streaming)— so I watched the final three seasons of Seinfeld over and over and prayed for either improvement or death.
When we all reconvened on Tuesday night, it felt like a surreal reunion since we had all been under the same roof, but not in the same room, in four days. By Wednesday, everyone was still stuffy and suffering from a cough, but they were generally okay. I was still dealing with a splitting headache and overall fatigue, but I was able to move around and even do some things around the house.
I felt like I was turning the corner.
Then the night came. I kept falling asleep only to wake up four minutes later, when I would readjust my body, and try to fall into a deep sleep only to wake up three minutes later. Repeat for hours. My fever had returned with a vengeance, I had chills, I was simultaneously hot and freezing cold, and every inch of my body felt as if it had been hit with a sledge hammer. I actually took a long, extremely hot shower at 3 a.m. because it was the only thing that would bring even a small amount of relief.
I slept for a bit, woke up, and proceeded to violently vomit. While it had felt like the flu the first few days, it now felt like a superflu combined with the worst hangover of my life. I couldn’t imagine it was possible to be any sicker than I was.
I texted my friend, an ER doctor, and she said she was working all day so if I thought I was dying, I should come in to get checked out. I demurred, but my wife insisted that I go, so I dragged myself to the hospital and got myself a bed in a hallway.
They checked my vitals, took a chest X-ray, and gave me Toradol. Everything came back fine — I had COVID but didn’t need a ventilator or anything else the hospital could provide.
“I know you feel like you’re dying, but these are the symptoms I see all the time,” my friend said. “Just imagine how sick you’d be if you weren’t vaccinated.” She told me that there isn’t really any medication that has been proven effective against COVID. I just needed to hold on and wait it out.
“This too shall pass,” she said.
She was right, of course. I struggled through the rest of that day, praying for relief, and and when I awoke in the middle of the night in a pool of sweat, I knew my fever had broken.
My head still felt like it was being crushed in a vise, but it no longer felt like someone was also holding a blowtorch to the top of my dome. I moved around gingerly on Christmas Eve, saving my energy enough to do our holiday duties: opening presents over zoom with my wife’s family, taking pictures, putting out cookies and milk, and, once the kids were asleep, setting up what Santa had brought this year.
Like every year, Christmas morning came far too early as my older daughter impatiently waited until the appointed time (6 a.m.) to barge into our room and announce that it was the most wonderful day of the year. Though I felt better than the day before, I was still in pretty bad shape when I woke up, but I pushed myself for the sake of childhood Christmas magic. After some coffee and a lot of French toast casserole, I was able to pass for a viable human being for the rest of the day, playing with kids and their new toys, checking in with my family over Whatsapp, and eating everything in sight.
Christmas 2021 did not go the way we had planned it, but it was far better than it could have been. We were home, we were together, and we were safe. It’s hard to ask for more considering the circumstances.
The next few days were uneventful— the four of us steadily getting better as we all hung out together in the house, living out the winter sequel to last year’s COVID spring debut. I took both girls to the pediatrician on December 30th, their first time out of the house in two weeks, and received the all clear for them to return to their regularly scheduled lives.
The new year would begin with my wife and I being a little less worried because we had all caught the virus and, fortunately, had come out on the other side.
Of course, we’re not alone.
We weren’t the first, but we were early. In the days after our tests came back, we heard from numerous friends and family members that also tested positive. My daughter’s class had so much exposure that it switched to hybrid for the final week, but in the middle of school one morning there were so many cases that they ended class immediately and sent everyone home.
In the week between Christmas and New Year’s, generally a time when everything slows down and people just run out the clock, the United States set a new record for COVID cases every day, the number far exceeding anything seen in 2020. It was everywhere.
Things have gotten so bad that our executive team was forced to rescind the observed holiday on December 31 because hospitalizations were skyrocketing and we needed every available employee to help with the deluge of patients.
As we enter 2022, when we all make promises and are optimistic for better days ahead, it’s clear that COVID isn’t leaving us anytime soon.
Christopher Pierznik is the worst-selling author of nine books. Check out more of his writing at Medium. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter. Please feel free to get in touch at CPierznik99@gmail.com.