“Everything will be OK.”
These were the words I repeated to myself as my brain swirled with edges of panic. It was 2009 and my ten-year-old daughter’s test results had come back positive for the highly contagious swine flu, a variant of the H1N1 virus that was quickly becoming a pandemic.
We were told by our child’s pediatrician that swine flu was greatly impacting children and extremely dangerous for young children, especially newborns. The doctor’s recommendation was quick and to the point.
“It would be best for you to quarantine your daughter at home, away from other siblings and family members. You and your baby should stay in a hotel or another safe place until she has recovered.”
I remember the shock of his words.
I remember the confusion.
I remember the fear.
As a mom of three, I felt like the diagnosis was an ultimatum: Which child do you love the most? While it seems a bit dramatic to recall those emotions more than a decade ago, that’s exactly how I felt in the moment. Do I sacrifice the caretaking of my oldest child, who might take a turn for the worst, to protect the possibility of death to my three-week-old?
It was an impossible choice to make.
We didn’t have the money for a week-long hotel stay nor the resources to stay with someone who wasn’t impacted by the virus. We made the difficult decision to quarantine Katrina in her bedroom upstairs, while I stayed downstairs with baby Caleb, day and night.
With the exception of walking to the bathroom, two doors down the hall, Katrina never left her room, her door always closed. We placed meals on a tray that was left outside her door, then I would shout up the stairs that her meal was ready. When she was done, she would leave her dirty dishes on the hallway floor for us to collect and clean.
Even though I didn’t see her for a week, just knowing we were in the same home was comforting. I would write little messages and leave them outside her door. I would wrap up little trinkets I found around the house so she could have a surprise to open and make her smile.
In 2009, social media wasn’t quite the expansive connector that it is today, so Katrina spent much of her recovery time watching old VHS videos and cable TV. She read books. She drew pictures. She slept. Days were long and monotonous.
As a family, our life changed overnight. Family gatherings were cancelled. Katrina’s birthday party was rescheduled. No visitors were allowed inside our home. We created our own social distancing for the safety of our children and others.
We didn’t worry about schoolwork. We didn’t bicker about tasks left undone. This was our new normal and we adjusted the best we could.
Our daughter eventually recovered and our newborn and middle child were not impacted by the illness. We counted ourselves lucky and blessed beyond measure. My greatest takeaway during that time of uncertainty was the importance of kindness, laughter, and love.
Kindness in Crisis Matters
My daughter missed more than a week of school at the start of her fifth grade year. Instead of her teacher sending piles of papers home for us to complete, she simply sent messages of encouragement, acknowledging our situation and reassuring us that it was OK to take things one day at a time. She even stopped by our house one evening and left a care package filled with coloring/activity books, art supplies, and books to read. The memory of Katrina waving to Mrs. Seeber from her bedroom window was heartbreaking and comforting at the same time.
People sent Katrina birthday cards and notes in the mail which was the highlight of each day. We also had wonderful friends from church and work who made sure we were fed, leaving meals on our doorstep or providing gift cards for pizza delivery. Those little reminders that we were part of a community helped to ease the suffocation of isolation.
Laughter Lightens the Load
As a family, our first line of defense was to find something to laugh about. Not in the demeaning, making-fun-of-people kind of way, but more along the lines of this-is-so-ridiculous-you-could-not-make-this-up. Our middle child, Daniel, created his own swine flu knock-knock jokes. We would listen to the nightly news reporting stats of people around the country infected and we would interject our own commentary, reporting on what was REALLY happening in our home of quarantine, like the fact that our daughter was serving time in a bedroom prison before she was old enough to even have a curfew. (She would later tell us that she actually enjoyed the time away from us and we responded with shocked horror, knowing now that she is an introvert who actually values quiet time to herself!)
Weeks later, when Katrina had fully recovered, she decided to turn her experience into a one-of-a-kind Halloween costume. She dressed as a pig wearing a sign around her neck saying, “Boo-to-You, I’m Swine Flu!” While some may not share our perspective on humor in the midst of a crisis, we needed to laugh about trivial things so we didn’t get swallowed up by the panic and hype.
Love Heals Everything
During the time of Katrina’s quarantine, I felt helpless as a mom. I couldn’t fix the situation. I couldn’t control anything. I didn’t leave the house and my world of connections became minuscule overnight. Isolation during that time was dreadful and each day was as slow as molasses dripping in the pan. (Yes, I realize that analogy may not create a visual for you, but my Grandma Payne would have been overjoyed to know that I actually included molasses in my blog post, lol.)
While I couldn’t control what was happening to my family of five, I could, however, control my response to it. Each day I made the choice to love my family in every way I could. I put Caleb down when he was sleeping and offered to play a game with Daniel. I prayed for Katrina’s healing and sent well wishes to others with sick children, too. I wrote thank-you notes to those who had stopped by to visit us when Caleb was born (before the quarantine) and to those who brought us meals that were left on our front porch. I gave myself a little extra grace on those days when the emotions bubbled to the top and the tears of exhaustion trickled down my cheeks.
Now, here we are. More than a decade later, we are facing another pandemic, but this time I am not alone in the journey. There is something strangely comforting in knowing it’s a shared experience.
This week has been challenging to process all the changes, and I will quickly admit that it’s been a trigger of sorts for me, reliving the challenges and fears of swine flu in the midst of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Like you, I don’t have any answers, only more questions. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring. The uncertainty weighs heavy on my heart, but I am choosing to focus on the things that pull me through when times are tough.
Be well, my dear readers, and if you feel yourself being swallowed up by the pressures and panic of these current events, reach out to me or another friend in your world. You are not alone. You are doing all you can to hold things together.
We will get through this and everything will be OK.