By Janet Yoder
1. The Asian Flu, H2N2
When I was five, I learned the words Asian Flu. On July 19, 1957, my mother gave birth to her fourth child, my youngest sister. While she was still in the hospital, my mother was visited by a woman who, along with her husband, were trying to start a church. The woman decided to create a flock by visiting people in the hospital. Turns out the woman shared the Asian Flu along with her invitation to church. When my mother came home, she was already getting sick. My dad had to go back to work—paternity leave was not a thing in 1957—and that left my very ill mother trying to take care of four daughters ranging from five years old (me) down to a few days (my baby sister). Was I trying to help? I have a memory of sitting on the sofa holding the baby while my mother raced into the bathroom.
I got sick. I have no memory of becoming sick but one day I could no longer walk or stand or even sit up. I had become a rag doll. Dad carried me to the car where I lay down in the back seat as he drove to Dr. Kerr’s office in downtown Kennewick, Washington. There I lay across three plastic cushioned chairs in the waiting room. Dr. Kerr took a quick look at me. Then Dad carried me straight across the street to Kennewick General Hospital. Dad stayed with me as they put me in a hospital room and started an IV drip into my arm. But then he had to go take care of my mother and my three sisters.
How many days was I alone in that hospital room? Four or five days? Longer as I measured it in kid time. A 1957 hospital room meant no TV, just IV fluids in a glass bottle that dripped slowly into my arm, and a nurse who put a cold thermometer that tasted of rubbing alcohol in my mouth. I couldn’t understand why I was alone in a hospital room and why I lacked the strength to get out of bed. Dad came to visit me in the evenings but the rest of the family stayed home. Did I know I had a serious and contagious disease? Did I know that people were dying of this disease? They told me I had the Asian Flu, which mystified me because Asia seemed foreign and far away. My personal experience of Asia was eating Chun King chicken chow mien with crunchy noodles that came in cans attached to each other. I found it delicious but didn’t think chow mien could give me the flu.
I gazed out the hospital window that faced east where I could see the bleach blue sky of eastern Washington. Then I noticed raindrops on the window glass but they were swimming all around and not rolling downward following the laws of raindrop gravity—and besides there was no rain. I saw a whole squiggly world, like the amoebas I would see years later through a microscope in high school biology class. But just then, the squiggles were mysterious, even fascinating. I looked at the wall and saw the same drops moving like the tiny tadpoles that live in the irrigation ditch near our house. But how could I see them on the window and also on the wall? Would I see them everywhere I turned my gaze? I closed my eyes and saw the drops on the underside of my eyelids. Looking back, I suspect that fever and dehydration may have caused eye floaters. Or else I had hallucinations. I still see these droplets from time to time when my eyes are tired, a visual remnant of my illness.
Now, as the coronavirus of 2020 arrives, memories of my first pandemic come to me. I go to the Centers for Disease Control and prevention website and learn that the 1957Asian Flu originated from an avian flu, that it was first reported in Singapore, then Hong Kong, and then coastal cities in the US (like Seattle). I conclude that this bird flu had wings to fly across the Cascade Mountains to Kennewick in Eastern Washington. The CDC site tells me that 116,000 Americans died of the Asian Flu and close to two million people died of it worldwide. I am lucky I survived my first pandemic.
2. The Swine Flu, H1N1
My second pandemic was the Swine Flu. I never contracted that flu but in May 2009, my friend Sandra Jones did. Sandi was already weak from an incurable bone cancer called multiple myeloma, from an autologous stem cell transplant, from every drug trial on offer, and from what she called her typical African American afflictions of high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and shortness of breath. Sandi was lovely and funny and dear to her friends. She was a writer and she worked in Human Resources because she could read people as if they had breaking news running across their foreheads. She encouraged people to take on challenges and advance in their careers. Her astute observations and teasing sense of humor caused her doctors and nurses to fall in love with her, caused everyone to fall in love with her.
Sandi had been in and out of University Hospital. It’s where I drove her a couple of years earlier when she was too weak to walk but didn’t yet know why. That is when and where she got the diagnosis of bone cancer, where she found the oncologist who would see her through, where she ended up when she had a setback that couldn’t be handled at Cancer Care Alliance.
In May 2009, Sandi left me a breathy message saying she was back in University Hospital. So I walked across University Bridge, then dropped down to the Burke Gilman Trail and followed it east to the hospital. I visited Sandi daily whenever she was in University Hospital, because seeing her eased my mind. Sandi always made me laugh, even in the hospital.
But on this visit, Sandi was not in a regular room. On the door to her hospital room I saw a sign that said Warning: Infectious Disease. A nurse intercepted me and explained that in order to visit Sandi, I would need to first enter an antechamber—think tiny dressing room—and put on a gown, booties, hair net, face mask, and gloves, all from packets attached to the wall.
Protective gear in place, I opened the door, lifted my arms and did a slow-motion float into the room as though I were an astronaut climbing out of my capsule and into space. Who knew that in space I would find Sandi pointing at my outfit and laughing? I didn’t give Sandi a hug, partly because of the cumbersome gear and partly because of the reason for the cumbersome gear. Whatever that reason might be. She was sitting up in bed. “So, you probably wonder why I called you here today,” she said. Her voice was weak and whispery. I saw her oxygen supply line at work. She continued her board meeting tone: “We need to talk about the employee who is running up our insurance costs.” She pointed at herself. Finally she looked me in the eye. “It seems I have the H1N1.” The H1N1 had been in the news. I knew it had entered the US from Mexico. I knew it was called the Swine Flu. I knew it was deadly. I knew Sandi was immunosuppressed, an easy target for any virus that set its sights on her.
Sandi spoke slowly with breaths between her words. “I’m having an exercise bike brought up here.” Her face was a chalky gray. I had to work to picture her on a bike. But then I looked into her eyes and saw that steely look. “I am not going to die (breath) of anything (breath) named for a pig.” I laughed out loud. “Of course you’re not!” To let her catch her breath, I told stories about my recent trip to Texas with my husband Robby to visit his relatives in Port Bolivar, down near Galveston, true technicolor Texans whose accents I can pull off when inspired. I told tales of the hurricane that dropped a couple dozen grapefruits in Aunt Ruby’s front yard, the alligator that lived in a small pond at the fire station who popped up whenever one of the firefighters pulled up and honked, and the truly black sheep cousin who had to be escorted off the Bolivar Peninsula for making demands of and sponging off of Aunt Ruby with threats of the sheriff coming after him if he returned. Aunt Ruby’s husband had been the sheriff and her daughter worked in the sheriff’s office so the threats were real.
After I’d made Sandi laugh enough, I said good-bye and stepped back to the antechamber to dispose of all of my protective gear, gear that today might be stored in a paper bag and used again tomorrow and who knows for how long. You might think I was worried about catching the Swine Flu from Sandi, especially having had the Asian Flu as a child. I can’t tell you why I wasn’t worried. Maybe I just didn’t want her to end up watching drops squiggle across her window, walls, and eyelids and that superseded worry. Or maybe Sandi just made any worry disappear.
The next day when I entered Sandi’s hospital room, an exercise bike was set up in front of a window that looked south onto the Montlake Cut, that body of water that connects Lake Washington to Lake Union, where University of Washington rowers have trained since the cut was cut in 1916, One of the places where the Boys in the Boat trained to win a Gold Medal against Hitler’s rowers in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Perhaps inspired by rowers and certainly with Olympic effort, Sandi began to pedal her way through the Swine Flu. This pandemic would not take her down.
3. Coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, Covid-19
My third pandemic arrives where I live, in Seattle in March 2020. I am 68 and my husband Robby is 69. Reports say that at our ages, we are vulnerable. So we hunker down. We order groceries, cook, eat, clean, walk, work, watch news, read, sleep (or try to), and wash our hands—obsessively. When we step out into the world, we socially distance. We wear masks.
We start out well. But then our ailing elderly dog requires care so we go to the vet, then on to weekly rehab for old dogs. Then I have six migraines in two weeks so I go to the neurologist for Botox injections at my eyebrows and scalp line that might help reduce this killer frequency. Then I crack a crown, half attached to my back molar, half crumbling into pieces so I go to the dentist. Then our tenants get a clogged toilet that a plunger can’t fix and I meet the plumber from Enumclaw who is not wearing a mask. We Americans, after all, can do what we want. And the virus will be with us as long as it can spread. And because the virus spreads before we know we have it, we are left wondering if we were exposed or counting days from when we might have been exposed, only to have another possible exposure that starts another count that overlaps the previous one. We never feel safe and we never are safe.
In the time of coronavirus, sleep is scarce. At night, here is what comes to me: my former bandmate and friend Patricia Nelson who died of Covid-19 in mid-March after eight days on a ventilator, my 94-year-old mother living in lockdown at her retirement home, my own increased exposure. Even the shape of the virus haunts me, appearing as an orange with cloves piercing its entire round rind, like the pomander I once made for my mother. The virus is a virion sphere with peplomer spikes growing out of it. It is these spikes that give the virus its corona, the dangerous antennae designed to attach to a host cell receptor to achieve transmission.
In the morning I walk to clear the sludge from my brain. Spring persists. Blooms push out despite the pandemic: geranium, iris, rose, poppy, foxglove, calla lily, hellebore. I come to a stand of euphorbia—Mediterranean spurge—rising up, flower heads formed by thin stems shooting out in every direction ending in a sphere of open flattish petals. Each head leans over the next as though viewing a parade, each head the shape of our virus.
Next I come across an explosion of allium, full floral globes. I find hydrangea, peony, snowball viburnum. Later will come dahlia, globe thistle, and chrysanthemum. I recognize that in gardens everywhere, petals reach out from spheres like spikes from the virus. Back home I study the image of the virus. For a moment I admire its deadly corona.
My third pandemic is ongoing. In fact it is now, in August 2020, spreading faster than before. We wait to see if we are going to contract the virus. We wait for good treatment options. We wait for a reliable antibody test. We wait to know if the reliable antibody test will mean anything. We wait to see if we will lose anyone else. We will know the pandemic has ended when there is no spread, no spike, no surge, no curve, when there is a vaccine that is safe and effective, when we can and do get that vaccine, when Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, sounds the all clear. Until then, we wait.
Janet Yoder lives with her husband on their Seattle houseboat, the floating nation of Tui
Tui. Her writing has appeared in Raven Chronicles, Bayou, Porcupine, Passager, The
MacGuffin, North Dakota Quarterly, The Evansville Review, The Massachusetts Review,
Pilgrimage, River Teeth, and Chautauqua. In addition to trying to survive the SARS-
CoV-2 pandemic, she is currently at work on a book called Where the Language Lives
about the late Skagit tribal elder Vi Hilbert who worked to save her native
language—Lushootseed, the language spoken by Chief Seattle.