Diary of a SARS Quarantine
In 2003, I was quarantined for SARS, and wrote a funny story about it. I’m thinking we could all use a laugh right now, so I am publishing my short memoir on this blog, raw and unedited.
Day 1 The Phone Call
Have had hectic day. With four children between the ages of 2 and 16 years, every day is hectic. Am particularly crabby because lecture series at Roy Thompson Hall tonight has been cancelled, giving stay-at home mom no excuse to abandon husband and children for evening. All possible speakers for lecture have backed out. Debbie Reynolds, Carrie Fisher, Fran Drescher , even Janet Reno reneged, and all because of SARS. Can’t believe they couldn’t find someone to speak. Would go to see a stick of furniture lecture if it meant a night out of the house.
Have just finished collection of outraged emails to various friends calling proposed speakers “scaredy-cats” and “sucky babies.” Speakers have more chance of winning the lottery than contracting SARS on Roy Thompson Hall stage. Phone rings.
I’ve won the lottery.
“Hello, is this Carole O’Cinneide?”
“Did you attend a Power Yoga/Pilates class last Thursday?”
Now, this is question self was not expecting. Feel like suspect in Law and Order rerun being interrogated by Briscoe. Think. Have no motive. Have not murdered anyone. Decide to answer without lawyer present.
“Yes” I reply.
“This is Toronto Public Health. I’m sorry, I’m afraid I have some bad news….”
Someone in my Yoga class has suspected SARS. I am officially in quarantine. Do not assume the lotus position. Do not collect $200.
“Your quarantine will only last for 7 days, as 3 days have already elapsed since your exposure”
“But, what about the other three days?” I ask.
“Well, if you develop symptoms then we will have to do a contact list of all the places you were during those initial three days and act accordingly” replies sunny dispositioned public health person.
I don’t feel so sunny. Think of all places self has been since yoga class. List includes daughter’s playschool, Coleman Folding Trailer Showroom and Toronto Gay/Lesbian Film Festival. Am already anticipating giggling Public Health personnel placing self on speaker phone while contact list is made. Further anticipate entire gay/lesbian community being put in quarantine because of one stupid straight woman who went to see Spanish subtitle film called “My Mother Likes Women.”
Sunny Public Health begins the 10 Commandments of Quarantine.
Thou shalt not leave the house or thy backyard.
Thou shalt not receive visitors.
Thou shalt avoid direct contact with family members.
Thou shalt wear a mask when in the room with said family members.
Thou shalt wash hands till skin threatens to rub off.
Thou shalt take temperature twice daily.
Thou shalt not share cutlery, towels or cups.
Thou shalt sleep alone.
Thou shalt report any symptoms.
Thou shalt not freak out.
Put down phone and immediately break tenth commandment. Recover in time for totally unsuspecting husband coming through the door.
“Honey, we’ve got a problem.”
Go to bed without kissing children or husband goodnight. Can hear two-year-old crying piteously outside bedroom for mommy, but masks have not arrived yet, so can’t open door.
Want to go back in time and not go to yoga class.
Want to take back calling Janet Reno a “sucky baby.”
Want a hug more than any time in my whole life.
Day 2 The Scramble
Okay, so how do we do this?
First family meeting regarding quarantine does not go well. Teenagers are having nervous breakdown regarding “No visitors” clause. Two and four year old continue to cry whenever mommy wears mask even after drawing happy face on it. Decide husband must take time off work to care for little ones as it is impossible to “avoid direct contact” with two-year-old when wiping her bum. Husband’s office is thrilled with news, as is husband. Everyone backs away when I talk to them. Thank family for all their compassion and support, then retire to bedroom to write them all out of my will.
Masks purchased from Drug Store by husband are of the type used when dealing with clouds of sudden death carcinogens on industrial site, big , bulky, and impossible to breathe. Manage to last 20 minutes with one on while reading “Hop on Pop” to children sounding like bad Darth Vader impersonation. Afterwards, have to sit with head between legs for 10 minutes in order to get over claustrophobic suffocation nausea. Know now what it must feel like to be buried alive.
Husband catches me folding laundry and screams like girl.
“We don’t want you coughing all over our laundry, go upstairs!”
Once again, family compassion is staggering.
Husband has decided in fact, that self should be removed from all household duties that might put family members at risk. No cooking, no dish washing, no laundry….
Starting to think that maybe quarantine is not so bad after all. May even write husband back into will.
The phone rings. It’s Sunny Public Health checking in.
“How are you feeling?’ she asks.
Wow, is that ever a loaded question.
“Okay, I guess.”
Okay for someone whose whole life has been turned upside down by one yoga class. Okay for a mother of four with kids who are afraid of her. Okay for a person who has been determined unfit to fold laundry.
Sunny goes through list of symptoms. Cough? Muscle ache? Fever? Sunny Public Health is so kind and caring, want to adopt her and disown real family.
Put down phone and feel strangely rejuvenated and refreshed by Sunny’s phone call. Can hear husband coming up stairs with laundry.
“Unclean! Unclean!” he bellows town crier style as he walks past my room. Husband is so hysterically funny, I forget to laugh.
Get out will for one last revision.
Day 3 The Paranoia
This is not funny anymore.
Have become psychotic regarding possible spreading of infection. Am afraid to touch anything. Carry spray can of bathroom cleanser with self at all times in order to sterilize anything that may have become contaminated. Have cleanser confiscated while attempting to sterilize teenage son who claims that bleach clashes with aftershave. Decide to sterilize phone after use, computer, toilet, even doorknobs. Notice that no one will touch the TV remote after used by self. Decide not to sterilize TV remote.
Teenagers are even more aloof than normal, meaning virtually non-existent. Teenage daughter finally surfaces to beg for hair appointment at Queen Street West salon . This is a relief as was beginning to wonder whether teenage daughter still lived with us. Am impressed that pursuit of blonde dye job outweighs fear of potentially lethal disease. Take short break from paranoid fantasies to marvel at adolescent priorities.
Spend more and more time in bedroom now reading D.H. Lawrence novel, eating chocolate treats provided by husband, and imagining possible SARS symptoms.
“My lower back and hips are kind of achy.” I confide to my mother on the phone.
“Maybe it’s from sitting on your butt for three days”
It probably is.
Regardless, am convinced that virus is lurking in body waiting to manifest like scary guy in hockey mask the moment back is turned. Have taken temperature 30 times in last hour. Use three different thermometers to rule out possible technological failure. Do not trust thermometer provided by Public Health as it was free and nothing good can come of this.
In evening develop nasty headache. This is it. The Beginning. Soon I will be a “suspect” then a “probable” or maybe a “possible” or a “could be.” It’s all so confusing.
“Here we go.” I murmur, as I lay down on my pillow and close my eyes awaiting the inevitable.
After a few minutes rest, realize that headache is not SARS related but result of reading 200 pages of D.H. Lawrence novel in one sitting and eating three chocolate covered Ding Dongs in quick succession.
I take my temperature, turn out the light and go to bed.
Day 4 The Boredom
Would never have believed that one could ever have too much free time. As mother of four children, concept of free time over last several years is like concept of fourth dimension. Used to dream of such fantastic unattainables as uninterrupted bathroom visit or eating meal sitting down. Now all this is mine and more.
Have read entire headache inducing D.H. Lawrence novel, napped voraciously to rival infamously lazy family cat, and eaten own weight in chocolate treats. Am getting to the point of wishing for SARS symptoms just to break the monotony. Make mental note that next husband should not be fabulously wealthy as self obviously not cut out to be lady of leisure. Share thought with tired and overworked present husband who is not as amused as self.
Now that novel, naps and chocolate treat supply have been exhausted, have developed co-dependent relationship with phone. Talk until battery runs out on cordless. Switch to phone in teenage daughter’s room while recharging, amidst loud but unheeded indignant Oxy-5 huff protests by same. Phone marathons probably result of desperate need to have social contact with someone (anyone) without having to wear big honking mask. Then again may be driven by novelty of completing more than two sentences without having to disarm girl child attempting to brain sister with Barbie dress-up high heel shoe. Talk about weapons of mass destruction.
Talk for hours to friends, family members, even strangers dialing wrong number. Discuss SARS, WHO, and three other acronyms. Discuss inadequacy of husband’s housekeeping, child minding, and depth of sympathy. Discuss recent quarantine of 1700 Markham teenagers who must now avoid direct contact with family members. Speculate as to whether parents of teenagers will notice any difference. Am on phone with mother when call waiting displays another incoming call. Put Ma on hold, as may be Sunny Public Health.
“Yes” I reply impatiently, as was in middle of regaling mother with list of phantom SARS symptoms.
“This is Tracey Huntington”
The Yoga Instructor.
Cannot get mother off phone fast enough as this is first contact self has had with fellow Yoga quarantine leper.
“Hi Tracey, how are you”
“Okay, I guess”
The standard quarantinee’s answer.
“Are you sick, Tracey?”
“No, are you sick?”
Audible communal sigh, broken only by burning question at back of entire yoga classes’ mind, save one.
“Who do you think it was?”
Over one hour debate follows. List of possible suspects is made, discussed and revised.
“Well, it’s not you, right?”
And it’s not me either?
Each class participant is evaluated for possible employment risk (Isn’t Shirley a nurse?), travel habits (Anybody been to Beijing lately?) and general health (I thought that one at the back of the class with the bicycle shorts looked a little off colour, didn’t you?) Conversation begins to resemble game of Clue. Was it Mary in the Corner with a Green Yoga Mat?
Bid Tracey “Namaste,” the traditional yoga salutation of peaceful departure and hang up phone no closer to determining source of possible SARS contamination. Picture mystery women assuming Forward Facing Downward Dog whilst spewing droplets all over my Everlast workout pants. Was she in front of me? On the other side of the room? Beside me?
I want to know. But not really because of fear for self, not totally at least.
I want to know because I care about the women in my yoga class.
Say silent prayer for mystery suspected SARS yoga enthusiast.
Day 5 The Fury
Have exhausted all possibilities of phone conversation. Am sick of newspaper reports, televised news conferences and even well meaning friends who dare to mention the “S” word.
Am sick of waiting to get sick.
Husband no longer remembers to procure chocolate treats and has allowed house to deteriorate to point one level above complete squalor. Cannot even find laundry, let alone fold it.
Wash hands scrupulously, don significantly more comfortable mask provided by Public Health and begin to clean up disaster area of a home, cursing husband not so silently under breath.
Enter husband and children fresh from park and trip to McDonald’s looking fresh and relaxed and conspicuously untroubled by any kind of domestic sense of responsibility.
“Look at you, honey,” he croons, his voice oozing sympathy.
“Cleaning up after us like a maid. I feel terrible.”
Not as terrible as self is going to make him feel after “maid” comment. This is for sure.
And so it begins. Five days of tension, fear and monotony come spewing forth out of my mouth like Linda Blair’s barf scene in “The Exorcist.” Husband stares wide eyed in shock, waiting for head to start spinning around. Just when he seems to be hopelessly disabled with shock , husband manages to tap into his own sense of frustration, exhaustion and sense of self pity.
“It’s not all about you, Carole”
Give masked gasp of horror, sucking in most of air in living room.
Husband takes advantage of momentary outraged paralysis to scurry with small children out front door. Once recovered significantly enough to resume battle find husband cleaning car with daughters in driveway, conveniently situated outside of 3 foot radius from front door which self is not allowed outside of. Crafty.
Attempt to shout at top of lungs despite mask to continue argument with husband from doorway, no longer caring what neighbours think as they already are referring to self as “That one with SARS at #62.”
Husband powers up loud vacuum cleaner.
Family cannot hide from quarantine induced wrath for entire day and must eventually come in from driveway. Corner husband trying to sneak in undetected through backyard sliding door.
“Have you thought about what you were going to make for dinner” I ask, full knowing that he is far too disorganized to remember small details like defrosting chicken breasts when there is car upholstery to be cleaned.
“No, I guess I hadn’t really thought about it.”
“Well, that’s nice.” I begin.
“It must be nice not to have to think about what to make for dinner, and it must be nice not to worry about dust bunnies the size of small children threatening to take over the living room, and it must be NICE to be able to go more than three feet out the ^%$#$%#^%$ front door!”
The red in my face is contrasting sharply now with the white mask. Am beginning to resemble Canadian flag sans maple leaf.
“But I wouldn’t know,” I continue in complete quarantine rage,
“Because apparently it’s ALL ABOUT ME!”
We’re off. We fight about what’s for dinner. We fight about the children. We fight about the computer operating system.
Retire to bedroom to fume privately about long list of wrong doings propagated against self. List includes fact that Sunny Public Health has neglected to telephone for daily check in and pep talk.
Phone rings on cue.
“Oh, Sunny!” I exclaim.
“Thou hast not forsaken me!”
Answer phone with glee awaiting kind words of encouragement and gentle assurance that it is, in fact, “all about me.”
It’s my mother.
“I just heard on the news that they may be increasing the quarantine requirement to 12 days instead of 10!”
Day 6 Industry and Rebellion
As possibility of contacting SARS virus becomes less and less viable am increasingly aware that previously unheard of amount of free time could be used for more than paranoid delusions and husband abuse. Blame shock of quarantine for inducing soporific like stupor from which self has only recently awakened.
“Think of all the things I could have been doing?!!!”
Stacks of personal papers to be filed, boxes of pictures in need of photo albums, hideous “winter” feet in need of pedicure! All of these and more gang up on me in my imagination and shout a resounding “Je t’accuse!”
As fear of touching things has diminished (with exception of hideous feet) start in on all out assault of nasty household jobs. Make mental note that guilt even better than fear for stimulating nervous activity.
While alphabetizing summer sporting equipment in attic have incredibly fabulous yet stupid idea.
Why not take advantage of husband being off work, grab children and folding tent trailer and drive up to beautiful Algonquin north country? Tent trailer has recently been given clean bill of health by friendly Coleman showroom guys, who even managed to remove nasty mud wasp from gas line. Am imagining idyllic family hike up Lookout Trail when remember why husband off work in first place.
That was me coming back down to earth.
Tent trailer may have been given clean bill of health, but unfortunately not self. Full reality of situation begins to set in. I can’t go to Algonquin. I can’t go anywhere. Sunny Public Health won’t let me.
“But there’s no way I have it” I complain to the cast-off inline skates and tennis rackets.
“I ‘d have symptoms by now.”
Leave sporting equipment assignment behind and march downstairs to front door in defiant masked huff. Squinting into sunlight, walk out front door and wave one rebellious big toe just outside of 3 foot radius where imaginary quarantine line is drawn.
Feel cocky but strangely unsatisfied.
Close door and retire to family room as shrieks of horror from neighbours seeing masked self outside have become too much to bear.
Begin to envision Bonnie and Clyde like escape with husband, kids and mud wasp-less tent trailer speeding down Highway 401 with Sunny Public Health in hot pursuit waving Section 22 quarantine order. Imagine. The Freedom. The Decadence. The Complete Lack of Social Responsibility and Cooperation with Governing Authorities.
The sheer un-Canadianness of it!
Husband walks in from backyard and bursts depraved escape fantasy bubble.
“Have you seen the sump pump? I’m trying to get some work done on the pool.”
“It’s filed under “P” next to the portapotty.” I reply just a tad too evenly.
“Shouldn’t it be filed under “S” for sump?”
I decide to let this one slide.
“Where’s Danny?” I ask, as teenage son seems to have disappeared. Assume it is because work on pool has commenced.
“He’s at the Lobster party, remember?”
Husband continues hunt for sump pump completely unaware of mouth hanging wide open beneath mask. The Lobster party is tonight! The “annual ,absolutely excellent, totally succulent, just flown in from PEI, beerfest and major lobster scarf that have had babysitter lined up for since last fall” Lobster party! The party that lazy, undeserving, computer game playing, favourite son is apparently attending but from which his long suffering mother who goes to party once every millennium will be conspicuously absent!
It is all too much. Tears begin to flow down face and onto mask. Husband correctly assumes that this is not result of sump pump filing criticism.
“It’ll be okay, honey. It’s almost over.”
He wraps his arms around me despite possible SARS tainted status. But the tears just keep on coming.
Later that night, am watching TV after kids have gone to bed and awaiting husband who has gone on late night Loblaws run. Have developed ingenious way of watching TV together maskless by building barrier made of large cushions and Fisher Price furniture between two couches in family room; thus protecting husband from any renegade virus laden droplets that might spray out while chortling at Seinfeld rerun. Refer to barrier affectionately as “The SARS Wall.”
“I’m back,” husband calls as he walks through the front door.
“And I’ve brought you something”
He reaches inside of his jacket grinning like Cheshire cat, and pulls out frozen Lobster stuffed mushroom entrée and big fat bottle of wine.
Decide that husband may quite possibly be the greatest man on the planet.
Day 7 The Homestretch