January 21. That’s when I sent my first push notification to some 500,000 cell phones alerting them to the coronavirus’s arrival in the United States. It paled compared to the news I heard when the veterinarian called later that day: Fisher, my moody, orange-and-white, 19-pound cat and companion of nearly 14 years, had lymphoma. The diagnosis explained why he’d been eating less than usual. Cancer would kill him in as few as four weeks if I didn’t seek treatment fast. I was at work and rushed to a conference room where I hyperventilated on the phone with my sister, his secondary caretaker, and we both absorbed the news.
Fisher’s weekly chemotherapy sessions began the following weekend. The total cost by the end of the six-month treatment, they estimated, would be somewhere around $10,000 without pet insurance, and I had none. But chemotherapy could extend his life by months or even years, and I come from a long line of animal lovers, so the decision was easy for me. I’d put it on a credit card and figure out how to pay later.
Some of my friends thought I was nuts. Fisher was hardly the ideal pet. He was grumpy and sometimes violent. As a kitten, he terrorized me every time I’d brush my teeth. While I faced the bathroom mirror, he’d stalk me from behind, and if I didn’t catch him in time, he’d bite my calves, piercing the outer layer of skin, sometimes making me bleed. I always imagined he was jealous of my reflection and the attention I gave it. Biting my legs was his way of saying, “I’m here! Look at me!” Somehow I always found his antics endearing. And he always tolerated my overzealous displays of affection.
More than a month passed after the coronavirus’s reported arrival in Snohomish County, Wash., before it was linked to any domestic fatalities. Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash. The Kansas City Chiefs won the Super Bowl. Harvey Weinstein was sentenced to 23 years in prison. Democratic presidential candidates participated in a televised debate. The news cycle proceeded, while the coronavirus didn’t truly dominate headlines until March.
I’d been anticipating March 2020 for a long time. On March 19, I would turn 40. I’d anguished for months over how I’d mark the bittersweet occasion, eager to celebrate as I did annually, but dreading a milestone I didn’t feel quite ready for. I didn’t own a home or have a husband, and I wasn’t even sure I wanted those things. A scheduled trip to Southern California to visit my friend Jessica, who shares my birthday, would be the first personal casualty I’d suffer as a result of the outbreak. We had booked a two-night stay at a coastal resort where we planned to pamper ourselves with chef-cooked meals and spa treatments. Flights were still scheduled, but airlines were beginning to accommodate travelers who were deterred by the virus. I took JetBlue up on their offer for a full refund. With so many unknowns about how the virus spread or who was most vulnerable, it seemed like the right choice to make.
I still had the week off of work, and little to do but stock up on groceries and ensure Fisher consumed enough calories daily to sustain his body weight as his appetite slowly vanished. He’d lost more than five pounds. If I was going to spend $10,000 on chemotherapy, I thought, I sure as hell wasn’t about to let my cat die of starvation. Each day I spent between four and six hours filling 2 mL syringes with pasty, foul-smelling canned cat food and administered 14 of them daily, spaced at least 30 minutes apart to prevent vomiting.
My friends and family did their best to make my birthday feel special. Every few hours, the doorbell rang with a delivery. Flowers, balloons, cupcakes. All the fixings for a cheerful birthday celebration. Still, I was alone, my cat dying, and I simply didn’t feel like honoring the occasion.
Tension rose in New York, meanwhile, as state and federal health officials warned it would become the next coronavirus hot spot. The subway wasn’t safe, they said, so I rented a car. By the time my week off came to an end, my employer, Verizon Media (the parent company of Yahoo), had already instituted a work-from-home policy. They’d announced special sick leave benefits for those personally affected by the virus. Video meetings were fast becoming the new norm. Best practices for working from home were circulated widely: Create a separate workspace; use the video function to connect with colleagues; take breaks as needed.
But breaks hardly felt like breaks at all. We were confined to our homes, deprived of human contact, and afraid for our health and the health of the people we loved. People over 65 and those with underlying health conditions were the most vulnerable, they said. Both of my parents are in their 70s, and my dad is a brittle diabetic who’s already suffered multiple heart attacks. His health already worried me constantly—and now this.
Outside my Brooklyn apartment window, storefronts deemed non-essential shuttered and I could see pedestrians donning surgical masks. We were ordered to shelter in place and stand at least six feet apart. The word apocalyptic was used frequently to describe the streets of New York. When I wasn’t covering the news, I was living it. Be grateful you still have a job, I told myself. So many Americans had lost theirs.
Now there was a daily meeting dedicated to our websites’ coronavirus coverage. Editors across the globe would pass the baton to ensure 24-hour live-blog updates. Reported cases and confirmed deaths were tallied constantly. We looked to Italy for a proximate glimpse at our immediate future, and the immediate future was grim. The stock market tanked, March Madness was canceled, famous figures like Tom Hanks and Rand Paul announced they’d tested positive. And with each major development, we updated the blog, programmed articles, sent push notifications to phones. Wash, rinse, repeat.
I’d wrap up my workday and get to feeding Fisher, trading one set of worries for another. The coronavirus was creeping up on my city as cancer was attacking the only company I had. I already wanted so badly to keep him alive. The thought of losing him while on lockdown made me feel desperate.
I’d only been back to work for a week when Fisher had his first seizure, sometime after 11 p.m. on Saturday. His eyes widened then dimmed as his fur puffed until his body appeared to double in size. I moved him onto the tiled bathroom floor where he collapsed and convulsed and foamed at the mouth before going limp in my arms. Hysterical, I grabbed him and poured his nearly lifeless body into a carrier, ran outside wearing pajamas and slippers in the freezing rain and put him in the front seat of my rental car, which was parked around the corner, unsure whether he was even still alive. At the first traffic light, I saw him lift his little head.
That weekend, his illness progressed quickly. On Sunday, he had another two or three seizures. Early Monday morning, they started to occur hourly. The cancer had likely gone to his brain, the emergency doctors said. I called out of work and texted my friend Steve: If I have to put him down, would you come meet me at the vet? I asked, knowing he’d have to break social distancing guidelines. He didn’t skip a beat: Yes.
When Fisher, full of anticonvulsant medication, seized on my lap for the fourth or fifth time in as many hours, urinating all over my leg, I knew it was time. In the middle of a global pandemic, my city and so many others on lockdown, I wept as a doctor injected Fisher with the medication that would end his life. Wearing a surgical glove, Steve held my trembling hand.
I returned to work Wednesday with an eye on fact-checking the conspiracy theories about the virus that now ran rampant online. But Thursday I struggled to focus. My mind wandered and I could hardly string sentences together. By Friday, I realized it was because I was still so sad about Fisher. Here I was, stuck at home, his home, but he wasn’t there. I perked up at every shadow that crossed the room, every street sound I heard, thinking for a moment it was him. Worse, somewhere in my subconscious I believed, two days after Fisher’s death, that I should be over it already. That everyone was suffering and no one wanted to hear about my dead cat. Give yourself permission to grieve, I told myself. This is going to take some time.
In 2014, as a homepage editor at MSNBC, I felt proud to work in a newsroom and empowered by my professional outlet. The coronavirus was different. This time, I didn’t feel privileged, I felt trapped. Covering this pandemic wasn’t like covering any story I’d ever covered before. It was omnipresent and endless and had the powerful ability to dim the memory of news events as recent and historic as a presidential impeachment. It called for a whole new level of self-care at a time when so many of my usual self-care options weren’t available. By now we all knew that FaceTiming was a poor excuse for socializing and I was simply too afraid to step outside and take a walk.
On April 8, I called my 95-year-old uncle in New Jersey to wish him a happy Passover. “Bernie,” I asked, “in your long life, do you ever remember anything like this before?” “Never,” he said. I froze. I suddenly understood something for the first time: There was no playbook for coping with a pandemic. It’s not the kind of story that motivated me to become a breaking news editor, and for all the good I could do programming important stories, it didn’t inspire me to continue covering the news. For now, that was just my job. I emailed my manager and requested a couple of mental health days off. Like everyone else, I’d just have to wait.
Related: Coping With Grief and Loss During the Coronavirus Crisis
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