In 2020 I have been sick with covid-19 / pneumonia / post-covid injury to lungs, heart, blood vessels. Healthcare providers, family, friends, colleagues, and fellow long-haulers are the community I’m walking with on the road back to health. Not sure what things will look like when I get there. But I’m getting there.
During the worst of the illness, when it was hard to breathe and there was a relentless crushing pressure on my chest, and my heart was racing even as I sat still, I needed to hold onto something with my hands. Usually I confront fear in motion and with power tools. But my oxygen wasn’t turning over fast enough to do any of that. I had to sit still. So I returned to something from childhood.
In the sublime knitting community, Ravelry, I found a pattern by the Norwegian Sandnes Garn company for a skuldervarmer. That’s a shoulder-warmer. It’s delightful just to say it: skuldervarmer. I talked to my doctors online, and got lab tests in-person. I sat on the couch and meditated and wept and watched baseball and held on to the yarn and the needles and told myself: it’s not going to always be like this.
It took about six weeks to finish the skuldervarmer. When it was done, I cried some more, because I was supposed to be well by then. And I wasn’t. My airways were still raw, voice hoarse, and there was inflammation in the tissues of my heart which had not yet settled down. There was still chest pain and pressure for most of each day. I could only walk for five minutes at a time. So while my kids did the dishes, and friends brought us groceries, I started another knitting project, this one by the designer Åsa Christiansen.
A good knitting pattern is actively fun to knit. The way your fingers get to move, and the sections repeat in your memory like the chorus of a song. And the pattern reveals itself to you as you go. This project was like that. It’s a scarf, or in its native language, skjerf. These patterns by Sandnes Garn are written in Norwegian, so for each I spent a couple of days with Google Translate, and a Norwegian-English knitter’s glossary, and made a translation. It took some linguistic sleuthing and pattern figuring out, which ended up being part of the fun. You have to have fun, even, or especially when you’re healing from a new, unknown, and awful illness. Knitting in Norwegian is fun.
When, a month and a half later, I finished the skjerf, and I still wasn’t well, I was ready. I’d braced myself and did not cry. I said fuck you covid. I will knit another goddamned scarf. A really big one. I have an extraordinary community of long-haulers in the support community Body Politic to back me up on that. Together in our conversations and our research and our straight up love for one another we are figuring out what the virus does to the body, and how to heal from it.
My heart was still sore, pulse rate unnaturally high, and blood pressure too low. But I could drive again, and was starting to be able to take longer, slow walks. By this time the blood vessels all over my body had darkened and swelled toward the surface so that I look like a map most days. And dozens of small red spots appeared all over my body, intriguing the dermatologist who took a photo.
I started the next project. I thanked the animals whose wool was in my hands.
Knitting is a physical manifestation of time. Each little cluster of stitches creates space for a breath, a memory, a prayer, a resolution. I sat, and knitted, and listened to Jon Kabat-Zinn teach equanimity and compassion to thousands of people all around the world in real time. I knitted and worried about my loved ones, my neighbors, our country, and our stupid human species. Naive, grasping and stubborn, we are, like a vast, collective child.
I took breaks from researching the medical literature, and knitted, and hollered conversation and directions to my kids from the couch. I knitted and wept my gratitude at the care and support I’ve been getting all along from so many people. Living is a team effort. I did my rehab exercises and hung out with loved ones on Zoom. My friend Emily and I wrote letters to get out the vote in swing states. With a note from my doctor I returned to work, slowly at first, but then got back into the routine. That was the thing I’d lost the most sleep over during the first five months — would I be able to keep working. But I’m back to it now. Incredibly lucky that I still have a job and can still do it. There are so many people in a similar boat who do not have the safety net of Paid Family Medical Leave which Massachusetts provides.
The Dodgers won the World Series. Biden/Harris won the election. Nearly 1.5 million killed by the virus worldwide, and millions injured by it. Socioeconomic inequity is its own pre-existing pandemic. We have so much grieving, and so much restorative work to do on this earth.
My chest pressure and pain is easing up but not gone. I can walk a couple miles but not fast. Still can’t run, bike, or swim fast, or do any heavy lifting, because it makes the heart race and ache. No power tools for a while, and no sawdust. So I will work small for the time being.
And I will let you know when I finish the hullmønster skjerf, which means lace-pattern scarf, in Norwegian.
November 28, 2020
It’s a year later, November 2021.
I finished the hullmønster skjerf a few days ago. I am healed, but not completely. Covid left me with a few souvenirs, including a small amount of lung scarring and an irritated heart. After a year and a half of incremental progress and low-inflammatory eating I’m back to slow jogging, easy bike-riding, and lake swimming. In the water I sometimes feel pretty good.
It turns out there’s a name for what clobbered me after the inital covid infection. It’s called MIS-A, multi-system inflammatory syndrome, a cascade of inflammatory events which the virus triggers in multiple organs and body systems in some people. I made a chart documenting what happened to my organs and systems, in case it’s helpful to any covid long-haulers dealing with a similar experience. And this Lancet article goes into the details of what we currently understand about long covid and related syndromes including MIS-A. Feel free to reach out if you have any questions.
So, things are not the same as they were pre-covid. My muscles have not come all the way back, and lungs are still sensitive, so I’ve set aside the carpentry for now and dived into painting, which is a joy.
I grieve what covid took from me, but I’m aware every day how incredibly lucky I am to still be here, to be able to work and take care of my family, to have a home, loved ones, and a functional, fulfilling life. This year I got to see my kids, both 18, transform from children into young adults before my eyes.
The pandemic rolls on. The fight for reality vs. fantasy plays out in human minds around the world, while hundreds of thousands die in its wake.
I’m pushing up my sleeves and walking, slowly, back into the fray.