University of Michigan
This essay is part of our series, Flattened By the Curve, which features the voices of doctors, nurses, healthcare workers, and others on the front lines against COVID-19. For information on how to submit, click here.
Outside of Saginaw, a gauzy layer of frost coats the fields. There’s some frost on the trees, too, but not much. Mostly, the trees are bare; in Michigan, spring staggers in late and lasts a minute.
Along this particular stretch of interstate, most trees stand near the occasional farmhouse, whose initial inhabitants probably did not imagine a future front porch view of this gray slash of asphalt along which I hurtle.
Trees, collectively speaking, must be weary of being implicated so frequently in metaphor and analogy, but on this drive it’s hard to see them as anything but anatomical: vasculature, maybe, but more like upside-down airways. Big, plump trachea staked into the soil; mainstem bronchi taking off at the carina; then into an explosion of twigs, little bronchioles leading to the air sacs, the alveoli, the end of the road, so to speak, but also just the beginning.
Crumpled in the glove compartment is the past week’s worth of lightly used, pale yellow surgical masks, now an unexpectedly hot commodity. The children I used them with didn’t seem to have COVID, Even so, in the coming weeks it becomes clear that we don’t actually have much of a clue about who does and does not have the virus, and that this unsettling state of uncertainty is unlikely to be resolved soon.
The day the schools closed, I sent my husband with our four girls out to the country. It wasn’t clear if this was the right thing to do, or when I might see them again. As a general pediatrician, I wasn’t on the front lines intubating COVID patients, but social media was abuzz with accounts of hapless Italian orthopods managing ventilators and healthy young adults dropping dead out of the blue, so the right thing to do seemed like anybody’s guess.
After a stretch of work followed by built-in isolation time, I set out to join them in the north, watching the trees as I drove, thinking of the feeling of tilting a little forehead backward, chin up, sniffing position. Pry open the mouth, slide in the cool, stainless steel blade. Visualize the glistening white cords, stretched around the opening of the abyss like rubber bands.
Up north, we swing under a giant weeping willow, and rock in a hammock slung between two ancient cottonwoods. To our friends the trees, the world around them probably looked much the same a century ago, as the globe was being traversed by a different minuscule marauder said to have originated in Haskell County, Kansas. In the hammock, the girls give each other silly personality quizzes: Are you a cupcake, pudding, or lollipop? Which jungle animal are you? Which word would your friends say describes you best?
Which word describes the pandemic best? Destructive, cataclysmic, devastating, tragic? I’d have to go with quiet. A good quiet, yes, the kind where you can hear the rustling of the leaves, and the Phoebe bird who calls my name, but an eerie, disquieting quiet too; the quiet of businesses closed, lights off, appointments canceled, salaries slashed, workers furloughed, children hungry. A quiet that blows wide open the stories we all tell about ourselves, about what we do, about why anything matters. A quiet that drapes dappled sunlight onto your skin, and dampens the echoes of far-off code pagers and sirens so that the sound waves flatten into nothing just as they reach your ear.
Phoebe Danziger is a pediatrician, ethicist, and writer. She lives in Michigan with her husband and their four daughters.