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first person

Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

Now, suddenly, everyone shares my fear of unseen illnesses that can upend entire lives. I hear lots of people debate whether to work from home, whether to wear a face mask for air travel and whether to skip large group gatherings. But my husband and I have been living with this nightmare even since we brought our son Finnegan home from the NICU last year. We were given a long list of don’ts from his doctor.

Don’t take public transportation.

Don’t let strangers touch your baby.

Don’t leave the house except for doctor’s appointments.

At those doctor’s appointments, don’t linger in waiting rooms.

And, most importantly, don’t go anywhere without hand sanitizer.

Over the course of our long hospital stay – Finnegan was born seven weeks early and it took him nearly that long to learn to breathe without respiratory support – the visions we’d once had of enrolling our son in daycare, or hiring a nanny, when I went back to work evaporated.

“Daycare?” our doctor repeated with a raised eyebrow when we asked him if it was safe for three-month old Finnegan. “Absolutely not.” Daycare, he intimated, led to germs which led to colds and flus and maybe even to RSV, a highly contagious respiratory virus that often led to rehospitalization for babies like ours.

“Do you want to be back here?” he asked, gesturing toward the oxygen machines, the cage-like crib and the clown-coloured curtains separating our baby from the three others he shared a room with. Point taken. No daycare.

The nanny veto, on the other hand, was our decision. The cost of hiring someone capable of using a nebulizer, which sent the steroids our son needed directly into his lungs to spur their development, would have been so high that my husband Emmett decided to quit his job instead. And so when we left the hospital, we entered a new phase of life – house arrest.

That winter, my husband and son rarely left home. After months confined to a hospital crib, Finnegan’s prison was bigger but a prison nonetheless. Emmett’s world was reduced to four rooms, too. “Let’s go on an adventure to the kitchen!” I’d sometimes hear him whisper in Finnegan’s ear. For them, that was the end of the Earth.

I, meanwhile, had a day pass. Three months after giving birth, I returned to work in the middle of flu season, travelling to and from my office via subway. I buried my face in a giant scarf, scrambled from seat to seat to avoid the sneezes of fellow passengers, and preferred to plant my feet rather than clutch the train’s petri-dish poles. It all made me a dangerous person to stand next to, half-blinded by looping wool, scuttling from car to car, my body bobbing and weaving with each subway surge and slowdown. When I arrived at work, I submerged my arms elbow-deep in a sink, soaping up like I’d seen the hospital surgeons do. Then I disinfected my phone before using it to check in on my son and husband via nanny cam. I’d frequently see Emmett circling our living room with Finnegan in his arms, tracing the same route over and over again like a caged animal.

It was the season of hand sanitizing. I Purelled and Purelled and Purelled until my hands cracked and turned crimson but by the end of my first week back at work, I was sick and miserable. I wore a surgical mask at home and tried not to exhale my poison breath in our son’s direction, but it didn’t help. Soon Finnegan was sick and miserable, too. Emmett and I watched his breathing closely, recording rattling sounds and e-mailed them to our doctors for their clinical opinions. We took his temperature at near-hourly intervals. I had nightmares involving scientists in sterile cleanroom coveralls staring down at our son as he struggled to breathe. To prevent this from ever happening again, I bought myself several hundred dollars’ worth of dubious herbal supplements on Amazon and spent $4 a day buying lemon and cayenne shots from a juice bar near my office. Eventually, we both got better.

When spring came, releasing us from house arrest, we felt flush with freedom, albeit only the freedom to walk slowly to the end of our block and back home again.

This flu season, our son is stronger. Once a fragile-looking preemie, he’s now a strapping toddler who careens confidently around our apartment on two trunk-like legs. He hasn’t needed his nebulizer for months. Maybe we could put him in daycare or hire a nanny, but we haven’t. He may not look fragile, but he still feels that way to us. And while last year our stories of self-imposed quarantine evoked sympathetic clucks, they now elicit skeptical scowls. “He looks fine to me,” more than one acquaintance has said when we explain that my husband stays home with Finnegan because of his compromised immune system. “Why not let him live a little?”

And then the threat of coronavirus came. It’s made the sort of people who previously scoffed at my fears about Finnegan’s health change their position – posting articles to Facebook about spotting symptoms, subscribing to news alerts and even clipping those tacky tiny hand sanitizers to the handles of their purses. It’s the season of Purell for all of us now.

Though this universal anxiety has made me less alone in my mission to keep sickness at bay, it hasn’t made me less anxious myself – I still imagine germs in the air every time we take Finnegan on the subway, set him loose at the library or let him linger in a doctor’s waiting room. It has, however, made the world a little more empathetic. Now the glances we share with people we meet are neither pitying nor judgmental, but knowing. Whether real or imagined, inherited or imported, we’re all vulnerable to something these days.

Justine Feron lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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