COVID has made me old before my time.
I blame the masks, in part. At the deli case at Central Market, for example, I’m separated from the guys who slice and package my order not only by the refrigerated case of meats and cheeses, but also by the masks we all wear. I can scarcely see the servers, because the mask fogs up my glasses. And, I struggle to hear them, given that I can neither see their lips move nor fully read their expressions. So, I shout out my request and hope for no follow-up questions.
What makes that sad is that I like to banter with Mark in deli…and with Andre in security and Marcelo wherever I encounter him. Having been a regular at Central Market since it opened, I’ve long enjoyed seeing their familiar faces and knowing they recognize me as a result of some exchange we’ve had. Andre, for example, may not know my name, but over a decade ago, he rescued me when my car died in the parking lot. I was his first Prius. We bonded while poring over my owner’s manual to locate the battery, both of us astounded to find it in the trunk.
These brief encounters grew more significant after the shutdown. I missed them when, for months, I ordered online and waited in my car while a temporary hire filled my trunk with food. When I went back into the store about six weeks ago, I recognized myself as one of those old ladies who teases out a little conversation from customers and employees alike. I do not show photos of grandchildren to the checker, but my one-hour weekly trip to the grocery store has become my social life.
After my dad turned 70, he joked that going to the doctor was his social life. I get it now. I look forward to having any appointment, even a medical one. There’s a little thrill in making a note on my calendar that I must go somewhere on a certain day at a certain time. I recently had my annual physical and a dental checkup. As it happens, scheduling my appointments was the only fun part. Getting my teeth cleaned was particularly stressful. The hygienist resembled an astronaut as she hovered above my prone self: I was a specimen on a slab. I took mild pleasure, however, in feeling purposeful.
And, I had the rare opportunity of inviting the wallflowers hanging in my closet to accompany me on these occasions. For a couple of hours, I wore something other than my usual, slightly elevated version of pajamas. My actual pajamas are looking very tired. I’ve long had a rule about pajamas. In winter, no matter what time it is, when I come home for the day, with no plans to go back out or have anyone over, I’m allowed to take a hot shower and put on pj’s and a warm robe. Since COVID, I have put no such seasonal restrictions on myself. Eating an early dinner in pj’s is not something I’m proud to admit here, but it happens more and more.
The most fun I ever have is riding my bicycle. I’m outdoors, I’m among people, I’m doing something good for my health. The latter is, of course, another way I’ve grown old before my time. When the pandemic reached the U.S., my age became the number-one risk factor: I was over 65. Consequently, I began to fret about my health, something that, up until then, I had pretty much taken for granted. I upped my Vitamin D intake, started tracking my blood pressure, scrubbed down my canned goods and milk cartons, and wondered whether all that deep breathing in yoga had strengthened my lungs enough to keep me off a ventilator. Early on, I pulled into Kroger’s drive-thru pharmacy and unthinkingly spoke into the handset without wiping it down with a Clorox-saturated wipe. I thought I was a goner.
I survived. Since my close call, I’ve been living it up. I’ve cleaned out closets and cupboards. I’ve taken an inordinate amount of interest in collecting the mail and getting my bins to the street early. I’ve completed countless crossword and Sudoku puzzles. I’ve watched multiple episodes of Forensic Files. I’ve started going to bed at 9:30, even if I’ve enjoyed an afternoon nap. Of course, I’m always up by 5:30, before the newspaper hits the driveway.
I used to do more. I miss movies at the Angelika, lunch at Kalachandji’s, strolling idly through Target. I miss my cleaning lady and going to church. Even more, I miss seeing my family and taking a trip out of town. I missed an important wedding in May. These are losses, great and small. Getting old, of course, is all about loss. That’s something I learned watching my parents and in-laws grow old and die: They stopped driving, their friends died, their health failed. The losses mounted.
Yes, COVID has made me old before my time. It’s been instructive that way. I learned Zoom to keep up my yoga practice and to teach English to my adult students. To compensate for the loss of lunch dates, I re-discovered talking on the phone. I published a book of my family stories, then switched to others’ loved ones, in Oakland Cemetery. In the midst of loss and boredom and anxiety, I had to accept and to adapt. I’m hoping, when the pandemic eases, I can resume some of the life I’ve lost. But I’m not without gratitude for this suspension: It’s been an unexpected opportunity to practice what’s to come.