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  • Barrie Kreinik

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes

How do you measure a (pandemic) year?

Photo by Barrie Kreinik

On March 12, 2020, I was scheduled to attend an acting class. Then I planned to make my way over to Actors’ Equity, where I had an appointment to get my taxes done at the VITA office. That evening, I was due to meet a friend for dinner and a show.

But I woke up at 8:00 that morning with a light burning sensation in my chest and a case of what appeared to be conjunctivitis in my left eye. I skipped class and went to the eye doctor, who gave me a prescription. Then I got a phone call: the VITA office was closing, my appointment was canceled. Finally I texted my friend and bowed out of our evening plans, as I was feeling increasingly unwell.

I awoke from a mild delirium on Friday morning to find that my temperature was 99.5º—not technically a fever, but higher than normal. I stayed in bed most of the day.

On Saturday I wrote the following in my diary:

This morning I felt very tired, temp at 99.1 º, and my whole back ached. After food, Advil, and a few hours I could tell I was feeling better because I wanted to DO something. But after walking to the park and back, I felt exhausted again. In the bath, my lungs burned slightly and for a while it felt like I couldn’t get enough breath. Then by 8 pm my sense of smell had gone.

It’s the strangest combination of symptoms I’ve ever had.

We all know, now, what those symptoms meant. But at the time, I had no idea. It would be another week before anosmia was found to be one of the most common signs of a mild case. What a time to have an eccentric virus! I wrote naively, noting on Sunday that my fatigue was so extreme, it felt like my limbs were full of sand.

Remarkably, it all disappeared as quickly as it had arrived. Except the anosmia: it would take nearly a month for my sense of smell to return. By then, my doctor had diagnosed me—remotely, because I couldn’t get tested anywhere—with COVID-19.

March 12 was the day that Broadway shut down. The day Tom Hanks announced that he and Rita Wilson had been diagnosed with the coronavirus in Australia. The day the stock market fell by 10%, the number of known US cases surpassed 1,000, and the mayor of New York declared a state of emergency. The fact that I got sick on that exact day feels preternatural. And when I consider how many people I could have infected if my day had gone on as planned, I cringe. What if I’d gone to my acting class? What if the VITA office hadn’t closed? What if I’d eaten at a restaurant, sat in a crowded theatre, hugged a friend? The possibilities are infinite—and chilling.

On March 17, I was supposed to perform in a variety show at Birdland. Three days in advance, the show was canceled, and the venue soon closed its doors. Every commitment on my calendar had been obliterated or moved online in the space of a week. So I packed my things and fled the city for my mother’s house in Connecticut. Incredibly, although I was there for five days before I found out that my “eccentric virus” was the virus, I managed not to infect my mother.

Almost no one was wearing a mask in public yet. It would be a few more weeks before I started hand-stitching them for us, a few months before the fashion world began manufacturing them in all colors, patterns, and shapes. And it would be five and a half more months before I returned to New York from what I’d thought would be a two-week absence.

If anyone had told me a year ago that the pandemic would still be raging 365 days later, I think I’d have crawled under a giant rock. As it happened, I got through the first few months, as I wrote in an earlier post, by refusing to think more than a few weeks into the future. But gradually the present began to seem, if not any less stressful, at least a bit less weird. Face masks became a familiar sight: I no longer felt like a bandit every time I put one on to enter a store. The word zoom took on a new meaning, as did words like bubble and distance. And the ways in which so many people drastically modified their lives seem to me to be proof that human beings can adapt to almost anything.

The pandemic is far from over, but that elusive end-of-the-tunnel light is finally visible. We finally have an administration that’s acknowledging our collective grief and sending help to those who need it most. Vaccines that a year ago seemed like a pipe dream are being administered to millions of people. A tentative optimism seems to be blooming with the coming spring.

As for me, I dwell in immense gratitude for my good fortune. I recovered fully from the virus, with no lasting side effects. Thanks to technology, I’ve been able to continue working as an audiobook narrator and dialect coach. I’ve spent time with a few members of my family and many friends, inventing creative ways to meet outdoors. I also learned elementary French on DuoLingo, began studying astrology, tried out about 30 new recipes for baked goods, and started a blog. My consciousness has been raised, my awareness deepened. And since January 20, I’ve felt hopeful about the fate of our country for the first time in more than four years.

So how can we measure the strange, difficult, unprecedented, challenging, traumatic, once-in-a-lifetime year we’ve just lived through?

The musical Rent is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. As Jonathan Larson wrote, during a pandemic of another kind:

Measure in love.

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