Classics Fiction

COVID Anxiety

I can let my hair go gray! I haven’t seen my hair in its native state for two decades. I can catch up on my 23 episodes of This is Us and, coincidentally, my 23 episodes of Call the Midwife on my DVR. In what is the opposite of binge watching, I watch these shows a few minutes at a time. They grab your heart, pull it out of your chest and stomp on it.

That was what I thought I’d write about. It would be a zippy and funny way to talk about the “leisure” that “social distancing” has given me. But the time for cheap laughs has passed. There are too many people in pain: economic, physical, psychological. Anxiety, like a chilling fog, has seeped into every aspect of daily life.

At the beginning, which was not even three weeks ago, I was taken aback by the undercurrent of economic panic that bubbled up in people who’ve worked for years at their job: a tennis pal who worked at Delta, the secretary at my Edward Jones office, my yoga teacher.

The scope of the suffering was sinking in. The guy who cuts my hair, exactly half my age, what will he do when nobody is getting haircuts? The tennis pros at my club – one of them just bought a house, for God’s sake. Tanya, at Pure Harmony Spa where I never have time to get massages. Can the Royal Chinese BBQ, my favorite restaurant, weather this? The owner of Left Bank Books said, “We don’t want loans. We need grants.”

Childcare is a major issue, especially for workers who can’t work from home. Some daycare centers are closed too. Even parents who have a trusted babysitter increase the exposure risk, albeit a small one. Several of my friends who are in the high-risk, geezer bracket, have become main caregivers for their grandchildren. One of them has traveled to Chicago to do just that. This too is not perfect. They worry about catching the virus from the little ones. They fear making the kiddies sick.

“I don’t want to get sick. I don’t want to be a vector and sicken my family.” Those words play in my mind like a catchy tune. Below that is real dread. Gasping for air seems like the worst way to die. I am claustrophobic. I fear suffocating. I will only go snorkeling if I have a grip on Bill’s tee shirt the whole time in the water.

IMG_9565 2

This is my first time to be an at-risk person. I have my own grocery shopping hour! Even so, I only go to one store and get groceries that last more than a week. When I told my son Alex in Virginia that Bill and I were canceling our trip to see them, even without saying anything, Alex’s relief transmitted through the phone.

At times, I fear the worst. That would be if a member of our extended family  got really sick or died. Alex and his wife work at the UVA hospital. Julie works in a medical office. Nicole is a lab tech. Kevin runs a Walgreens. Kristy is a chiropractor. Those jobs seemed very safe … until now. And who would think Scott would be on the front lines as a grocery store worker?


Whenever those thoughts crash into my consciousness, I brush them aside with a shrug. There’s nothing I can do. But like pesky flies, those thoughts keep circling back. As I write this, five thousand families have already suffered this fate. If someone I love doesn’t make it through this pandemic, I will be bitter at Donald Trump for the rest of my life. His poor decisions have cost us dearly.

To control the spiraling anxiety, I do what I always do. I read a book. I decided to vicariously suffer such a loss. I read William Maxwell’s They Came Like Swallows, a novel about a Midwestern family during the 1918-1919 influenza epidemic. The book was published in 1937, not twenty years after that scourge. Maxwell (1908-2000) was an editor at the New Yorker for 35 years as well as a novelist and essayist. Maxwell’s mother had died of the flu. He was ten.

William Maxwell

The title They Came Like Swallows refers to a W.B. Yeats poem about Lady Gregory, one of the founders of the Abbey Theater. The great writers of the day — George Bernard Shaw, John M. Synge, Sean O’Casey, and Yeats himself — all found welcome in her home. Yeats compares the way the writers gather around Lady Gregory to the swallows that come every year.

In the book, the lives of James Morison and his two sons, Bunny and Robert, all revolve around their wife and mother, Elizabeth. The flu sneaks into their lives, first as newspaper articles and local gossip and then as school and church closures. Robert can’t understand why his mom won’t let him join the pickup football game.

In general, influenza is backdrop to competition for toys and mom’s attention between the boys, travails at school and sports; getting ready for a new baby; the WWI Armistice; family disagreements among uncles, aunts and cousins. Everyone in the family gets ill, but at different times. Elizabeth and James both come down with it in Chicago, where they went for her complicated pregnancy.

She dies of flu a few days after the baby is born. Robert feels guilty that he had let his mother into Bunny’s sick room when it was his job to keep her out. James feels guilty that he had taken his wife aboard a crowded train to Chicago. Each believes that he was the vector. James’ devastation is complete.

James “went on up the stairs …to the bedroom which Elizabeth and he had shared, and saw her dresses hanging in the closet, and was struck blind and almost senseless. When he could, he shut the closet door quickly, and pressed his forehead into the long cool mirror which was on the other side.


and lace

and brown velvet

and the faint odor of violets.

—That was all which was left to him of his love.”

I finish the book, exhale deeply and return to my life of boring social distancing interspersed with crushing dread for the future.

Tell me: How are you coping?

By Cathy Luh

I am a doctor, a writer and Grammy to Edin and Caleb. I live in St. Louis with husband Bill.

14 replies on “COVID Anxiety”

Dear Cathy, thank you for asking, “How are you coping?”! Given that we don’t know when this pandemic will be over, we might as well enjoy our life as much as possible. Everyday, I try to practice positive thinking. Enjoying at least one thing that excites me, like reading your blogs or learning something new (e.g., I learned today that a hummingbird can bend its beak.). Being grateful for what I have (e.g., our family is together; we still have our job). Observing beautiful people and nature around us (e.g., watching three young children from next door scootering, laughing, and shouting; checking on the hummingbird nest on a magnolia tree in the front of our house).


Nice to hear you voice through your writing Cathy. I am trying to distract my mind by reading. We have also tried to keep in touch with family and friends through Zoom meetings or Google Hangouts. Not the same as being in person. I hope to see you and Bill on the tennis courts soon!


So good to hear from you, Mary Anne! You are still working — good on you! Love to Joe!

Risk factors were what my patients had. They were of intellectual interest and clinical importance. HAVING one feels like a target on my chest. So vulnerable.
Be well. Xoxo


Lovely, Cathy. Thank you! As a person who pretty much always pitches in in a crisis, it is odd to just stay home and not help. And yet I need to do that as a senior citizen. That may be one of the other odd changes – thinking of myself as old and vulnerable. I worry about my kids and grandkids but they are far away – it never seemed so far away before. On the up side, I am watching spring unfold in a slow new way. I am trying new recipes. I am deep cleaning my house – one room per week. I am working with my partners on a new section of our website addressing workers’ questions about their rights in this crazy pandemic. And I am enjoying – most of the time – the constant companionship of my husband.


The first week I was just stunned and somewhat numb. The second week I just kept telling myself to take it day by day. Caring for my young grandson is exhausting, so I had little time to think even after he left for the day. I don’t own a TV and am trying to ration my reading. This week I am finally realizing that there are a lot of things I need to do ASAP when life returns to semi-normal, like update my will and get rid of so much stuff in my house. Meanwhile, I go on cooking binges on the weekend to prepare for the next week. It’s been a few years since I made curry; it’s time to again, for example.


This is heartbreaking—you and your grandson. So close and yet so far. I hope Michael recovers quickly from whatever got him.
I walk outside in my suburban neighborhood everyday. The trees are in their glory right now.

Take care,


I would go insane if I could not go outside. If this were a blizzard, I’d be bonkers. As it is, the weather is superb, and I ride my bike every day. It had been so long since the bike was out of the garage, I had to spend some time pumping up tires and lubing the gears and chain. I avoid bike paths and just whoosh down the calmer streets. I note that one thing that is continuing as if nothing were amiss is the construction. If anything, there seems to be more of it. Enormous houses are going up all over our neighborhood, just as we swerve into recession.
My son came home from art school in New York after the school closed. It’s been two weeks, so Sarah feels like she can hug him now. The worst part for me is not getting to see my grandson, who is 19 months old. They live a few miles away, and we had begun babysitting weekly so my daughter and her husband could go on adult dates—we are stocked with a crib and box full of toys. Now that can’t happen.
Michael, my son-in-law, developed a cough and a persistent fever last week. His doctor found him a virus test in another town about thirty miles away, so he drove there last Friday. As of today, 6 days later, they still don’t have results. He feels somewhat better, but fever still comes back at night sometimes. Yesterday, I made them dinner and took it over, and stood in the front yard talking from 8 feet away while the little boy ran around the yard playing with a ball and waving a stick. It was very tough not to pick him up and toss him into the air like we used to.
As always, I really enjoy your essays. I hope you and your family are staying well.


I guess I’m coping by remembering that we’ve been through this before — 100 years ago. Deepest thanks for this poignant reminder. Being with friends and loved ones is like oxygen for me, so this is tough. I have to be intentional about setting up virtual zoom dates and phone calls. I miss being with friends. I miss being with Mom. It’s so lonely. But none of us wants to end up like James, slumped in grief and guilt against his late wife’s closet.


Love your writing. I shared it with mike and he was impressed. Miss your smile. Call me today if you get a moment.


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