As a health journalist in Los Angeles covering the pandemic, I knew exactly what to do when I ended up in the hospital with pneumonia: write my goodbye emails.
I had seen coverage of some recent Covid news that terrible year. They were usually directed at spouses, but my main concern was explaining my own death to my 3 year old marigold, whom we call “Goldie”. How much of me would she remember and how would she make peace with what happened to me if I could hardly believe it myself?
After the ambulance confirmed pneumonia in both lungs on December 17th, I was taken upstairs to the hospital’s Covid unit, where I was given a blood-thinning injection, infusions of steroids, and remdesivir, and resumed the supplemental oxygen they had started In the emergency room.
Immediately after the treatments, my mind was clearer and more focused than it had been in the nine days since my husband, daughter, and I had all had positive results (and when my raging fever started). As I lay in my hospital bed and my roommate’s television was booming, I began to think about my daughter’s understanding of death. As a derelict evangelical married to a Jewish man, I’d taken his family’s perspective on the afterlife – that discussion wasn’t very important – but I’d also accidentally abdicated the death discussion to Hollywood.
Goldie’s training after death began with the film “Coco” about the Mexican Day of the Dead, in which families either put pictures of their ancestors on a house altar ofrenda. Then, in 2020, “Over the Moon” came about a little girl in China who lost her mother to illness and had difficulty adopting a new stepmother while her mother’s ghost visited her in the form of a crane.
That led her to her first question about my death.
“Are you going to die like Fei Fei’s mother?” Goldie asked me in November before I got sick. I told her then that nobody knows when they will die, but that I would love her with all my heart as long as I lived.
After that, Goldie would sometimes say randomly, “I don’t think you’re going to die,” or she would ask if we could all die together at the same time – to which I would say, “Sure!”
My covid symptoms started on December 7th and we got our positive results back the next morning. Fortunately, my husband and daughter had almost no symptoms other than nasal congestion and a day of low fever. But I started with a fever that kept burning me to 104 degrees. Tylenol and Advil could only get it down to 100 or 101. I would cry when the painful fevers peaked, wondering if God had been preparing Goldie for my eventual death all year long.
My breathing problems started eight days later. The scariest moment of that time was when I was in the middle of the shower (badly needed after days of sweaty fever) and realized I was gasping for air. I knocked the shower curtains out of the way and ran to my bed, where I could lie on my stomach and raise my oxygen levels again. As I lay there, hyperventilating, soaking wet, with shampoo still in my hair, the pulse oximeter monitor registered 67 before going back up to 92. I started pondering what to say to Goldie in my last letter to her, but I was too weak to type it up.
How can you explain hubris or folly to a toddler? In my loving endeavor to give her an “eternal friend”, a sibling with whom we grow up and with whom we play and fight and with whom we pity, my husband and I were like two moths, one Orbited Flame and Even Speeded Up Our Fertility Treatments Has the Los Angeles pandemic picked up speed?
But here was my thought: I’m 35, I want a second child, we are very sterile and we have no time to waste. This was my secret driving force in 2020, even as my colleagues reported on how elective medical procedures were pulling resources and PPE out of covid efforts and how patients were avoiding medical appointments of all kinds to avoid accidental exposure to the coronavirus.
I also thought that I should use this pandemic year “productively”. And what could be more productive than reproduction? I wanted to use my time wisely, growing another human while we were all stuck indoors and blessed with jobs we could do from home.
In March, I had a procedure to remove some uterine polyps in preparation for an embryo transfer. At that time, Covid cases were not reported regularly.
Two more uterine surgeries resulted in a successful embryo transfer, but a miscarriage took me to the emergency room on October 8th. By then, Los Angeles County had seen 278,665 cases and 6,726 deaths – terrible numbers that I monitored and reported as a health journalist, but data points that I couldn’t or wouldn’t use to change the decision-making process in my own life.
My husband Simon and I had decided that we would make one final try at in vitro fertilization as there are now four miscarriages under my belt and there are no more viable embryos to use. I started my egg retrieval injections in late November, and by the time the procedure started on December 3rd, LA was already on a frightening, almost vertical climb into the Christmas season, registering 7,854 new cases that day – five times more than the month before .
A close friend was supposed to start her IVF injections at the same time, but she decided to postpone them at the last minute as the cases of Covid were so high in our area. At that point, we were so motivated to pursue pregnancy that I was shocked when I heard her say this because the thought had never crossed my mind.
I am not sure if I was exposed to the virus at any time during this last fertility treatment. The surgical center is located on a large medical campus that also has a Covid-19 test drive in the garage where we parked. We waited outside the building wearing masks for almost an hour, which we thought was a safer choice than the fertility clinic waiting room, but that actually put us close to many sick people waiting for rides home.
I also had to remove my mask just before the actual egg retrieval as I was under anesthesia and the doctors needed quick access to my mouth in case I needed a breathing tube.
Five days after the egg collection, we found that we were positive. I immediately called the clinic to warn them. The fertility doctor told me a few days later that none of her staff members had gotten sick. And also that none of the eggs they took from me had developed properly. We didn’t have to use embryos.
Of course, as anyone who has done fertility treatments knows, all the dangers and risks we took would have been “worth” if it had worked. Because it didn’t work for us, I felt defeated and stupid.
All in all, we wanted to give Goldie a sibling, but trying to do so could have threatened her mother’s life. That thought haunts me and will stay with me forever, although I will never know how exactly the virus got into our home.
Our nanny, who also had covid symptoms and tested positive three days before us, could have picked it up at the supermarket. We could have got it from her or while we were walking around our neighborhood or playing in the park. But the decision to keep opting for fertility treatments while the pandemic rages on leaves me with doubt and regret.
It was all too much to include in my farewell letter to Goldie. Instead, I wrote the following:
Around Halloween you and I had breakfast together and asked how your life was going and if I could make any improvements for you. You said with the utmost seriousness, “I’m afraid of ghosts.”
Now that I am a ghost, I hope there is less reason to be afraid.
Please put my picture on the ofrenda once a year. I will always be in your heart and in your memories. I will try to visit you too. But not in a creepy way, just in a gentle way.
I will Always Love You. Thank you for being born to us. You did everything better.
After finishing my suicide note, I went to sleep. In the morning I woke up, got a second infusion of steroids and remdesivir, and was then discharged home with oxygen tanks and an oxygen concentrator. I stayed in bed with oxygen for another week before my lungs were strong enough to stand and walk on my own. We had a wonderful Christmas morning together opening gifts with my family on a Zoom call. Aside from being tired, I’m almost back to normal now.
After the holidays, I sat down with Goldie for breakfast as usual. I felt grumpy about how the year had gone and dreaded her answer whether she would like to have a little brother or sister one day.
She put her hand on the back of my neck and pressed her forehead into mine in a face-to-face hug we call the “pumpkin hug”.
“No, mom,” she said. “I want it to be just you and me forever.”
I took a deep breath and then sighed in relief.
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