By Carolyn Bick
In the second week, Jane Pauw found herself wrapped in darkness, her brain empty in a way she had never before experienced. Minutes, hours –– days, even –– slipped by as afterthoughts, while her body, wracked with fever, worked to preserve her life. But, really, she wasn’t worried –– and she couldn’t have concentrated on being worried, even if she wanted to. She was just too sick with COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.
The illness meant that even little movements were taxing. At one point during the worst week, the week of relentless fever, she remembers crawling to get herself water. Sometimes, she went downstairs, pausing to rest and sit down every few steps. She blacked out a few times.
Once, she had walked across England.
Water and a cup of broth for every meal was all her roller coaster stomach could handle, and all she cared for, anyway. Her senses of smell and taste had vanished more than a week prior.
Her daughters called every day to check in. Once, she awakened to find her husband standing over her, his hand on her cheek. He was checking to see if she was still alive.
She wondered why in the world everyone was so worried.
Meanwhile, outside Pauw’s sickbed, reports of perfectly healthy, sometimes young, people dying began flooding in.
Pauw is fit. She is a 60-year-old long-distance walker with no underlying health conditions. She’s not obese or overweight. As the pastor of the Rainier Beach Presbyterian Church, she’s disposed to do good for her community, which includes aiding them outside the church. So, in that spirit, on Feb. 29, she gave an 80-year-old congregant a 20-minute lift home to the residential facility where the parishioner lives. The congregant didn’t sneeze on Pauw. She didn’t cough. She didn’t spit.
A week later, Pauw fell ill. At the same time, all the residents in the home were tested, after the congregant’s friend died of COVID-19.
The congregant was positive, but asymptomatic, and had inadvertently infected Pauw.
Pauw first noticed something was wrong when she went out to lunch with her friends. Usually, the trio has a wonderful time together. They laugh. They tell jokes. They enjoy each other’s company. But that day, March 6, Pauw felt off. She was grumpy, she said, and had a short fuse. And why were her friends in such raptures over the food, anyway? It didn’t taste like anything. Anything at all.
For the next two days, Pauw felt almost constantly nauseated. Food lost its appeal. Her appetite disappeared. Then, the fever started, and she developed a deep, unproductive cough and had tightness in her chest.
“When that happened, I thought, ‘Okay, this is probably not just a cold. I probably should talk to the doctor,” Pauw recalled. “My doctor didn’t have any tests available. So, they recommended that I call one of the urgent care facilities in the area, because they had tests. And I ended up having to drive to Tacoma to get a test.”
March 12, the day she was tested for the novel coronavirus, was the last time Pauw journeyed outside the house she shares with her husband. She waited for four days to get the results back, swimming all the while in a feverish haze from her bed to the couch to the bathroom and back again. She couldn’t hold a conversation. She couldn’t follow television storylines.
“I just sort of laid there. And, you know, it’s funny: I wasn’t a bit scared or even worried. I was just sick. I just felt tired and had no energy,” Pauw said. “It was like my mind was too tired to be at all worried about anything in the entire world.”
Finally, on March 19, her fever broke. Swathed in blankets, Pauw stepped outside her house for the first time in days. Settling her exhausted body into a reclining lawn chair, she listened to birdsong, and watched new blossoms slowly unfurl at the sun’s touch.
In the days since, Pauw has started to feel more like her old self, though her sense of smell and taste have been slow to return. What remains, she said in an interview at the end of the three-and-a-half-weeks-long illness, is the tiredness. But even that is diminishing day by day.
“I’m back to cooking dinner, and … I’m going to try to go for a walk today, and back to doing a little bit of work,” Pauw said. “I’m not contagious anymore, according to my doctor, so I can go out, just like all the rest of the people.”
On March 29, Pauw gave a virtual sermon to her congregation, her first since the virus took hold. The days leading up to that Sunday, she struggled with what she wanted to say to them. How had having the virus changed her life?
After a while, she realized that she still didn’t –– and doesn’t –– know.
A self-professed philosophizer by nature, Pauw said she, like many people, wants to get through discomfort quickly. She doesn’t want to sit with it. But while she had this illness, she was forced to, particularly in the fever days. So many people, herself included, try to find some sort of immediate positive meaning to latch onto, and when it’s not readily available, they flounder. This is a frightening and unwieldy time, she said, but it’s also a time people may use to sit still, for a moment.
“I really think that the wisest thing for us to do, right now, is just allow this uncomfortable time to germinate,” Pauw said. “Rich, generative things happen in darkness. … I don’t know yet what this is doing for me, personally, in that regard. I really don’t know yet. But I am okay with just sort of letting it go.”
Towards the end of the illness, Pauw said she could concentrate well enough to read a book. She chose “Learning to Walk in the Dark,” by Episcopalean preacher Barbara Brown Taylor. Several passages have resonated with her during this time. In an effort to give Pauw the last word, Dear Reader, this journalist leaves you with a quote from the book that Pauw said particularly struck her:
“The way most people talk about darkness, you would think that it came from a whole different deity, but no. ‘To be human is to live by sunlight and moonlight, with anxiety and delight, admitting limits and transcending them, falling down and rising up. To want a life with only half of these things is to want only half a life, shutting the other half away where it will not interfere with one’s bright fantasies of the way things ought to be.’”
Featured image: Jane Pauw poses for a picture, during her and her husband’s walk across the Kerry Way in Ireland in June 2019. (Courtesy of Jane Pauw)
Carolyn Bick is a South Seattle-based journalist and photographer. Reach them here.
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