Necessary Fictions

August 27, 2021

My day begins each morning with a walk to the ocean. I start early, in the still shy light of day. There used to be a number of people out when I walked, but in these times of COVID, the sidewalks and streets can be eerily empty.

When I reach the Pacific Ocean I stop and gaze. Although I have lived in LA my entire adult life, as a native New Yorker growing up amidst brick and concrete, the scene, looking out at the ocean, still seems unnatural.

Today, I focus on the waves, their constant movement, no matter the weather or season. I watch the rush forward. The pulling back. It’s the rhythm of permanence, I think. The rhythm of breathing. Breathe in. Breathe out.

The first thing I do when I return home is telephone my brother. He is a physician in NYC. I call him in the hospital where, due to the virus, he’s being treated for pneumonia and is in the ICU.

I ask him about his numbers. His temperature. His oxygen flow and saturation. His inflammation numbers. I know what a cytokine storm is now. I wish I didn’t.

Yesterday, a follow-up X-ray showed his pneumonia had progressed. His fever rose. He was placed on increased oxygen. But today his fever hasn’t changed. His oxygen levels remain the same. “Things are stable,” I say to him, and tell myself stability is good.

After I hang up, I immediately call my other brother. He too, is a physician in NYC. He, too, has coronavirus-related pneumonia and had to be hospitalized yesterday. The difference is he is not in the ICU. My brothers are twins. I do not want their experiences to mirror each other more than they already do.

“I’m worried about David,” this brother, Martin, says to me. I don’t tell him that David was worried about him. Instead I say, “I think you’re taking this identical twin thing too far.”

My brother coughs before he answers. It is a deep, wracking cough that makes me think of chain saws and razorblades. “I missed my brother,” he replies. “Now we can fight this together.”

Afterwards, I telephone my sister, who lives in LA. I will speak to my other sister, in NYC, soon. She is the point person for us here, delivering frequent updates on any news. It will be evening when I hang up the phone.

But now, my sister here, tells me she is taking deep breaths for my brothers. If she takes enough deep breaths, often enough, she believes, they will somehow assist my brothers a continent away.

Later in the day I learn that there are 23 COVID patients in the ICU. My brother, David, is one. The other 22 patients are all on ventilators. When Martin’s oxygen also has to be raised, I tell myself neither he nor David is on a ventilator. Ill as they are, they will still be OK. Ventilators are where I draw the line. What I don’t acknowledge is that if a ventilator is needed, I will move the line. To where is something I will figure out if I need to.

For now, I imagine my brothers’ lungs, each of their two billowy sacs rich in oxygenated blood fighting to make its way into the spongy alveoli where the virus has established a beachhead of phlegm and fluid that must be expunged. I will picture their lungs clear, I decide.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Three days ago, my entire family gathered for a Zoom chat with David. Siblings, spouses, children, nieces, nephews, their partners all pop up as if they’ve been conjured, in their individual squares. Then David appears. Cries of “he’s here,” ring out. Like all COVID patients, my brother must be in isolation. But he’s here, with us now, the first time any of us have seen him.

My brother is sitting up in his bed. A pleated breathing tube snakes in front of and up his body. Although the apparatus obscures the lower half of his face, from his eyes, the lift of his cheeks, it is evident he is smiling.

Each of us speaks to David. Thirty-two faces, 32 voices speaking from their screens. When it’s Martin’s turn, we all quiet and listen. “I miss my best friend. My partner,” he says. “I know you’ll get well, but do it soon.”

After all of us have spoken, we sing the Jewish prayer for healing, the Mi Sheberach. We are a ragtag chorus. The few of us who can carry a tune, lead the rest. As we sing, I notice one of my niece’s squares, that of David’s youngest daughter, is empty. I know she has put herself out of the frame because she is weeping. A few seconds later, the prayer still being sung, I join her.

The following day, my brother Martin is admitted to the hospital.

This is the truth for my family.

I think of the stories we tell ourselves, the necessary fictions we create when in the same breath, fear and love propel us from one moment to the next: Stability is good. Deep breaths are good. Though they are on separate hospital floors, my brothers feel now that they are fighting the virus together. Right now, all we have are these stories, our only balm to the knowledge that the virus will not heed either love or terror. Faced with the brutal divide between life and death, we cling to them as a desperate defense.

Like sending breaths.

So I listen for my sister’s breaths. Long and deep, I see them crossing the continent, reaching my brothers’ lungs in NY, where I envision their embattled alveoli blossom like tropical flowers, opening and glorying wide in voluptuous health. And with this blooming, my brothers are indeed stronger, inhaling deep draughts of breath together, releasing them, in, out, in, out, their rhythm as steady and constant as the waves.

I say a prayer.

Breathe, my brothers.

Breathe.

¤


Susan Baskin is a writer based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in Los Angeles Magazine, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, and The Forward. She has also written for film and television.