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COVID-19 Dispatches : Stories from the Vineyard

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Week One : March 20
Week Two : March 28
Week Three : April 2

Dispatch Week Three: A Pad Thai Supper in the Time of Covid-19

April 2, 2020
By Jonathan Burke

A home-cooked Pad Thai supper can do wonders.

The tasty noodles in the rich peanut sauce with the garlic and onions, some scallions and crushed peanuts as toppings, and shaved chicken (or tofu if you prefer vegetarian) was just what we needed.

The Covid-19 illness is scary.

It seems like we all are just waiting. It has arrived on our shores, but we are expecting worse. We are waiting for an outbreak or a surge in cases because it seems that only after that will it leave. We are hoping that we will not be among those infected. For some, the symptoms will be mild, for others severe.

We are hunkering down in our homes.

We are missing day-to-day social interaction.

There is no bumping into someone in the grocery store. Those who have ventured out to the grocery store warily keep their carts at least six feet apart. Folks who might have said hi in normal times brace themselves, take a step further away and quickly walk by.

Some folks, especially those who live alone, must be lonely.

Each of us is experiencing some loss.

I miss going over to my parents on a Sunday for tea and supper, and having them over for Friday pizza nights with my kids. Usually, after the pizza–which I make–we play a card game such as Hearts or Liverpool.

Mostly, I think about my kids.

My daughter and two of her close Island friends were supposed to backpack in Europe for three weeks this May and June: staying in youth hostels, living in grungy clothes and sleeping on the floors of trains as they visited seven different countries.

I always will remember the adventure of hoisting my own backpack and traveling through Europe for five weeks or so when I was in college, armed with a youth hostel and euro-rail pass.

I went country to country, explored cities and towns on foot, toured castles and cathedrals, and took in the history and the art. I made my plans as I went. I traveled with other folks here and there for a few days. I had a rendezvous with a friend in France and one with my brother in Switzerland.

I always will remember the Australians.

The Australian young men and women, without question, had the bragging rights in the back-packing community. They did not leave their home country for a month; they traveled a minimum of six months on their world walkabouts, and many traveled up to two years. (When they returned home though, they explained to me, they never left again.)

My daughter’s adventure has now been cancelled.

My son, a high school senior, is missing his senior spring. This is supposed to be his time to enjoy the final semester of his four years, and the final season of outdoor track at which he has worked so hard. Instead, he is at home, with limited online classes and sports currently suspended.

These losses are trivial in the grand scheme of things. Folks endure extreme poverty and loss of life on a day-to-day basis in many parts of the world. Covid-19 is stealing the lives of loved ones from some families. And most of our losses seem to be temporary.

But we are allowed some fun in life.

There is no prohibition of fun in the Island-wide shelter order and there is no prohibition of fun in the advice of the experts. Handwashing and social distancing is their advice. I would think the experts would recommend some fun as a way to lift spirits in the face of the miserable Covid-19.

A few weeks ago, my son, daughter and I had some of this needed respite.

My daughter is home from college.

While texting with her roommate who is now home in California, they came up with the idea of learning how to cook. Next year, they are living off-campus in an apartment and will have a kitchen. Now would be a good time, they decided, to learn how to cook.

My daughter thought it would be boring to have just regular American foods. She likes ethnic foods. She decided it would be fun to make meals from the different countries and the regions of the world. Not knowing where to start, she decided to go in the order of the coronavirus outbreak.

China was first.

She and her brother, who is helping on the project, started with fried rice. They included the scrambled eggs and had one vegetarian dish and one non-vegetarian with chicken. The meal, they said, was delicious. The Japanese beef bowl they tried for their next meal did not turn out as well.

They decided on Pad Thai for when they were with me.

We put together the ingredients: Thai noodles, peanut sauce, tofu, chicken, garlic, onions, and scallions in place of bean sprouts that no one seemed to have.

In order to limit the amount of times that either of us goes to the grocery store, my kids’ mother and I check-in with each other when we do go, and help each other out with various needed items.

When at the grocery store, I am careful to social distance and not touch my face. I sanitize my hands when I am back in my car. It would be a good idea, I think, to take something to sanitize the shopping cart handlebar.

My daughter, head chef, chopped the garlic and sauteed it in some olive oil. Her brother, assistant chef, chopped the onion and cut the chicken into shavings. I was more of an assistant prep cook. I did things like peel the garlic, chop the scallions, and crush the peanuts.

Water was brought to a boil. The burner was turned off as directed and the Thai noodles were placed in the water to soak for 10 minutes. My daughter, thinking they had been cooking a long time, asked me to check the noodles after four minutes. I did, reported they were very Al dente and that I expected they would be done after about 10 minutes.

We all laughed.

When the garlic was well-sauteed, it was separated into two frying pans. The chicken went into one frying pan tended to by my son, and the tofu into the other tended to by my daughter. The onion, which should have been sauteed with the garlic but had been temporarily forgotten, went in at this time as well.

When the chicken and the tofu were cooked, about five to ten minutes, the noodles were added and mixed into each dish. And then the peanut sauce. My son chose soy sauce as he is not a fan of peanuts.

We sat down to our meal.

I rolled some of the noodles onto my fork and stabbed a piece of chicken. The first mouthful was delicious. There was a burst of flavor as I chomped down. I looked forward to the next mouthful and the next. It may have been the best Pad Thai ever.

For a moment, I think, we were living not in the time of Covid-19. We were living in the time of a home-cooked meal of Pad Thai. We said no to Covid and we had as much fun making a meal together as we have ever had.

The food was all the more delicious because we had stood up to Covid. It was more fun to eat together because we had so much fun making it together. There was little conversation though as we ate. After dessert, we cleaned up together.

It was not the Pad Thai itself that took us away temporarily from the world of shelter-in-place. It was the idea behind the Pad Thai. It was the creativity and the imagination. It was the spirit and the fun.

I am lucky to have my two kids with me a few nights a week.

I think all of us though could look for something fun to cook. You probably have some spices and canned goods in your pantry, maybe some dry pasta. The internet is full of ideas if you are not a chef and do not know what goes with what. Type in ‘pasta spices’, for example, and all sorts of things come up.

Dispatch Week Two: Covid-19 Closure

March 28, 2020
By Jonathan Burke

We are under attack.

Covid-19 is confirmed on the Island.

Island leaders are taking measures to ensure the safety of the community. They are following the advice of experts and trying to flatten the curve. It is important that everyone is not infected at the same time. The Martha’s Vineyard Hospital would be overwhelmed.

Selectmen have ordered folks to shelter in place. It is no longer optional. You must stay at home and you must not gather in groups and you must social distance. There are exceptions for essential services such as the grocery store and pharmacy, and folks are allowed out for exercise and taking out the pets. Even construction is temporarily halted.

Island schools are closed now through May 4 by order of the Governor. Libraries and town halls, businesses and community organizations are shuttered. Church services are cancelled.

There is good reason for these measures and the recommendations regarding hand washing and sanitizing. We are confronted with a dangerous illness.

Covid-19 is not the flu.

This is the message recently driven home for me by my cousin. There are those who may experience mild symptoms or no symptoms at all from Covid-19. And there will be those like my cousin who are hit full force. His symptoms, he said, were five to ten times worse than any flu.

“It was grim,” he told me. “There’s no nice way to say it. I was shockingly sick.”

My cousin and I go back a ways. We grew up, a few years apart in age, spending our summers together fishing for scup in Buzzards Bay. We would dive for quahogs and then row our dinghy out near what we called the Black Can. We would anchor somewhere and then just float for hours with our rods over the side. The scup below would bite and nibble at our quahog bait and we would laze under the sun. We always hoped we would catch a tautog.

About three weeks ago, on a Saturday, my cousin attended a birthday party for a friend of his daughter in New Rochelle, an epicenter of the outbreak in New York, at a trampoline park. Most everyone attended the party. This was before everything had blown up and folks knew that they should not.

On Tuesday, there was a little part in the back of his head questioning whether he might not be well. He felt worse Tuesday night. Could it be Covid? He called his daughter’s school. He told them he could no longer be a judge at the science fair the next day.

Thursday he woke up and he was ‘sick sick sick.’ Thursday night he was ‘ridiculously’ out of breath and he knew he had Covid. He woke up that first night and the two nights that followed shaking from the freezing cold of his fever. It was then he knew that the illness would take lives.

The cough came on Friday.

The medical system in his community was in a state of disarray. He was on a list for a test for Covid but never received a call back. The ER doctors told him there was nothing they could do for him. There were no medications. As long as he could breathe, they said, he should stay home and not come to the ER where he might infect others.

He stayed in his bedroom, which by now was infected, and his wife moved into a spare. They share three daughters. His wife said she felt a chill for a day and one of his daughters had a 105 fever one night but quickly rebounded the next day. It is unclear whether his wife and daughter also had Covid – albeit much more mild.

The ordeal for him was only just beginning.

He was terrified.

He called a doctor friend. The doctor friend matter-of-factly told him two things (actually three): breathing breathing breathing. Any sign of trouble breathing or any sign his body was not receiving enough oxygen, such as the lightheadedness one feels at altitude, and he should seek medical help.

His lungs were heavy. They were sore from the dry racking cough. It was amazing how dry a cough. There was no mucus. The cough was terrible and relentless. He had to stop talking for a few days. His fever was 102 with Tylenol.

But he could breathe.

He thought he would make it.

He isolated in the bedroom. His daughters were scared. They came to his door to say goodnight. His wife brought food to the door. He stayed in bed the entire time and felt like he was walking around on a cold day. He drank water constantly.

It was on the ninth day that he was really scared.

Without Tylenol, his fever was still over 103.

He had never experienced an illness like this. He thought he should be on the other side after nine days. “ ‘Maybe, my body’s not going to get this thing … maybe I’m going to die’ ” he thought to himself.

His brain played tricks in the middle of the night trying to convince him that he was having trouble breathing. He felt alone and helpless. He wanted to be with his family helping his wife with the kids.

His doctor friend was invaluable. This was a 14-day illness, his doctor friend assured him. It was not expected that he would be better in nine days. The doctor was right.

Finally, after the tenth day, he started to recover. His fever was down to 101. His cough that had not let up since its start was dissipating. He was beginning to feel better. In the next few days, his temperature was down in the double digits.

My cousin is back now.

He has defeated Covid-19. The fever and cough are gone. He can go out. He is helping again with the household. But it will be some time to regain his strength. He has very little energy and feels a little bit at altitude. His lungs took a hit and he will need to see a doctor when he is ready. For now, he is enjoying his time with his wife and daughters.

When I first heard from my mother, through her sister, that my cousin was infected with the corona virus, I was interested. I wanted to know how he was doing and what he was going through. When I talked to him myself, I was afraid for him. I had no idea.

Most folks may not have the experience of my cousin. Their symptoms may be mild and pass. But there will be those hit hard like my cousin – a strong and healthy 48-year old who does not drink or smoke. He had a battle of a lifetime.

The message to me is clear. Wash and sanitize your hands. Social distance. Be safe.

Dispatch Week One: Covid-19 Closure

March 20, 2020
By Jonathan Burke

Three weeks ago a family member went off-Island to Costco and bought a supply of toilet paper, soap, tuna fish, peanuts, dried apricots, and, joyfully, three large bars of Hershey dark chocolate. I find a little dark chocoate helps in the morning. I put a dab of peanut butter on the chocolate.

Three weeks ago, before the coronavirus and its hideous Covid – 19 illness were front and center in the news, I still had not picked up on what was going on. I thought the off-Island trip and the whole corona thing overblown.

I was wrong.

The first inkling I had was the same day as the Costco trip. Out of an abundance of caution, I decided to stop at the pharmacy for hand sanitizer. They were out and though they had ordered more they were unsure as to when or whether more might arrive. 

I clearly was behind the curve. 

I continued on my way to my parents where I was having supper.

Upon arrival, I walked Becham – he’s a 25 pound Terrier mix, almost five – a good ways along the back roads in my parent’s neighborhood. He is allowed to stop and sniff and pee nearly as much as he wants during afternoon walks. It is cathartic for me.

When we returned, the truck was there and my parents were unloading. 

It was then that I learned I had two bottles of hand sanitizer. They had been two of the last of four on the shelves of Market Basket at the Sagamore where a stop had been made during the off-Island trip. This would mean I could have a bottle of hand santizer in my car and my kids could have a bottle in their car for those times when soap and water are not available.

Since the off-Island trip three weeks ago, events have changed more and more rapidly. Each day, our appreciation for the crisis seemed to ratchet up. It was no longer only Wuhan. There was Italy and Iran. South Korea. The state of Washington. A lack of testing kits. The news kept coming. 

Till, we reached where we are today.

In the library, we started by acknowledging to each other the gravity of the possible pandemic. We discussed elbow bumps in lieu of hand shakes, hand washing and social distancing. We ordered non-latex gloves. We would continue to monitor the situation. 

We took more and more care in our safety measures at the circulation desk. We wore the nitrile gloves. Hundreds of books arrive into the library every day from all parts of the state. Who knows where a book has been or by whom it has been handled. It would be impossible to keep one’s hands clean at the circ desk. 

We wiped the counter, the phones and the keyboards. There was a schedule for the banister up the stairs and the doors in and out of the library. Hand washing song signs went up in the restrooms to help folks complete the full 20 seconds recommended.

Patrons came to the circ desk and the topic everyone wanted to talk about, in addition to taking out their books and movies, was the corona virus. It started to appear very likely that the library would close. The NBA and NHL had shuttered their seasons. Covid – 19 cases were starting to materialize across the state. The virus was no joke.

I did not want to become caught up in the panic. 

There were stories of hand sanitizer and containers of cleaning wipes being stolen from town hall supply closets. There was a story of hand sanitizer dispensers being torn off the walls in the hospital. It is scary how behavior can degenerate. 

But I was not totally immune.

There was a run on the grocery stores I heard. Shelves were empty in the Edgartown Stop and Shop. Would food become scarce? Could the supply chains be disrupted by the virus? How long could I last on the food I had? I am not a hunter, and I have no means to feed myself and my family without a grocery store.

I stopped at the Vineyard Haven Stop and Shop on my way home from work last Friday. It was a mad house. I had never seen so many folks in such a state of excitement in the grocery store. But for the most part there was food on the shelves. It was too much for me. I decided not to worry. I picked up a few items I needed right away, and also a sack of rice and two bags of potatoes – buy one get one free.

Saturday, I picked my daughter up from Boston College. The college, like many others across the country, was closing the campus. Students were told they needed to pack up their belongings and return home. Classes would go online.

I was on the 8:15 boat. 

I chatted briefly with an old friend whose car was lined up next to mine in the loading lanes. There were only a few other people in the section of the boat where I sat. Others, I guess were sheltering in the their cars. Route 495 was empty of normal traffic. It was a bit eerie. I listened to public radio. A recession was inevitable said an economist.

I made good time. I took 495 to 24 and then 95 and route 9. I turned past the reservoir in Chestnut Hill onto the campus. There were a few folks out running. Near my daughter’s dorm, cars filled the side of the road where normally there were none. Was this all for move out I thought?

It was. 

The police – about four of them standing at the entrance – with a smile waived me past the parking lot to my daughter’s dorm. It was full. I parked in the chapel lot a near 100 yards away. I walked to the dorm. It still was hard to believe. Covid – 19 had closed the campus and I was bringing my daughter home for the year in March. 

It was craziness to say the least. Parents were there. Students were there. Everyone was moving out. The elevators and lobby were full and bustling. Professional movers with carts stood by to help.

It took four full carts for my daughter’s stuff, and I packed and repacked five times. Her friends helped bring things to the lobby. The day was beautiful. The sun was out, there was blue sky with a few drifting clouds and a warm breeze. I was impressed with my packing, leaving barely an iota of space and nothing behind. 

My daughter said goodbye to her friends. Understandably, the move out was upsetting. This is her time to be away from home in college – going to classes and studying at the library, eating at the cafeteria, dancing with her dance group, staying up to all hours of the night and morning, parties on the weekends. Instead, now she would be by herself at home taking online classes via Zoom.

We chatted on the drive home about school and the surrealness of the pandemic. I am a firm believer the virus is finite and will pass with time. We all will come through. We went to the Falmouth Walmart for peanut butter pretzels and came away with the last two jars.

That night, though we are separated, we had dinner as family.

It is nice to have my daughter home. I am disappointed for her and I wish she could be at college with her friends. But I like that she is going to be around. I like she is home for the Covid -19 crisis. And I like we all will go through this together.

The news continues to develop. 

Our library announced its closure Monday until at least April 17. Town hall is appointment only. The Martha’s Vineyard schools announced their closure last week. Town meetings may be postponed. We all are asked to keep our hands clean at all times, stay home, social distance, and avoid any large gathering or group. The hospital is gearing up to respond. 

It is only the beginning.  

The goal is not to prevent everyone from becoming infected. That is impossible. Folks are expected to be infected. The goal is to flatten the curve so everyone is not infected at the same time. Our hospital could not handle such an onslaught.

The pandemic is real.

But this is also an opportunity to come together even as we are apart. We all can hunker down in our homes. We all still can go outside for fresh air and a stretch of the legs and smile as we pass. We can call each other for company or go online if we have a computer. We can go through this together.

My son asked me to go for a bike ride in the state forest the other day. I was dismayed that I could not keep up. Yet for an hour and half it was just the two of us on trails in the woods. 

Talk about fun!