The Scars that Remain

By Alyssa Keene

When our  governor had released his “Stay Home – Stay Healthy” proclamation in late March, I was relieved that for the first time in my adult life, I was afforded days on end of nothing to do but live and rest. I am a freelancer with multiple day-jobs AND a career in the performing arts; there is no such thing as a day-off in my world. Time with my husband was scheduled, precious, and fleeting… and now that neither of us could go anywhere, it was abundant. Now we had time to reconnect and I could heal from my previously frenetic life. 

That healing was interrupted by my husband’s positive diagnosis of Covid-19 and relocation into the guest bedroom of our home. He slept for nearly 20  hours a day, emerging on occasion to eat a bit of food, and drink some water. I had never in my life seen him so sick.  Though he never developed the notorious Covid cough, he did suffer the fever, the loss of taste and smell, the extreme fatigue. In addition, my husband developed a relentless headache, tightness in the chest, and perplexing neurological symptoms.  Not surprisingly, I soon fell ill and cycled through these same symptoms and more: intestinal distress, cough, body aches, itchy eyes. Our telehealth appointments provided us with little information; we were to rest and call the ER if our symptoms worsened. 

As sick as we were, our cases of Covid-19 were considered “mild” because we never required hospitalization, though we each experienced moments of wondering “Is NOW the time to call Urgent Care?” While ill, we took turns cooking for one another, embarking on the now-exhausting walk to the mailbox, and counting our blessings.  “I can’t imagine anyone else I’d rather go through this with than you,” I would say to my husband and he would reply “Me, too” my husband would reply with a big smile.  I would pretend not to notice that his eyes were glassy as he said this. Our declarations of love were spontaneous and honest; we were thoroughly enjoying each other’s company, but we were papering over the ache of being unable to embrace or hold hands or even sit on the same couch. We were whistling past the graveyard; each night as I listened through the walls to ensure that my husband was still breathing, I wondered if we were at the threshold of losing one another. I couldn’t handle the thought of posting about our illness on social media; I was unprepared to see our fears reflected back at us by our friend’s and families’ concerns. I didn’t want that kind of concerned attention; there was nothing anyone could do for us. When my father would call me from out-of-state to check on us, all I could say was “We’re fine”.  We were fine, weren’t we? We made it another day without ending up in the back of an ambulance. So instead of divulging our sick status, I wrote posts about how wonderful it felt to have a chance to rest from my previously over-scheduled life.

As the days wore on, I slowly began to regain my strength, even feeling well enough to resume some physical activity.  Though I was not yet strong enough to return to my running habit, after two weeks or so, I was able to venture out of the house for neighborhood walks.  It was difficult to determine if I was truly “72-hours symptom-free” as my doctors recommended; after all, my sense of smell had not returned entirely and my husband was still experiencing tightness in his chest. “It’s perfectly safe for you to go on a walk,” my doctors reassured me. Tentatively, I bundled myself up and headed out the door, my face covered with a thick, triple-layered mask sewn by my mother, my hands in my pockets. I was afraid to accidentally touch or breathe on anything, afraid of somehow still being contagious, afraid of adding to the infection rate and death toll that ticked up each day.

As the days grew longer and the tulips reared their cheery heads in the neighborhood gardens, I could feel my health slowly returning.  My fatigue lessened, my sense of smell began to return, and my eyes no longer felt like they were coated in sand.  But even as my health returned, signs of my illness lingered.  My ability to concentrate much less form a coherent sentence evaded me. The skin on my hands, feet, and nose cracked and then peeled.  My husband’s relentless headache did not abate.  I felt thick headed, but my husband was worse off; he struggled to order his thoughts, to remember conversations, to plan even the most basic of tasks in a logical order.  Though we were both slowly improving, we also were clearly not done with this illness.  Impatiently, I looked forward to the day when I would awaken and find no trace of this illness in my body, its impact only evident in my memory.

As our health slowly returned in fits and starts, I watched pandemic fatigue set in with friends and acquaintances and The Great Mask Debate unfurl online. I read frustrated missives to governors regarding the regulations for physical distancing, park closures, boundaries on the re-opening of the economy.  I read posts on the disbelief of the severity of this disease as other friends buried their parents, as beloved musicians died, and as hometown acquaintances were laid to rest.  And as the Great Mask Debate grew, so, too, did the debate over the Civil Rights Reckoning. Many of the same people who balked at the necessity of wearing masks also balked at the necessity of saying “Black Lives Matter”. I tried to help those childhood friends and family members understand what re-apportioning funds in a police department could look like, tried to help them understand that the valuing of Black lives was not a devaluation of their lives.  And I worried about the health and safety of the protesters who were taking to the streets; in any other time, I would have been right alongside them, but the fear of reinfection kept me home and glued to the livestreams.  I knew what it was like to be at this kind of demonstration; one of my first protests was against the 1999 WTO meeting in Seattle. I remembered how we hacked and coughed, how strangers poured water over each other’s eyes, how we borrowed one another’s handkerchiefs to cover our faces, ducked our heads and linked arms and hung on as uniformed officers swung their nightsticks at our peaceful bodies while enraged delegates in trenchcoats brandished guns their guns. I wanted to tell folks “Don’t go; you have no idea how awful this disease can be. ” Friends asked me to go to neighborhood marches with them and I declined. “If we get sick again, it will kill us,” I croaked, barely able to speak past the lump in my throat. So as our collective traumas compounded, I dug in to find ways to support this new civil rights movement. I also began to publicly share my experience of Covid-19.  I wanted to put a face to this illness to make it more relatable, hoping that people might rethink their scoffing and (re)commit themselves to defeating the virus.

As I publicly unpacked our experiences with Covid-19, the protective strategies I had employed during our acute illness fell away and I was confronted with the full impact of what we had and were still going through. And as others unpacked their experiences of systematic oppression, they revealed the wounds that lay beyond their protective strategies. I reached out to frustrated hometown friends who compared the virus to the flu, venturing out on road trips to neighboring states where restaurants and nail salons were opening up. I reached out to relatives who couldn’t understand how Confederate flags were not symbols of a proud heritage. In all of these interactions, I tried to appeal to a person’s sense of empathy. Other times, I took folks by the proverbial collar and warned “This could be you, too”. Some of my appeals worked; friends thanked me for my candor and mentioned that my experiences helped them persevere under the strict guidelines.  Others would offer platitudes of “I’m glad you’re better now” in one breath and then, in the next, continue their vitriol against “the mainstream media” and hurl insults at Dr. Fauci. Sharing my story and helping to bridge the stories of others worked, but only in part; it was utterly exhausting.

Not surprisingly, many of these friends and family members who seemed unmoved by my personal experience or by the marchers in the street were the same people who, decades before, parroted cruel diatribes about the AIDS epidemic. I remember the high school taunts against a choir teacher who was assumed to be gay, the smiles towards him that were thinly-veiled sneers, the mimicking of his mannerisms, the affected lisps used when quoting him. In grade school, I remember accompanying friends to their church where the sanctuary walls were plastered with posters that conflated homosexuality with pedophilia. I remember the vitriolic t-shirts of classmates in junior high during the first Iraq war, decorated with Islamaphobic cartoons. These kinds of “friends” were folks who had always held different values from me. In my childhood, I didn’t shy away from speaking out about these moments; I was mostly written off or mocked and occasionally, silently thanked. I stayed connected with these people online in hopes that in our process of growing up, we had all grown kinder and more loving. In staying connected with these people, I had hoped to resist living in an echo chamber, an easy thing to slip into in my blue Seattle bubble and my career as a performing artist. The repudiation of these Civil Rights demonstrations was the same kind of thinking that had flourished for decades in my hometown, a place where anti-immigrant sentiments thrived even though its two major industries–agriculture and oil–depended on the labor of migrant workers. The denials of the seriousness of the pandemic reminded me of those long ago conversations amongst my childhood schoolmates, declaring that “only gay people could get AIDS”; after all, it was God’s way of punishing them.  Just like my surgical scars from decades ago still twinge when the barometric pressure shifts, so too, do my emotional scars when I see that same xenophobia and ignorance re-emerge from childhood “friends” who were, in truth, childhood bullies.

As my husband and I struggled to heal and I grew increasingly frustrated that we were unable to return to our pre-Covid forms, I was forced to reckon with my notion of healing. Did healing mean recovering so completely that no trace of previous struggle or illness could remain? Certainly not; that sounded less like healing and more like denial or erasure. The scars we bear of cruelties enacted many years ago twinge with recognition when we hear the sound of those same weapons unsheathed and brandished once again.  When we deny the severity of Covid-19 or the racism experienced Black Americans or the racism wielded by White Americans, we impede both our ability to stop harming others and to heal ourselves.  We cannot turn away from the pain that we have either brought or borne; doing so only sets us up for relapse or reinfection. Healing is instead embracing the scars and signs of a body forever changed. Healing is being present with the reality of where we are now, a mindfulness of how far we have come, an awareness of what made us so sick, and a plan of action for a future that we may yet achieve, buoyed by hope and persistence. Healing is not an endpoint; it is a continuum. It is the audacity to rest a little every day. It is the steady persistence to work to find and enact solutions. Our collective healing can only be achieved by moving forward with our aching hearts serving as reminders of what we have endured, present to the truth that we may not change all the hearts of those around us, but still building a future where we practice greater compassion and radical justice. May our actions and uprisings shine a light in the darkness of now and the darkness that is still yet to come; may our persistence be like tiny beacons blinking out a steady heartbeat, infinite in number, pulsing stronger than a galaxy of full of stars.


Alyssa is a Seattle-based actor, dialect coach, and teaching artist. She and her husband live in Shoreline, WA, their cat, Martha.