How Does This Ride End?

Hi. My name is John, and I’m a COVID Longhauler.

My son talks a big game.

The entire two-hour drive from our then-home in extremely rural Missouri to Six Flags near St. Louis, Joey bravely stated how much he was looking forward to going on American Thunder. From the back seat of my sensible sedan, he repeatedly vised and revised his ride strategy, changing which attraction we would go on first, second, third, fourth, fifth.

He was a chatterbox of courage, boldly declaring how he was going to walk into that park, take a left, head to American Thunder and by God ride that rollercoaster for all he was worth.

Joey is an amazing kid. He is super talented, super smart, super kind. He also was a super wussy child. Joey tip-toed through his youth, so afraid of loud noises that we had to leave multiple sporting events early because of his paralyzing fear that a hometown player might bash a homer and trigger booming fireworks or a running back might break loose for an 80-yard touchdown that led to the Army men setting off the end zone cannon. Bravery for Joey was taking one step out on a huge rock by a river and boldly screaming, “Mama! Look at me!” Meanwhile, a 2-year-old had gone 30 steps further, hopping deftly from stone to stone.

I had no problem with Joey being cautious, mind you. It saved a lot of worry as a first-time parent and even more money on emergency room bills. And I knew the kid wasn’t going to be so scared forever. Or maybe he would and we’d spend that saved emergency room money on therapy. Whatever.

The first cracks in Joey’s Six Flags bravery appeared when we walked through the gates and he immediately made a nervous-pee detour. I’d been down this path before. Thankfully, he was old enough to go into public restrooms on his own because, by that point, I had grown weary bathing in stank while he did his thing.

When he came out, I tried to ignore his obviously growing aprehension, which is to say I cheerfully said “Let’s do this!” and put my arm around his shoulder while heading off for American Thunder. Was it just me or was I actually having to push him along a bit?


When I’m Not Whining About Longhaul COVID, I Do Other Stuff. Stuff Like…


Thank. God. There was no line. We walked under the big “American Thunder” sign and headed toward the undulating tracks, and I’ll be damned if it didn’t seem like I was shoving the kid now.

And then it happened. A conga-line of rollercoaster cars came out of nowhere at 819 mph, roaring like a Cat 5 hurricane as it crashes ashore. The screams of the riders grew and grew and grew and GREW and faded and faded and faded and faded. To Joey, death had just passed by.

“I’m not going,” he declared.

Now, you might question what I did next, and that is your right. Far be it from me to tell you to not judge how other parents parent the children they know much, much better than you. And equally far be it from me to tell you that it wasn’t the first time I did what I was about to do, that I had, in the past, forced Joey to go on an easy-peasy water slide to, um, nudge him to overcome his fear. And even more far be it from me to tell you that, after I forced him down that water slide the first time, he proceeded to go willingly another 211 times that day.

So yes. As Joey’s father, as the person in this world who loved him the most (along with his mother, of course), I replied: “Yes you are going.”

It wasn’t pretty. By the time the bar came across his lap and locked him in place, I was thankful to turn over responsibility for holding him down to the piece of padded steel now crushing my crotch. Tears flowed freely (his, not mine), as did screams of “NO!!!!!” Thankfully, this was, as I mentioned, a Six Flags, the Wal-Mart of theme parks, and you have to do something a lot worse than force your child onto a rollercoaster to even crack the Top 10 of Horrible Parents.

The rickety coaster pulled out of the station and proceeded up the big hill. Now, folks, let’s just get this out there: American Thunder is not a “Bad” rollercoaster. It goes up. It goes down. It turns this way. It turns that way. It stops. The end. No loops. No dangling feet. It’s fun, yes, but it’s tame.

Don’t take my word for it. Ride it yourself:

Not to Joey. As we neared the hill’s zenith, Joey looked at me like Luke Skywalker after Darth Vader told him that, spoiler alert, he was his father.

Betrayal.

Anger.

Disgust.

There is that moment in all rollercoaster rides when the mechanism that pulls the train up the big hill releases and, for just a second, the riders sort of hang there as momentum gathers. It’s still. Quiet. Peaceful, even. Then comes the rush of wind and noise and energy, screams of thrill and joy and terror.

And, in this case, one young boy’s ear-splitting cry that rose above all the rest, infecting the ears of not only his ride companions but those in amusement parks thousands of miles away: “I want to get off this thing!”

But here’s the thing: Once the rollercoaster starts, there’s no getting off. You just have to ride the ride . And if you’ve never ridden it before, you don’t really know how it ends. So you just close your eyes and hang on tight … and scream.

I get it, Joey.

A Man, His Man Drink and His Thoughts

I thought about this story while waiting for a coffee at a charming little hometown treasure called Ellbee’s General Store. It’s a great local alternative to Corporate Coffee and has a rotating blend of interesting flavors. I was waiting for an American Honey latte. Yes, despite this, I am really a man.

Many Longhaulers get intensely angry when they are out in public and see people sans masks. For many of us, those with this mentality are why we are how we are right now. On the flip side, for those of us with random breathing issues, masklife is hard and, on bad days, makes us feel like we are suffocating.

It had been a bad morning. I’d tried to do something physical and ended up feeling like I was having a heart attack for five minutes. I’d gone to meet up with a friend passing through town who was dropping something off for the little bundle of 4-year-old Burkina Fasoan love for whom I am serving as host dad. The entire time, I was sweating. We were standing outside in 50-degree temperatures and a bone-chilling downpour.

As I waited in Ellbee’s for my man drink just a few minutes after that encounter, I had to take my mask off for a few gulps of coffee-infused air, and I realized I’m not much different now than Joey was back on American Thunder. I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t like where I’ve been. I want to get off.

What the Hell Happened?

Monday and Tuesday were excellent as far as Longhauler life goes. Which is to say I was somewhere between 25 and 75 percent of where I used to be in terms of energy and alertness. When you’re 75 percent better than suck, you’re pretty good. I worked hard. I was with it. I came home and cleaned. No naps. I tried not to push it too hard. I’m not real good at “easy.” But maybe I was on my way back.

Then Wednesday came. Suddenly, I could not think. I felt not here. I had done nothing different to explain why today was 180 degrees from the previous two. It simply was.

My personal rollercoaster analogy is slightly different from Joey’s. For me, Monday and Tuesday were like that huge rush when the train heads down the first massive hill. All that effort, the slog that got me to the top…. it’s just.. gone. Suddenly, I’m free. The wind is blowing through what would be my hair if I had any, my hands are in the air (like I just don’t care), and I can do anything. Hell… if I close my eyes, I feel like I’m flying.

That was Monday and Tuesday.

Wednesday, Thursday and Friday? That’s slog. Everything is effort. Thinking. Breathing. Moving. My hands ache. My mouth, despite a week now of high-dose steroids, still feels like a gnome jumped in and took a crap. I say words that aren’t the ones I mean to say. My heart randomly starts to thunder to the point where I’m convinced that if I look down at my shirt, I’ll see it rapidly rising and falling with each contraction and release.

Some perspective: Today, Saturday, is now my fourth-consecutive “bad” day. Yet I am still overwhelming grateful for the two good days that preceded it because it wasn’t all that long ago that I didn’t even have two good days to feel grateful for. Progress cannot be measured in the moment.

Still…

I Am Tired. I Am Old.

On Friday afternoon, I went to the men’s room to take care of bidness. I don’t know if it’s the prednisone or if this is another emerging symptom or if it’s just something that is, but I have peed about 900 times a day since Sunday. And when I’ve got to go, I have to go. Like, now. This is more than a minor inconvenience when your commute is 45 minutes, but so far so good on keeping my pants away from a humiliating trip to the cleaners. (The other pants can be quite cruel, I am told.) Anyway, I did what I do and was washing my hands when I looked in the mirror. The man staring back at me was not me. Not. Me. The eyes that peered out over the mask were tired. Bags drooped sadly beneath them.

My eyes. They’re one of the few things I really like about me. They’re green but turn blue depending on what I’m wearing, and I have these long eyelashes that girls dream of and, thankfully, my wife sorta swooned over. If you ask me to say something nice about my physical appearance, you’re going to hear about my eyes.

Or you would have.

But now? Now they are a big symbol of how much has changed since November.

Listen, I get it… I’m not young. I’m 46 and, COVID aside, I have not had an easy go of it for a long, long time. But I’m not the guy who was staring back at me either. That guy is old. There is something wrong with that guy. For as much as he is soldiering through and working hard and trying, there are so, so many days where he is not right.

So I think about Joey and I think about that rollercoaster. I also have started to think about something a lot of Longhaulers think about but don’t talk about more than once or twice. We don’t talk about it because we get loudly shouted down as being melodramatic (and maybe that’s true) or comforted by people who have no underpinning for their good intentions.

What we think about is this: Is this is going to kill us?

I don’t think I have ever entertained that thought before this week. Not about COVID. Not about anything. I’ve had my share and your share and your grandma’s share of medical maladies through the years, and never once did the thought cross my mind that this thing was going to end me. But now? Now I’m wondering if, at some point, something is going to happen and it is, in the words of Fred Sanford, the big one, Elizabeth.

Oh, I get it. Probably not. Most certainly not. I’m not morbid and, most of the time, I’m not melodramatic.

But I am realistic. And I know how to read.

I’ve read all the articles on the connection between a lot of the stuff I’ve dealt with and an early death. It just seems like the projected “end” date is a lot closer to my “now” date these days. So I’m wondering what a lot of Longhaulers are wondering: What exactly is this doing to me in the long term? Whatever is causing these symptoms, it can’t be something that one day I’m going to read about as leading to an endless pot of gold, bucket of bacon and happy, healthy years.

So I am spending a lot of time trying not to play the what-if game. What-if this is harming my heart? What-if this is harming my brain? What-if this is harming my lungs? What-if what-if what-if and they just haven’t figured it out yet? Because remember, us Longhaulers didn’t even exist as a recognized thing until this year. We were (and, to a certain extent, still are) largely written off as having mental issues. Which very well might be the case, but should that really be said as a way of dismissing us instead of examining us from a different perspective? Because, ya know, the things that you are dismissing as “mental issues” just so happen to be things that are biologically and chemically happening to a very important organ that makes its home in our heads. For example, I know there is nothing physically wrong with the appearance of my tongue. But I also know that the signals my brain is getting from the nerves that do what nerves do in there are way off. It would be unwise (and unhealthy for you) to imply to me that, because my tongue appears to even an expert eye as a normal tongue, I am imagining/making up/exaggerating the daily hell that is my mouth.

The bottom line is that what-if isn’t going to help anything. I’ve had all the tests. I’ve seen all the doctors I’m going to see for now. I’m grateful for what they have attempted to do. They are finding ways to provide some relief for Longhaulers who have it a lot worse than I do, and for that, I am happy. I hate this rollercoaster with the unhinged rage of a thousand suns. But, like Joey, I’m locked in. I have no choice. I can’t get off. This thing is going where it’s going to go. I can do my part — keep my hands inside the car at all times, not try to put my phone on a stupid selfie stick, avoid wrenching the lap bar off me to get a better view of the next tunnel entrance — but I ain’t steering.

No one is.

Looking for the Station

Joey and I finished the ride. As the train pulled into the station, he looked at me, his in-need-of-a-trim white-blond hair askew, his eyes wide … and he smiled at me.

“That was awesome!” he screamed.

Of course it was, son.

“But I don’t want to do it again!”

You don’t have to, son.

We spent the rest of the day riding tame rides that kept within Joey’s comfort zone. We played carnival-style games we had no chance of winning.

We laughed.

A lot.

Toward the end of our time there, it poured. We dashed to the car through puddles that didn’t exist seconds before our feet found them. We arrived breathless, soaked, laughing. Again.

These are the things a life is made from.

Joey hasn’t yet needed counseling for the horrible parenting I showed that day, so three cheers for repressed memories or my own good dad judgment. He’s gone on to bust out of that comfort zone. He took his little brother to Six Flags, pre-pandemic, and, irony of ironies, he was the one telling Jonah how easy American Thunder was. He got my little guy to ride Batman. I’ll be sending Jonah’s counseling bills his way.

He’s turning 19 next week. He’s amazingly intelligent. He has a summer internship in food science, his chosen career field, as a freshman. A freshman! All I was thinking about the summer after my freshman year was how to spend more time with his mother. He just got a tattoo. Who am I to complain? I have seven, the first of which I got in April of my freshman year. Mine was a stupid killer whale, signifying nothing. His? A black rose with four leaves. The leaves? Him. Me. His mother. Jonah. The black rose? Jacob, his brother, who lived and died before Joey was even born.

How does this ride end? I don’t know. I want to get off. I can’t. Surely the station is coming up. One more rise. One more fall. One more turn.

I’m holding on. I’m holding on the best I can.

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