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The other night my brother-in-law called us at three o’clock in the morning – the time equivalent of no-man’s-land. He was gasping for air; he was in a fevered panic. He had just realized that the Tylenol capsules he took had long expired. He was frightened that the dud medication would not budge his temperature. “I’m burning from the inside out,” he said. His temperature had edged up to 104. He was inhaling flames. His oxygenation had plummeted to 90 percent. Black and white dreams, played out in old-fashioned reels, buzzed in his head.
In these COVID-drenched dreams, he is suspended in the darkest galaxy, about to free fall. There is no freedom in sloughing off gravity. He longs for the blue marbled earth so far away. I’ve had those scary dreams of flight, too. When I was little, I regularly dreamed that I jumped from the top of the basement stairs with the certainty that I would crack my head open. I woke up just before I hit the yellow and red squares of damp tile where I knew I would lay in a pool of my blood.
I am a child of the ’60s and ’70s who witnessed astronauts precariously tethered to their space ships, eerily floating in negative space – the absence of light outlining their bodies. I dreamed I was one of those astronauts in my own free fall. As the song went – “It’s Lonely Out in Space.” When I awoke, I was drenched in sweat; my stomach ached as if I had been on a rollercoaster. Adrenalin powered my booming heart for hours.
My brother-in-law says he feels like he’s breathing in rock dust – raw and granular, scraping his throat, attaching to his lungs. He says the wheezing is breaking his chest open. His heart is exposed. “I’m going to die in this COVID pit,” he says, too weak to cry. I peer into that pit – it’s full of phlegm and germs that look like the tinker toy depictions of the coronavirus with their red golf tee-like projections.
“This is not your time to die,” my husband tells his little brother. “You’re young, and you’re otherwise healthy.” My husband’s common sense has always been his armor. “You’ll get oxygen when you get to the ER.”
My brother-in-law needs that breath of life. I think of the goddess herself blowing holy air into his nostrils. This is the power of creation in a straight through line from the Garden of Eden to the Emergency Room. My brother-in-law is not a believer, so I don’t mention the creation myth to him. I only tell him to imagine a perfectly oxygenated space where his lungs gently inflate and then deflate without interruption. He does not have pain as his breath travels through his throat and chest.
Suddenly I hear the maraca sound of my brother-in-law shaking pills or maybe stones in a bottle. It’s the treacherous Tylenol that will never heal at full-strength. It’s three o’clock in the morning, and my husband, brother-in-law, and I are the only people awake in the world. “Breathe, buddy,” my husband says. He’s put his arm around his brother with his gentle tone of voice. “You can do it.” But none of us is sure. My brother-in-law has COVID and will be transported to the hospital in an ambulance clutching that bottle of inert Tylenol. He will continue to reach out to us through space and over time long after we’ve hung up.
Judy Bolton-Fasman’s essays and reviews have appeared in major newspapers including the New York Times and literary magazines such as McSweeney’s, Brevity, Cognoscenti, The Rumpus, Catapult and the anthology, “The Shell Game: Writers Play With Borrowed Forms” (University of Nebraska Press). A recent essay has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Judy also has an essay in the anthology, “(Her)oics: Women’s Lived Experiences During the Coronavirus Pandemic” (Regal House Publishing). She is the recipient of the Alonzo G. Davis Fellowship for Latinx writers from the Virginia Center for Creative Arts and has been the Erin Donovan Fellow in Non-Fiction at the Mineral School. Her memoir, "Asylum: A Memoir of Family Secrets” is forthcoming in the fall of 2021 from Mandel Vilar Press.