Survivor’s Guilt

By Nancy Werlin | December 12, 2020

Saturday night, March 14, 2020: My husband Jim coughed.

Monday morning, March 16, 2020: I coughed.

We got tested during the few days in Massachusetts between when Covid-19 testing opened to anybody with suspicious symptoms, and when it slammed shut because tests were in short supply. My test came back positive in two days. Jim’s went to California for analysis and took 11 days.

For two weeks, we quarantined, sick, not knowing we were going to be lucky and fearing the worst. The kitchen table was Command Central: thermometer and temperature log notebook, Tylenol, Gatorade, Dayquil, Nyquil, my inhalers for asthma. Cough, fever for us both, plus body aches and loss of taste for Jim and headache and gastro issues for me. Would we have to rush to the hospital? Would one of us lose the other? Was I breathing okay now? How about now? Anxious questions and fears pulsed in me, along with random rage at things like the instructions about how to quarantine, which were impossible in homes like ours with a single bathroom.

But the bulk of my anxiety was for my sister. She has autism and manages her own life in her own space in wonderfully quirky fashion, independent to a good degree. But she has limits and depends on me as her main person. I was terrified for her. How was she going to manage the pandemic? Masks? How much did she even understand? And what if she got sick?

What if I had already infected her?

“Stay home,” I told her on the phone, trying to sound calm. “Even if you’re bored, stay home! How are you? How are you?

“I’m never bored,” she remarked. “I’m fine. What are we doing this Saturday?”

“Sweetie, I told you already. I need to stay home this Saturday and not see you. Please, you stay home too.”

“All right. Except when I need to go to the post office.”

“No! Don’t go! Don’t go anywhere!” I tried to calm down. “Now, listen. You are invited to Ohio, to visit our sister for a few months and be safe from the virus.” Please, please, please, I thought. Please be willing to go. And let Jim and me get well enough to take her there, where she’ll be safe.

“Easiest driving of my life,” Jim said, on Day 14, as we drove west on I-90. Rest stops were open but eerily deserted. I herded my sister carefully in the bathrooms, washing her hands myself, using a paper towel to touch surfaces and doorknobs. But then there was the relief of reaching our Ohio sister’s home and tucking our sister into bed there, safe. Safe for now.

Then heading east again on I-90, to the new normal of working from home, wearing masks, riding the roller-coaster of 2020 crazy news. Like everybody else. Just like everybody else.

And yet not.

So now it is December. After three months in Ohio, my sister returned to her independent life, pandemic-style, after learning how to manage in this new world from our Ohio sister. She’s doing fine. Nobody, but nobody, is better at remembering to wear a mask. I even have to remind myself that I feared she would not be able to do this. She can. She does. I am proud of her.


And guilt.

Guilt, because—even though we mask and social distance—the pandemic world that Jim and I occupy is not entirely the same as most other people’s. Because we donate plasma regularly in the Red Cross Covid-19 program, we know that we both not only developed antibodies, but that we have them still, eight months since infection and counting. The current science tells us our personal risk, and our risk to others, is likely low. Not non-existent, but low. Jim and I say that we surely go to the back of the line, when it comes to the vaccine. We think that is right.

And so, that being the case, I took a deep breath when my sister returned from Ohio. I chose—I still am choosing—to accept the minimal risk and see my sister and provide the local family stability and love and support to her that I have for my entire adult life and that I know she needs. We spend Saturdays together as always. Jim or I take her to her dentist and hairdresser and doctor appointments in the car. She comes to stay overnight. I hug her and she hugs me.



I know full well that other people, including dear friends, are forbidden right now to be with their own, no matter how much they might need them. I know how they—and so many others, all over the world—are ripped apart by this. They cannot afford the higher risk that they face; cannot afford it for themselves or their loved ones. Lives and health are at stake.

Yet I can take care of my own. My burden is light.

And because it is light, it is also heavy.

Copyright © 2020 Nancy Werlin

(Composite photo by Steve Bennett)

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