“Alright Lilly, it’s gonna go far back up there, and it’s not gonna be comfortable, but bear with me,” the Ann Arbor Urgent Care nurse said. “We’ll make this as quick as possible. Relax, tilt your head back. Breathe.”
I think it was the unexpected ease with which I accepted the long white swab into the back of my nasal canal that caused the nurse to laugh as she twisted the stick back and forth in my nostril.
“How many of these tests have you had?” she asked. With my face glued to the ceiling as she continued to twirl, I held up the number with my hands.
“Seven, huh?” She marveled as she removed the swab. “Well, you’re done, Lilly. You’ll get our call in two to three days.”
I gave an affirming nod, but I already knew the drill — I’d even had that nurse before.
Until then, I hadn’t thought about the number I’d flashed. And as I sat at my desk on day two of the two to three days later, awaiting this seventh call, I couldn’t help but feel the weight of this reality. I’d be answering the phone for the seventh time during my sixth week of college to find out if I’d contracted the virus that sparked a global pandemic.
Each of my tests painted a mosaic of my freshman year so far: The time during the second week of school when I was contact-traced and mandated to get a test due to someone in my dorm, West Quad Residence Hall, whom I had barely even met. The time I was exposed through an outdoor meal and turned myself in for a swabbing. The time my roommate tested positive, in turn causing me to take multiple tests, figuring there was no way I could escape the coronavirus after living with a fallen soldier. Yet it turned out there was, I was wrong, as I remained negative throughout my 14-day isolation period.
My seventh test came as a result of a “COVID-19 hotspot” on the third and fourth floors of West Quad. My close friend on the third floor turned out to be asymptotically positive. So, again, to urgent care I went.
Both my parents are University of Michigan alumni, so I grew up spending game days in Ann Arbor. As a kid, I stomped down State Street in the herds of maize and blue, uniformly parading toward the Big House as if I belonged in the crowds. I sat wedged between my parents in the stands, eating a hotdog the size of my eight-year-old hand, admiring echoes of the thousands of voices chanting the Michigan Fight Song. Year after year, I watched, wide-eyed, as we walked past students singing, laughing and screaming as they danced in fraternities' backyards.
I listened to my dad’s stories about his experiences studying in Spain and to my mom’s stories about the lectures she attended — huge auditoriums filled with overtired students buzzing about previous nights out or tests soon to come. I heard about her favorite philosophy classes, political science professors and conversations they’d had that made lasting marks on her future, dictating who she was or what she decided to do.
We’d finish our Ann Arbor days at Pizza House, barely able to secure a table or hear the waiter over the commotion of Wolverines, current and previous, sardined under one roof. As a hopeful future Wolverine myself, I imagined my future life here to be a colorful, spirited, full-fledged exploration and continuation of these experiences.
Well, here I am, and I haven’t experienced any of it. I don’t scream in fraternity backyards on Saturday mornings and I haven’t sat in the stands of the Big House on a Saturday afternoon yet. I’ve yet to sit in a lecture hall, and the doors of the common rooms in my dorm hall remain closed for sanitary purposes. Instead of screaming and socializing, I’m cleaning and Cloroxing. I’m hoping, waiting and anxiously praying, too. Perhaps I scored more of a Michigan experience as a 10-year-old than as a student.
I could feel sorry for myself. Sometimes I do. It’s a monster of a circumstance that my class, as well as everyone else’s, has been faced with. We worked relentlessly in high school, leaving almost no room for error, motivated by the promise of the standard collegiate experience that just slipped through our fingers. It’s depressing.
And yet I don’t feel depressed. I feel the opposite.
It’s easy to think about what and who I don’t know because of the coronavirus: Michigan football, house parties, my professors and peers. I’d be lying if I claimed I don’t find myself longing for the reality I witnessed as a child. But I must recognize what and who I do know now that I definitely wouldn’t have known otherwise.
For one, I know the 26-minute walk from West Quad to Ann Arbor Urgent Care like the back of my hand: the left on Packard, the hike down South State and the right after the bridge on East Stadium. I know that Prognify Urgent Care on Washtenaw takes appointments, which is super convenient if you need a test between classes or results in a crunch. I know University Health Service returns your results in 24 hours, but requires you to fill out a tedious survey beforehand, which is inconvenient. I know what it’s like to be suddenly evicted from your dorm with 20 minutes to pack your belongings, and I know how to decide which of your belongings rank worthy enough to shove into a duffle bag for a 14-day quarantine.
I don’t know what normal elections look like, but I know how to secure and turn in a mail-in ballot. I know how to field an inbox of virus updates and voting service ads to avoid drowning in unread notifications. I know how to navigate the streets of Ann Arbor at an astonishing level I wouldn’t have known had I spent Welcome Week in fraternity backyards. I know the standard routes for the Black Lives Matter protests and main locations for where the Graduate Student Instructor strikes took place.
I know how to learn an audition dance from a screen, and how to time my movements with lagging audio during my Zoom team practices. I know how to authorize a friend to collect my packages from the package room when my Vitamin C and zinc pills from Amazon are piling in but you can’t enter the dorms. I know it’s possible to pass a birthday in isolation and actually enjoy it, and I know to bring earplugs to the all-encompassing Michigan Union when I want to be productive, since it now triples as a library, food center and social area.
I know what it’s like to wake up convinced that a stuffy nose is COVID-19, when it’s really a sinus infection, and remember that other illnesses exist. I know what it’s like to hurt when seeing a new friend go home because they’ve tested positive. While I don’t know as many people on campus as I otherwise may have, the people in my hall I know well. And finally, I know what it’s like to take a stick to the noggin, and, of course, I know what it’s like to await the call with your results.
I’ve always been an anxious, rigid person. But the coronavirus, especially in combination with our political climate, does not allow for such. This year has been one collective crash course on rolling with the punches. Though my pieces of knowledge so far seem small-scale and random, they form the foundation of my Michigan experience. My first semester has been more rewarding than any elevated surface could have been.
Waiting for my seventh urgent care call, I was more flexible, resilient, accepting, savvy, relaxed, thick-skinned and maybe even thick nostril-ed because of it. Nothing is guaranteed, and life goes on — whether exposed to COVID-19 or not, free-range or quarantined. I now see that the tailgates, game days and even in-person classes are the icing on the cake we’d previously taken for granted.
As expected, my phone rang with “Nurse Kathy from AAUC” on the line. This time, seven swabs later, I was positive.
Seven calls ago this result would’ve sent me into a crisis, with shock and probably tears, too. But I had COVID-19, and all I could do was hope that my youth and relative good health would allow me to fight it. I spent the next two weeks in quarantine, waiting to feel better, waiting to be released. On my second to last day, Washtenaw County went into lockdown. I had two more weeks of waiting: Waiting for any pandemic-conscientious social gathering, for a game day outside of my room, for my roommate to return from home and for the decision on whether the lockdown would be extended.
The lockdown was not extended; it was lifted the morning of Election Day, when, lo and behold, I found myself sitting at my desk again, waiting for results — this time, not for myself, but for the state of the country. But by now I’ve become pretty decent at that. While the results of this election will inevitably affect our country’s future, rather than my next few weeks, and while I can’t count on receiving them on the second afternoon of two to three days later, I viewed this election like another test for COVID-19.
I could dwell on possible outcomes, analyze and panic, but I won’t — I’ll just wait. If nothing else, my first semester at college has taught me that life is a perpetual game of uncertainty, and learning to sit with that uncertainty, with the help of family and friends, may be as valuable as the result itself. As with politics, academics and pandemics, life is full of tests, with periods of sadness, joy, hardship and triumph in between. And I’m okay with that — something I wouldn't have been able to say seven swabs ago.
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