A lovely lady holding a handsome cat
A lovely lady holding a handsome cat
The eponymous she (right)

She’s Why: Love and Life with a High-Risk Partner During a Viral Pandemic

I’ll always remember the way she first told me her story.

Early on in our time together, back when my partner and I were still just two people going on initial dates and getting to know each other, I remember the way she first opened up to me about her life story in detail.

I remember her courage and confidence as she described, so matter-of-factly mind you, how she was born three months early, small enough that her father cupped her in his hands. About how the doctors were pessimistic.

About how she spent most of her first year on Earth in an incubator in intensive care. How she joked about how her lungs could’ve really used those three more months. “BPD. Bronchopulmonary dysplasia,” she said casually, in between bites of a shared nacho plate. “Basically, my lungs kind of suck,” she shrugged. “It’s not a big deal. Lots of people have it worse.”

At the time, I hadn’t known her all that long. It was only our second “date,” at least by traditional dating standards. We’d met on a dating site, and had messaged each other on there for a bit. After exchanging numbers, it wasn’t long before there was mutual interest in setting up a video chat date.

That was the one that began with me apologizing before it even started because I had to find a video chat app we both had on our phones. It was also the one that began with her apologizing right back when the video finally connected, as she had to put the phone down to run to the kitchen in a panic to prevent brownies from burning. After two of the fastest hours of my life, it ended with a promise to set up an in-person date sometime soon.

That first “real” date went well enough that there we were, five days later, meeting up again on a beautiful winter Saturday. That one began as a brunch date and hanging out together at a local museum, and ended up being a dinner date too. We ended up spending the better part of 12 hours together when it was all said and done, and eating far too much Mexican food at dinner. Eating with our eyes is something we’re still working on.

I just remember being in awe at the way she told me her story that night. The unflinching way she described the hardships she’s overcome to become the woman that sat across from me now, the one I found so captivating.

I knew that we had a really good connection, the type of connection that makes you feel like you’ve known each other for years, not weeks. But I wasn’t expecting her to share so much of herself and her story with me that night. I didn’t realize at the time that she trusted me enough to share it all.

I learned that night that unapologetically sharing her story is a really empowering thing for her. Plus, she knows that anybody who judges her for who she is wouldn’t be someone she’d want to have in her life anyway.

So there we were, with our now-soggy nachos and our suddenly raw feelings. Sharing scars, detailing every trial and tribulation, every obstacle we’ve each overcome in our lives. In her case, literally since her first breath. Even the terrible people she used to date who had treated her with far less love and respect than she deserves, to put it mildly. We had both let our past hurts go before even logging on to that dating site, and at this stage of our lives, we knew we were both ready for something legitimate and meaningful. So why not bare all, this early in our time together?

She felt comfortable, and so did I.

I learned about how everything she’s conquered in her life tells a lot about the person she is today. The type of person who isn’t afraid to share her personal story with someone she hasn’t known that long. The type of person who doesn’t mind making the first move on the dating site we met on. She’d sent me that initial “hello,” simply because she felt like it.

I didn’t know then, back when I first read that “hello” she’d sent, that it would change my life forever. I didn’t realize, when she was telling me about how she can’t hold her breath underwater all that long, that it would completely take my breath away. Looking back, I realize now that it was that night, over those nachos, tacos, quesadillas, and extra guac, that I fell in love with her, and the way she tells her story, with her head held high.

That was January 2019, when she first told me about how she was born early, how the BPD permanently affects her lungs, how she’s more susceptible to respiratory illnesses than your average thirtysomething. A few months later, while vacationing together, I saw first-hand how a bout of walking pneumonia sidelined her for a month. She joked about how it was the easiest she’d ever dropped a stubborn 10 pounds.

It was March 2020 when I first began typing my thoughts out, in what would eventually become this piece you’re reading now. The month that all of us here in New York City will remember for a long time as the month that life as we knew it was shaken up. For my partner and me, it’s been intense at times. But when the pressure of this collective moment is getting to me, she always helps me catch my breath. “We’re good at the hard stuff,” she’ll say.

And she’s right.

We’ve never stopped dating, since the brownies on the video chat, and the soulful intimacy of spending time sharing scars over a side of guac. We live together now, in her cozy Upper West Side studio, where it’s not uncommon for us to discuss baby names and future wedding logistics. “Not in that order,” she teases, as she proofreads this part. Right again, of course. When the time’s right, we’ll get there. First, I’ll need a ring as vibrant as she is.

But it’s true. Somehow we’ve always been good at the hard stuff.

Those early messages before those initial dates. Meeting each others’ friends for the first time, including several of hers who each independently threatened me with bodily harm if I ever did her wrong.

I’m pretty sure they were mostly joking, but I don’t plan on finding out.

We’ve been there to support each other through untimely funerals for our respective loved ones. In some cases, we met some of each other’s extended family members a little earlier than we expected, people we would have preferred to introduce to one another under much better circumstances.

I wasn’t nervous meeting her parents, or having her meet mine. Maybe I had a few butterflies when we had dinner with both of our parents all together for the first time, but even that felt like a breeze in no time.

Every step of the way, through every milestone, every challenge we’ve faced together, we’ve always found a way to thrive when the pressure’s on. We are good at the hard stuff.

Nowadays, with this novel coronavirus making its way across the globe and throughout the city we live in, it’s the hardest challenge of my life.

I know, without a doubt, that it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with, personally. I know how fortunate I am that that’s so. There are those who don’t have homes of their own to shelter in, and those people have loved ones of their own to care for, too. We’re making the best of it so far, finding the silver linings where we can in uncertain, unprecedented times.

When I was writing this out initially, she was sitting right next to me, scratching a writing itch of her own. She studied creative writing, so I’m looking forward to the finished product. I get a kick out of proofreading and editing her work. It’s not quite done yet, but it’ll touch on how she’s been able to find more time for herself lately, and how sheltering in place has affected her productivity and her perceptions of the future of office work.

We’ve been getting into more of a regular workout routine here at home. And since we’d already challenged ourselves to cook more and order in less before the pandemic even began, we’ve only gotten more and more creative in the kitchen over the last few weeks.

We’ve found time for “me” time, together time, and more time than ever before to catch up on TV. Or in our case, the Bon Appétit YouTube channel.

But there are moments where we need to borrow some strength from each other. When the pressure of taking precautions against the virus feels so taxing, physically, mentally, and emotionally. It’s hard not to worry when you’re reading about how COVID-19 has been taking down a lot of people who have stronger respiratory and immune systems than she has.

My partner is considered immunocompromised. She’s not particularly fond of the word. After all, she doesn’t see herself as someone who compromises or has had to settle for anything less than everything she aims to achieve in life. I remember when she first showed me pictures of herself from her high school days, back when her hair was naturally a reddish-brown. It’s more of a coffee brown now, an unintended consequence in the aftermath of a spinal surgery she had at 19, two titanium rods implanted in her back.

All part of being a “preemie,” a label some people use for prematurely-born babies, sometimes derogatorily. It’s a label that she wears with pride though because it reminds her of how far she’s come. She doesn’t look for pity or sympathy. She doesn’t talk about her fight for every breath and the doubts they cast upon her because she wants people to feel sorry for her. Whether she realizes it or not, she inspires the hell out of everyone who’s lucky enough to be close to her, myself included. I’m sure her friends would agree.

Heading into April, she can’t go out and enjoy springtime in New York the way that she’d like to. We’re keenly aware that if she were to ever get COVID-19, she’s unlikely to be one of those fortunate people who’ve simply battled flu-like symptoms for a week and recovered without hospitalization.

We haven’t seen either of our parents in person in over a month. Since we live pretty close by to her parents, we had plans to go over to their house for dinner in early March, something that’s been a weekly staple for us. We were originally going to go on a Tuesday but decided to push it to Thursday.

But that Wednesday was the night that the NBA and Tom Hanks snapped us back to reality. This thing isn’t just coming, it’s here. We can’t just be careful trekking around the city; we can’t afford to expose ourselves at all.

Our story isn’t a unique one in this time of crisis. I hope ours will never be a story with a darker turn. You can read countless stories about people dealing with the worst effects of the virus. We have friends and family members who are on the front lines in hospitals, risking their lives to save as many people as possible. Some projections say that half of New York City could eventually be infected. I refuse to find out what it could do to her.

I know I’m not alone when it comes to having a partner who’s considered high-risk. Many of us are in similar spots, being high-risk themselves, sheltering in place with someone high-risk, having close loved ones who are high-risk, or any combination of the sort. Not to mention how we’re all learning the hard way now that the healthiest among us can be brought to their knees by COVID-19 as well. It’s a tremendous challenge for all of us.

My mother was a little younger than I am now when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. My family had the first weekend of April circled on our calendar, our annual charity walk to raise money for MS research. The event usually has hundreds of attendees, but no one will be walking in person this spring. My mom is near the top of her group in fundraising again, to no one’s surprise. That’s just her. She’s the strongest person I’ve ever met. She’s been winning her battles with health issues her whole life too, and you’ll never hear her fret about it. I’m very lucky to have been raised by my parents. My father’s considered high-risk for the virus in his own right. April 9 was supposed to be the day we had a big family dinner to celebrate my father’s first anniversary of his sobriety. Instead, that in-person celebration will be indefinitely delayed, with a phone call or video chat having to suffice for now. My parents are doing the same thing many of us are doing, hunkering down at home, waiting for this bad storm to pass.

I can’t wait to see my parents and hug them tight again. Hopefully soon.

I remember back on that video chat date with my partner, how I needed to ask her how she pronounced her name. It’s not that her name is all that unique or difficult to pronounce, but it is one of those names that usually has one of two distinct pronunciations. But I was curious. In part, because my partner’s name is spelled exactly the same way that my mother’s name is spelled. It would’ve been a silly reason to not date someone who seemed interesting, but I’ll admit, I was glad to hear she pronounces it the opposite way of how my mom does.

I didn’t consider myself to be a very spiritual person before I met my partner. Her faith is important to her, and her spirituality is rubbing off on me. But the way we connect to one another, I can’t help but think that there are forces bigger than ourselves that have brought us together. Too many coincidental things in our lives that I can’t fully explain with science alone.

Little things, like how her name is spelled the same way my mom spells hers. Or how my birthday is one day after her father’s birthday. Bigger things too, like how we both have late paternal grandmothers who survived the Holocaust, and how they each gave testimonies to the USC Shoah Foundation, formerly the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, a nonprofit organization that conducts interviews with survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust and other genocides.

I’ve introduced her to my family’s multi-generational love for the Grateful Dead. I got to take her to her first Dead and Company concert last fall. She’s introduced me to dozens of classic films and allowed me this past winter to have the pleasure of decorating a Christmas tree for the first time. I took her to her first big league baseball game. She took me to my first opera.

Our relationship has grown so much in a short time. It was only a few months ago that we had our first anniversary. We intend to have many, many more anniversaries, a wedding, a family, and a beautiful life together. All the things we’ve dreamed out loud about together.

We believe we’re built for the long haul. But we know that in order to even have a long haul, we have to be hyper-focused.

It’s not nearly as simple as it used to be to leave the apartment for what used to be the simplest reasons. Like taking the trash out, or getting the mail, or doing laundry in the basement of our building. It’s a deadly serious endeavor each and every time we step outside our door. We know that the easiest way to avoid infection is to prevent potentially exposed areas from getting anywhere near our faces. To minimize risk, she’s mostly holding down the fort while I handle errands that require leaving the apartment.

We’re lucky to have 24/7 access to a rooftop in our building. We like to go at odd hours, like midnight or so, just to minimize the potential of running into a crowd. When we go up on sunny days to get some refreshing sunlight on our faces, it feels a bit like a spy mission in plain sight. Luckily, our third date was at an interactive spy museum, so we feel like we’re prepared.

In the days and weeks prior to when things got as serious as they are now, she had a couple of doctor appointments that required her to be there in person. She’s a diabetic as well, and since I’ve got my car here in the city, I’m able to drive her directly to her appointments, thankfully. No reason to risk any unnecessary unknown variables that come with taking a ridesharing app or a crowded subway. Luckily, most of her doctors have been incredibly accommodating, with video appointment follow-ups and the like.

I’m very grateful for that, because I wasn’t handling it particularly well when we would go outside in early March, even before that line-in-the-sand day that brought everything to a screeching halt.

I’m not afraid to admit that there have been a handful of moments over the past month where the pressure I’ve put on myself has really done a number on my own well-being. Knowing that I have to be so careful, so impeccably precise with every action I take, every surface I touch, every time I walk out our front door. Wearing protective gloves, bringing disinfecting wipes with me just to go grab the mail in the lobby or the grocery deliveries we’re fortunate enough to still have access to. Disinfecting every single grocery before I put it away. Washing my shoes, and leaving them by the front door every time I return to the safe space of our apartment. Making sure that I wash my hands and forearms thoroughly before I touch my face or hug her.

I kick myself over not really learning how to cook earlier in my adult life. Nowadays, we make due, but any time I overcook dinner or season it poorly, I know I can be unreasonably hard on myself about it. She’ll comfort me and tell me to not put so much pressure on myself. Nobody’s perfect, after all.

But I really feel like I do have to be perfect. As error-free as a person can be.

If I’m not as careful, diligent, and focused as I can be, every single time that I open that front door, I know there’s a risk that letting my guard down even for one moment can potentially invite the virus in. If I’m not putting that pressure on myself to be steadfast, and certainly neurotic, about washing my hands and disinfecting everything that enters our cozy studio, I could slip up. It only takes one careless misstep to change our lives forever.

In a lot of ways, it feels like us thirtysomethings have been stuck footing the bill, and we’re barely through appetizers. But I don’t worry about the “why us?” lament of it all. That’s not what she does. She only thinks about how we can learn from the past and build something better for the future, for the little ones who will need us to look forward and lead by example by being better than those who got us in the position we all find ourselves in now.

I always love hearing my partner’s perspective on worldviews big and small. A lot of her perspectives have been shaped by the fact that she grew up as a first-generation American, the daughter of refugee parents who fled Communist Romania and took a circuitous route to get to the U.S. in the 1970s. They settled in New York City, and they worked hard to make sure that she grew up with a roof over her head and the freedom to live, love, and be everything that she is. I can’t wait to hug them again too.

Every time an obstacle is thrown her way, my partner rolls up her sleeves and conquers it. She doesn’t complain about being dealt a more difficult hand in life than others have been. She makes the hard stuff look easy. It’s the only way she knows. She doesn’t make lemonade when life gives her lemons, she grows a whole damn grove of lemon trees.

And she does it as effortlessly as the way that she describes how the doctors doubted she’d ever get to celebrate a birthday.

Hunkered down with her now, it’s my job to make sure she celebrates more birthdays. To fulfill all our promises to each other about being Mr. and Mrs. one day. To make sure she’s healthy and happy so that we can start a family together when the time is right. I relish the opportunity to love her the way she deserves to be loved, and the responsibility of keeping her safe.

She inspires me so much to be my best self, to be the best partner I can be, to be the most self-confident version of myself there is. I’m so motivated every day to provide for her, to care for her, to love her until we’re old and gray and wrinkly, our future grandkids laughing and wondering why we wash our hands so often.

She’ll still be adorable when she’s a grandma, I just know it.

She knows I would do anything and everything to keep her safe. Some people might say we’re going overboard, but I’d rather be overprepared than caught off guard. Knowing that she feels comfortable, hearing her breathe easy when she’s sleeping peacefully in my arms… it’s just everything to me. It took me 30 years to find her, and I want to love her well past 130. I just can’t imagine my life without her. I’m so grateful that I’m not writing a more harrowing story, that this isn’t about a fight against COVID-19. I just can’t let it ever get to that.

We don’t know how long we’ll have to live like this, so cautiously, so physically isolated from our loved ones. But we’re alive. We’re healthy. For the most part, our people are healthy and doing well too. There have been some recent scares with close loved ones battling fevers for an alarming amount of time, with no tests and no definitive diagnosis, but knock on wood, things are improving and it appears that the worst of it is in the rear-view mirror now.

As for myself, my partner, and our cozy Upper West Side studio, we’re just going to keep on keeping on, to continue to do whatever it takes, for as long as it takes. After all, we’re good at the hard stuff. What’s another challenge?

I’ll do my best to do it with a smile, the way that she does.

That smile motivates me so much, every single day. She’s the reason why I live and love the way that I do. These words are for her, and for every other ordinary citizen doing their part to flatten the curve and keep us all safe. We’re stronger when we come together, even in spirit, from the safety and comfort of our homes.

Call your people when you can, tell them you love them. Sometime soon we’ll all be hugging each other again. Until then, please be safe. Be kind to one another. See you then.

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