After family tragedy and a “mild” case of Covid, tennis was a way back

After family tragedy and a “mild” case of Covid, tennis was a way back

A tale of 2020.

What stood out to me first about my temporary new home were the tennis courts. There were dozens of them laid out across the town’s park, in neat rows of four. I had to stand on a bench to count them and see where they ended. Their asphalt surfaces were worn, but not cracked; all the nets had crisp white center straps, and appeared to be precisely measured to regulation height. They looked like serious courts, awaiting serious players.

Unfortunately, those players, serious or not, would have to wait a while before they set foot on them again. It was late March, and this was northern New Jersey, which meant that everything was locked down and deserted. Before I left the park that day, I took a picture of the tennis facility as a memento of the moment. I liked to imagine coming back later that spring and seeing those courts bustling with players who were overjoyed to be off their couches, hitting balls and seeing friends again.

That day would come, but not in the spring, and not before much worse had happened—to me, to the state, to the country. In March, I had joined the mass exodus from New York City as the coronavirus crashed down on the metropolis like a silent tsunami. But I didn’t travel far enough, soon enough. The day I arrived at my partner Anita’s parents’ house in Bergen County, NJ, long lines were beginning to form at the area’s first Covid testing sites, and ICU beds in local hospitals were filling up. What had been a New York-centric nightmare had started to spread to the rest of the country.

That included the house where we were living. Anita developed a fever, and her father briefly fell ill. But no one seriously suspected Covid when her mother, Rustica, walked upstairs to her bedroom one day with stomach problems and shut the door. The disease was so new it didn’t seem real yet; besides, she had been sick the week before and recovered. But this time she didn’t. Four days later, she was carried out of her bedroom, too weak to walk, and taken to the emergency room. Three days after that, a doctor called Anita to say her mother was “gone.”

Gone. Just like that. No warning, no gradual decline, no good-bye. Rustica, her husband and Anita had likely picked up the virus while caring for a family member in a nearby hospital in February and early March. By the end of March, when she was admitted to the same hospital, there were no visitors allowed. Death never comes on schedule, and never seems fair, but that’s doubly true for Covid, which snatches people out of the blue and leaves their families wondering how they could be gone so suddenly. She was 79 and had a history of high blood pressure, but she had that condition under control with medication. There was no reason to believe she wouldn’t have lived for another 10 years. (I wrote an appreciation of Rusty here.)

Rustica in her favorite tennis t-shirt in 1979.

With the shock of her death still fresh, and having been exposed to the virus for more than a week, I went to quarantine at a long-term-residence hotel up the highway in Bergen County. I was lucky: I had a space where I could isolate; I had work; and I didn’t have to go anywhere to do it. I could even get some socially-distanced exercise by walking around the parking lots at the nearby office buildings, which were eerily empty during the lockdowns.

My own symptoms had begun to manifest, vaguely and tentatively, during the time that Rusty was in the hospital. Early each afternoon, in creepily clockwork fashion, I felt a mild fever come on, which would continue for a few hours before retreating by evening. When I moved to the hotel, those fevers increased slightly in intensity, but they still died down before I went to bed. At the time, it was virtually impossible to get tested for Covid in New York or New Jersey, which meant that I was left to wonder—every minute of the day—whether I had contracted the virus, or whether my anxiety about it was making me think I had.

The fevers kept coming back, but they never spiked. I felt lethargic and didn’t have an appetite, but that could have been stress-related. On some afternoons, I was seized by a claustrophobic need to bolt out of my room and be in the open air, but walking outside settled me down again.

Every few minutes I took an experimental deep breath, to make sure I could do it without coughing. Every other hour, I uncapped a bottle of mouthwash to make sure I could still smell the liquid inside. And then one time I couldn’t. No matter how far I stuck my nose down the opening, I couldn’t smell anything. After a quick, panicky tour of the room and the refrigerator, I found out I couldn’t smell anything at all. The final straw came when I stuck my face into a can of coffee grounds and came up empty.

This led to a pair of diametrically opposed reactions. On the one hand, there was fear: Would I start to have trouble breathing? Would the fevers rise uncontrollably? On the other hand, it was good to have the mystery solved, and to be able to act accordingly. With no treatment or testing available, that basically meant stuffing myself with vitamins and making sure, when I went to sleep, that I could reach the phone if I needed to call 911. The next day I contacted my doctor’s office to see if he had any recommendations, but like many New York doctors at that time, he had been called off his regular rounds and put on Covid duty. This was the April peak of the virus in the Northeast, and it felt like the only place you could turn if you needed help was an ambulance.

Fortunately, I never needed that much help. For the next week, I would wake up in the morning having regained my sense of smell, only to lose it again by the end of the day. But I never had trouble breathing, and gradually my appetite came back and the fevers died down. And then, one day, three weeks after the symptoms began, I felt normal again. In this case, “normal” meant “amazing.” I’m not sure I even realized I had been sick until I was over it. I could smell the coffee again.

When I tell people I had the virus, I’m always quick to add that it was a “mild case.” Physically, that’s true. But it also makes me wonder if, psychologically, there is even such a thing as a mild case of Covid. If you’re 20 or 25 or 30 and you contract it, you might feel as if you have nothing to worry about, and you’ll probably be right. But when you’re older than that—I’m 51—you don’t have that luxury. During the time that I had it, Adam Schlesinger, a 52-year-old singer/songwriter, died of Covid. Even if you’re mostly asymptomatic, once you have the virus, you know that anything is possible until you’re fully recovered. Those two weeks (three, in my case) can feel like an anxious eternity.

The courts in Northern New Jersey, in March 2020.

With cases slowly falling in New York through the spring, I went back to the city, while Anita stayed with her family. During a visit to New Jersey this summer, I discovered that a college-tennis teammate of mine had moved into the town just up the road. By then, the local public courts had opened, and, just as I had imagined a few months earlier, the tennis community was happy to get back on them.

I’ve been happy to join them. Happy and grateful to have no lingering effects from the virus. To play tennis instead of trudging through empty parking lots. To play on those windless gray fall days, the ones that are only beautiful for the hour or so when you’re on a court. To play with the sun so low you feel like you have to hurry to get your session in before it disappears over the horizon. To play with three layers of clothing, and shed two of them as I warm up.

I’ve also been happy to catch up with my old friend and teammate in between rallies. We spend almost as much time standing at the net talking (six feet apart, of course) as we do rallying. But tennis is about more than forehands and backhands, wins and losses. It’s also about everything that comes with it. These days, it’s about getting us out of the house as much as anything else. Since the lockdowns, I’ve taken more pleasure than I ever did before in waking up early in the morning, putting on sweats and shorts and sneakers, throwing my racquet bag in the back of my car, and driving to the courts.

And listening to the radio. After months of Spotify at home, I’ve had a new appreciation for that feeling of surprise and discovery you get when you’re out on the road and spinning your way through a radio dial. Technology may yet find a way to kill the college and public radio someday, but thankfully it hasn’t happened yet. With a streaming service, we can dive as deep as we like into our own personal musical rabbit holes. But good radio gives us a feeling of connection—with the person playing the record, and anyone else who might listening. As small and ephemeral as it may be, that’s a feeling we can use right now. On my way to the courts this year, those Jersey college stations have sent me soaring, for a few minutes at a time, with doo-wop, punk, and reggae songs I had never heard before, and that I may never hear again.

My best memory of 2020 came when one of them played a song I had heard many times before, a favorite back at my heavy-metal high school, Deep Purple’s “Highway Star.” Six minutes of trashy propulsion about a man’s love for his car, the song came on as I pulled onto the main road, and was still on as I drove up to the courts. Walking through the door to those courts—it was unlocked this time—talking to my friend across the net, taking my warm-up swings in the early-day sun, a favorite old song ringing in my ears, I felt alive.