By Merrill Lynn Hansen
Unlike the armed maniacs who picketed in Lansing, Michigan in mid-April to protest the governor’s stay-at-home order, I personally was relieved to have a reprieve. I became ill with COVID-19 four days after the order went into effect, and while I was fortunate that my lungs were not affected, and I didn't require hospitalization, it took seven weeks before I actually seemed like I was on the road to a full recovery. The fatigue lasted several weeks after the other symptoms had subsided.
It seems that I may still be swimming against the tide in my own state. When the stay-at-home order was lifted on June 1, many people were elated to have more freedom. Staying at home was boring for them. I was not one of those people. I felt safe at home, and when the order was lifted, I was faced with making decisions I previously hadn’t reckoned with.
I was now facing the prospect of going back to work, which created a great deal of anxiety for me. I literally hadn't been anywhere for weeks. I hadn't been in a store, thanks to the kindness of the wonderful family and friends who had shopped for me, and my mother's caregiver, who had cooked for me when she cooked for my mother. I hadn't even driven my car in over two months. The most difficult decision I'd made on those days when I felt extreme fatigue was whether to blow dry my hair, or let it air dry. But now, I was pressed to contemplate going back to work, because I wasn't set up to do everything remotely from home.
I am a paralegal and have worked for the same firm for almost thirty-five years. My employer, Jim, is one of my best friends. He has always referred to the office as being my office, and he has always valued me as someone who is vital to his firm. He's often teased that people think he works for me. Jim knew that even while I was sick, I stayed in communication with some of our clients, because their problems didn't cease just because there was a pandemic. Jim was anxious to spend some time in the office, and asked me to do the same, with the understanding that I could set my own hours, and clients would not be permitted to come in.
I decided to start by going back to work two or three times a week, for a few hours each day, in order to pace myself. I knew that my first challenge was going to be just getting up in the morning. I had always been a morning person, starting each day with a burst of energy, no matter how late I had stayed up the night before. I liked to go into the officer early to read emails and various online magazines and journals, or do research, before the phones started ringing. But, while I was sheltering at home, I barely dragged myself out of bed until late morning. I was concerned that my second challenge would be driving myself to work, and whether my reflexes were sharp enough. And would people be wearing masks and socially distancing? I didn't want to get sick again. But, the emails I received from the building management were very reassuring, because they indicated that everyone was going to be required to do exactly that. The management also wrote that the building had been deep-cleaned and would continue to be deep-cleaned each week, in compliance with the legal rules and procedures that had been enacted.
I have worked in the same building for more than twelve years, and the attorneys and their staff in our suite have always made it a wonderful working environment. I just assumed that we all would see each other; laugh at ourselves in our masks; and everything would slip back to normal. Not quite.
There were hardly any cars in the three parking lots surrounding the building when I arrived. I didn't see the regulars walking into the building. I wondered whether people were working from home, or whether some offices were still closed. The lobby of the building was empty; as I looked down the halls, I could see the governor's COVID-19 rules and procedures taped to each door, with a separate sign that said wearing masks was required. There was a disinfectant dispenser in the middle of the lobby and a sign on the elevator, saying that unless you were a family, only one person at a time was permitted to use the elevator.
As I entered the suite, I could see blue duct tape on the carpet throughout the suite, which I later learned was to indicate the six-foot distance each person was to keep from other people who work in the common areas. In a couple of areas, there were large screens separating workstations.
At first, I felt relieved that people in the suite were going to be taking the mask and social distancing orders seriously. But, then I realized that except for one attorney, there was no one else in the suite. It turned out that some people were still working from home, and as long as the courts and agencies offered only limited online services, people weren't likely to be coming back to the office for several more weeks. I suddenly felt like I would be more comfortable if I saw that other people were back to work. Maybe I had come back too early?
When I opened the door to my own office, everything felt familiar. I felt like I had just returned from a trip, and that once I settled in, everything would be back to normal. But, when I saw a stack of files and papers I'd left on my desk when I hurriedly left work the day the governor announced her stay-at-home, I felt uneasy. For the past thirty years, Jim could ask me any question about a case, and without even thinking about it, I could tell him the status of each matter; the names of the parties, judges, referees, attorneys, and the names of everyone I had ever spoken to about the file, and what was said or done. But I had wrongly assumed that even though I was tired, I would have my usual sharpness and I would be able to just pick up where I left off. Tackling work projects had always been energizing, but in less than an hour, I felt tired. The rest of my day was spent struggling to remember simple things like passwords to open files, and the more difficult challenge of wading through years of tax documents and bank records, to see if a client's husband was trying to hide income from her through his business, as she had alleged. The brain fog was exhausting, and at times a little frightening, because I wasn't certain how long it would last.
On my second day back to work, I felt a little more confident, after having survived the first day, so I decided I would work several hours longer than I originally planned. I felt I needed to work the extra time, because everything I had done the day before took twice as long as it normally should have. By two o'clock in the afternoon, I suddenly felt like something had run over me, and I wasn't certain what it was. I found that if I didn't keep moving, I'd want to put my head down on my desk and doze off, but I was too tired to keep moving. I managed to stay awake and work until 4:00 pm, but when I went home, I fell asleep for fifteen hours.
I've now been back to work for several days, and as my brain fog is clearing, I find that my energy level is increasing. I'm starting to adjust to all the new rules and procedures. When I assisted Jim at his/our first zoom hearing, I kept wondering if we would see a masked court officer telling us to "all rise", until the judge took the bench. But, when I realized that the judge was already seated, and looked a little shaggy, I almost laughed, because it occurred to me that he may have been sitting in his basement, wearing his judge's robe over his pajamas. Jim, who had no familiarity with Zoom, or that the judge was not in his courtroom, kept looking at me, because he had no idea what I found so amusing.
The one thing I am still having trouble understanding is why rush hour traffic is so heavy, yet there are hardly any cars in the office parking lot. It's as if everyone has driven into the Bermuda Triangle and disappeared, or maybe I have. It's an eerie feeling. I'm looking forward to the day when, as I walk into the building, someone will see me, say “hi" and chat while we ride in the elevator together, with a third person, and we all tell each other to "have a great day.” I've always found that the kindness of strangers is the best way to start the day. Maybe…when the pandemic is over.
Merrill Lynn Hansen is a legal assistant, living in West Bloomfield, Michigan. She describes herself as a frustrated writer, who wishes she could be Nora Ephron (when she was alive), if only for a day. She is a news-, political- and FB-junkie, a combination that requires a constant reminder that she needs to take deep cleansing breaths when responding to people who don't agree with her.