The Covid Equation
Memory has always been my strong suit. You want the theme song to Diff’rent Strokes, Facts of Life, or any other 80s TV show? No problem. The lyrics to “The End of The World as We Know it” by REM? Which verse? The wide receiver depth chart for any of the NFL’s 32 teams? Coming right up. Yet lately I’ve been having these little moments. Times when my prefrontal cortex is unable to scroll or double-click. Times when I can’t remember shit. Let’s call them glitches.
I keep thinking… maybe it’s some sort of mid-forties brain recalibration thing, or because I’ve had a massive head injury, or the residual effect of squandered gray matter from years of drug use. Maybe. But the more I read up on the pandemic, the more I wonder if it’s something else entirely.
I know I’ve had Covid. Half my dorm was waylaid back in October, the third time we were quarantined. A friend of mine ended up going to an outside hospital for a month and when he returned to the prison, he died within a week. The official line was that he recovered from the virus but couldn’t survive the ensuing pneumonia. That’s why it wasn’t ruled a Covid death on the institutional scorecard. If that sounds sketchy to you, join the club.
No Covid tests were conducted on the other 70 men in my dorm. Just daily temp checks. Not that we wanted them. Quarantines are a massive inconvenience in prison. More punishment than precaution. No rec, no canteen, no movement (which translates to no hustling). Just a biohazard sticker on the door for fourteen days. They do nothing, solve nothing, protect no one. As long as guards are coming in everyday for shiftwork, the virus will circulate. No getting around it. Not in open bay dorms where there’s 12 inches between your feet and your neighbor’s head. It’s gotten to the point that no one reports symptoms. When you have a life sentence, global pandemics mean about as much as presidential elections.
But the way we knew something was up — aside from feeling like hell — was that no one could taste or smell anything. You know those cologne advertisements in men’s magazines like Esquire and GQ? My friends and I would wave strips under each other’s noses. Nothing. It’s a strange experience to breathe deeply through the nostrils and not register a scintilla of scent. Especially in a prison dorm where pungent smells are abundant.
But even stranger are the memory lapses. At least in my experience. Neuroscientists are just now starting to understand the effects of Covid on the brain. I recently read an article by Dr. Sanjay Gupta about some of the devastating long-term and short-term neurological complications of the virus including delirium, depression, temporary brain dysfunction, headaches, brain inflammation, and meningitis. He cites a report in the journal Nature that details the symptoms of a woman in her fifties who saw lions and monkeys in her house and accused her husband of being an imposter.
I guess my forgetting the lyrics to “Come On Eileen” pales in comparison to zoological hallucinations, but it’s still cause for alarm in my little corner of the multiverse. What if this is the beginning of a tumble into the abyss? I researched enough about dementia while writing Sticks & Stones to understand what a terrifying prospect it is.
Covid or no Covid, my defense against cognitive decline remains unchanged: exercise daily, meditate for ten minutes, learn new things, do plenty of crosswords, and write with my hair on fire. (Yeah, I’m bald. 5 books. Where do you think it went?)
As Leonard Pitts once so eloquently put it, “Without memories what are we? We are the equation after the blackboard has been wiped clean.”