The Fear of False Positives

Dearest Rachel –

I mentioned to you in a few other earlier letters about how I’m trying not to get too excited about my upcoming trip. For one, although it takes me to a lot of places I’ve never been to, I’m doing this completely on my own, and I can’t say I’m really looking forward to that.

For another – and this is the main thing – I’m gonna have to get myself tested for Covid, and you remember what happened last year at this time. We had just gotten back from Tennessee, where we had been visiting Kevin, and since we’d been out of state – and in a red state, no less, where certain rules were relaxed (remember being taken off guard when we joined him in church that Sunday, and no one was wearing a mask? We hardly knew what to do, but we were grateful for the opportunity to take those things off for once) – we thought it would be a good idea to get tested before getting together with the rest of the family for Thanksgiving, to put everybody else’s mind at ease. After all, we generally spent the time with him inside at his place, watching television and playing video games, so we didn’t expect any problems with that; but we figured an official confirmation that we were all in the clear would be nice to have.

The issue began in trying to find a reasonable testing place. Oh sure, there were places, but they charged an arm and leg. The two of us have done that once before, back in summer, and it cost us $500 for the two of us. We were not going through that again just to get together with the family. But then Lars offered to set us up with the clinic that he worked at, giving us an appointment time and everything. And of course, that was an adventure in and of itself, as he worked in a clinic in the Lawndale area of the city.

The trip down there took the better part of an hour, and found us driving through some of the… less savory parts of town. I had considered getting us breakfast while we were on the way or on the way back, because presumably there would be some different places than what we were used to; not only wasn’t there much that we couldn’t just as easily find back in our own neighborhood, most of the area just had that indescribable rough feel to it. It made me feel glad that it was a sunny day in broad daylight; anything less, and you wouldn’t feel safe wandering about in the area.

As it was, the place didn’t require us to even get out of our car. After waiting in a line of them, we finally got to the open air tent where the volunteers were working. As it turned out, Lars wasn’t working there that day, somewhat to my surprise, but whatever. They gave us each (including Daniel) a nose-swabbing, handed us some preliminary paperwork, and let us know that we’d hear back from them in a couple of days with the results. That was pretty much it. Nothing particularly special; probably everyone who’s reading this remembers having done this at least once or twice in the past year. I think we ate when we got back to our neighborhood, by which time we decided to have lunch instead.

At the time, it wasn’t considered out of line for it to take nearly a week defined out the results of our tests. So, although we’d given it plenty of time, we didn’t get them until just before Thanksgiving Eve. And while you and Daniel were clear, my test results came back positive. Which meant that, for the next week and a half, I was to be treated like a leper. I wasn’t suffering from any symptoms, and yet I was to be considered an outcast from polite society until my quarantine period was over with. I had to immediately contact Mike at church, as I was assigned to work the A/V at church that night, and while I insisted that I didn’t have any symptoms (and you two were fine, despite our constant proximity – more on that later), he told me to stay home , and he’d find someone else to fill my spot.

That result ruined Thanksgiving for us all. It was bad enough that I would have to stay home from the family gathering. But then, the decision was made to not even have it in the first place. To be sure, Jenn made it clear that it was also partly her responsibility, as her students and their families were… less than hygienically sound. But it still felt like, had all three of us come back with a negative result, that wouldn’t have entered into it. What ultimately happened was that each family group fixed their portion of the Thanksgiving meal, brought it to Jenn, and she distributed everything to everyone else’s houses. I guess one thing to be thankful for is that we all live in the same village, so that wasn’t terribly inconvenient for anybody.

It was all a fairly unpleasant time, made worse by the fact that it didn’t make sense. You complained to Lars about “how could this happen? Randy and I kiss all the time!” When we would talk later, he seemed charmed and amused by your reaction, and in retrospect, he’s pretty sure it was a false positive. Which, come to think of it, I was pretty certain of at the time. After all, we’d been led to believe when you fell ill with Covid, you fell ill with Covid. You were guaranteed to wind up in the ICU, hooked up on a ventilator and fighting for your life. And I wasn’t experiencing any of that. So clearly, the test got it wrong. And Lars admitted that it had a 90% accuracy – meaning that 10% of the positive results might very well have been wrong. I was just part of that ten percent.

Of course, the assumption was that there would be other thanksgivings, once we as a nation and a society had defeated this dread disease. Well, we haven’t; it looks like it’s here to stay, much like the flu from back a hundred years ago. We – or at any rate, most of us – are learning to live with its specter around us, and coping with it as best we can. We will be having Thanksgiving this year, at Jenn’s place despite it all – and for that, we can be thankful.

I forget chapter and verse, but it is written in scripture that we should “in everything give thanks.” This was brought up in a Grief Share meeting a couple of weeks ago, and pointed out that it didn’t read “for everything give thanks.” Because that reading leaves me – and everyone else – asking ‘am I supposed to be thankful you were taken from me? I can’t do that!’ I don’t think we are, nor we expected to. What we are expected to do, is to find something to be thankful for in every situation that we’re in.

And I could list a few things offhand:

  • The fact that we are getting back together this holiday
  • The fact that dad is still around, despite continuing to use his feeding tube
  • The fact that Daniel hasn’t wandered away from the faith, despite this loss we’ve suffered – although his is radically different from anyone else’s in the family
  • The fact that we still have family and friends that love and care for us
  • The fact that I can – theoretically, at least – drop everything, grab a plane, and go wherever I want to

Which brings us back to the fact that I’m paranoid about this test. I have to have it done 72 hours before departure, and it is now three days before my scheduled flight. However, I don’t board the boat until Sunday, but to wait until, say, Friday morning to take a test would preclude me from boarding that airliner. But these days, PCR tests are quick and free (which I guess is another thing to be thankful for), so I’ve scheduled tests for both this afternoon and tomorrow (and am considering adding a third on Friday morning before I have to be at the airport). Since I’m asymptomatic, I’d like to think I could be pretty certain that at least two out of three will come back negative, and I can use those to go forward without any trouble. But I’m still worried about that ten percent, and what it could do to my plans. So I’ve done my level best to not get excited or enthusiastic, because it could all come crashing down now. I haven’t even begun to pack. But at some point, I guess I’m going to have to start in, and trust that I’ll be okay, as will the bureaucrats I have to deal with.

As always, honey, wish me luck. I’m going to need it.

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I am Rachel's husband. Was. I'm still trying to deal with it. I probably always will be.

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