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Connections | Magazine

My COVID-19 infection gave me an unexpected gift

Soon after the diagnosis, the visits from lost loved ones began.

Illustration by Ally Rzesa
Illustration by Ally Rzesaadobe stock Images; photo illustration by Ally Rzesa

The dreams started not long after the diagnosis. I’ve come to call them “the visits.”

On March 21, doctors told me I had COVID-19. I received the news after I’d spent time with others who tested positive, after the fever set in.

For three weeks, the body aches and exhaustion were extreme. I lost my sense of smell and taste. Worst of all: the pain in my chest. It felt like someone very heavy was sitting on me, preventing me from getting enough breath.

Those were the yucky symptoms. Then there was the other symptom.

I’ve long attributed my inability to remember dreams when I wake to being an exhausted mom of four. I thought my days of being able to recall them were over. I was wrong. COVID-19 was a nightmare, but it gave me the gift of memorable dreams. And more surprisingly, the gift of visits.

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Nine years ago, my mom died suddenly. In December 2016, my dad died suddenly, too. Then, this past November, my brother — and only sibling — committed suicide. When I got COVID-19, I was still grieving, figuring out what it meant to no longer be someone’s daughter or sister.

I’m fortunate to have an amazing husband and beautiful children. I worried first about them when I got the diagnosis. But then my thoughts turned to the family I’d lost.

Was it a coincidence, I wondered, that I’d gotten the virus? Or was the virus a sign? That it was time to join my first family on the Other Side?

As I lay aching in bed, I missed my mother. I thought of my brother, who’d died too soon. I thought of my father.

That’s when the visits began.

My brother appeared first, on three different nights. In each dream, he was handsome. And very much alive. We talked about how crazy it was, this Covid thing. Wondered how long quarantine would last. He talked about plans for the future, his love for his children. After Covid, he and I would see each other, he vowed. And maybe go to a Brewers game. He loved his Milwaukee Brewers.

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The last dream was so vivid that I reached for my phone to call my brother when I woke, to describe the strange van he’d been driving. I hit “dial” before I remembered — he was gone.

My father was the next nocturnal visitor. In the dream, he was a young man on a farm in Indiana, where he’d grown up. The sun shone and the air smelled of moist earth — the way it does just before crops are planted. “Isn’t it wonderful?” he asked, inhaling deeply. “Knowing spring is coming makes everything all right.”

Finally came the dream with my mother. She’d taught me as a child how to swim underwater, and now, she and I were swimming far beneath the water’s surface. When my legs got tangled in seaweed, I began to flail about.

That’s when my mother, swimming ahead, yelled, “Don’t panic!”

When things get frightening, she told me, don’t waste energy on panic. Instead, look for the light. “And when you find the light,” she said, somehow talking clearly through the water, “swim toward it.”

I looked up and saw a circle of light. I swam toward it. And woke up. And she was gone.

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It was the last vivid dream I had. I’m now recovered from the virus, well enough to donate my plasma and go back to being a hands-on mom. I’m relieved my antibodies are growing, that the weight on my chest has subsided. Still, I miss the dreams.

I no longer remember them when I wake. But I’ll never forget those that my battle with COVID-19 inspired. Now, as my husband and kids and I journey through this unsettling time, I hold tight to the words of my first family. And when I start to panic, I stop. That’s when I swim toward the light.

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Mary Pflum Peterson is a journalist and author of White Dresses: A Memoir of Love and Secrets, Mothers and Daughters. Send 650-word submissions and comments to magazine@globe.com. Please note: We don’t respond to submissions we won’t pursue.