“Not Me,” I said as the words left my lips in a nearly breathless gasp. The day was Thursday, April 16, 2020. I was in my home sitting in my kitchen chatting with my wife when I became painfully aware that I could not smell what she was cooking for dinner. I grabbed a bottle of green tea aromatherapy oil that was just within reach and dabbed a bit on my fingertip. I then raised it to my nose to inhale—but nothing.
I entreated my wife to smell my finger—not realizing in the moment that in addition to being a strange request, it was also juvenile.
She looked at me warily and then smelled it. “What does it smell like?” I asked.
“Like that essential oil,” she said as she gestured towards the bottle. “Why do you ask?”
“Because I can’t smell it,“ I replied.
“What do you think it means?” she asked.
“I think it means I might have the coronavirus,” I replied.
That evening I confined myself to our bedroom until I could get tested. In addition to the loss of smell, I began to experience shortness of breath and lethargy. I was afraid.
It was early in the pandemic, and there was so much to be unsure about.
Would people think I was being reckless?
Would I be treated as if I had a Scarlet Letter?
Would I beat this thing?
About a month or so prior to the onset of my symptoms, I happened upon an article that stated that our sense of smell is the sense most closely linked to memory. And I sat with that knowledge with an aching sense of grief and empathy for those who found themselves hospitalized and intubated while both struggling to breathe and recall the smell of those things most closely associated with home and love.
And that was/is such a huge burden to carry.
It’s a burden I don’t wish on anyone.
While in quarantine, I refused to watch the news. I didn’t want to see the menacing ticker of lives lost to this virus continuously rise. I did, however, pay attention to my timeline and seeing the tributes coming in from friends and family of folks who succumbed to this virus filled me with a sense of profound grief.
So in order to lift my spirits and fight, I busied myself by meditating, exercising, reading, writing, and calling up many of my friends and family to share with them my condition and solicit prayers of support and encouragement.
I made two lists:
- Those people who I wanted to know and;
- Those people who I knew would kill me if they found out in any other way than directly from me.
It should be noted that list #2 was longer than list number one.
Further, no one on list #2 denied the accuracy of my assumption.
As one might imagine, none of those conversations were brief. They were filled with love, and concern, and empathy, hope, and even laughter.
One friend could barely suppress a chuckle as I told him of my plight. When I paused to wait for the explanation, he told me, “Of course YOU would be the one to get it. It’s by design, bro. You’re meant to get it so you can help other folks to beat it as well.”
It was the reframe I didn’t realize I needed; but need it, I did. That’s because I had a deeper concern nagging at me: pangs of guilt I didn’t author.
“I know at some level that I’m going to beat this thing,” I told a friend. “So the devil can’t trick me into thinking that I’m not. But I’m having the hardest time seeing these tributes on my timeline as these good, decent human beings lose their battle with COVID. What I’m really wondering is why do I deserve to make it when they didn’t?”
“Who told you to ask that question?” she responded. “You’re focusing on the wrong thing. The calling on your life is still valid. There is more for you to do.”
Survivor’s remorse is a real thing. Thriver’s remorse is even more sinister in that it can color the way in which you receive both confirmation of your calling and affirmation of your being.
How does one experience joy in the midst of so much sorrow and pain?
I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know that love is the catalyst for the seeding of joy.
And in hardship, in turmoil, I turned towards that love and did so despite the pangs of doubt and fear that accompanied me during those dark few weeks. My fingers turned to old but familiar pages as the sage Toni Morrison made the arduous pursuit of love palatable through the strokes of her pen in Paradise:
“Love is divine only and difficult always. If you think it is easy you are a fool. If you think it is natural you are blind. It is a learned application without reason or motive except that it is God. You do not deserve love regardless of the suffering you have endured. You do not deserve love because somebody did you wrong. You do not deserve love just because you want it. You can only earn – by practice and careful contemplations – the right to express it and you have to learn how to accept it. Which is to say you have to earn God. You have to practice God. You have to think God-carefully. And if you are a good and diligent student you may secure the right to show love. Love is not a gift. It is a diploma. A diploma conferring certain privileges: the privilege of expressing love and the privilege of receiving it. How do you know you have graduated? You don’t.”
In the time since I recovered, I am grateful to share that my symptoms have all faded away. All save one. I feel anxiety now in a way I don’t recall ever feeling before. What brings me comfort, however, is knowing that the village around me remains and I intend to be a lifelong learner in this school of heart.
On February 14, 2011, Olutosin “Olu” Burrell discovered by happenstance that his first name is an anagram for the word “solution.” Since then, he has spent most of his time trying to temper his urge to solve EVERYTHING. That realization drives him to maintain a growth mindset by being not just a lifelong learner, but practitioner.
By day, Olu works in the leading human resource agency in the District of Columbia, where he administers leadership, training, conducts executive workplace coaching, and manages and Executive Leadership Program. In addition to this work, he also independently contracts as a writer, speaker, coach and consultant working with individuals, teams, and organizations in the federal government, not-for-profit, private, K-12 and higher education arenas.
Olu counts storytelling and the spoken word as part of his strengths, and–where appropriate–includes them in his engagements as he encourages his clients to craft their own legend. A student of inquiry and behavioral science, he “treats the interrogative as the imperative” in establishing first connection and then breakthrough.
Olu is a proud son of Howard University where he earned a B.A. in English. He also earned a M.S. in Organization Development from American University, and a Graduate Certificate in Comprehensive Evidence-Based Coaching from Fielding Graduate University, where he focused on leadership, organizational, and personal coaching. He is certified as a Professional Certified Coach (PCC) from the International Coach Federation and holds certifications in a number of leadership, diversity, and 360° instruments.
A fifth generation Washingtonian, Olu resides in Ward 8 his wife Farran and their two children Samara and Solomon.
Edited by Panama D. Jackson