The morning of March 26, I take a Lyft 35 minutes from my urban New Jersey apartment to get my first Pfizer shot. I consciously hold back a relieved sob as I sit for the 15-minute waiting period.
That afternoon I find out a family member is positive for COVID.
That night my arm is mighty sore. The next day it is almost back to normal. One vaccine dose down. One to go.
I’m walking along the Hudson River the next morning when I get a phone call from Mom. Her voice is quaking.
“I’m trying to schedule a COVID test and I can’t without a computer. All I hear them say when I call is dot com, dot com, dot com.”
OK, I tell her. I’m out walking. I’ll be home soon and I’ll call you and help you schedule one.
Steeling myself, I stick to my plan to walk to a café to write in my journal. The words come in a furious rush: “I told you I was smarter than that asshole grifter with the gold toilets. That motherfucking prick. I am seething and must be calm. I’m not gonna have a blood pressure escalation over that son of a bitch.”
I’ve released my rage on the page.
I walk home, sit in front of my computer, and calmly call Mom. We try CVS.com. She’s impatient, in haughty disbelief that she has to deal with COVID because she’s been exposed to someone who tested positive. I fill out the form with her info and it takes me to locations for the test. She wants the one near her or none at all. No matter that there’s another one eight miles from her home. Another one, 12 miles. I feel her anxiety.
“How about we try Walgreens?” she says.
She has no idea this request means I have to fill out another form. But I do because I love her and she’s stressed and we find *her* Walgreens and she’s happy to get the drive-through appointment for the next day.
“Mom, does Dad want a test, too? Yours is at 10 a.m. There’s a 10:15 slot available.”
“Hold on, let me ask him. JOHNNNNNN, do you want a COVID test?” I hear his emphatic yes.
That’s it. They’re scheduled for the following morning. My beloved 89-year-old and 84-year-old parents.
The evening of March 30, because my phone number and email are attached to my parents’ COVID tests, I get emails saying they’re positive. I must call and deliver the news at 10 p.m.
“Get outta here,” my mother says when I tell her.
She doesn’t think I’m serious at first, but she knows I have no humor on this topic. I leave her to digest the information and tell my father.
I call a friend in a fog of concern and near paralysis. She recommends I send my parents a pulse oximeter. I get on Instacart and have one delivered to their home by the following morning. It makes me feel like I’m doing something.
The next day my mother greets me with, “Did you send us something? I almost sent the guy away. I told him I didn’t order anything.”
Yes, I tell her. You need to put the pulse oximeter on your fingertip and get a reading at least twice a day.
“What? What’s it for?”
I explain, but from her response I have no faith she will use it.
Mom has a raspy cough that stays with her for a few days. Dad is wiped out, can’t even put on his socks without resting. Mom doesn’t know what to do. She calls his doctor, who recommends they both go to the emergency room and get an antibody shot.
Much to my chagrin, Mom doesn’t think she needs one because she feels OK. But she calls an ambulance for Dad and he’s admitted to the hospital. When we realize they’re going to keep him for a few days, Mom puts some toiletries and clothes in a bag and a family member kindly agrees to deliver it to the hospital.
It puts my father in good spirits.
“Nan, your mother put some cookies in there for me,” he says. I can hear his smile through the phone and he jokes, “I hope I go first because I don’t know what I’d do without that woman.”
He’s in the hospital, no visitors, until April 5, which means he’s there for Easter.
Meanwhile, Mom is home alone for Easter but she’s starting to feel lethargic. When the cough dissipates, she assumes she is going to be fine. I’m trying not to freak out. Clearly she has not been watching or reading the same media sources I have. She starts feeling worse and worse each day. I’m nervous she’s going to fall through the cracks while we’re focused on Dad, who has since been transferred to a rehab hospital to regain strength.
I tell her I can send her vitamins, but will she take them? She shrugs me off. I finally just send her Airborne so she’ll at least get some Vitamin C and zinc in her, but she’s already too far gone for that.
With another family member fresh out of the COVID danger zone herself, she drives Mom to the ER at noon on April 8. No one can go in with her. A COVID surge had caused the hospital to ban visitors two days before. That day proves particularly hell-ish in the daily nightmare we’ve already been living. The ER is so slammed we can’t get word on whether she’s been taken in or if she’s still sitting upright in a chair four hours later.
We wait to see if they’re going to give Mom an antibody shot and release her, but by evening it becomes pretty apparent that won’t happen. We finally learn she’s in ER bay 16, so at least now we know she’s been seen. They admit her that night with COVID pneumonia.
Mom, prone to anxiety around any medical procedure, is beyond pissed at us for insisting she go to the ER. I am daring her to come at me with this so I can say, “I apologize for saving your damn life.” But she never expresses her anger to me and blessedly settles into a routine of letting the doctors and nurses do things that will make her feel better. The day before, from her home bed, she was feeling so horrible she said to me on the phone, “I just want to die.”
Now she’s feeling good enough to aggravate us. A positive sign, as anyone who knows my doggedly stubborn mother will confirm.
So now it’s two parents, two hospitals, no visitors.
For a few hours my mother is in the same hospital as her terminally ill sister, but my aunt is released later that day. Mom has been stressing about my aunt’s illness for months, so I know she’s feeling even more burdened as she sits in that bed.
I’m saying Hail Marys. Also, please, God, let’s not get to the ventilator phase.
Now the phone calls begin, at least two a day to each parent to check in. Are you still weak? What did they give you? Was the doctor in? Are you eating?
My mother is prone to sharing details when it comes to food, so we hear all of it. Every morsel of “the freshest of fresh” turkey on her sandwich to the “delicious, hot” cream of tomato soup to the muffin she didn’t want in the moment but stashed and ate later. She is delighted to be eating. We’re all delighted she’s eating.
The staff is wonderful, holding her hand when she cries about my aunt, and trying to meet her needs despite being inundated with COVID patients in this awful influx.
With Dad in a rehab hospital, part of the relief is that he’s getting help with his physical challenges. He winds up turning 90 in that facility (April 11) and we console ourselves that we’ll be able to celebrate that milestone at some later date. Mom is still at the hospital across town at this point.
We become concerned that Dad is depressed. He’s hardly eating. When we call he seems lifeless. Everything feels like an effort because he is weak. There are times he seems to rally, but those are short-lived.
The question becomes, is he capable of regaining his strength? For the better part of a year, engrossed in concerning media coverage, I’ve held the belief that if my parents got COVID, Mom could weather it but Dad couldn’t. I am beginning to lose faith.
While Mom is in the hospital, she befriends her roommate, who as it turns out lives in the same retirement community. When the roommate is released, the bed stays empty for a while.
“You know, Nan, I’m locked in here,” Mom says. “There’s a little window in the door and I can see them running around. They’re all so busy. But I haven’t seen another person in two hours.”
She’s not complaining, just observing. But still, I have to run this through my sarcasm filter before responding because what I want to say is, “Wow! You haven’t seen a human in two whole hours? I haven’t seen another human being in a goddamn year.”
Part of me thinks the alternate universe she’s been living in during this pandemic has benefited her. Who would wish 12 months of anxiety on their mother? But another part of me is downright furious. I have been in the pandemic zone for so long and have spent four major holidays solo in an effort to protect my family and myself. They gathered anyway.
Now I get to hear how it’s a lonely disease. So I reach for empathy and un-grit my teeth and do my best to help my mother.
“Thank God you have the TV and the phone,” I say.
I get an update call and I hear a family member say “China virus” and I roll my eyes and pretend I don’t hear it.
One of the phrases I keep hearing from extended family and others is, “They don’t tell you …” As in, “They don’t tell you the virus is surging so much it’s affecting our hospitals like this.” Or, “They don’t tell you that you might think you’re getting better but then you take a bad turn.” Or, “They don’t tell you blah, blah, blah.”
And I’m stifling myself once again. Who in the hell is “they” in this scenario?
I’ll tell you. They’re talking about the media. Their media.
Because guess what? My media has been telling you. You’re not listening. Or reading. Or watching. They have been fucking telling you for a year, but your reckless president and your despicable media have been bucking them at every turn.
My media has been telling me ad nauseum about this virus. Do I need to know much more than over 550,000 Americans are dead to know this isn’t something to be messed with? But I’m the family outlier.
“They’re overblowing it,” is what I’ve had to listen to for a year.
No, they’re not. Here’s what they’ve said. You will be in a hospital alone. It’s hard and painful and scary and uncomfortable. It’s not the damn common cold. Dr. Fauci is not the devil. If you had listened to him, our family wouldn’t be going through this.
But as an apparent commie liberal socialist, all I can do is think my thoughts because there’s no point saying them out loud.
“Wow, I didn’t know anybody that got COVID until it happened to your parents,” I hear from one family member.
And this is what makes it real to them. Truly.
I want to bang my head repeatedly against my apartment wall. No one told you what a nightmare it is?
I feel like the Invisible Woman with zero credibility while simultaneously fighting nausea at the thought of losing my parents.
My mother is home. Blessedly a family member is able to pick her up and stay with her that first night.
I call just to make sure they got home OK. When my mother gets on the phone I am competing with Fox News’ Bret Baier blaring in the background.
If I needed a reminder nothing would change, that was it. A few days away from Fox and it’s time to ease out of the withdrawal and get that fix. Ahhhhh, all is right with the world. Back to a place where the virus is no big deal, even if you can’t walk across a room without a rest and your husband is fighting for his life in a rehab hospital. Surely the “illegals” are to blame somehow.
A few days home and Mom is getting around on a walker. The key is she is getting around. And her appetite is returning.
I’ve always teased my mother that she has no idea how to relax. Put me on a couch with a clicker and I could live there if I’m sick. Not my mother. She has to “get something done.” Even if she has to rest in between.
Load of wash.
Wipe down the bathroom sink.
Put her clothes away.
You get the idea.
It is pointless to tell her to stay put until she regains some strength. In one ear and out the other.
But I like her fight. It gives me hope.
I beg myself to find my heart, my deep compassion, my care, as I deal with my parents. I love them dearly. I want all that is good for them.
But there is this part of me rearing up, asking to be heard:
~ I’m not a Kool-Aid drinker because I’m informed on a pandemic.
~ I’m not a fanatic because I wear a mask.
~ The coronavirus is not the common cold.
~ I am not a Nervous Nellie because I don’t want to die or have permanent lung or nerve damage.
~ I am a human being with credibility outside of my immediate family.
~ I have a right to feel seething anger after being mocked for a year.
~ Love for my parents and that seething anger are not mutually exclusive.
~ I’m pissed they’re going through this, pissed I’m going through this, pissed I still have zero credibility in their eyes.
This is the divide. Not Democratic or Republican doctrine. Are you for informing the public about a health crisis or for putting them in jeopardy? Those are the sides. COVID is real or COVID isn’t as bad as the commie libs say. Picking a fucking side, goddammit.
On April 16 I take another 35-minute Lyft ride for my second Pfizer shot. I reach out to my general practitioner explaining my parents’ situation and ask if I’m out of the danger zone so I can visit. No, she says, not until two weeks after your second shot.
It’s excruciating being an hour-plus away and feeling helpless. My calls to Dad are discouraging, as he clearly has no energy to talk. I try keeping it light, talking about TV shows we both like or telling him a story of my niece singing “Fly Me to the Moon.” He barely cracks a smile. I tell him I love him.
When he is transferred out of the rehab place to the regular hospital, he is back in COVID isolation. We are hoping that will change so we can visit him. I reserve a rental car for April 28–30 with that in mind. That is a few days shy of my two-week vaccine period ending, but I figure I’m good.
On April 27 at about 11:30 p.m., I get a phone call from my sister. The hospital just called Mom and said Dad is failing. Mom asks if she can come and they say yes. My brother comes to get her, but the hospital calls before she even leaves the house to say it’s too late. He’s gone. Mom wants to go anyway, so they proceed to the hospital to see his body. I know this is a common practice, but I’m surprised and impressed my mother has the strength to do it.
Within 24 hours I am scouring prayers for a prayer card, taking my mother through caskets on an iPad, choosing flowers, writing an obituary, coordinating with the church on songs and readings. In between, we are fielding sympathy calls and texts from loved ones. I later join my siblings in assembling collages to put on display at the viewing.
On the morning of April 28, my mother learns she lost her sister overnight as well. She is now the lone survivor of six sisters, and it adds to the devastation of losing my father. Her life has changed drastically in a matter of hours.
My aunt’s death brings up so much in me, as I was once a person who could do no wrong in her eyes. And the feeling was mutual. Then maybe a decade ago she took an angry turn and began gunning for me with political bait. She was an absolute devotee of Donald Trump since way back in his Atlantic City heyday and she became livid that I didn’t show him respect as president.
When I found out she was ill last year, I wrote her a letter thanking her for making me feel so special with every gift and card through so much of my life. And for loving me enough to make me the godmother to her daughter. I meant every word and it’s how I choose to remember her. I can’t help but note that her gifts encouraging me to read voraciously and follow my writing passion led me to where I am today, the person she came to dislike.
Such is life. My heart is broken for her family.
Two weeks to the day after my second COVID-19 shot, I stand with my family before my father’s coffin, greeting visitors in a state of numbness. We are all masked. I am ever grateful it is a state-mandated funeral home policy because I have little doubt that otherwise I would be one of the only masked people in the room.
By this point I have figured out that there will be no reckoning. Trump supporters aren’t about to go, “Wow, I just had COVID and it was pretty bad even though my media has been saying the opposite.” I don’t get an ounce of satisfaction from being right. My father is dead. But neither do I see Trump’s devotees considering that maybe the story they’d been getting all along has some holes in it.
No. This just made it clearer that the divide isn’t going anywhere. Some liberals were still going to ask if my parents had been vaccinated as if it will help them decide how sorry to feel. Irritating, yet I understand intellectually where it is coming from.
This is my family. They think we disagree. I think this stopped being about politics long ago and that our values completely diverge, something that will mystify me for the rest of my life.
(EDITORIAL NOTE: This column was first published on Medium.com in August 2021.)