When this strange chapter in our collective life is said and done, we will each have our own virus diary. We will have the day we realized this episode was serious. The day we realized we had to change the way we were living. The day we recognized how this could affect people that we know and the day we realized that we would not come through it unscathed. This is my virus story, even though it is not over.
Almost a month ago, my family was approaching spring break. My oldest son had plans to spend a week off with a “lady friend” in her hometown near mine. My husband was to have a week to himself. My younger son and I would head to Texas where he would help out at a friend’s ranch – which he loves – and I would visit with my 99-year-old father. As we prepared to leave, reports on Covid-19 were growing more dire. My husband and I discussed whether any or all of us should travel. In the end, we took Clorox wipes, hand sanitizer, cleaned every surface we encountered on our respective journeys, and off we went.
The visit began normally enough. We saw my father and his friends who all wanted to shake my son’s hand and give me a hug or a pat. I walked in and out of his assisted living facility with nary a second glance from the wonderful staff that I’ve come to admire. Then, as universities across the country sounded the alarm and told students not to return to campus, our visit took a different turn.
Between visits with my father, I was all of sudden on daily conference calls with work. I was trying to get his taxes done and when I went to visit him the visiting procedure had changed to include a sign in process and questions about travel. As spring break was extended for another week to prep for remote teaching, entrance to my dad’s assisted living facility became limited to immediate family. I told my older son and his girlfriend not to make their planned visit since they’d likely been exposed to too many potential carriers. On Friday morning, I visited as usual and left with a plan to come back later that afternoon and finish the Sherlock Holmes story I’d been reading aloud to my father. When I returned two hours later, I was locked out.
Hysteria welled up inside of me. That I could not explain to him what was happening, that he would be left wondering why I didn’t return, that my only chance at talking with him would be the five-minute phone calls that he appreciates, but provide precious little in the way of real communication – my mind could not take it in. Thank God for the hospice nurse who happened to arrive at just the right moment and advocated that I be allowed to visit for another hour or so, to finish our Sherlock Holmes story, to say what might be a temporary or, God forbid, a permanent good-bye. I was allowed in, allowed to explain, tell him I love him, and walk out the door.
Two days ago, some public official – I know their name but choose not to mention it here – said that senior citizens would be willing to sacrifice for the country, to risk death so that the economy wouldn’t suffer. And, I suppose if anyone asked him, my 99-year-old father might agree. Why not? He said yes before when he was 19 years old and marched down 5th avenue before boarding a ship that took him to the Pacific where he was under fire for 2 and half years. What would make any of us think that any of those brave, now old, young men and women would ever say no to what we ask of them? Has my good, noble, kind father ever said no to me? Hardly ever. But why in the world we would ever ask this of them? How could we be so selfish, so self-important, so ignorant, and so cruel, as to expect that our elders who have sacrificed in World War 2, in Korea, in Vietnam, and in a million other non-military ways, should have to sacrifice a good, quiet, supported old age and eventual death surrounded by their loved ones because we cannot find it in our hearts to sit in our houses and be bored, or contend with endless zoom meetings in our workplace? If we can afford to have someone clean our homes, keep our yards, help with children, nails, or hair, can’t we, both individually and societally, pay people not to work for a month or six weeks for the good of all? Could we not find an unselfish bone in our bodies that allows us to value our elders, our health care workers, and others who are vulnerable to a virus that, as a society we have no experience with and to which no one, except maybe those who have recovered, has any immunity?
Two weeks have passed since I left my father. It has taken this long for me to even begin to write about leaving him. Locking out visitors was the right decision and my need to be with him was so intense as to make my rational mind fall completely away. I talk to him every day but have no idea when I’ll be able to read to him again. I keep telling him I’m coming again at the end of April because it gives us both hope that there will be time to read another Sherlock Holmes story, or perhaps Treasure Island, or maybe a Tale of Two Cities. There is no economic gain in such activities, no contribution to America’s business of business. But oh how we love it. The characters, the humor, the turn of phrase, the suspense, the story. When I left him, he said, in a way that you’ll recognize if you know him, “When you come back, we’ll read another tale of danger.” How I hope so. Please stay home so that I and you can have a chance at another chapter with those that are so dear.