Every night in my kitchen my throat catches and my eyes water. Every night this happens when I talk to my dad and he asks me when I am coming to visit him. Every night I explain that I don’t know, that I’m waiting for news of when I’ll be allowed to see him, that the virus is still a threat. Every night he says, “maybe we’ll know something tomorrow and you’ll call me every day.” And every night I answer, “Yes. I hope so Daddy, I will.”
Monday was Memorial Day. There were fly overs, people playing Taps, laying wreaths, and extolling the virtues of veterans who died in battle and those who are still with us. Tuesday, in Texas where my father lives, Governor Abbot opened water parks. It’s hot in Texas and no doubt it will be a great relief to families and children to head down the twisting slides into the cool water this weekend. Sounds like fun. But, for my dad and his fellows, who live in assisted living and skilled nursing facilities, ostensibly so honored on Memorial Day, where is their fun? They are locked in with no end in sight. No bingo games, no outings, no visits from family, no walks on the trail, no reading Sherlock Holmes, no eating with their friends. They are sitting alone at a table in the dining room or in their rooms napping and watching TV on an endless loop. If it’s safe enough for everyone to go to the water park, shouldn’t it be safe enough for me to visit my 99-year-old father or for him to play bingo with his friends? Don’t answer that. It’s not a real question. Neither activity is safe.
My father and others like him are symbols, not people. They are referenced on Memorial Day or Veterans Day complete with black and white photographs of Normandy or the Pacific, Korea or Saigon. On those days, they are “thanked for their service” as we all belly up to the bars that just cannot possibly stay closed another day. The juxtaposition between “opening up” and “returning to normal” while I am told it will be at least July before there is any possibility of a visit with my father exposes the hypocrisy of the decision-making. If anyone cared about his service to this country, there is no way he’d be locked away from those who love him while everyone else is frolicking at the water park. I am disgusted and so very sad.
It was the most difficult decision I ever made to encourage my father to leave my childhood home last summer. And I never imagined that I would have to physically abandon him just because he needed so much more care than I could provide in my home or his. Now he and so many others are all but forgotten because their suffering and isolation have no impact on the economy. From Governor Abbot’s perspective, assisted living facilities will make money whether families can visit or not. Elders’ needs are not part of the economic calculus. The water park, on the other hand, only makes money if we pretend the pandemic is over. And so, as a society, we delude ourselves thereby punishing those we say we honor.
Every week a letter, transparent and completely honest, comes out from the director where my dad lives. I so appreciate it. The staff is conscientious, and I am sure they will not be enjoying the water parks this weekend as they try so hard to keep those they care for safe. They are also forgotten. They call me and help my father FaceTime, they tell me everything that’s happening, and I send them cupcakes every few weeks to show appreciation. What more can I do?
And truly, I don’t really begrudge the opening of the water parks. I have kids. I know parents are losing their minds after months of home schooling. But if the Governor really believes it’s time to open Texas and that it’s safe to do so, then do it. Open the whole thing and let me see my father. That won’t happen because the virus is still active and a grave threat to elders and those who care for them. No public official wants to take responsibility for killing them, but they’re fine to leave our elders, indeed our heroes, isolated and alone.
The clock is ticking. Time for me to make my nightly phone call and for my father and I to repeat our quietly desperate daily mantra. I don’t know, Daddy. Yes, maybe tomorrow. I miss you. I love you. I’ll call you every day. I will.