Psychologists tell us that we all tell lies even as we aspire to honesty. Lately, I’ve been reflecting on the lies we are living by each day in this pandemic. Here are a few, surely not an exhaustive list…
Number 1: A Lie Others Tell Me
We can keep frail elders in congregate care safe even as staff members fall ill. As of this week, four staff members have tested positive in the facility where my dad lives in Texas. I fully expect that next week the number will jump to six, maybe with a resident or two thrown in by then, and to 12 the week after that. We know how this virus works. He and others in his situation are sitting ducks waiting for the virus itself or its side effects of loneliness and isolation to come for them. The facility is honest with its numbers, even as its leaders participate in an implicit lie of safety, a lie that I and every other family member in this situation want desperately to believe. The current truth is really too terrible. Our elders are not safe; they cannot be kept safe; and our vigilant attempts to keep them physically safe put them in psychological and emotional peril deprived of the physical presence of family and friends.
Number 2: A Lie I tell my Father
I will be able to see him soon. I’ve reserved a place to stay later in the month in hopes that maybe I’ll be allowed to visit. And when he asks when I’m coming, I tell him late July. Earlier in the crisis I told him late April, then late May, maybe June… I promised him, and I promised myself, when I moved him from his home that I’d visit at least every month, a promise I kept until the virus changed everything. He needs those visits as much as he needs air. What I’m learning is that I need them too. I know I will lose him to death sometime in the near future. He is almost 100 after all. But it shouldn’t be like this. Strange as it may sound, to be with the dying is sacred and I do not want to miss those last precious moments with him. And while there is still time, we should be able to share another meal or two, read a bit more Sherlock Holmes or Huckleberry Finn. Surely, he could have one more walk in his wheelchair down the Salado Creek trail where he says hello to everyone he sees, comments on the creek’s water level, looks for the deer that hide there, and listens intently to the gentle birdsong. I love the natural world because of him. It is a great pleasure to take him back to it as he declines. As it is, four months have passed since I last saw him. Daily I stare down my broken promises, gulp, and lie telling him I’m coming soon. Three weeks, two weeks, one week and then my cover will be blown. At that point, I’ll start over. Maybe I can come in late August, maybe Labor Day.
Number 3: A Lie We Tell Ourselves
We can protect the vulnerable while living just as we wish. This is probably the most interesting untruth. It sounds so good on the surface. Just keep all those folks with underlying conditions and frail elders protected somewhere and the rest of us can head to Mount Rushmore sans masks with abandon or ‘get back to work” to keep the wheels of commerce turning. But this lie is sits atop the most American of myths, the Lone Ranger, dependent on no one, self-reliant, ruggedly healthy, a man who lives and dies by his own rules. Even the myth is a myth; what would’ve happened to him without Tonto or even trusty Silver? The truth is that every aspect of our lives is part of a web of interdependence – a beautiful web, but so complicated in the time of COVID-19.
Well over half of American adults have at least one chronic condition such as obesity, diabetes, cardiac issues, asthma, or auto-immune disorders like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis. Most all of these conditions make adults vulnerable to worse outcomes if they contract the COVID-19 virus. Many of these folks are working, meaning that the economic wheel that everyone is worried about can’t turn if those of us with chronic conditions aren’t there to turn it. Rather than confront this complexity, we tell ourselves that it’s just people like my dad, very old and very frail, that need “protection.” But “the vulnerable” include so many more who are “essential” to keeping economic progress humming along.
Next, unlike the lone ranger, we are not at home on the range. Rather, we interact with all sorts of people, in so many ways every day. Let’s start with someone who believes it is his or her fundamental right not to wear a mask in public. I’ll name him/her “Anti-Masker.” On Wednesday, Anti-Masker goes to community choir practice where (s)he belts out hits of the seventies or their favorite hymn. The alto sitting in the next chair is an asymptomatic carrier who unwittingly sings the virus to our friend, Anti-Mask. Anti-Mask won’t have symptoms for several days to two weeks, if at all, during which time (s)he’ll head to a family reunion, grab beer at the tavern down the street, and somewhere along the way transmit virus to someone else who rides the bus to work, and sits next to the person who helps my dad with his bath, or getting dressed, or brushing his teeth. And, statistically, at least one person in that series of connections will have chronic illness. Add a few masks into that chain and you begin to cut transmission. No masks, further transmission and illness at best, curtains at worst. We are interconnected, across class and circumstance, a truth this virus lays bare.
Now that hospitals are overflowing in Houston and San Antonio, freezer trucks are en route to Corpus Christi to hold the dead, and a field hospital is being erected in the Rio Grande Valley, Governor Abbot finally decided to require folks to wear masks or face a fine. There are competing rumors that he will shut down the bars or even, God forbid, the water parks. I don’t even know what to say. I guess we have to be thankful for any showing of leadership that deals in science and reality at this point.
The Truth: What I Must Accept
If, in the end, my father survives until 100th birthday, just a few months away, it will be a function of good PPE, luck, and divine intervention. There is no testing strategy or staff rotation scheme that can protect elders in congregate facilities when the rest of society is chooses to live the lie that the virus is no longer relevant, wearing a mask and refraining from mass gatherings are infringements on our fundamental rights. But where does that leave me as I daily stare at my plate of broken promises, swallowing the heartbreak I feel with each phone call?
Two weeks ago, I finished a book called The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai. Nominated for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, the story focuses on two characters, a man and a woman, linked over time by their friendship during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980’s. The male protagonist dies alone even though the young woman tries so hard to stay with him. The abandonment is not her fault even though she lives a portion of her life believing that it is. Yet, inside the dying character’s consciousness, the reader can see that the dying person, travelling to what comes next, enters a realm where those still of this earth can’t follow – whether we are physically present or not. Likewise, the novel ends with a recognition that some periods of life – whether the AIDS or the Corona virus crisis – are so beyond our imagination that we are left only to navigate them as best we can. The decisions I made last summer on my father’s behalf were made not knowing that our society would collectively lie to itself to such a degree that it would impact my ability to care for my father. The only way out of this terrible situation is for all of us to quit lying; it is the truth, after all, that sets us free. When we take this virus seriously by everyone doing their part to stop it, we won’t have to lock up frail elders in an act of collective delusion. Then, perhaps, I could, together with my father’s caregivers, find ways to provide him the visits and connections he needs. Until then, my only choice is to trust that my father is strong in spirit if not in body, that he knows that I am with him, even as I am not, and that somehow and somewhere we will meet again.