Notes to the readers: This was particularly difficult to write. As a writer, I get to distance myself from some realities because I can create characters and scenarios, instead of committing to believing in something. Writing for me is like acting for some people. I’m sure you’ve heard directors tell actors that they must Become the character. And so it is for the writer.
Also, as a critical thinker and one who teaches students how to do the same, I often am able to see both (or more) sides of an argument. However, as a person who has preferences, I still have my opinions, which are usually pretty strong. So, in doing research for this book, I have had to talk to people on different sides of the Covid-19 / Quarantine matter. Also, for many years I’ve had to listen to opinions about political matters from friends and family that are vastly different from my own. I will attempt to write this story so that whichever side of the aisle you are on, you will be able to read it. I fear, however, that as a writer, I will fail, because as I mentioned…I have my opinions. I hope you can relate to this story in some way and find it worth reading, in any case.
It was a gorgeous day at the lake. The sky was a cloudless, turquoise jewel, and the lake sparkled with its reflection. Both sky and lake were utterly calm and unruffled, so that you would not know which direction was up or down.
Dean sat next to Julie with his arm around her, on the porch swing, looking out over the lake, saying nothing. They were afraid to breathe too loudly, so as not to break the silence. They didn’t need to have long conversations anymore, although sometimes they did anyway. Julie and Dean had been married for almost 30 years.
After almost 30 years, they often said the same thing at the same time, or finished each other’s sentences. Lately, though, there was some dissonance between them. Here, at the lakehouse, they left all that behind. They were here with Dean’s sister, Julie and her husband Leyton, enjoying a family getaway.
Julie and Angie put their orange life jackets on, then pushed the canoe into the lake. Late afternoon was the perfect time to drift on the water. The sun was low in the sky, creating long shadows from the surrounding trees; the lake turned from turquoise to sapphire, like a goddess changing her rings. They paddled for a while until they got into the middle of the lake, then put their paddles in the boat to chat without the men around.
Angie lit a cigarette, something she would not do in the presence of her mother or the men. “Want one?”
Julie had known Angie’s secret for years, and used to join her when they drank wine with their book club. “Not for me, thanks,” Julie answered. She took a swig of her water.
Angie was disappointed that she had no partner in crime. “Come on, Jules. I thought we were in this together,” she quipped.
“Nah, I don’t smoke often enough so it just makes me dizzy when I do. Besides, your brother and I are on this health kick. He’s got me walking and hiking and riding bicycles. As a matter of fact, we brought them up to the lake house if you want to take a ride tomorrow.”
Angie took a long drag from her cigarette, dramatically blowing the smoke out in a long stream, then making smoke rings with her mouth. “Maybe. I might not want to move tomorrow. I am so busy with work, I just really want to sit. Y’know. Just sit. Do nothing. Stare at the lake. Stare at the sky. Sleep. Have Leyton do all the cooking. Not move a muscle, including my brain.”
“Yeah, I hear that,” Julie replied. “But, I have to admit, I’m glad Dean wants to get moving. It feels good to move my body, and it gets us closer together as a couple, except for…” her voice trailed off.
“Oh,” Angie sat up with new curiosity. “Except for what? What’s the gossip? Spill the beans, Lady. We’ve known each other too long. You can tell me. I know my brother can be a jerk, sometimes.”
“Okay,” Julie said. She wasn’t really sure she wanted to talk about Dean with his sister, but sometimes Angie was a good sounding board and could help her sort out things about Dean that no one else could. “Well, as you know, I’m a Democrat and Dean is a Republican.”
“Tell me something I don’t know,” Angie replied. “I never could figure out how two people could have different politics in the same marriage.”
Julie hesitated. “It’s not something that has really been that big of a deal with us all these years. I mean, neither of us are all that interested in politics. We’re both kind of in the middle, so it works most of the time. Of course, we vote and all, and sometimes we have pretty good debates about things, but usually, it’s not something that comes between us.”
“Let me guess,” Angie jumped in. “He likes Trump and you don’t.”
Julie looked surprised that Angie would have zeroed in on the problem so quickly. “Yeah, how did you know I was gonna say that?”
Angie grimaced. “Oh please, everyone in the country is taking sides. There’s never been such a division since Lincoln wanted to free the slaves.”
Julie leaned back in the canoe. “Yeah, I mean, what the heck? It’s just politics, or so I thought, but it’s so much more than that, y’know.”
“Yeah, I know,” Angie said.
On the way home, Dean and Julie got into a spat while driving in the car. It started out as a casual conversation, but as usual, these days, it grew into something more; they were discussing the man who had become the president of the United States, Donald J. Trump.
“I do not know how you can justify supporting that man. He makes fun of everyone. He is so disrespectful. And I’ve heard from people I know who have worked with him that after he makes a business deal, he finds some way to sue them, so that he won’t have to pay them. He’s insidious.”
“Jules, why are you always getting so worked up about stuff? He’s no worse than any other politician. And actually, he’s not a politician, which is refreshing. He’s just trying to stir the pot that has been sitting too long on the stove.” Dean was proud of his imaginative use of figurative language.
Julie continued to opine. “Dean, I know you. You’re a good man. You would never, in a million years, think of making fun of people in the military, or people who are mentally incopetent, or…” she had no more words. The thought of this man as president left her tongue-tied and bewildered.
“Jules, do you not see comic relief where we need it the most? He’s just kidding around most of the time. Let’s face it, he’s a New Yorker, and that’s how they joke. They’re sarcastic, they rib each other all the time, it doesn’t mean anything. And in the meantime, he’s getting things done.”
“Like what? I’m sure every president gets something done, but the end does not justify the means.”
Now Dean was getting annoyed. “We have the lowest unemployment rate in history, practically. Jobs are being created. Regulations for businesses have been lifted so they can grow.”
That was Julie’s Achilles heel. “Bingo. You nailed it. Regulations have been lifted, and everything we have done in the past for the environment has been swept away with the stroke of a pen. We left the Paris Accord. The world thinks we don’t give a crap about the planet, because this administration does not. I could go on.”
Julie was beside herself. Her blood pressure was rising and she felt as if her brains would literally explode all over the car. She could not believe that she was married to this person, even after all these years. “I feel like I don’t even know who you are anymore, Dean. Comedians belong on the stage, not in the Whitehouse. He has no grace, no compassion, no…”
Dean cut her off. “Really? Tell that to all the people who voted for him. Tell that to his constituents. People like him. He’s not like the other politicians. He’s rich, so he doesn’t give a hoot what anyone else thinks and that enables him to get things done. I know you’re not a Republican, but I don’t understand how you can’t see that.” Dean was perplexed. He did not understand how his wife, after all these years of friendly banter during an election, was suddenly getting so worked up over the candidate. “Julie, you are making mountains out of molehills. I’ve never seen you so combatant. If nobody thinks he is doing a good job, they can vote him out. I’ve never seen you react like this before. We’ve never agreed on the candidates.”
Actually, the tension between them during an election year created an environment for intimate relations, because otherwise there were only mild irritations. Thinking that, Dean reached over to squeeze his wife’s knee and added, “Besides, Sweetie, a little fight between us now and then makes us more amorous. You know, gets that ju-ju flowing.” He made a clicking sound and winked at her.”
Julie took a few deep breaths. In no way did she feel amorous towards him; if anything, she was disgusted. Besides, they were driving and she didn’t want to get into a screaming match in the car. “You know what, Dean, let’s just save this conversation for another time. Obviously, we don’t see eye-to-eye.” She turned the radio on and leaned back for a little nap.
Dean could not understand why this bothered her that much, but he didn’t spend too much time dwelling on it. His mind drifted into other thoughts, like sports, stuff at work, and how he could use this tension with his wife to parlay into some nookie time .
A few years later, Dean, Julie and Angie came to visit Annette, Dean and Angie’s mom, at Pine Acres, a senior, assisted living residence. Angie had brought her two children, Jaden, 16, and Lorelei, 19. It was a lovely place, with almost nightly entertainment, a beautiful dining room where Annette could socialize with her new friends, and daily entertainment such as poker games, movies, canasta, chair yoga…the list was pretty impressive.
There was even a swimming pool that had a hydraulic chair for exercises. A van took the residents wherever they needed to go – the grocery store, Circle-K, occasionally to the theater, and once a week they went to the mall. Annette still volunteered at the local school, helping out with the reading program for slower learners, so the van dropped her off, and her friend, Sally, picked her up to return her to Pine Acres. Sally usually stayed for lunch.
Assisted living meant that residents could get different levels of assistance, based on their needs. Annette needed light housekeeping and someone to help her with basic hygiene like getting in and out of the tub. Although the residents were declining, some physically, some mentally, some both, it was like living in a country club. Pine Acres was pretty pricey, so Dean and Angie supplemented the cost along with Annette’s social security and pension.
Annette needed a walker to get around, and she had some of the usual ailments for a person of her age, but she was in pretty good shape. She was dressed in comfortable blue pants with an elastic waistband, a flowered blouse, and slip-on shoes. Grey hair bounced on her shoulders, her hazel eyes were still vibrant, the lines on her face deep enough to indicate that she had lived, but not so wrinkled that her former beauty was undetectable. Dean and Julie accompanied Annette out into the flower garden area, where Julie brushed Annette’s grey locks.
Aromas of hyacinth and peonies floated past them. Annette inhaled deeply. “I could sit here all day.”
“Dean, when are you going to bring your kids to see me? Or bring me back to your house so I can see my other grandchildren? I mean, I love the two of you, but I hardly ever get to see them anymore.”
“Mom, we hardly see them anymore. They have their own lives now. Cara goes to school out of town, as you know, so we’re lucky to see her for a day or two when she comes back into town, and Milo, well, he’s out and about all the time, busy with sports, and friends, and schoolwork,” Dean answered.
Annette was genuinely hurt. “Excuses, excuses. Angie brought her kids to see me,” she laid the guilt on, grabbing the hands of Jaden and Lorelei. “Thank you so much for coming today, Children.”
“You’re right, Annette,” Julie agreed. “We should bring the kids sometimes. We should make more of an effort. You’re not going to be around forever and you are a valuable part of their lives.”
“We love you, Gramma,” Loreli chimed in. “Can you tell us a story about when you were young. I love those stories.”
Annette felt a renewed sense of purpose and compassion (synonym). “Come, sit on the grass the way you did when you were little. Jaden, come here and sit next to your sister, please, so we can chat.”
Jaden bounded over to his grandmother’s side, the way a teenage boy with lots of energy will do, and took his phone out.
“Jaden, Honey, please put the phone away,” his mother chastised. “Can’t you go five seconds without that thing?”
“Mom,” Jaden explained. “I’m going to record Gramma for posterity. Gramma, is it okay if I record you on video?”
Annette was honored. “Of course, of course. How fun. Can you believe, Jaden, that just perhaps a decade ago, there were no Smartphones and we had to use giant video recorders that had no other function?”
“I know, Gramma. That’s so weird to think about. So primitive.”
“Yes, Jaden. I was a little girl when people first got TV in their homes. I even remember when my family got a color TV. We were glued to the screen, much the way you kids are glued to your little screens now.”
Jaden held his phone up and pressed the record button. “Okay, Gram. That’s good stuff. Roll ‘em.”
Later that week: Clad in jeans and a tee shirt, Julie crouched in her vegetable garden. “Dean, can you please help me with these bags of mulch. They’re very heavy and I need a man’s muscles.”
Julie knew how to make Dean feel needed. Although he had a fairly good-sized pouch for a stomach, he was in decent shape otherwise, and still strong. He puffed up his chest and flexed his biceps. “Ah, yes, strong man, come to rescue a pretty little lady.”
“Oh my god,” Julie groaned. “Seriously.” She threw a glove at him in jest and pointed to the bags. “Those bags over there, Mr. Muscle, they go in the garden plot right here.”
They talked a bit as they worked.
Julie commented on the news first. “So, what do you think about this Coronavirus they’ve been talking about? Do you think it’s that big of a deal? I’ve heard they might put everyone in quarantine.”
Dean grunted as he heaved the mulch into the garden. “That was several questions. Eh, we’ve had these things before. Don’t you remember SARS? The bird flu? They went away pretty quickly. Now, Ebola, that was much more deadly, but they managed to squash that also. I’m not worried.”
Julie dug her hands into the damp earth, sifting it through her fingers for no reason other than to feel the moist soil on her skin. Aside from growing crops without pesticides and being an economical way to obtain vegetables and herbs, gardening was a meditation for Julie, and gave her an excuse to be outside.
Dean broke her spell. “Are you just going to play in the dirt or are you going to get those plants in the ground before they dry out?”
“Right. Sorry. I got distracted. I was thinking about what you said.”
“About the roots rotting?”
“No,” Julie said. “About not being worried. About this virus thing. I think this is bigger than the other viruses. They’ve been talking about a pandemic breaking out for over a decade. What if this is true? What will it mean for everyone? What if there is no cure? There’s a pandemic every 100 years or so. What if this is real?”
“Julie,” Dean attempted to comfort his wife, but was privately nervous. “I think you’re worrying for nothing. You have a tendency to do that sometimes. We live longer than we ever have in the history of humankind. We have medical advances. We’re going to be fine. Don’t worry. Now, hand me those cabbage plants.”
A month later. The entire world is in lockdown with varying stay-in-shelter policies. Nobody saw it coming, except for a few thousand science and medical experts. It didn’t feel real for many people, especially people like Julie and Dean, who continued many of their routines. Luckily, they were graced with gorgeous weather and the garden was thriving. Dean was going a bit crazy pruning trees all over the yard with a large clipper. There was something deeply satisfying about clipping branches, so he tended to go overboard. Dean looked bemusingly at his wife, who was obsessed with this whole organic thing, but it kept her happy.
Julie was clipping leaves off the lettuces and cabbages with a much smaller tool, collecting them in a large bowl, and pulling weeds from the garden. Dean had built a fence and cage around the garden to keep rats and gophers and other pests out. It was really thriving.
Julie and Dean often worked side-by-side, which made conversation flow easily.
“Have you seen the statistics yet today?” Julie asked Dean, since he liked to keep track of numbers and collect other information about the virus.
“Cases around the world hitting almost a million. Deaths a little over 50,000.”
“So, what’s that percentage?” Julie inquired? “Let’s see, rounded up to a million, ten percent of a million is what? 100,000?
“Yes, so 50,000 is 5 %. Frankly, I thought there would be more.”
“You sound as if you are disappointed that it’s such a low number,” Julie remarked.
The sky was starting to turn pinkish as the sun set through the striated clouds. They both stopped for a moment to admire the display.
Dean picked the conversation back up. “Don’t be silly. This is a pandemic, so I was expecting a mass tragedy. I mean, how many people die from the flu every year? Or car accidents for that matter? Or heart attacks. Cancer? A dozen other things. To be honest, I am not really sure why the entire world is in such a tizzy. We’re more likely to recover from the virus faster than from the economy tanking. There’s probably more people who are going to die from depression and suicide because of this quarantine.”
Julie stopped what she was doing because she could not believe her ears. “Dean, what are you talking about? Am I hearing you correctly? Really? More Fox News sound bites? Do you know how many people die from the flu every year? Worldwide, only a fraction of 1%. Not to mention, we have flu vaccines, and we know how to treat the flu. And that’s over a year’s time. This virus is sweeping the world and infecting it in months. Also, flu virus doesn’t live on surfaces like the Covid-19 virus. And another thing, heart attacks and cancer aren’t contagious and they can often be avoided much of the time. What the heck are you talking about, Husband-of-mine? Really? Apples and oranges.”
After clipping the branches on the ground into manageable chunks, he started to tie them into bunches so the garbage men would take them during the bulk trash pickup. He was getting bolder talking to his wife about his opinions, mostly because he couldn’t go anywhere and there was nobody else to bounce his thoughts off since everyone was self-isolating. Thus, he allowed his thoughts to flow without censoring.
“You want to know what I really think, Jules?” Dean rambled. “I think that pandemics are nature’s way of thinning the herd. Think about it. When a predator goes after its prey, like, say, a lion running after a gazelle, first he runs after the herd, but he’ll go hungry if he keeps that up for long. No, he waits for one of them to trip and hurt her leg, or for some reason she gets separated from the pack. Then, the lion has a pretty good chance of catching one. The weak and the infirm. Think about it. It’s natural.”
Julie listened without comment for some time. Having the garden to focus on helped her withhold judgment and hold her tongue, for a while. “I think that you’ve been watching too much Animal Planet. You’ve gotta get out more. Quarantine binging.”
Since Julie was finally listening intently for a change, instead of interrupting his flow, which she often did when she was peeved, Dean continued. “Now, with this Covid-19, for one thing, I don’t really understand why we had to shut everything down. I mean, how is anyone supposed to develop immunities if we all stay isolated? Also, did you know that over 20 million people applied for unemployment this week? It’s only going to get worse and then what?”
Julie took this moment to stop and pour them some lemonade in flowered, plastic cups. She had made a pact with herself to try and understand Dean’s perspective more often, and not get so agitated when he continued his harangue.
She wiped her brow from sweat, sat on the cushioned patio chair and sipped her lemonade. “I think the main problem is that we can’t fill the hospital beds up so quickly, and that we need more equipment and tests. At some point, you’re right, many people will become exposed. Some will get mildly sick, some will develop antibodies, but some will need hospital care, and that’s part of the problem.”
Dean was pleased that Julie wasn’t giving him too much of an argument, so he forged ahead. When he had an idea about something, he tended to sink his teeth into it like a bulldog. “Do you know why there are so many dead from the virus in Italy?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “Because there are so many old people. That’s mostly who is dying from this virus. Just like the gazelles. The old, the weak, and the infirm. It’s really just biology. They’re taxing the financial system, too. So, this whole thing is just natural consequences. It’s nature’s way of trimming the excess off the population.”
Julie considered what he said. It was a reasonable rationale, if they were gazelles. She had very little fight left in her, so she calmly responded. “Are you saying that we should just let the old people die?”
Dean was happy that they were having a conversation instead of an argument, which they had too many of lately. “Well, I guess so. Yes.”
“Well,” Julie replied. “They are dying. Have you checked the numbers in New York? Louisiana? Seattle? Spain? France?”
Dean was feeling pretty smug. “You know I check the numbers every day. That’s what I do. Frankly, it helps me make sense of things. Sorta keeps the whole, crazy ordeal in some sort of order for me.” He took a big swig of lemonade and gestured for the pitcher. He had worked up quite a thirst. “This is good. Did you get the lemons from our tree?”
Julie poured the sweet and sour liquid over the ice in his glass. “Yes. Thanks to that electric juicer you bought me. Thank you.”
Dean nodded and drank the second glass in one, long swig.
Now it was Julie’s turn to expound. “How old are you, Darling?”
Dean looked at her quizzically. “You know better than I do, Wife. I don’t know – what am I? 62? 63? I always forget. Why? “
“Well, you’re in the high risk category for the virus.”
“Oh, come on. I’m in good health.”
“Yes, Dean, Darling. But still, are you ready to kick the bucket?”
“What? Of course not. I’ve probably got another 20 or 30 good years. Although, that suddenly doesn’t sound like a lot. Crap. How did I get this old?”
Julie was making her point in a roundabout way. Dean hadn’t caught on yet. “Yea, I know what you mean. I remember when 60 sounded like someone was ready to die. Now, well, besides a few aches and pains, and a lot more wisdom, I don’t feel old. So why, then, are you willing to sacrifice the elderly?” Julie was on a roll.
“What?” Dean asked. Who said anything about sacrificing the elderly?” Then it dawned upon him that Julie was referring to his comments about letting the old people die from the Coronavirus. “No, hear me out,” Dean jumped in while he could get a word in edgewise. “There are so many old people that have become a burden on their families, and even on themselves. Financially, it’s very expensive to be old if your family doesn’t take care of you. And so many of them are in pain, or their memories are diminished. They don’t have quality of life anymore. They’ve lost their dignity. You, yourself, think that euthanasia is a good idea.”
“Dean, I get it. If a person is ready to die, then they should have that right. But what if you’re not ready to die? What gives a life value? Does a life have value only if a person contributes to society? If they are working? Who is to say if a life has value or not? Also, why do we bother using medical procedures to keep people alive longer? Why not let everyone die of natural causes and be done with it?”
Dean mulled this over for a moment, staring into the glass of melting ice. A breeze blew across his face, reminding him what a perfect day it was, even if the rest of the world might be suffering. He tried to keep his point alive. “A person has value if they value themselves, I suppose.” He wasn’t really sure what he believed at that point, but that is what slipped out of his mouth.
Julie was satisfied with that answer. “I think you hit the nail on the head, Dear Husband. I think you should write that down so you don’t forget it, due to your failing memory that happens in old age.” She couldn’t help but get in one last dig. Julie grinned at Dean as she got up to clean up her garden tools and put them away. “Maybe we could add something to the list, like, what value do the elderly have in the lives of the people around them? Do they have value to us as a society? Do they have value to their families? Some things to ponder.”
The wind had picked up, as if it was listening to them, sending them a message that could be heard if only they would listen.
The next day, Dean and Julie made their way to Pine Acres to visit Annette. The facility allowed visiting, but only with social distancing. When they arrived, an aide sat outside at a table and took everyone’s temperature. The aide provided a mask for anyone who did not have one. As a further precaution, the residents sat on the porch while the visitors sat on chairs just off the porch. Easy jazz music played in the background.
Annette slowly ambled onto the porch. She, too, was wearing a mask. “Hello, Family. I wish I could give you a great, big hug.”
“Hi, Mom. We didn’t bring the kids today. We just thought it was too much with this whole situation. Sorry.”
“That’s okay, Honey. They’ll be another time. How are you both? Julie, how is the garden going?”
“It’s going great, Mom. Dean has been a big help this year. Mostly because he’s home a lot more, like all of us. How are you doing?”
“Well,” Annette’s face got markedly sad. “It’s difficult. We are so isolated now. They won’t let us congregate at all, since we’re all high risk. They bring us our meals in our apartments. There’s no card games. We can’t go anywhere. We can still go out in the garden, but only one at a time with an aide. Thank God, Sally comes over almost every day and visits with me, just like you’re doing now. It’s just…difficult,” her voice trailed off.
“Mom,” Dean said emphatically. “We need to bring you home with us. This is ridiculous.”
“Dean, Honey. That’s very sweet. But, you don’t have room for me. And you’d have to hire a nurse. And I don’t want to leave my friend Sally. This will all be over soon.”
Julie pitched in. “Mom, your son is right. We can convert the office to a bedroom for you. We can all help out. It’s no burden at all.”
Annette considered the idea. “Let me think about it. I like my space. I just don’t know. It’s so much to consider. Maybe you’re right. I’ll think about it and let you know. Does that work?”
“Of course,” Dean answered. “But don’t take too long to make a decision. It doesn’t have to be forever. Just until this crazy pandemic blows over. Let us know soon.”
4 days later. Pine Acres had given every resident a computer tablet so they could communicate with their loved ones, and perhaps keep them occupied with online games and such. Annette called Dean so he could help her get on a Zoom call. “Make sure your sister and Leyton get on the call too. And get my grandkids on if they’re around also. This is very exciting!”
“Kids!” Julie called from the kitchen. “I’ve baked your favorites! Chocolate chip cookies!” Their kitchen was a typical, middle-class, modern American kitchen. The stove was nestled in the counter with stools on the other side; the oven was in the wall. The aroma of home-baked cookies permeated the entire house. Many people were baking during the isolation of the quarantine.
“Julie,” Dean asked, slightly irritated. “Mom asked you to get the kids for her first Zoom call ever, and you’re busy baking cookies?”
“Honey, I’m enticing them to come downstairs and get off their own video devices. It’s a ploy. Get Angie and Leyton and their kids on the Zoom. Don’t worry about things on my end,” Julie winked and grinned.
Dean turned back to the screen, telling his mom how to access the Zoom on her tablet. “Okay, Mom. All you have to do is go into your emails. I just sent it to you. Now, click the link in the email.”
Annette did as she was told. Angie and her family came into the Zoom room. Dean put everyone in ‘grid’ mode so everyone had a few inches of the screen. “Leyton, can your kids get on their own tablets so we can see everyone better?”
“Sure thing, Dean.”
“Mom,” Dean addressed Annette, “we can hear you, but we can’t see you. Do you see a little icon on the bottom of your screen that says ‘video’?”
“I think so,” Annette replied, slightly confused. “But I can see all of you. Why can’t you see me?”
Dean tried his best to be patient with his mom. She was savvy enough to handle email and a few online games, and Facebook, but beyond that, she wasn’t particularly familiar with computer technology. That’s when he deferred to some of the children. His own adult children were busy getting milk to go with the cookies.
“Gramma,” Jaden said from the other household, “find the little icon that looks like a video camera. Got that? Okay, click on the drop down menu on the arrow right next to it. There should be something that says ‘ask to join the room’. Yeah! That’s it, Granny! We can see you!”
Everyone said hello and talked over each other for the first few minutes. Since Dean was the host, he decided to take control. “Everyone, listen up. I’m going to mute all of you, except Mom, and when you want to talk, just unmute yourself. You all know how to do that, right?”
Angie spoke first. “What is that I see you all doing? Eating cookies? It’s like 10 in the morning. Isn’t it early for dessert?”
“Please, Aunt Angie,” Cara replied. “We’re living in the movie Groundhog Day. There is no time anymore. So, it’s always time for cookies.”
“Mom, how are you doing? Julie told me they’re not allowing visitors,” Angie chimed in. “She said you were considering coming to one of our houses for a while, during this whole Covid thing.”
“Actually,” Annette replied, in quite a chipper mood, “it’s not so bad. The workers here do something every day to keep things fun. We go outside every day for some social distance visiting, although some of the residents have a hard time hearing from eight feet apart.”
“I thought you only had to be six feet apart,” Lorelei said.
“Well, they want us to be safer than sorry,” Annette continued. “And they are coming up with all sorts of fun things for us to do. We go out in the hallway every day at a certain time and hoot and holler. Yesterday, we dressed up in hats or any silly outfit we could make. The day before that, we all sang songs, sitting right outside our apartment doors. Stuff like that. It’s actually kind of fun. And now that I know how to Zoom, I can actually visit with you and everyone more often. I told Sally that after this Zoom call, I’m gonna Zoom with her. This is a lifesaver!”
Julie offered her idea. “I say, let’s do this every few days, but everyone should bring dessert, or wine, not the kids, or maybe we could even do dinner together.”
Everyone agreed upon a time. Ironically, the Zoom meetings enabled the family to gather more often than ever before. They contacted cousins and second cousins, old friends, and people they hadn’t seen in years.
About a week later, Dean got a call from Pine Acres.
“Mr. Buchanan,” the woman on the phone sounded very professional. Dean thought they were calling to tell him that his mother fell, or needed more care, or they needed more money for adult diapers. He was not unfamiliar with this type of call.
“Yes, this is he.” Dean had been working in his office, a Beethoven symphony played in the background. He turned the music down a bit.
“I need to let you know that your mother is ill.”
Dean stopped what he was doing. He was somewhat prepared for this type of phone call. “What seems to be the problem?”
The woman on the other line hesitated for a moment. “I’m afraid that she has come down with the virus.”
It didn’t dawn on Dean that the woman was talking about ‘the’ virus. He treated it casually. “Well, last year she came down with a virus. I know she’s getting on in years. What do you need me to do? And how are you helping her?”
“Mr. Buchanan, she has Covid-19. CoronaVirus.”
Suddenly, Dean felt like someone had punched him in the gut. The information didn’t register fully. The woman on the other end of the phone kept talking, but Dean had ceased to hear her. Blood pumped through his veins faster than usual, his pulse quickened, he suddenly felt sick to his stomach. Everything in his body tightened. He couldn’t speak.
For some reason, he knew this was not just another virus. Dean had recently read that many nursing homes and senior living facilities had the Covid virus sweeping through them, and many residents were dying.
In his mind, Dean tried to remember the conversation he’d had with Julie just a few days prior, about cleaning out the ‘oldies’ as the president had put it. For some reason, Dean’s logic was not serving him at this moment.
“Mr. Buchanan, are you still there?”
Dean’s attention returned to the phone call. He attempted to compose himself. Dealing with processes and details enabled him to avoid becoming emotional. “Yes, I’m still here. I asked my mother to come back home with me. I told her it wasn’t safe there. I’m going to come get her.”
“I’m afraid that’s not possible, Mr. Buchanan.”
“What do you mean, not possible? She’s not a prisoner.”
“Sir, the virus moved rapidly. We moved her to the hospital.”
Fear gripped Dean’s body and paralyzed him. He loved his mother, of course, but he took for granted that she would always be there. Logically, he knew she could die someday, would die someday, but it never seemed real until this moment. What would he do without her? What would a world without his mom be? It was untenable. His reaction was defensive, because sometimes anger was a method of delaying reality.
“Why did you have to put her in the hospital? How bad is it? Why is this the first time I’m hearing about this?”
“Mr. Buchanan. Please, I know this is a shock, but do try to calm down.”
That made Dean even more irate. “Do not tell me to calm down! What if that were your mother in the hospital? Would you be calm, Miss?”
“I’m very sorry,” the woman on the phone apologized. “Please, take some time to process this and call me back when you can talk. You can call me at this number any time. Then we can discuss what comes next.”
Dean’s anger had fueled him to speak and to move. It felt better than the deep sadness that had overcome him. He moved through the first two stages of grief, denial and anger, in moments. Dean was not particularly comfortable expressing his emotions, or knowing what he was feeling, for that matter. He went to look for Julie. She was much better in this department. She would know what to do.
Dean found Julie in the kitchen. Music from the 70’s decade was cranked up on the stereo; Julie bopped along to it as she worked. She had taken to cooking many things from scratch during the quarantine, since she had time on her hands. Cooking was another form of meditation for her. Sometimes, she listened to podcasts, or music, or the silence. She dug out many of the things she thought she would do someday, but never did, and had eventually stored away. The sushi maker, bread maker, pasta maker, and umpteen other gadgets from ‘the Happy Cook’ parties. Today’s experiment was homemade fettuccine. As she pulled the long noodles from the machine, Dean walked into the kitchen.
“Jules, I got a call from Pine Acres.”
Julie answered without looking at him. She was busy clipping noodles. “Oh, what did they want? Has your mom made a decision yet?”
Dean’s anger had dissipated. His shoulders slumped with the weight of knowing, with the heaviness of anticipation and dread. He said nothing as tears welled up in his eyes.
Julie, waiting for an answer, turned to look at him. She saw her husband’s face, downturned and quivering. She, too, felt a sense of dread, thinking perhaps that Annette had died, or taken a bad fall. “What happened?” she inquired, breathlessly.
Dean’s body was shaking. He rarely cried, but now big, wet salty tears dropped from his eyes, down his cheeks, and into his mouth. He squeaked out the words, “She’s got it. She’s got the virus. They took her to the hospital.”
Julie dropped the noodles on the counter. She had only seen her husband this distraught a few times. She grabbed him in a tight embrace, holding him up from collapsing on the floor. “Omigod! Dean. I’m so sorry.” They held onto each other for several minutes. Then, she led him to the couch, instinctively knowing that she had to take charge. “Come, sit.”
Julie put her arm around her husband and held him the way he usually held her. The news made her sad, but she was used to feeling her feelings. Being a woman had seen to that, but it was different for Dean. He was used to being strong in the face of a crisis, but this was different. It was his turn to cry. And cry he did.
After they told the kids, who were worried, but hopeful, Dean realized that he had not found out anything about his mother’s condition. Slightly embarrassed for his earlier behavior, he called the woman from Pine Acres back. “How is she? Why did you have to put her in the hospital already? I heard that many people have mild symptoms.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Buchanan, but we tried to reach you by phone two days ago. We also sent an email. We started testing all the residents as soon as we got the tests, because some of them showed signs of the virus. We haven’t lost anyone yet, but your mother’s condition worsened very quickly, so we thought it best to get her to the hospital as soon as possible.”
Dean tried to make sense of everything. He had enough time to come up with a few questions. “What were her symptoms? Can we speak to her? Is she awake? Is she on a ventilator?” And then, the question that he dreaded the most. He braced himself. “Do you think she’ll recover?”
The woman on the phone answered quickly. “Mr. Buchanan, that is impossible to know. I do know that they are doing everything in their power to help her and make her as comfortable as possible. I will get you the information about contacting the hospital in an email as soon as we get off the phone.”
“Thank you.” He had nothing further to discuss with her.
Later that day, Dean contacted the hospital. It was all very matter-of-fact for him now. That is, until he talked to hospital personnel.
“So, she’s on a ventilator? Is that the best method of treatment? I’ve read things lately and they’re saying that ventilators may not be the best procedure.”
He paused long enough to listen to the person on the other end of the phone. That’s when his anger flared again. “What do you mean, I can’t see my mother? What kind of hospital is this? Don’t you know that people heal better with family around them?”
He felt helpless. Dean wasn’t used to being so out of control. But, as he talked to the man on the phone, he began to realize that this was true, that he would not be able to see his mother, except, perhaps, through a window. But maybe she was okay, because she was unconscious. Maybe she didn’t know what was happening to her. And she could pull out of this. After all, he spent many hours checking the statistics and many people had recovered from the virus. He had wondered why they didn’t make a bigger deal out of that, instead of all the deaths.
So, he hung onto that. She would recover. They would make her as comfortable as possible. He had faith in the medical system, and the doctors and the nurses. They had helped him when he was sick, they had saved his daughter when she was in a bad car accident, they had helped his sister when she broke her leg in three places. This virus, this invisible demon, was just another disease for modern medicine to tackle. This menace that had suddenly made its way into his life, was a battle that his mother would win. Yes, he was sure of it!