The Seattle-area retirement community where my parents live is just a few miles from the nursing home at the epicenter of the coronavirus epidemic in the US. We have had quite a week.
Until this week, my relationship with my parents has been uneventful and pleasant. Well, there are a few challenges. My father recently received a cochlear implant, but the external part of the device hasn’t been activated yet, so he’s deaf as a post. My mother’s memory functions in a way that grants her easy access to the lyrics of every song written before 1950, but what she had for lunch eludes her. When I don’t visit, they melt into their La-Z-Boys and stay there until their skin fuses to the upholstery. That is why, at least three times a week, I barge in the door, turn on the lights, turn off the TV, and chase out the gloom. I stuff their Havanese puppy into her sweater, then harass the folks until they consent to go walking. After that we might go out for coffee, argue our way through a round of rummy, or fire up the DVD player and watch an episode of Doc Martin.
The dog-walking ritual in particular has been a lifesaver—good for their health, good for their mood. When Mom grew teetery, I started to worry that a bike might collide with her, so I began inviting myself along. It’s no hardship. A tree-lined path meanders along a stream not far from their community. Dad drops Mom off at one end, parks the car at the other, and walks back toward her until they meet in the middle. As soon as Dad shuffles into view, Mom releases the dog’s leash, and we all stand and watch the dog bound toward him, bursting with so much joy that her paws barely touch the asphalt. The sight gives us all a lift.
Last Sunday—one short week ago–we took our walk as usual. But word had already gotten out about that nursing home just down 405 from my folks. People had died. I’d heard the virus might be pretty contagious. I mentioned these concerns to my folks, but they waved the topic away. As the week progressed, we exchanged our usual texts:
MONDAY. (About a dozen confirmed coronavirus cases in Seattle.)
Dad: Forget coming to the buffet next week. Two residents have flu-like symptoms, so all meals will be served in our rooms until further notice.
Me: Bummer! But we’re still on for Mom’s appointment with the arthritis doc, right?
Dad: Yes, 11:30. I thought of a good one. Old folks in retirement homes are to flu bugs what trailer parks are to tornadoes. Get it?
TUESDAY (27 confirmed coronavirus cases in Seattle.)
Me: Did Mom go to exercise class? Remind her that she promised the doctor!
Dad: Exercise classes here are cancelled. So are all group excursions and entertainment. Nada, until further notice.
Me: Well, we can still go for our walk, can’t we?
Dad: We went shopping. That’s enough exercise for one day.
WEDNESDAY: (39 confirmed coronavirus cases in Seattle.)
Me: The sun’s shining. How about a walk, then coffee at Barnes and Noble?
Dad: Mom says she’d love it. Only walking we’ve done so far is from bed to potty, didn’t make breakfast.
Me: Don’t they bring you breakfast?
Dad: You have to order.
Me: Well, order! Feed that 93-pound mama!
We did walk on Wednesday, but we skipped the bookstore. Mom and Dad both seemed perfectly healthy, but in light of the rising numbers, I felt uneasy about shepherding them into a public venue. Instead we drove to Starbucks and I ran in for Mom’s soy caramel latte. I made sure the barista didn’t sneeze or touch the rim of the cup, and—after disinfecting my hands and the base of the cup—I put the lid on myself. Totally sanitary. Then we went back to their place to watch an episode of Doc Martin. The whacky characters made us laugh.
THURSDAY (70 confirmed coronavirus cases in Seattle.)
Dad texted a photo of a memo from the retirement community’s office. The people with the flu had gotten better, but management requested that residents limit visits. I wasn’t sure what that meant. I’d called the office the day before to make sure they were okay with my continuing to stop by. No problem, said the receptionist, though she’d encouraged me to access my parents’ apartment via their patio rather than walking down the hallway. Did this new memo mean my visits were now taboo?
Me: Worried about that memo and the governor’s advice yesterday. Specifically, what he said about social distancing. Have you thought about how that might affect us? I’m wondering if I should have sat and watched TV with you yesterday.
Dad: Until you’re confirmed positive I’m not afraid of you. I’m not going to quit living just to stay alive.
Me: Well, since I have your permission, I’ll show up for our daily walk. The weather is supposed to get worse as the day goes on. Can I come at 10:30?
Dad: Bueno. Come in the back door, parade by the front desk minimally.
After washing my hands thoroughly, I drove to their apartment, skulked across the lawn to the patio, and tapped on the sliding glass door. No one answered so I yanked it open and stepped in to pet the yipping, wagging dog. “Ready for a walk?” I asked Mom.
From the shadows of her recliner, she glared at me with burning eyes. “No.” Past her, in the other recliner, Dad lifted a hand in greeting, but made no move to rise from his chair.
“Please? It’ll be good for you, Mom. Remember what the arthritis doc said.” I held out my hands, offering to help her up.
“No me toca!” she snapped.
I was taken aback. Mom’s a sunny person. She’s prone to point out beauty and sings at the drop of a hat. I’d heard her use her don’t-touch-me Spanish on Dad, but she’d never aimed it at me before.
“Your poor dog wants a walk. A walk would be good for all of us.” I started across the room to get the dog’s sweater.
“Unclean, unclean!” she cried.
Startled, I stepped back. My father dropped his newspaper. “What’s going on?” he shouted.
“Mom doesn’t want to go.”
“What? I can’t hear you. Come in here and tell me what’s going on.”
“Don’t come in!” yelled my mother. “Go away!”
Now I was getting pissed off.
“What’s going on?” Dad demanded angrily.
“Go away. You’re making me sick,” said Mom.
At that, the little girl in me, the one who still desperately needs to be needed, flipped into a rejection-triggered rage. I whirled slammed the sliding door shut behind me. Back at my car, I discovered I had a flat tire—I’d driven over a screw. This proved to be a positive development, because while I waited for Les Schwab to patch the leak, I had time to walk off my annoyance and remember I was supposed to be a grownup. As I walked, I listened to a public radio podcast called, “Is it Safe to Visit Grandma?” The answer: NO. Leave grandma alone. If you go see her, you could kill her.
FRIDAY (Over 100 confirmed coronavirus cases in Seattle.)
Me: Everything okay at your place today?
Dad: Yesterday didn’t happen. We dune good.
Me: I’m glad! I’m glad you’re doing good and I’m really glad to forget about yesterday.
Dad: Walked the dog around the building. Mom didn’t feel like she could handle the walk along the river.
He texted a photo of another memo from the management. This one talked about washing hands and not getting within an arms-length of others. Avoid public places, it said. Avoid having outside visitors to the community, including family and friends.
Me: Keep me posted. If there’s anything at all I can do for you, please tell me. I’m having a hard time figuring out how freaked out to be about all this.
Dad: You should be 82, no health scare freaks me out. But it is hard to know what makes sense.
I put the phone down and thought about the situation. Was I really not going to see my parents for weeks or months, until the retirement home management decided contact had become risk-free? I knew seeing the folks posed a risk, but wasn’t there also a risk in leaving them to stew in front of cable news all day, growing increasingly weak and fearful and hopeless? A brief walk in the fresh air—how dangerous could that be, if I stayed an arms-length away from them, and if they washed their hands carefully when they got home?
On the other hand, I didn’t want to kill them.
Finally I typed the last text of the week:
I’m totally on board with the request to stay away from your building, but I already miss you! Do you think we could meet down at the park for our walk?
Then I looked at the phone, trying to decide whether to push “send.” I remembered how I felt as a tourist in Europe during the Chernobyl disaster. Struggling, with my faulty Spanish, to understand why the news announcers seemed to be telling people not to eat ice cream or put small children down on the ground. Now, in Seattle, the messages issuing from authorities seem just as incomprehensible, the threat just as invisible.
What would you do in my place? How scared should we be?