When we entered These Unprecedented Times due to the Covid pandemic, my immediate thought was "my parents better not catch this thing." It occupied much of my brain power for the first several weeks, but I pretty quickly got more comfortable after realizing they were taking this seriously. They had locked themselves away, planning to live off of their 200-year Mormon-inspired food storage stashed away in the basement of my childhood home. "We're doing just great! Lots of hobbies and good TV to watch," my mother told me last March.
We were one of the lucky families—fortunate that my parents were able to retire a few years ago. They had the luxury of absorbing disruption without too much pain. Sure, they'd miss seeing the grandkids, but video chats and drive-by waves could at least help with that.
Months went by and I saw my parents sparingly. My husband and I met them once at a cemetery to help them place the head-stone for my grandpa who died before the Pandemic. I had stopped by their house in the fall to climb a ladder and trim a vine that had gotten out of control. "You're not allowed on that ladder," I had yelled at my dad over the phone. "I will come over and handle it."
We missed them, but we knew it was important to keep them safe, and they knew that, too.
Suddenly it was 2021 and there were several announcements about vaccine efficacy and availability. I watched as the first and second and third groups were summoned for their shots. My parents, ages 67 and 69, wouldn't be too far behind.
I texted them the day their number was called. "You guys should try to get an appointment as quickly as possible."
They were ecstatic.
They made some calls, but as we expected, just because they were eligible to receive it, didn't mean they could get an immediate appointment. That was ok. If it took a week, no big deal. What was one more week after waiting fifty?
My heart stopped when I heard the voicemail. I had missed a call from my dad while I was in a deposition. "Just wanted to let you know I tested positive for Covid," my dad said. "No idea how I got it," he told me from his armchair in his home.
It seemed so unfair. So unjust. They had been so careful and had taken so many precautions. Precautions that surely helped them avoid this ten months ago. But couldn't that good fortunate have lasted just a little longer?
They had gone to the grocery store—had sparingly run needed errands. They had worn masks—had used hand sanitizer—had tried to maintain distance. Somewhere amid all that caution, they were marked with the Rona.
The next five days felt like waiting to see if a timebomb would detonate. Maybe it would tick and tick and tick and then stop. Or maybe it wouldn't.
I called my parents every day. Every phone call sounded more alarming. Dad was coughing enough that I could hardly make out what he was saying. He'd pass the phone to mom who sounded exhausted. "We're ok, honey. Just tired."
The helplessness I felt was almost worse than the dread. I couldn't go see them. I wasn't vaccinated, and exposing myself and getting sick wasn't going to do my family any good. Two of my sisters work in healthcare and had been vaccinated in January. They took it upon themselves to stop by and check our parents' lungs and bring them steroids, which we had heard might be helpful.
It was exactly one week after dad's positive test that I got the call from my mom. "I'm taking dad to the emergency room," she said. "His fever is really high and he's barely conscious."
Mom sounded even more exhausted now, and I hated that one of my senior citizen parents who had a deadly disease was tasked with going out into the cold to take my other senior citizen parent who had the same deadly disease to the hospital.
One of my sisters rushed to help and be with mom while they waited for a call from the hospital telling them what the plan was for dad. Two agonizing hours later they rang and said someone could come pick him up. He didn't need to be admitted, but he would need to be on oxygen. It was weird how conflicted I felt about that news—glad that he was healthy enough to go home, but worried about what would happen if he took a turn for the worse and didn't have any medical staff at the helm to address it.
The next morning a flurry of texts hit my phone. "Can someone come be with dad," my nurse sister asked us on the sibling text thread. "I need to take mom to the hospital immediately and I don't think dad should be alone."
My older sister rushed to the house to sit with dad. Thirty minutes later that sister called us. "I'm taking dad back to the hospital. He's barely conscious and he just told me he feels like he's 'losing the battle.'"
I was standing in my kitchen making a chicken stock from scratch. I had figured bringing them a home-cooked meal was about the only help I could really offer. An hour later they were both admitted to the same hospital, and my soup was admitted to my refrigerator.
I guess I knew families were unable to visit their Covid loved ones in the hospital, but I don't think I ever really appreciated how difficult that has been for people until it happened to us. Sure, it would have been nice for us and them to see one another—for my siblings and I to offer our parents company, support, supplies, love—all of that in person.
But the much bigger struggle for us was the radio silence. The unknown. We clasped our phones, the four of us, from our corners of our little valley, desperate for some kind of update. The sisters that dropped off our respective parents were each designated the contact person for hospital updates that seemed to come very few and very far between. Mostly we just texted and called one another to ask for information we knew none of us had.
I spent that day shoveling snow off of my flower beds so I could weed them, looking unhinged to my neighbors who wondered why I was trying to do yard work two days after February. It seemed like the only distraction I could force myself to embrace. I raked leaves I missed from the prior season, willing myself to stop thinking "am I going to lose one or both of my parents this weekend?"
We heard the next morning that our parents were stable. Mom was doing a little better than dad now that she was on oxygen and receiving some treatments. Dad was struggling, but feeling good enough to send us the occasional two or three word text.
By Monday, only 48 hours after being admitted, the hospital released mom with an oxygen tank. Dad asked them if he could go home, too, telling them he didn't want to be without his wife. The hospital decided to let him go home later that day, with strict instructions about oxygen use and food. My siblings and I rapidly arranged babysitting and meal delivery shifts, deciding that for the time being, our parents shouldn't be alone in the house. We scheduled my shifts to start later in the week when hopefully we'd be far enough away from the positive test date to pose too big of a risk to me. My vaccinated sisters, both with jobs and four children of their own, needed a break.
Two days later my oldest sister called me. She sounded tired. None of us had really slept in about a week by this point. We were all exhausted with worry and with the barrage of concerned communication from our parents' siblings and neighbors. We had each divvied up PR responsibilities and asked everyone in our lives to check with us for updates rather than bother our parents who didn't have the energy to respond.
"Mom called for an ambulance. Dad's fever is at 104.9 and he's disoriented. Mom doesn't think she can possibly get him to the car," my sister told me over speakerphone while my husband and I sat in front of some uneaten plates of dinner that were getting cold. Skylar stood up and started gently rubbing my shoulders while my sister gave us the update.
My nurse sister got there just before the ambulance and helped get him down the stairs and to the hospital. Mom stayed home, under a pile of blankets, sucking oxygen through a machine, and trying not to cry.
My turn for mom-watch came the next evening. I arrived with a meal I had just cooked. My nurse sister was there, sitting with mom who now had tears in her eyes and looked like she could collapse.
"Dad called," her voice sounded 30 years older than her actual age.
My sister interrupted and told me dad had sounded very bad on the phone. The hospital was worried that if they couldn't get his oxygen levels up, they would need to transfer him to the ICU and be "a lot more aggressive."
"We don't know what that means," my sister said, more to my mom than to me. "I'm going to call the hospital and try to talk to a nurse to find out what's going on."
My sister left and I sat with mom who asked me every minute or two if we had an update yet from the hospital, so anxious, so stressed, that I don't think she was really even hearing herself anymore.
My job, I thought, was to just sit there and act like things were going to be fine, the same way mom did for me countless times when I was a child and scared about something. My job was to try to help mom calm down because we needed her to get better, too.
"He'll be ok, mom. The hospitals are getting really good at treating Covid now."
After an hour she asked if we could try to call dad directly, again. I held up my phone as he answered so mom could talk to him. His voice was extremely weak and we could hear him struggle for breath. They both cried as mom begged him to "hang on so you can come back home to me." Dad whispered several times, "ok. I'll try." I went somewhere else in my mind, well aware that I was not allowed to fall apart, no matter how close to the edge I became.
After a restless night, we did receive some positive news. "Positive" is of course relative when you've had four emergency rushes to the hospital involving both parents in six days.
The nurse told my sister that dad seemed to be improving, albeit very slowly. "He's not eating, and that's a problem. And he does seem very down emotionally. If you could bring him food he likes, that might help."
We didn't even know that was an option. An hour later I found myself driving to the hospital with a bag of his favorite snacks and sandwiches from his go-to places. Over the next few days we dropped off at the reception desk letters and notes from the grandkids, any food we thought he might eat, and blankets and pillows from home.
It hit me during one of the drop-offs how terrifying this experience must have been and must be for so many other families. My family has an immense amount of privilege in this. We're organized and educated. My siblings and I are all within minutes of our parents' home. We have good insurance. Two of my sisters, a niece, and my husband all work in medical care and are especially equipped to navigate the system and address the needs. And on top of all that, our crisis is happening a full year after the first cases started filling hospitals. Hospital capacity is good now, and doctors are much more equipped to treat Covid patients.
As scary as this experience truly was for my family, I suddenly felt so heartbroken for other families without half our resources who had to live through this terror months ago when there were no vaccines, hardly any reliable information, and very limited hospital capacity. It felt weird to be so stressed when we were in fact so lucky.
Dad was released from the hospital about six days after being re-admitted. My exhausted husband happened to have just gotten off of a surgery rotation and was able to go pick him up and take him home. "He looks dirty, tired, and skinny," Skylar texted me after the drop off. "But I listened to his lungs and they sound ok. I think he's happy to be back home with your mom."
Mom turned in her oxygen tank. Dad expects to keep his for a few more weeks as he is slowly weaned off of it. With each visit they both look a little stronger—a little happier.
There have been some bad moments, and a few more small scares, but they are becoming fewer and farther between. We're not out of the woods, yet. But it feels like we're heading in that direction, at least.
Last Friday I drove home from my office. It had been a long week nearing the end of an extremely long month. Skylar was on a 24-hour surgery shift and wouldn't be home until the morning.
I had a headache when I got to my house. I decided I was going to just have a quiet night in with some Indian takeout. I'd knit and watch a boring documentary. Something boring sounded nice.
I guess I was tired and distracted, scrolling through an app on my phone and greeting the dog—that's the only way I think this could have happened. I went to take three ibuprofen for the headache. The moment I swallowed the pills I realized I had accidentally taken three melatonin instead. At 6:30 PM. On a Friday night.
I started laughing.
Just, laughing. The most laughing I had done in weeks.
I dropped down to the floor as my dog jumped at me, licking my face and wanting to play. My laughing slowly turned to tears—tears of fatigue, I think. Tears of stress. Tears of fear. Tears of relief. It surprised me.
Eventually I got back up and put on some sweats. I texted my parents to see how their evening was going.
"We're ok, honey." Mom said. "Just tired."
Around 9:30 I climbed into bed and pulled the blankets over my face. I felt my dog's little warm body plop down next to me. My own body seemed to sink into the mattress—like every piece of me was transitioning into deadweight.
I took a deep breath.
I shut my red eyes.
And I slept.
Design by Christopher Patty