A Call With My Parents: Part II
by Bruce Checefsky
I worried about visiting my parents for the Memorial Day weekend because of COVID19. I hadn’t seen them since last December. They live in northeastern Pennsylvania. We weighed the risks, watched the weather forecast carefully so any visit would remain strictly outdoors. I rented a hotel for two nights nearby in a renovated 1930s train station. A few days before driving the seven hours east to visit, I still had my doubts. I was uncomfortable knowing that I might have been exposed to the virus and not know it. Both my parents are 89-years old and their health is what you might expect at that age.
I phoned dad to ask him what he thought.
“I have old A.G.E,” he said with humor uniquely his own. “Whatever you decide is fine.”
We had no evidence that either my wife or I were COVID19 carriers. Our health throughout the pandemic has been nothing but good. Still, given the fragility of their health, I felt it was better to wait until conditions improved. But when would that be? No one knows for certain. Dad suggested we get tested before visiting. I understood that would take weeks but I agreed and canceled the trip. For whatever reason. I held onto the hotel room.
“You father is deathly afraid of COVID19,” my mom said when I told her we weren’t coming out. “He keeps telling me that if he gets the virus, that’s the end of him.”
I understood. She agreed to put the steaks and hamburgers in the freezer for another time. We made tentative plans for later in the summer; safety and health first. I phoned my brother Wally to let him know that our plans had changed. He didn’t seem to mind.
“Mom’s been looking forward to this for weeks,” Wally said. “But I understand. Whatever you decide. We had everything laid out in the backyard for social distancing with masks and gloves. They even bought a forehead thermometer at COSCO to check everyone’s temperature.”
I thought about it for a few minutes. “I’m torn,” I admitted. “I’d like to see everyone.”
“Well, think about it overnight,” Wally said. “The weather looks good. We’ll stay outside the whole time if you decide. It’s up to you.”
After breakfast the next morning, I phoned to tell him that I’d reconsidered coming out. “We’re back on,” I said. “Just for a day or two, if that’s okay with you.”
He agreed and we hung up. A few minutes later, my phone rang. It was mom. I could hear the excitement in her voice.
“I didn’t put the steaks and hamburgers in the freezer yet. We’ll barbecue when you get here,” she said. “Dad has a forehead thermometer and plenty of masks and rubber gloves.”
So, a decision to make the trip after all was settled. We packed the car and drove east the following morning. We pulled into the Radisson Hotel late afternoon, checked in and were told by a receptionist standing behind a thick Plexiglas barrier with a protective face mask much larger than his face that most of the floors at the hotel were closed. There were no hotel services. The restaurant and cafe were closed, and no room service. We checked in anyway. We might have been the only one there from the looks of it.
We had a grand time celebrating the holiday. The two-day barbecue and party was fabulous. Love overflowed EVERYWHERE despite the uncomfortable feeling of no hugging and kissing. We all ate too much. I drank a couple more beers than I should have and as the day came to an end, we sipped single malt scotch under the grapevine veranda. We met for breakfast at their house the next morning. We said our goodbyes, bumped elbows and air-hugged, then drove back to Cleveland that afternoon. I emailed some photographs from our picnic adventure to everyone.
A week later, I was standing in line at the West Side Market waiting to get in when my phone rang. Restrictions on the number of people allowed into the market at any given time forced us to wait outside. We were somewhere near the middle of the line with five or six people in front of us. The call was from mom. She doesn’t often call that early. Her voice sounded different. “Where are you?”
“Standing in line at the West Side Market,” I said. “I’ve never had to do this before.”
“Everything is such a mess,’ she said. “What are you going to buy?”
“Fresh fish and whatever else looks good.”
Her voice suddenly changed.
“I’m sorry to call you,” she said. “But your father is sick.”
“Oh, no,” I said. “What’s wrong?”
Mom sounded shaken. “He has symptoms of the COVID-19 virus. That’s what his doctor told us.”
I lost my breath. I stepped out of line and sat on a nearby bench. My hands were shaking. Words flooded my mouth but nothing came out. “I’m so sorry, mom,”
“He’s on the way to the hospital,” she added. “Our doctor said to get him there as soon as possible. His temperature is 102 degrees. He has the chills that shake his body. He aches everywhere. He hasn’t eaten in days.”
Mom gave me the name of the hospital but couldn’t offer any more information on dad’s condition.
“The doctor said that if he has it, so do I,” she said before hanging up. “The doctor told me to get ready.”
I felt utterly helpless. “What can I do?”
“Nothing we can do for now,” she said. “I’ll call you later. I have to go.”
I sat in my car at the West Side Market parking lot stunned.
Wally drove dad to the hospital. He was admitted into the emergency room and given an IV for dehydration. Doctors were treating him for pneumonia. He was too weak to walk or stand up. Chest X-rays confirmed that his lungs were infected. Dad was having trouble breathing. Emergency room doctors administered a COVID-19 test to both of them when they first arrived to the emergency room. They were told results would take days. A doctor showed a short while later to deliver the grim news.
“He has COVID-19 symptoms,” he said. “We won’t have test results until after the weekend. We’re treating him for the virus until then.”
Dad was moved to an intermediate hospital floor and given an antibiotic drip for the pneumonia. When visiting hours were over for the night, mom went home. Nurses said they would call her if they had any news but that she should get some rest. She was going to need it, they assured her.
What happened next can only be attributed to administrative error. At 2:30AM that morning, dad was released from the hospital. He phoned Wally to pick him up. Wally arrived a short while later, checked with the nurses and doctors on call, and sure enough, dad had been released. Maybe it was a shortage of hospital beds, maybe not. Either way, my 89-year father with pneumonia and fever being treated for COVID-19 was standing outside the hospital waiting for his ride.
When he got home, dad went straight to bed. His fever worsened. His cough was suffocating him. By noon, he was ready to go back to the hospital. Nurses in the ER treated him with more antibiotics. Chest x-rays were taken again. He remained in the emergency room most of the afternoon. When the attending doctor arrived and reviewed his chart, the doctor said that he was certain dad had COVID-19. Tests would come back positive.
I had some phone conversations with mom and my siblings by this time. We were all dizzy and confused. I was heartbroken. Mom reminded us that she likely had the virus, too. We knew this would tear through our family like a wildfire in a matter of days or weeks.
I read the New York Times every morning. I understand what devastation the virus could do to our family. As of this writing, over 135,000 Americans have died from COVID19. More than 75,000 new cases are reported in the US every day. The worldwide death toll over 600,000.
Mom was somber when we talked. “We’re part of the statistics now,” she said.
Nurses loaded dad onto a gurney for transport to the hospital’s COVID-19 floor. Total and complete isolation from us. Mom was draped in protective gear. Once he left the ER, dad could not have visitors. The nurses warned mom that he could be isolated for weeks.
I talked to her right before he was wheeled from ER to the Covid19 floor.
“I’m not supposed to be here,” she said. “The nurses said it was okay until they move him. I probably have the virus.”
In the background, electronic clicks and EKG readings drowned out the voices of nurses checking in on him. Mom placed the phone near his lips. He was barely audible.
“Goddam phone,” she said in the background. “I don’t know how to work these.”
“The doctors and nurses treating you okay?” I asked.
I could hear him gasping for air. “I’m not doing well,” he said. His voice faded after that. I was saying goodbye.
“I love you,” I said.
Later that night, Wally sent a text message.
“Still waiting for COVID-19 floor. I’ll take mom home and have her give you a call tomorrow. She’s exhausted and needs some time to recoup. I’ll let you know what’s up as we go along.”
I buried my face in a pillow that night and cried.
I reached out to friends and family for emotional support the next few days. I felt the weight of despair pull me under. I was so numbed my body felt motionless. This is the kind of sorrow that clouds even the most basic of living skills like feeding yourself. I could drive to see them but everyone was either in the hospital or quarantined.
I sat in a dimly lit room for hours. I refused to open my computer. No email or text messages other than family or friends.
Wally texted to say, “He could be there for a week or more. Depends.”
I immediately knew what he meant. Depends how fast the virus moves; depends on whether he could breathe or not; depends on all of those things we have control over. It all depends.
I didn’t reply.
Late afternoon turned into evening. By now, no news seemed like good news. I could accept that, an arrangement I seem to have made in my negations with God.
I sat in our living room looking at the framed pictures of our family taken throughout the years including their 60th wedding anniversary photograph among family holidays and picnics, weddings, and graduations. When I closed my eyes, I imagined dad lying in a hospital bed wrapped in layers of protective plastic, isolated and alone. The things I should have told him. A thousand different things. A million even.
There’s a pyramid shaped skylight mounted directly over our bed. I like to watch airplanes drift by in the early morning leaving a trail behind or marvel at the night during a lightning storm. In winter time, a dusting of snow can diffuse and soften the light.
One night, years ago, a family of urban raccoons was peering into our bedroom through the skylight. Their large beady eyes and tiny bobbling heads were comical. They weren’t there the next night. I eventually found out they ate sections of our rubber roof. Teeth marks were there in the rubber.
It must have been well past midnight when my phone made that pang sound we’re so familiar with when we get a text message. My heart immediately sank. I didn’t want to look at it. The phone made another pang, followed by another. I scrambled for my glasses in the dark and reached for the phone. I read the message.
“Mom just got the news from dad…He tested negative for COVID-19!!!! They’re moving him off the COVID19 tomorrow.”
My sister texted, “Holy shit!”
“He’s negative,” Wally repeated.
I was beyond elated but remained skeptical. This was the same hospital that released him three nights ago.
“OMG, that’s great news,” I group text everyone.
Early the following morning, Wally phoned. There were no available beds on the non-COVID19 floor. They were releasing him the hospital as soon as possible.
“He still has pneumonia and a fever but his tests came back negative,” Wally said, adding, “Moms test came back negative, too.”
I talked to dad later that day. His voice was weak but he sounded relieved. I asked him about the experience. He described the hospital’s COVID-19 floor as the most horrific thing he’d ever experienced.
“You can’t imagine what it’s like,” he said. “I thought that I died.”
He was tested for the virus before leaving the hospital and remains virus free today. He’s currently recovering from pneumonia.
“You’re my hero,” I said holding back tears.
“I’m not leaving the yard,” he said.
Bruce Checefsky is an award-winning photographer and filmmaker and a published writer. His photographs and films have been exhibited and screened nationally and internationally.