BIGGER THAN U.S. STEEL
“Can you come to mom’s today?” my sister Camille asks.
My eighty-six-year-old mother has been hospitalized three times in the past three years. Initially for breaking her vertebrae, then twice for breaking the same hip. In the wake of this, my brother Frank, Camille, my other sister Lynn, and I are trying to figure out how to best take care of her.
“I have to figure out my schedule. Maybe I can squeeze in the train ride in between meetings and calls.” I often work from my mom’s place these days when I can manage a two-hour window to travel the distance from South Brooklyn to North East Queens. I need the whole two hours in case there are service delays.
Camille is silent for a beat.
“You sound worried,” I say. Between Camille, Lynn and Frank we’re usually discussing schedules to take care of my mom, but there’s something else going on now.
“Bob is sick,” says Camille. “He’s been coughing and has had a fever.” Camille’s husband, Bob, has been sick for a few weeks now and is getting worse. Two weeks ago, we would have thought that he had the flu or a cold.
“I don’t know if I should go over to mom’s now,” adds Camille, sighing.
I’m taking this in quietly. Thinking.
“What’s his fever?” I ask.
“One hundred and one for a few days.”
“Has he taken Tylenol?”
“Is he coughing?”
“Has he lost his sense of taste and smell?”
“That’s one of the symptoms of COVID.”
“Please don’t tell me this. I’m going to lose my mind.”
I say that maybe I misread that somewhere.
“I’ll come to mom’s today,” I say, realizing the urgency. I’ll have to rearrange my day and leave immediately.
As I walk to the subway, there are ambulances zooming back and forth on the street. Then on the train, I see more people wearing masks than just a few days ago.
When I get to my mom’s place, I immediately walk over to the kitchen sink and wash my hands. Then I take the groceries out of the bag, one at a time and either wash them with disinfectant or wash them with soap in the sink.
“What are you doing?” my mother demands to know. My mom has always been stern, but in her present condition, she is mean. The person that took care of us all our lives has been swallowed by an extreme version of her former self. As if the fangs that she used to fight through this life are now biting back on her. This other person is sometimes nasty, rude, suspicious, and curt. Attributes we would never have previously associated with my mom.
“I need to wash everything down first,” I say from the kitchen. I repeat myself a few times shouting over the blare of the television. She watches my every move cautiously.
“Are you crazy?” she asks in an irritated voice when I step into the living room, having washed everything. She continues talking but I can’t hear her.
Now I ask her to lower the television. A game show is playing at full volume.
“You’re such a pain in the ass,” she says. I take the remote and put the television on mute.
“Do you know what’s going on, mom?”
“I know what’s going on, but this is ridiculous.”
The fact is she does not know what’s going on. This is not the same sharp person she’s always been. She doesn’t read anymore. She watches Family Feud, The Price is Right and other game shows at lunatic volume levels. I visit to care for and spend time with her but have to argue about the television for the first ten minutes. Every time.
When I leave, I take the train home, now worried about Bob, hoping he’ll be ok.
If Bob is infected, Camille might also be infected. And there is no reason to believe that I am not infected. Or Frank isn’t infected. Or Lynn isn’t infected. How can anyone know who is infected? No one can get tested. No one can get admitted to the hospital. How can we take care of my mom if any one of us is unknowingly infected?
And every day gets worse. More and more people start wearing masks on New York City streets. Everywhere. And the deaths pile up. In rapid succession, schools close, the shut-in is instituted. We are in full crisis mode. The news rushes over us like a dark cloud.
And now with Bob getting worse, and Camille getting more worried, we need to figure out who can visit my mom and when. We all agree to pause visiting her for at least two weeks just to know if any of us are infected.
And at this point we are not even sure if we can get a health aide to attend to my mom. People are told not to leave their houses unless they need to go to the store, get medical supplies or exercise. Everyone is scared of each other. You can see the fear in the faces of people on the streets. The masks only make people seem more menacing.
At home, the nights are now filled with the screams of ambulance sirens going all night. There are blue and red flashing ambulance lights blinking outside of our apartment almost every night. All night long.
My mom spends the next two weeks alone. Sometimes she answers the phone, sometimes she doesn’t. I imagine my mom creeping from bed to chair using her walker, shackled to an oxygen tank. Her days and nights indistinguishable. Her only company, a shrieking television resounding with the dings of gameshows.
After two weeks, when I go to visit her, she doesn’t answer the intercom. I use the key I have, just in case, to open the door.
As I walk in, I find her lying on the couch, her mouth wide open. With her chest rising and falling, I can tell that she’s sleeping.
When she wakes up and sees me, her eyebrows wrinkle, not sure if she is dreaming me, or if I’m really there.
“Are you ok, mom?”
“I’m a little confused,” she says. There’s no smile on her face. She looks pale and vacant. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she knows her children are always there for her. But I know at this moment, she’s feeling abandoned. In my mother’s current mental state, it’s hard for her to grasp that the entire world is grappling with a pandemic. She forgets things people tell her. The news befuddles her. What’s true and not true? And no one has ever seen anything like this before.
I take her oxygen level with the finger device she keeps near the television remote control. She guards them both like a snake protecting her eggs. When I try to take the oxygen monitor, she eyes me sharply, like I’m stealing it from her.
As I measure her oxygen level, she drifts in and out, her eyes opening and closing.
I use the oxygen monitor a few times to make sure of the reading. Her oxygen is dangerously low.
I call Camille.
“Her oxygen is at like seventy-five.”
“What, my god. That’s frightening.”
My mother is very weak. I get her up to eat, but she almost immediately needs to lie down again.
We call the doctor, who prescribes prednisone and antibiotics, just to be sure. Perhaps she picked up the virus. She doesn’t have the telltale symptoms, but she clearly isn’t well. Her oxygen level has taken a dangerous dip.
“With the oxygen levels she’s showing, she could have a sudden shut down of a vital organ,” the doctor says. He explains that this is why her brain isn’t working correctly.
After talking to the doctor, Camille tells me about a conversation she has with my mom a few days ago.
“Mom, we’re nervous about seeing you.”
“Would you rather kill me with the virus or kill me with loneliness?”
“Mom, that’s a crazy question.”
“No, I’m serious. I’d rather die of the virus than not see my children.”
While my sister tells me the story, I imagine my mother, who is already unable to breathe due to seventy plus years of smoking, being intubated. Alone in a hospital bed, hanging onto life by a thread.
As she speaks to my mother, Camille holds back her emotion; she cannot let my mom know how she feels at that moment. My mom has made us all tough skinned though her children all cry on the inside. Privately.
“What do you want me to do?” asks Camille.
“I want to see my children. I need to see you. I don’t care if this damn thing kills me.”
And so we go to see my mom, risking everything to take care of her. To be with her. What other choice do we have?
In a few days, her oxygen level has gotten better. The color in her face returns. The scowl has been replaced by a sometime smile.
After spending the day with her, having made sure she eats and takes her pills, I help her to the couch. I have to go home now. Camille will stop by in an hour or so.
“I’m on the road to recovery,” she says, unable to keep her eyes open. “I’m bigger than U.S. Steel,” she adds, as she falls asleep.
“Love you, mom,” I say, laughing, as I close the door.
There is no reply. She is already sleeping.
Mike Fiorito is the author of Call Me Guido (OVUNQUE SIAMO PRESS, 2019)