It’s never good when a phone call wakes you in the middle of the night. At 4:33 my phone rang. I bolted up in bed and answered it. Knowing immediately it was my parents. It was my mom. My dad was worse. He had the chills. He was shaking uncontrollably.
“But can he breath?” I asked, frantic.
“Yes,” my mother assured me. “But he needs to go the the hospital. We called an ambulance. They won’t him to Columbia Presbyterian. They’ll only take him to the closest one.”
“I’m on my way. I gotta shower and I’m on my way.”
“Don’t panic,” my mother said as I hung up the phone, but it was too late. I was already panicking.
An ambulance would have taken my dad to Elmhurst. I didn’t want him there. Neither did my mother. It’s a public hospital. Yesterday, thirteen people died at that hospital. They are already over run with Coronavirus patients. My parents have always gone to Columbia Presbyterian. It’s the hospital in which their doctor works. They have his records. We knew he had that working to his advantage. They are also one of the top hospitals in the nation.
I was on the road by five. There was no traffic. There are lots of sucky things about this pandemic but the lack of traffic is certainly something I could get used to to. Traveling over the bridges without the anxiety of how bad the back up will be is blissful.
But the minute I arrived at my parents’ house, it was evident that my dad was NOT breathing well. Not at all. He struggled to get down the stairs, moving down on his butt instead of his feet. He was visibly shaking. His speech was even more slurred than yesterday. He was barely coherent. My mother didn’t want me to get near him because of the virus. He was about to get into my car, where exposure was unavoidable, but they were still trying to protect me. My mom put gloves on his hands, and a mask on his face — construction masks that she had bought years ago in an attempt to possibly quell her allergies when gardening. She bought them, and promptly forgot about them, until now.
Mom helped dad into my car, both of them sitting in the back, trying to keep as much distance from me as possible. I drove over the Queensboro Bridge — in the heart of what was once rush hour — and there was no traffic. I flew into Manhattan. At the hospital, I couldn’t park so I dropped mom and dad off and went in search of a parking spot. I didn’t kiss dad goodbye. I didn’t hug him. I was being cautious. I didn’t want to increase my chances of bringing the virus home to my son. I felt certain I’d see him again. But I wish I had hugged him. I wish I had told him I loved him.
I drove around and eventually parked illegally. There I waited for mom to call. When she did, I went back and picked her up. She looked calm and composed, though disappointed they wouldn’t let her stay with my dad.
“How is he?” I asked.
“Good.” I saw her nod as if in a trance in the rear view mirror. “They put him on oxygen. He wasn’t breathing well so they put him on oxygen, but he’s okay.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes,” but as I drove the nightmare of the previous night unfolded. Mom told me that he had collapsed twice — once in the living room, once in the bathroom. She had trouble picking him up, but she managed. He stomach was wrecked. He couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t get comfortable. His breathing didn’t sound right.
His breathing didn’t sound right? “What? Why didn’t you call me.”
“You father is so thick. So stubborn. He kept telling me he was okay.”
I should have taken him to the hospital yesterday. I knew I should have gone yesterday.
“He’s going to be okay,” mom promised me. (The same promise I made my son yesterday.)
Now, I wasn’t so optimistic.
Since I was in New York I took my mother grocery shopping. She doesn’t drive — which is why they needed me to take dad to the hospital in the first place. In the store, my dad called. I was happy to hear him though he sounded terrible, slurred, not at all himself. He said he was trying to call my mother, but her phone hadn’t rung. I asked if he wanted to speak with her. He said no, but he wanted me to tell her they were going to put him on a ventilator. Now it was I, standing in the frozen meat section, who couldn’t breathe. It’s as if all the oxygen were sucked out of the store. No, not dad. Not my father. No. In shock I hung up. Again, I don’t think told him I loved him. I should have said, “I love you.”
At my parents’ house, we waited for the doctor to call. I had too much nervous energy. Plus I was trying to avoid being inside, and so I went for a walk. Half way home, I called my mom and asked if she had heard anything. She did but she said she wanted me to come home and she’d tell me. Good news doesn’t need to wait, so I insisted she tell me immediately.
“It’s not good,” she sounded distant and far away. His kidney’s are failing. He needs dialysis.”
“What does that mean? Will he make it?”
“The doctor’s not sure. Sometimes people pull through after dialysis, but with the virus. It all happens so fast.”
Too fast. We had plans. We were supposed wait out this pandemic with them in Long Island. We were supposed to go to Disney. I promised my son he’d see him again.
“We should have taken him yesterday,” I said berating myself. I knew it was bad yesterday when I heard him speak.
“The doctor said it wouldn’t have mattered. In all likelihood, they would have sent him home if he wasn’t this bad.”
“Send him home. But—”
“It’s the virus,” mom cut me off. “Things are different. Even the doctors are trying to figure it all out.”
“I’ll be home soon.” I hung up and cried. I cried like I haven’t cried in years. Not since my grandmother died. Not since I was my son’s age and I lost the grandparent I loved most. The grandparent who meant the world to me, as my father means the world to my son. And then I wasn’t crying just for my dad. I was ten years old again and crying for my grandmother, because I knew exactly how my son would feel. How awful it is when you lose someone you adore. I knew exactly how devastated this would make him. Grandpa is his rock. His idol. His hero. And now…
I couldn’t stop the tears. In waves, they tumbled down my face.
Forget what you see on the news. This is the face of the coronavirus. A ten year old, curled up crying on the couch. A beloved grandson, dressing up like a gangster and shooting imaginary enemies because he can’t kill the real one. A ten year old whose heart is breaking. A little boy who was looking forward to another summer on the beach with his grandfather. The pandemic isn’t about statics or a failed federal government. It certainly isn’t a hoax. It’s about one of the people I love most being taken from me way to soon.
Early in the year, I had suggested my dad not plan a Disney trip this coming summer. My son’s behavior didn’t warrant it. He argued, “Your mother and I aren’t getting any younger. I want to take him, before I’m not here.” But he was healthy. A week ago he was healthy, and happy and looking forward to Easter with his grandson, the greatest joy in his life, and now non of us may ever see him again. And he very well may not get that one last trip to Florida, one final chance to spoil his grandson.
And because my mother may be infected with the virus, and the house most certainly is, I can’t be with my mother and my son. I cannot be a support system for the both of them. But my mother cannot be alone. Not now. Not at a time like this. And so I will stay with her. My son will have his other mother — for now. Until I can be with him again.
I went home briefly to pick up clothes. I ran out so quickly this morning I even forgot my coat. I returned to Queens at 5:30 pm. In normal times, I’d have sat in traffic for hours trying to get over the bridges. But again, no one was on the road, no one but me, but I’d gladly sit in hours upon hours of brutal traffic if it meant I could see my father again.
As I write, I am home with mom. She is sitting in the living room, flipping through channels on the television, but every show upsets her. Neither of us can tolerate the news. Our world has shrunk and it’s crumbling. The outside world feels irrelevant. Happy shows upset her because she is so far from being happy. Depressing shows make her feel worse. And schmaltzy shows remind her of my dad. He loved schmaltzy shows, the more more surgery the better. They always had a happy ending, and we may not.
Mom is reminiscing. Talking about dad. I can’t count how many times she has told me that my father was super proud and ecstatic that I named my son after him. He told everyone, she said, with big smile that he has one grandson, but that one grandson has his name. My mother told me I couldn’t have given him a better gift. My son was the best thing that every happened to my dad. He had wanted to be the best grandfather a kid could have. It always made him sad that he never knew his grandparents. He wanted to be what he never had.
The doctor called. My dad is not getting any better. He’s bad. He is on a ventilator. He is medicated and sleeping. He is not in pain. But his kidneys aren’t working. If he survives the night they will start him on dialysis
All I have eaten today is ice cream. Once upon a time, I believed that ice cream could solve any problem. That it could ease your sorrow. Make you feel better. I was wrong.
I’m now drinking a Black Russian. However, that’s just making me think of dad. The bottle of Kahlua in the liquor cabinet was unopened. Dad had bought it just for me. Black Russians are my drink. But I was supposed to be drinking this cocktail with him, not alone. We always had cocktails together. But now…
This is my regret: I wish I had gotten out of the car and hugged Dad before my mother walked him into the emergency room. I’d give anything to hug him again. I wish I could talk to him. I wish I could tell him — at least one more time — that I love him.
Elizabeth Jaeger is a writer, mother and photographer. She is the Book Review editor for OVUNQUE SIAMO. You can read her blog here.