Love in the Time of Coronavirus (Part 5)

“It’s just the sniffles,” one of my coworkers opined as her assessment of the corporeal manifestations of coronavirus.

I begged to differ, citing the many descriptions of victims forced onto respirators (of which we likely don’t have nearly enough available) when they are no longer able to breathe on their own, the virus attacking their immune systems and shutting down their organs. I cited the long, deep mass burial trenches in Iran, so vast that they are visible from space. He dismissed my remarks as irrelevant to most of us. Only old people get sick and die of this virus, he insisted.

Oh, well, that makes me feel a lot better. I’m old! It almost feels as if no one cares whether older Americans live or die. The thinning of the herd. The ultimate in being put out to pasture. I mean, I already know that people of my generation are routinely marginalized (unless your name happens to be Trump, Sanders or Biden). But this is beyond the beyonds.

I am also concerned about our caregivers. Should they become ill, who will tend to the needs of those with chronic conditions? So many are able to stay in their homes due because they are tended to by family members, nurses, home health aides. Without this critical assistance, will those unable to care for themselves be thrust into already overcrowded hospitals and nursing homes?

We don’t know how the coming weeks and months will play out. But is encouraging to see that our leaders are beginning to step up and make some hard decisions about the current public health situation. It is further encouraging to see that at least some of the doubters are getting with the program.

I believe in our resilience and I believe that we will persevere and overcome. But this will not happen by trivializing what this virus has the potential to do to us.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus (Part 4)

ON THE GRAPEVINE, KERN COUNTY, CALIFORNIA

Among the joys of traveling is the opportunity to try the wonderful local cuisine spend copious amounts of money for the pleasure of eating the worst road food imaginable and getting sick to your stomach as a reward. Case in point: Tuesday evening, my wife and I had a feast from a local restaurant delivered to our hotel room. Between us, there was a calzone, a sandwich, potato wedges, fried mushrooms, and a dessert. Following a few tentative bites, almost everything ended up in the trash. The dessert should have gone there as well, but no, that I had to eat. The far-too-sweet, far-too-fried dessert laid on my stomach like a brick all night and through the next morning’s training session.

“Are you going to eat breakfast?” asked my work partner as I walked right past the complimentary buffet. “No, thanks,” I mumbled. I conveniently omitted “Not unless you want me to barf all over you.”

“How can you travel at a time like this?” everyone wants to know. Yes, I know I’m older and therefore at risk for contracting coronavirus. No, I do not have a death wish, nor am I looking forward to rotting away in a hospital bed, hooked up to an I.V. But when you work for a living, duty calls. Also, there’s that little detail about paying the bills.

I know that my sister (the one who lives just across the bay from San Francisco) feels the same way. She works in a hospital, where someone is always on hand to take the temperature of staff reporting for duty at the start of their shifts.

My other sister, who lives nearly three thousand miles away in the suburbs of Boston, is being forced into a somewhat different mode of work. She teaches in a private school, and the coronavirus is about to shut it down. All teachers were recently required to participate in a training session to learn how to use technology to keep conducting their classes remotely while everyone stays home.

Nearer to home here in the Sacramento area, the Elk Grove school district has closed up shop. Kids seem mostly immune to coronavirus, I have read, but the teachers and staff don’t enjoy that benefit, and no one wants to see it passed around.

Other school districts have been forced to do some soul searching, torn between “everything seems okay for now” and “what if we wait too long to act, and then it’s too late?”

Workplaces are facing the same challenges. I still haven’t figured out how the coronavirus pandemic is going to affect my employment as a California state government employee. Will we be offered the opportunity to work from home if we so choose? Will we shut down tighter than a drum while thousands of us revert to mandatory remote work status? Or will we continue business as usual and hope for the best? It’s hard to say at this point, but the situation seems to be developing from one day to the next.

I already work from home on occasion, and of course my laptop keeps me working while on the road. So remote work will not be too much of a stretch for me. My wife and her sister (who lives with us) already have 100% telecommuting jobs. So the house is already fully wired with routers and computers and peripherals. The cords in our bedroom alone are bound to cause me to go sprawling onto my face one of these fine days.

My dirty little secret is that I don’t like working from home. My fat fingers don’t do particularly well on my little laptop keyboard, and I miss the two giant monitors that sit on my desk in the office, silently awaiting my return. I do Skype, but only for instant messaging purposes. I have never gotten the hang of the online meeting thing, despite the various types of collaboration software on my laptop. Conference calls, yes. When working from my bedroom, I’m on the phone a lot.

However, the big thing for me is the human contact. I like sitting across the table from one of my subordinates while we strategize how to attack a thorny problem. I like crossing words out in pen, writing in the margins and drawing out ideas on paper as my people brainstorm them. And yes, I like listening to them chat about their home renovations, their vacation plans and their spouses and kids.

Granted, it’s not like any of these things can’t be done remotely. Maybe I’m just old, and have to get with the program, but to me the remote and the virtual just isn’t the same as in-person human contact. But I’m more than willing to learn new ways of working if it will prevent myself and others from getting sick.

Time to take a little nap in the car at a truck stop on the I-5 Grapevine. I’m on the way home from San Bernardino to Yuba County and, thanks to Daylight Savings Time, the sun has yet to rise even though it’s past 6 AM.

Outside my window, two men exiting the truck stop are deep in conversation. As they go by, I hear one of them remark that coronavirus is President Trump’s way of killing off the elderly to reduce the costs of Social Security.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus (Part 3)

SAN BERNARDINO

In the course of a busy day (nine hour drive to southern California, for example), I find myself occupied with thoughts of things other than coronavirus. Inevitably, though, something happens and I suddenly remember.

Today it hit me when I was sitting on the toilet in a Starbucks rest room in suburban San Bernardino County. Now, the rest room has always seemed to me a brief respite from the madding crowd, a few minutes when I can catch my breath and tune out the world. That illusion was shattered from the get-go this time around, thanks to a child having a total meltdown just the other side of the door, screaming and crying about how his Dad is so mean. Thank God I skipped the parenthood thing. It would surely drive me straight into an insane asylum.

Public rest rooms are not the cleanest of places to begin with, of course, but as I sat there, the thought popped into my mind: “Better not touch that grab bar.” And then, “oh my gossshhhh, I touched that filthy door handle!” This must be how people pick up the coronavirus.” And then, “uh-oh… this toilet seat? Ummm…”

Surely you can’t contract coronavirus from a toilet seat, right? My thoughts reverted to junior high, when my classmates jokingly asked (not so jokingly, really) whether you could get pregnant from a toilet seat, whether you could get V.D. from a toilet seat. Now I am truly dating myself. Does anyone even say “V.D.” anymore?

I bet there are some who walk around with their packet of disinfectant wipes and swab the toilet seat before sitting down. That would not be me.

So now I’m supposed to touch that filthy flush handle? Maybe with a wad of toilet paper. I couldn’t wait to apply a double dose of antibacterial soap and wash my hands for twice as long as usual.

The bottom line for we road warriors is that when you gotta go, you gotta go. You say a little prayer and make the best of it.

Speaking of saying a prayer, the Jewish festival of Purim was this week, and I intended to attend synagogue to listen to the reading of the Book of Esther. It tells the story of how, in ancient times, the Jewish people were spared from annihilation at the hands of the evil prime minister Haman. The kids dress up in costumes and everyone makes a ruckus with noisemakers called groggers every time Haman’s name is mentioned in the narrative. Afterwards, we all eat jelly-filled pastries called hamantashen, Yiddish for “Haman’s hats,” named for the triangular shape of both the goodies and the villain’s headgear.

This year, however, work sent me on a last-minute mission to the southland, so no groggers or hamantashen for me. I did, however, find in my email a Vimeo link to a video message to the congregation from my rabbi. (Who knew he was so social media savvy?). If you’re not sick, he said, don’t let worrying about coronavirus keep you away from Purim services.

I am impressed by the rabbi’s confidence that God will protect us. This actually made me feel pretty good about things, for half a minute anyway. If we were spared from annihilation by an evil Persian bigot, surely the Almighty will spare us from the ravages of coronavirus as well?

Then I read about the containment order in effect in New Rochelle, New York, not far from my old stomping grounds. The National Guard has been called out to deliver food to quarantined residents and to clean gathering places, such as schools and mass transit. As it turns out, a local synagogue has been identified as “ground zero” for coronavirus infections in the area. It could just as well have been any large gathering, I realize, but still, the spook factor persists. Not that I consider myself lucky that I was forced to miss services. After all, I’m in an arguably even worse situation in that I’ve spent the past two days assisting conference rooms full of people with their account issues.

An old lady, grateful for my help, touched my hand; I didn’t have the heart to tell her not to do that. People just aren’t used to the current state of affairs. We all want to believe that everything is going to be alright. And no one wants to change their daily routines. Not only is doing so a royal inconvenience, but it would only confirm that something is terribly wrong.

What seems to be getting through to the public is a mixed message. No need to panic, kiddos! We’ll all get through this just fine. Just stay holed up in your house or apartment, work remotely, stay out of the supermarkets and the big box stores, and whatever you do, don’t go near another human being. You don’t want to get sick and die, do you? Watch a movie on Netflix. Read a book on your Kindle or Nook. Play a video game. Talk to someone on Facetime. Make Instacart and Amazon richer than they already are. Enjoy this time of license to cherish your own company.

Now go wash your hands.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus (Part 2)

Saturday afternoon. Mom calls, and she’s agonizing over whether to concede to Kaiser’s wishes to conduct more radioactive scans to determine whether the cancerous cells from the dermoids they recently removed could have relocated to some other area of her body. The last couple of scans were clean. She already fended off their efforts to start her on chemotherapy “just in case.” To kill all those remaining cancer cells that they haven’t been able to find.

Mom says the radiation can itself cause cancer. Her doctor tried to allay her fears by assuring her that any such cancer wouldn’t show up for ten years. So she should end up with cancer when she’s 96 years old? Neither of us see the point.

“Another thing to consider,” I tell her, “is the coronavirus epidemic. Now is not the time to compromise your immune system.” Mom agrees, telling me that she heard that the average age of death from coronavirus is 81.

Then Mom asks me how to pronounce “coronavirus.” Is it corolla? No, Mom, that’s a Toyota. “Oh, so like Queens,” she tells me. Yes, Mom, like Queens. Also like the town here in California. Also like the halo around the sun. Also like the beer.

Sunday evening. My sister is just getting off her shift at the hospital when I text to ask her perspective on the coronavirus epidemic. She texts me back a photo of herself wearing blue sterile gloves and a blue face mask. It’s not one of those N95 masks that everyone is running to buy, she explains. It’s a droplet mask, designed to protect her should a patient cough or sneeze on her.

I tell Sis that I feel like a sitting duck. Here I am, working at close quarters with four thousand people, at least a few of whom have recently had the “flu.” If that’s not enough, I run all over the state to conduct training with members of the public. Surely some of them will cough or sneeze on me. I need more Clorox wipes. (Good luck in finding any on the bare supermarket shelves.)

Sis tells me that I have the wrong attitude. Yes, 70% of humanity will be infected by coronavirus. But only 3% are expected to die from it, which she tells me is probably more like 1% in real terms. Most people won’t even get sick or will have only mild symptoms, she tells me. Still, she’s staying away from malls, movie theaters and other crowded places. And she wishes she could convince her tenant to stop visiting the public swimming pool every day.

I’m picking up decidedly mixed messages. I’m still a couple of decades away from the age of 81 cited by Mom, but I’m no spring chicken either. Even if I myself stay away from crowds, I’ll surely be in close contact with a family member or coworker who has been to Wal-Mart or Costco to stock up on toilet paper or bottled water (if they have any left).

So, what does this all mean? Should I hunker down and shelter in place to save myself? Should I become a hermit?

Somehow I’m not ready to go to such extremes. I have work to do, and I intend to do it. And in my line of work, that means meeting people. So yes, I am taking a chance. But I refuse to capitulate to the panic mongerers. In the immortal words of FDR, we have nothing to fear but fear itself.

For now, however, please excuse me. I have to go wash my hands. Including the spaces between my fingers and underneath my fingernails. Back in 20 seconds!

Love in the Time of Coronavirus (Part 1)

With apologies to Gabriel García Márquez

My parents have lived in California’s verdant Central Valley for nearly a quarter of a century, since they retired from careers in education, sold their house in the New York City suburbs and pointed their Cutlass Supreme westward.

Their home is a three to four hour drive south of us, depending on the traffic on Highway 99 through Stockton, Modesto and Merced. Their subdivision was built right on the edge of the “rangeland,” where herds of cattle chow down on the tall grass that sprouts up when it rains and the brown stubble that remains when it doesn’t. Driving through the middle of it on Highway 145 looks every bit like Kansas or South Dakota.

Now that my parents are 86 years old, I worry about them living out on the wild prair-ee. Mom recently made it through surgery and a cancer scare, while Dad hobbles around, bent over but still managing to mow the lawn and drive into Fresno every Monday for all-you-can-eat shrimp at Red Lobster. He had a doctor appointment this week after his foot turned red and swelled up so much that he could no longer wear his usual tennis shoes and had to resort to a pair of open-toed sandals. Kaiser adhered to form. Yeah, you have gout and arthritis, so what else is new? Stick out your arm for a shingles shot and get thee gone, old man.

Don’t try to tell Dad about the connection between gout and excessive consumption of shellfish. You’d be wasting your time.

Mom had to come north to Sacramento (40 miles south of here) for her surgery and now for periodic follow-ups with an oncologist. During one such trip last week, my parents stayed overnight at a Sacramento hotel and we drove down to take them to dinner at Sizzler. Salad bar for three of us and (of course) shrimp for Dad.

Mom’s birthday is coming up on Saturday, and we hoped my parents would meet us halfway for dinner. Unfortunately, Dad and his hurting foot aren’t up to the drive. I’ll be down south in San Bernardino for work this week, and we’ll likely stop by to see them on the way home.

Just the other day, Mom heard Dad singing in the bathroom. She walked over to investigate and found him merrily crooning a tuneful rendition of “Happy Birthday to You.”

“It’s not my birthday yet,” objected Mom. Cuz, y’know, the big day is not for another whole week. No sense in rushing things.

Dad explained that he wasn’t singing to her; he was merely washing his hands. Two verses of the birthday song guarantees you the 20 seconds of ablution necessary to keep the coronavirus away, he reminded her.

What a world we live in!

Flu Shot

My grandnephew is exactly one month old today.  He has resided in an incubator in the hospital since he was born.  Weight at birth:  About 1.7 pounds.  He has his own dedicated nurse attending to him, 24 hours a day.

Weylyn (I know… don’t ask) was two months premature and, to me at least, didn’t even look human.  The first time I saw him, the hospital had him swaddled to within an inch of his life.  I couldn’t even tell which end was the head and which the feet.

Today, he actually looks like a baby and won’t keep his arms tucked in because he likes to wave them around.  I hear he manages to dislodge the tubes they have connected to his little body.

I don’t even want to think about the hospital bills involved.  I’m guessing close to a million dollars at this point.

Meanwhile, my young nephew and his wife have taken to living in a trailer parked in the hospital lot, convenient to pumping and delivering breast milk every three or four hours.  About once a week, they go home for a proper shower and a nap in a decent bed.  Family visits them every day or two, bringing food or taking them out to eat.

The doctors say that Weylyn can go home when he weighs four pounds.  It shouldn’t be long, as he topped three pounds this week.  We suppose he’ll be over at our house a lot, particularly after his mother goes back to work.  My wife and her sister (who lives with us) have volunteered for day care duties.

Well, the hospital says that anyone who comes into contact with Weylyn needs to have a flu shot.  Gulp!

I am one of those needle phobic wimps and haven’t had a flu shot for almost twenty years (and even then only because my doctor collared me at an office visit and wouldn’t let me leave without one).

My 85 year old father got his annual flu shot last week, but Mom, who had surgery a month ago, decided to pass.  Not long ago, waiting for a blood draw in the Kaiser lab, I heard an old man complaining about how last year he got a flu shot and came down with the flu anyway.  Is this whole thing a fool’s errand?

Yeah, I know.  Weylyn.

I don’t trust flu shots.  I received one when I was in my 20s that left me sick in bed for days.  I’m told it all depends on the particular strain they use in the vaccine in a given year, whether it’s live or killed, and I don’t know how many other factors.

Oh, and I hear that if you’re over 55 years old, which my wife and I both are, they inject you with a super strong dose so that you don’t die when a sneaky flu bug gets into your body and causes your immune system to give up the ghost.

I like to think things have improved since the 1980s, but about ten years ago, many of my coworkers took advantage of a flu vaccine clinic at my job and proceeded to get sick.  So maybe things haven’t changed so much.

Except that they have.  On Saturday, I grabbed my cane and hobbled down what felt like a mile of corridors to the flu clinic at Kaiser Hospital.  My wife, who doesn’t do flu shots either, got one as well.  “I’m only doing this for Weylyn,” she told me.  Um, that’s for sure!  The things you’ll do for a little preemie baby.  Sheesh!

I pulled my left arm out of my shirt, felt the alcohol swab, and prepared for the pain of a long needle making its insidious way into my muscle.

But it never happened.  It took about two seconds and the Kaiser lady said “all done.”  I barely felt anything.  Modern times!

So, does this mean that I’m not going to be stuck in bed puking for the next three days?

A Tale of Two Hospitals (Mom’s Surgery – Part III)

Three weeks have come and gone since my parents left our home and returned to the Central Valley following Mom’s surgery.  Just when it all started to feel like a bad dream, Mom let me know that she may need to have a second surgery.

And finally, after avoiding the subject, in a phone conversation with her this week, we started to come to grips with the unholy trinity:  Surgery followed by radiation and chemotherapy.  This has turned into the dreaded nightmare from which you cannot wake up.

I’d rather not remember the details of Mom’s surgery.  My parents stayed with us a full week, Dad sleeping on a blow-up mattress in the living room, Mom sleeping on the couch before and after her hospital stay, everyone in the house stressed out to the max.  I had to stay out of work to play babysitter and chauffeur.  Attending services with my parents on the first night of Rosh Hashannah and leaving early because Mom didn’t feel well.  Ferrying them back and forth to Kaiser in Sacramento for testing, admission, post-operative doctor visits.  Mom crying on the phone to Kaiser because she’s being transferred from one office to the next, no one seeming to know what time she should report for surgery.  Meeting the surgeons after they put an IV into Mom.  Not knowing what to say to them.  Not knowing how to reassure Mom.  Not knowing freaking anything anymore.  Feeling dumb as a sack of beans.  Horrible pain for Mom, endless waiting for the rest of us.  Carrying around my laptop and trying to get some work done during the waiting.  Hobbling around the hospital with my cane.

Mom, pumped full of morphine and still in pain despite the drugs, begging the hospital staff to let her stay in post-op a little longer.  Request denied. Kaiser trying to send her home before she was ready, resulting in Mom crying and horribly abusing the nurses.  Mom being fitted with a catheter, but not before being shown a scary film about catheter care and the awful things that can happen if you mess up.  Mom yelling that the catheter felt like someone trying to forcibly have intercourse with her.  Going into the bathroom with Mom to assure her that she did not break the emptying valve.  First night back at our house, Mom waking me up by kicking my bedroom door at 2 in the morning, yelling that she was having an emergency and needed to go back to the hospital.  Carrying on about red streaks near her wound and how the literature given to her by the hospital said she should contact her doctor immediately if she experiences such symptoms.  Mom dropping her pants so I could see.  Um, a son isn’t supposed to do this, uh, right?  Me assuring her that it’s just normal bruising. Go back to bed, Mom.  Mom blurting out that my wife hates having her here and that she is going to divorce me.  No, Mom, she’s not going to divorce me.  Sigh.

A full week after their arrival, my parents finally headed home.  Thirty minutes after they left, my grandnephew was born at a different Kaiser hospital, two months premature.  He weighed just over a pound and a half and went straight to neonatal intensive care, where he remains.  My wife and her sister drive down there about four times a week to be supportive of my young nephew and his wife.  I go about once a week.  You know me:  Have cane, will hobble down hospital corridors.  Hit the sink and scrub up to my elbows so I can see the baby in his incubator.  Hobble back down the hall to sit with family.

I think there’s an ancient oriental curse:  May your life be filled with hospitals.

As for Mom, she is recovering nicely, feeling better with those heavy teratomas removed, but feeling too tired to do much.  It will take time, I’ve assured her.  At least it isn’t cancer.  A blood test before the surgery reassured us of this.

Then one of the surgeons called Mom last week.  Um, we looked at the contents of the teratomas under a microscope and squamous cancer cells were found.  We were shocked!  We’ve never seen this before.  We have to do a PET scan in November to see whether cancer has metastasized to other parts of your body.

I now call Mom three times per week.  She vents and I listen.  Listening is good, I tell myself.  All you can do is be there for her.  I can only hope that I am doing this right.  For after spending a life as a writer, a man of words, I find that they have disintegrated into a meaningless babble of syllables, vowels, consonants.  The words, my trusty tools, my stock in trade, have deserted me.  And I don’t know what to say.