Hospital Food

As a hospital patient, I am finding that the best meal of the day is breakfast. After all, it’s hard to mess up breakfast. Corn Flakes, Raisin Bran, hot oatmeal, cream of wheat — you know what you’re getting with cereal. Order a bagel and a fruit cup; it’s hard to go wrong. Better to stay away from anything more adventurous. French toast or an omelette comes pre-packaged and is asking for trouble and the risk of inedibility.

Lunch and dinner are more problematic, particularly if you don’t eat meat and have medical restrictions as well. Choices are somewhat narrowed. I have now eaten something called vegetarian stew with rice twice (it’s mostly banana squash, zucchini and garbanzos). Likewise, an egg salad sandwich twice. Cottage cheese and fruit has become a go-to item. Fortunately, the hospital kitchen offers tomato soup and vegetable soup daily. A small dish of soup with a roll and margarine is something I’m grateful for when the rest of the meal is ick. Take tasteless mac ‘n cheese with bland baby food carrots as a case in point (I ended up with that on my tray twice). Or so-called vegetable lasagna, clearly a figment of someone’s demented imagination.

Dessert depends on whether I get the nice order taker lady or the Dietary Enforcer. In the former case, I might score a lemon bar. In the latter, it’s another fruit cup for sure. My ace in the hole is my discovery that the nurses on this floor do have a stock of tiny ice cream cups in a freezer. Wake me up to take ten pills at 3:30 am and you can guarantee that I will be asking for one. Chocolate, please.

Of course, to have any chance of receiving a reasonable meal in a hospital, you have to order it first. This can be a challenge, particularly if you happen to be sleeping or out for a procedure in another department when the order takers come around with their iPads. You can always call your order in to the dietary department, if you can get through to them. Most of the time, I can’t. Last resort is writing my order on a meal form and asking a nurse to fax it in. Failing that, a patient can ask for whatever meal happens to be an extra on the cart. I imagine I’d have to be pretty hungry to settle for that.

But, as I mentioned, I am lucky enough here in the cancer wing to have that little something up my sleeve.

Chocolate, please.

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Smile Therapy

😊 I have long been a bottom-line kind of guy, a value instilled in me early and often by my mother. Among her favorite aphorisms was “the operation was a success but the patient died.” I interpreted this to mean “don’t sugarcoat your failures.” You either reach your goals or you don’t, and you’re fooling yourself if you think there’s any in between. This is the way the world works, and the seriousness of the situation warrants treatment of the pretty scenery along the way as a dangerous and unwelcome distraction that may lead to never reaching your destination.

😊 In my school days, this meant ignoring my friends (“They’re not your friends, they’re your playmates!”) and their fads and fashions, and going my own way. Who cares if they fail, my only concern should be my own success.

😊 This type of goal-oriented worldview makes it difficult to focus on the present. From what I’ve read, “living in the moment” is essential for good mental health even in the best of circumstances. As hard as this has always been for me, a cancer diagnosis has made it nigh well impossible.

😊 I seem to be confused as to which stage of grief I should be in. My natural tendencies are to skip over all the denial and bargaining malarkey in favor of going straight to acceptance. I am always saying “it is what it is.” Facts are good.

😊 Except that the experts say this cannot be done. You have to do the steps. I may be engaging in an effort as futile as riding a self-actualization catapult to the apex of Maslow’s pyramid while perishing of hunger and thirst.

😊 This in no way inhibits my “acceptance” stage pull toward making arrangements. My wife and I recently made wills. I found the cemetery where I wish to be buried and talked with them about a traditional burial and the costs involved. I just want to go down there, sign the contract and hand over the money. I want it done.

😊 My wife accuses me of having given up, and I see her point. While that is not my intent, I don’t want any truck with dishonesty games either. The problem is that not all the facts are in yet. I am still undergoing tests. I plan to do whatever treatment is recommended. And the thought of being a cancer survivor brings a smile to my face. Indeed, the very act of smiling has begun to take on meaning of its own for me. This is no small thing, as my natural disposition might best be described as “grumpy.” Insert ghosts of Lemmon and Matthau here.

😊 So, at least at this point, I cannot agree with my wife’s assessment that I have given up. I pray daily and have others pray for me. And I practice what I have dubbed “smile therapy.” Eye roll, I know. I smile at myself in the mirror every day, just to remind myself that I still can. That anything is possible. Smiling as an act of defiance.

😊 Smile therapy has become particularly important to me in light of my twin bogeymen, pain and the narcotic medication being used to relieve it. My continued ability to work from home has been essential as well. As I explained to my boss the other day, work takes my mind off things.

😊 I thank God for small blessings. And I try not to fixate on those aspects of self-care that I could recently handle and that have become extremely difficult for me in a matter of just a few weeks. I refer to basic tasks such as lifting my right leg to climb into the car or into bed. Some days I can do it, but on others, my muscles go on strike and adamantly refuse. I would be totally out of luck if not for the assistance of my patient and long-suffering wife.

😊 I am tired all the time. Granted, I was never a high-energy person, even in my younger days. Now, however, I am learning to accept a new normal in which taking a shower uses up about every ounce of energy I possess. We ordered a shower chair, and I eagerly anticipate its arrival. I am able to work a full eight-hour day at my computer while seated in my armchair, getting up only to use the rest room. When 5:00 rolls around, I have just enough left in the tank to undress, get in bed, and be out like a light.

😊 Most of the layers of my onion have been peeled away. It makes for a much smaller world. I can only imagine that this will be exacerbated once I begin chemotherapy. I’ll just have to laugh while singing the “It’s a Small World” song from Disneyland (perhaps vomiting in between the repetitive verses).

😊 I do not believe that acceptance of all I have described means that I have “given up.” As I recently explained in decidedly terse terms, “it sucks, but it is what it is.” Denial would be pointless, and I certainly don’t have the energy to bargain as if this were some type of contract negotiation. No rageatar, por favor. For me, acceptance is where it’s at.

😊 But you know me. I need to have a goal. And I do. I want that Cancer Survivor shirt, size 4XL.

😊 Until I get it, I’ll keep right on smiling in the mirror.

😊 Just don’t tell anyone, please. I wouldn’t want to ruin my reputation.

Telework Dreams and Babies

Life in the Time of Coronavirus

I live inside a dream, a dream from which I cannot wake, but one I can look out of, through shimmering gossamer curtains, into a distorted image of what used to be my life. I want to go out there again, but the membrane is impermeable. There is no passage, just a fogged-up window. I am stuck here inside a cocoon quarantine of my own making, from which no governor’s order can ever release me.

4:30 AM. I wake early, despite my comfy mattress, courtesy of the back pain that has dogged me since I took a fall in my own bedroom three months ago. I think of my grandmother, healthy at the age of 97, until she fell off her stationary bicycle, broke her hip, and quickly declined and died. I am too young for this.

I futz around reading quarantine journals on my phone until my back hammers at me sufficiently that I have to get up. Untangle myself from the electric blanket’s cord. Grab on to the soft leather armchair next to the bed and pull myself up. I’d better haul myself to the bathroom before my wife wakes up and has to use it.

We have a second bathroom in this house, but it is up front, where my sister-in-law and her boyfriend live. Knowing my proclivity for wandering about in varying stages of undress, I am under strict orders from my wife not to leave our bedroom without pants on. I need dibs on that toilet.

I sit on the pot for a few minutes, wallowing in self-pity, knowing it will hurt when I stand up. Not my back. I seem to have developed other problems, and I’m hoping it won’t be long until the doctor figures out what they are. Gall bladder? Cracked rib? Spleen? Hernia? Who the heck knows. It hurts when I cough. Also when I move. Also when I don’t move.

My doctor has ordered an ultrasound. They can get me in Sunday afternoon, which means I get to fast all day. Unless I want to wait another two weeks until they can schedule me in the morning. Okay, Sunday it is. I will grab my cane and venture into the bowels of Kaiser Hospital, the basement where they do all the imaging.

“Are you gonna be in there?” I hear my wife grumble, still half asleep. “I’m almost done,” I call out in response. Clean myself up, leave the light on for her, go wash my hands under the warm tap. I pump the soap dispenser filled with something called Japanese Cherry Blossom, lather up and count out 25 seconds as I scrub up. One Mississippi, two Mississippi. I always figure that a few extra seconds can’t hurt, particularly if my count is a little off.

I hear my wife’s rhythmic breathing and I know she has fallen back to sleep. It seems the two of us are always falling somewhere these days. Asleep, away, apart, on the floor, on our faces, into outer space. We live in Pandemic Land, transported there like stowaways, without a ticket or passport, as if beamed aboard by Scotty. I turn out the light and let her sleep.

Back in bed, now well after 5 AM, I hear my sister-in-law rattling around in the kitchen, see the light shine in beneath my bedroom door. I hear the metallic percussion of a pot, the clank of coffee cups. She must be emptying the dishwasher. Then the rumble, rumble of the ice maker as she prepares her first cold drink of the day. My nephew is about to arrive with his eight month old son and my sister-in-law has to clock in electronically to her VPN by 6 AM. She works from home, as does my wife. As do I, thanks to COVID-19, for twelve weeks now. Coronavirus has sent most of us home, where I supervise my team remotely, courtesy of email, text message, Skype, and endless conference calls. I avoid Zoom like the . . . well, you know.

My wife and her sister are doing double duty, not only working but also providing day care for Weylyn. I am of no help at all. And at the moment, Weylyn’s a-wailin’. He has not been a very happy baby of late. He wants to be in his own, familiar home. He wants his Mom. He wants his Dad. But they’re both working out there in the real world, at risk of infection at every turn. Our house is a perpetual wreck, strewn with toys, playpen, rocker seat, infant formula, every detritus of babyhood. Baby on board and this boat is rockin’. My wife hurries into the shower so she can relieve her sister as soon as possible.

My wife is a contractor with flexible hours, so she gets to tend to Weylyn during the day, then, exhausted, take a short nap (if she’s lucky) before plunging into her work in the evening. Some days, Weylyn is disconsolate, yells his head off, and my sister-in-law runs in from her home office, picks him up, walks with him, heats a bottle, feeds him, changes him, leaves him with my wife and runs back to her her computer, one ear perpetually cocked for the start of the next round. I don’t know how those two do it. They do it all for love. I am in awe of their dedication. They are saints.

My own office is my leather armchair, two steps from my bed. It has been wonderful not having to get up at four in the morning to snag a parking space in front of my government office in downtown Sacramento. I save so much money on gas. And I don’t miss the traffic or the driving round and round in circles in a vain attempt to find a legal place to leave my car for the next ten or twelve hours. Working from home has been a stress reducer for sure. At least this is the narrative that I let myself believe.

I never saw the downside of telework until it hauled off and bit me in the butt when I was not paying attention. I have been morbidly obese since childhood, and I never realized that my health was hanging on by a thread, that thread being the little bit of walking necessary to do my job. The 348 steps from my car to my cubicle. The 125 steps of a round-trip to the rest room. The seemingly epic trek across the indoor bridge to the building next door for meetings. At least I can still do it, I remember thinking, even if I have to stop halfway and sit down for a few minutes.

Now, after twelve weeks at home, I don’t think I can do it anymore. Use it or lose it. I know I’ve lost it. The next stop is a wheelchair, if the hospital and cemetery don’t get me first.

I can barely get my pants on and off anymore. I have been retaining water in my legs for a long time, and Doc says there’s not much she can do if I don’t lose weight. She tried water pills with me, but I cramped up so bad that I had to stop taking them. Cramps in my feet, my calves, my hands, my neck. Waking up at night with spasms, pacing back and forth to walk them off. Then came the night when both legs cramped up simultaneously, and I howled in pain as I was barely able to drag myself out of bed.

I try performing leg and foot exercises in bed. Just getting into bed is an ordeal, as I am barely able to lift my heavy, heavy legs high enough. It takes me several tries. I have developed alternate techniques, the most reliable of which tends to hurt my back.

I am gaining weight. Being at home, the refrigerator and pantry are always here, and the temptation to eat is forever with me. My only saving grace is that eating would require that I get out of my chair, and the thought of the pain of unfolding myself and standing up is a definite deterrent.

It’s not that I didn’t bring plenty of food with me to work, in the blue rolling bag that I would pull behind me, the handle doubling as a stabilizer as I made the long walk from car to desk. Meals on wheels, one of my coworkers called it. But it was limited. When it was gone, it was gone. The vegan-but-high-calorie potato chips and Oreos in the vending machines rarely tempted me due to the walking that would be required to get down to the lobby and back.

I was at my highest weight about eight years ago, before I lost my job and went vegan. For the first time ever, we had to go on Food Stamps, for which we were approved only after months of wrangling with the county and standing in food distribution lines for boxes of canned goods, rotting produce, and stale baked goods donated by supermarkets when the expiration date had passed. I lost a fair amount of weight after that, but now it’s creeping back up and I’m in shouting distance of my max, only about 25 pounds off. Scale don’t lie. I should make an effort to walk more, but it hurts too much. There are so-called “chair exercises.” I feel I am doomed.

Weylyn is crying uncontrollably in the next room, unresponsive to my wife’s herculean efforts to comfort him. I want to join him in his histrionics. I understand his feeling of frustration.

Like so many others, I want to return to what was. I want to draw the Chance card that reads “go back 3 spaces.” Only I want it to say “go back 3 months.”

I want to get a full night of sleep instead of waking up after three hours with my back on fire. I don’t want to have to think about how many hours ago I last ate and can I take an over-the-counter pain reliever now without ending up with stomach cramps.

I want to jump in the shower without grimacing in pain when I bend over to clean myself. I want to get dressed in a white shirt and tie, toss whatever I can find in the refrigerator into my rolling bag, hit the garage door opener and then the freeway, singing along with my iPod all the way to downtown Sacramento. I want to boil water for my morning tea in my little pot, then hide it under a blanket because we’re not supposed to have those (fire code, you know). I want staff to stop by and ask for advice, managers to stop by and ask me to do things. I miss my big double monitors and my shelf of reference books.

I want to take weeklong trips to southern Cali to lecture before classrooms filled with county workers, to show PowerPoint slides, to provide thoughtful answers to intriguing questions. I want to stay in mediocre hotels and eat lousy road food. I want to sit at a long table at the back of the room with my laptop and wireless mouse instead of sitting with my laptop on a folding tray in my bedroom. I want to greet the line of people coming in, look up the cases of the old lady with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles mask and the man in the wheelchair with his bottle of Purell. I want to help them cut through the red tape and get what they need to keep living at home and not end up in a coronavirus death trap of a nursing home.

But you can’t go home again.

I remind myself of the exhaustion of commuting and traveling, how I’d barely be able to stay awake while driving home. Drive, work, drive, sleep. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

I have been guilty of the sin of envy. I envied the techies and engineers with their headphones and laptops at Starbucks. I wished I could work from home. I calculated the number of years before I could retire and never have to drive to Sacramento again unless I was hankering for a really good plate of pad se ew. Final answer: Never. This house will not be paid off in my lifetime.

Be careful what you wish for. The grass is not necessarily any greener over here. Count your blessings.

It’s almost midnight and I gingerly pull up out of bed and go sit in my leather armchair. I am grateful it’s a rocker. I rock back and forth, hoping to work out the kinks in my back, delaying the pain of standing up a while longer. I listen to my wife snore across the room, play Scrabble on my phone, read the latest news of the riots and the virus. I realize that I have every risk factor for succumbing the moment the virus touches me. I am a dead man walking.

I’d better try to get a few more hours of sleep. Weylyn will be dropped off here at 5:30 AM, and my wife and her sister will have another exhausting day of trying to keep him calm, fed and distracted. For a while, they only had him on Mondays. But this week they had him Tuesday also, and then Wednesday, and now it’s going to be Thursday. My niece has been working more steadily as the weather improves.

At some point during the day, I know I will hear my sister-in-law coo “Did you make a poo-poo?” as she changes Wey’s diaper. Hopefully, it will not be during my Skype meeting. I have my weekly team huddle, during which I talk for about an hour and cannot stay on mute.

It’s not just me. Today, I was conducting a one-on-one with one of my people, when I could hear her 2 year old begin crying for his mom. Dad had to drag him away from the attic room where Mom works.

My team is used to it by now. They know that, at some point during the call, Weylyn will probably start screaming his head off in the background.

That’s what the word family means, I tell them. And right now, that’s all we’ve got.

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.