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.

Empty Shelves

Life in the Time of Coronavirus

Most of my colleagues have been staying home and teleworking, just as I have been for the past week. It’s been a strange undertaking for all of us. “I’m right here,” I attempted to reassure one of my team members over the phone. “I’m just at the other end of the keyboard.”

We keep in touch by text message, by email, over Skype and on the phone. And then there are the endless conference calls, some of which have lasted into the evening. I’m fairly sure that I have been on more conference calls in the past week than in all the years of my professional life combined.

“No one is allowed to get sick,” I tell my team. “I need each and every one of you. Go wash your hands. Do it now!” In my mind, I see hot water faucets being turned on and hand soap being lathered. I can only hope that my imagination squares up with reality.

One of my coworkers ventured out to the supermarket a few nights ago. Next day, I asked her how it went. There was no chicken, no ground beef, no milk, no toilet paper, she reported. “How about canned goods?” I asked. Not much, she told me. The shelves were picked bare.

“What are things going to look like in two weeks?” I asked my wife. I could almost hear the infrastructure disassembling. Does it take a virulent microorganism to prove to the world that the foundation of our society is not love or faith or duty, but supermarkets and toilet paper? And does this mean that we need to start a new religion where all of us pray to Sam Walton?

I try to remember to check in with my elderly parents regularly. Mom is hunkered down for the duration and is dead set on preventing Dad from wandering farther than the mailbox across the road. On the phone with Mom, she admits that her pantry is starting to look rather bare, although they still have plenty in the refrigerator. She estimates that they have enough food left for ten days.

Holy mackerel, do you know what that sounds like, Mom? Like you’re marooned on a desert island or lost in the Antarctic. Better ration your comestibles now, or in ten days you’ll become polar bear food.

Sigh. I tell Mom that I’ll try to have some food delivered to her house, but that I don’t know whether anyone will deliver way out there on the wild prairie, or even if there’s any food to be had anymore. Amazon is taking orders to be delivered 30 days from now, Mom tells me. Oh, yeah? And what are people supposed to eat in the meantime? She asks for bananas.

In my dreams, I am speeding 200 miles down the freeway to rescue my starving parents, when I am pulled over by the cops for violating the “shelter in place” order. They drag me out of my vehicle, haul me off to jail and impound my vehicle.

I start perusing websites and making phone calls, looking for a grocery store willing to deliver out to the sticks. I quickly become frustrated. One supermarket tells me I have to contact DoorDash. When I ask for their phone number, I am placed on hold and listen to the same tune over and over until I am finally disconnected.

I go back to work and my wife takes over our mission of mercy. Instacart to the rescue! After several false starts, she finds that we can order groceries for delivery from Save Mart.

We start to make a list of items we think my parents would like. Bananas, cottage cheese, sour cream, French bread. White tuna in water? Sold out. Canned salmon? Only one can left. How about the packets? Not sure if they’ll eat that. Stuff for salad? Lettuce, yes. Beefsteak tomatoes? All out. How about Romas? Cucumbers? How about the little English ones? Marie’s bleu cheese dressing. Dad’s favorite Honey Bunches of Oats.

We close out the order: $160. The price of some items have mysteriously doubled.

Not long after, the store emails us. Bad news on the fruit. I call Mom again and sing a painfully off-tune rendition of “Yes, We Have No Bananas.”

We order a box of Entenmann’s chocolate donuts for my parents. Okay to substitute the variety pack if necessary? Sure. They end up delivering a bag of donut holes.

At least the delivery occurs. We breathe a sigh of relief as Dad reads off a list of the contents of the boxes. He is particularly thrilled with the bleu cheese dressing.

1,224 people have tested positive for coronavirus here in California. Far less than, say, New York, but still a lot. Will this number triple or quadruple in the next few weeks? Will the supermarket employees and delivery people start to get sick and disappear from the scene? What if the truck drivers can’t deliver food to the supermarkets? Thinking about these things makes my head hurt.

My wife and her sister head out in search of groceries. They hit up one supermarket after another, finding many bare shelves and picking up what’s still available. They hope to score lettuce and tomatoes to make sandwiches, but no luck.

After coming up empty-handed at five supermarkets, my sister-in-law was sauntering down an aisle when she spied both lettuce and tomatoes in a shopping cart. She looked around, didn’t see anyone, and transferred both items into her own cart.

Salad, anyone?

Social Distancing 101

Life in the Time of Coronavirus

I’m really bad at social distancing.

Okay, so I never even heard of the term “social distancing” until, well, a week ago maybe? I’m told it means staying at least six feet away from the nearest human being at all times. I hope this proscription does not extend to non-human life forms, considering the proclivity of my sister-in-law’s little Yorkie for jumping into my lap.

Let’s just say that I have violated the social distancing rule with impunity on at least two occasions over the last few days. I can’t quite determine whether this makes me a rebel or an idiot. Or perhaps someone just stuck in his ways.

I like to eat. A lot. And I don’t cook. Hence, the restaurants of Marysville and Yuba City are my hangouts. The problem is that “hanging out,” of the foodie variety or otherwise, is no longer acceptable. Millennials are being chastised for continuing to hang out in bars, thereby risking unknowingly spreading the coronavirus. Residents of the Bay Area, less than two hours west of here, have been ordered to shelter in place, with violators being handed misdemeanor tickets. It may be smart to pay that ticket by mail, as it could be a while before they’re able to actually schedule a hearing before a judge. The excuses they will offer in court should be interesting.

My gluttonous ways are made all the worse by a case of cabin fever. I’m used to driving to the office in Sacramento every day, and teleworking from my bedroom is getting old fast.

Over the weekend, I snuck out of the house and drove to a family restaurant where I treated myself to an enormous breakfast. Only four tables were occupied in the whole place. I could actually hear Melissa Etheridge and Neil Diamond singing on the recorded music loop.

Moments after I ordered, two women walked in and were seated at a booth directly behind me. One of them was celebrating her birthday. I thought nothing of it until I heard the birthday girl cough. It wasn’t a casual, “excuse me” type cough, either. It was a raspy cough, the kind that might come from someone with bronchitis. I began to get nervous. Had some droplets landed on me without my knowledge? Would I be getting just what I deserve for having the nerve to go out in public? Should I run home and take my temperature?

Finishing my meal, I felt a bit chastened. Still, the next day, feeling cooped up and hungry, I climbed into the car and drove into town. The restaurant that was my destination had quite a few vehicles in the parking lot, and I had to choose between walking in the rain and waiting in my car until a spot near the door opened up. That’s when I moved into position for a good view through the restaurant’s windows. The place was packed. I immediately got the jitters, turned the car around and slunk back home to cut up some fruit. Social distancing indeed.

The next day, my wife texted me at lunchtime from her own telecommuting perch around the corner in the living room. “Wanna go for a drive?” Heck, yes! Get me out of here!

We ran a few errands and ended up at a chain restaurant for lunch. There was a parking space right in front and zero wait for a table. Both of these are highly unusual at this location.

Only about half the tables were full. The server asked whether we wanted sweetener for our tea, as the holders full of little packets had been removed from the tables. We noticed that there were no salt and pepper shakers either. This was to avoid customers touching everything and passing around the coronavirus, the server explained. In fact, what type of tea would I like exactly? She could no longer bring me a sample of available teas from which to choose. That touching thing again.

After this little adventure, I concluded that I had experienced enough excitement and danger, and that henceforth I would just stay home as we are being exhorted to do from seemingly every corner. I am learning to put up with sandwiches, microwaved oatmeal, healthy raw veggies and fruit. There’s always stuff in the freezer that I can zap if I need a little variety.

But it’s my 86 year old parents about who I am truly concerned. They live in a rural area of the Central Valley, near Madera. It’s a nearly four hour drive south of here. Mom has heeded warnings for seniors to shelter in place, but Dad suffers from the same foodie wanderlust that I do. In his case, however, he craves all manner of shellfish, particularly shrimp. Mom keeps a kosher home and will not allow such religiously forbidden foods into the house. So Dad attempts to escape to the restaurants of Fresno as often as possible.

Mom is having a hard time keeping Dad at home when he is committed to getting his shrimp on. She is worried that he will end up contracting coronavirus and will bring it home to her. How would two old, sick people take care of each other with no one way out there in the country to help them?

Mom’s approach has been to spend all day, every day, prepping and cooking food to serve Dad gourmet meals, thereby keeping him at home. On the phone, she tells me thar she feels like a galley slave, like Scheherazade, forced to weave yet another culinary yarn each night just to save herself.

And then she excuses herself, saying she has to get off the line to scrape the carrots and start making the gravy. After all, it’s only five hours until dinnertime.

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 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!

Mom’s Surgery – Part II

When I met my parents for lunch in Sacramento on Monday, Mom was irritated and in a foul mood. They had made the three and a half hour drive for a doctor appointment at Kaiser, a supposedly necessary connection to set a surgery date at UC Davis.

Except that Kaiser refused to do any such thing. UC Davis? They simply claimed not to know what Mom was talking about. Despite what my parents may have been told at Kaiser in Fresno, Kaiser in Sacramento insisted that they don’t schedule surgery at UC Davis. Any surgery would have to be done at Kaiser’s own hospital in Sacramento. And anyway, there were no available surgery dates for months.

Understandably, Mom wondered which Kaiser facility was lying to her. I voted for Sacramento on that score. Why would Kaiser in Fresno tell her that the surgery could be done at the respected teaching hospital at UC Davis if that were not true?

Answer: To shut my sister up. Sis had driven down to support Mom at her gynecology appointment at Kaiser in Fresno a few weeks ago. Mom related that Sis and the doctor got along famously, Sis rambling on about her work as a sonographer. But Mom’s medical record betrayed a different story. Mom only found out because the doctor in Sacramento inexplicably read aloud the part of the record characterizing Sis as a meddler unhappy with her mother’s care. I can only conclude that the nonexistent Davis option was the Fresno doctor’s way of mollifying Sis. When Mom reported this to my sister, the latter got on the phone to Kaiser in Fresno to complain, only to be told that she must have misunderstood.

So Davis is out. I suggested to Mom that if she was going to have the surgery at Kaiser, she might as well have it done at their Fresno hospital, where she’d be close to home. No, she told me, apparently the surgery that she needs to remove her teratomas is sufficiently specialized that Kaiser does not do it in Fresno.

The surgeon in Sacramento, whom Mom characterized as a young kid “who I wouldn’t hire as a waitress,” never shut up for a minute and never let Mom get a word in edgewise. To add further ambience to our lunch, Mom was fighting with Dad (what else is new ::eye roll::), who she insisted had consistently sided with the young floozie against her.

The next day, Mom was informed that a cancellation had resulted in an available surgery appointment on October 1 at Kaiser’s Sacramento hospital. Since it falls on a Tuesday, Mom agreed. Any day but Friday. “People die when they have surgery on Friday,” she explained.

The only problem is that Mom’s scheduled surgery falls on Rosh Hashannah, the Jewish New Year (one of our High Holy Days). Mom was clearly conflicted about this, but I assured her that she had made the right decision. She’s been feeling pretty lousy lately and, well, that’s when a surgery date was available. Waiting months for the surgery just to avoid the holiday made no sense to me.

The young surgeon opined that she could do the surgery laparoscopically, getting Mom sprung from the hospital after just an overnight stay. I am not sure why I am a bit skeptical. Regardless, my parents will be arriving next weekend, sleeping on the blow-up mattress in our living room. Pre-op is Monday, then surgery on Tuesday. I have arranged for some time off work and will be chauffeuring them the 45 minutes each way to Sacramento for the duration, however long that may turn out to be.

There are entirely too many things that can go wrong, both at my house and at the hospital. I remind myself to calm down and put it all in perspective.

After all, it could be me going under the knife.

Mom’s Surgery – Part I

My parents are 85 years old. My mother needs to have surgery to remove her ovaries that have developed three huge teratomas, one of which, a CAT scan revealed, is filled with blood. She feels bloated and uncomfortable and wants to get the surgery over with so she can get on with her life.

Kaiser down in Fresno, near my parents’ home, has decided to send Mom up here to have her surgery in Sacramento. My parents are making the three and a half hour trip today to complete paperwork at a local Kaiser facility. They are bringing a suitcase packed with clothes. Mom does not intend to go home until after the surgery. She wants to be admitted to UC Davis Hospital. Now.

Well, I tell her, the sooner she has the surgery, the sooner she’ll feel better. She’s tired of not being able to walk around, not being able to do housework, not being able to garden, not being able to cook, not being able to go up and down the aisles at Winco.

My guess is that the surgery will be scheduled a few weeks off and they will have to go home after all. But Mom is hoping that there will just happen to be an immediate opening.

Mom says the surgeons will try to get everything done laparoscopically, in which case she’ll only have to spend one day in the hospital post-surgery. If they have to open her up, she’ll be stuck there for three or four days.

My parents plan to stay in a hotel for exactly one night after Mom is released from the hospital, just in case things go awry and she has to be readmitted. Then they’re heading straight home, despite the potential discomfort of her stitches being jostled about for such a long car ride. You don’t want to be moaning in bed in some little motel room, she tells me. Au contraire. She wants to have everything she needs conveniently at hand. “Sometimes you want something strange to eat,” she explained to me over the phone. “Like a piece of bread and butter.”

The visit to Kaiser today is likely just a formality, Mom tells me. “Paperwork,” she explains. Like the one foreswearing lawsuits against Kaiser if it all goes sideways. And the one where she declines to be an organ donor. And the one where she declines a DNR order. “If they want to put me on life support, let them,” she tells me. “It’s not as if I feel so bad that I’m ready to give up and die. Maybe if I were 90 years old or something.”

I haven’t the heart to mention that the milestone to which she refers is only four and a half years away. And anyway, what’s so magic about the age of ninety? Plenty of people live to 100 these days, particularly women. I’m putting my money on Mom joining the Century Club.

Now all she has to do is get through this surgery. And the uncomfortable recovery therefrom.

The Jim

My parents are visiting us this weekend. Mom and Dad are 85 years old and have been married to each other for 66 years. That kind of longevity boggles my mind. Then again, my boss at work tells me that her parents are ages 90 and 94 and also have been married forever.

When we visited my parents at their home in the Central Valley a few weeks ago, Dad opined that it’s really silly for people to refer to the rest room as “the John.” He’s renamed it the Jim, he tells me. That way, he can impress people by proudly announcing that the first thing he does when he gets up every morning is go to the Jim.

Mom says she’s depressed because she’s always alone. Dad is there, of course, but he can’t hear too well anymore, and besides, he prefers to sit by himself either in the shade of the patio awning or in his recliner in the living room. Lost in his own thoughts, he will soon be snoring.

Dad watches TV with the volume turned up to deafening levels, so he does so in the office with the door closed. Meanwhile, Mom stretches out on the couch and watches TV alone in the family room. Being out in the boondocks without a satellite dish, my parents are stuck with limited choices available on over-the-air stations. Mom gravitates toward old westerns, while Dad enjoys his crime and murder shows, as well as the news and the opera that airs at noon on weekdays.

A few months ago, my parents decided to visit their daughter at her new home in Boston. It was to be a nine-day trip. Their grandson from here in California would travel with them, helping them in the airport, with the luggage, with the rental car. Then, a couple of weeks ago, they decided it was all too much and canceled their plans. I think they made the right decision.

For one thing, ascending and descending a big flight of stairs in an old 19th century house would be asking for trouble. Plus, their host is a dedicated vegetarian while my parents are of a more carnivorous persuasion. Also, I don’t think they have the energy to traipse around Beantown with the tourists. When their daughter asked my mother what she wanted to do during her visit, Mom reportedly replied “sit on the porch.”

Finally, the simple fact is that my parents are most comfortable in their own home. Even this weekend, they are staying over with us for one night only. Dad is rather attached to sleeping in his own bed.

With the amount of traveling I do for work, I can relate.