Margaret Flatley

I Was Writing This Coronavirus Essay When I Learned My Dad Went To The Hospital

“Don’t freak out. Your father is in the hospital.”

Those words crashed directly into my sternum. Breathing harder than I had during the Tabata YouTube video I finished 10 minutes earlier, I turned off the stovetop burner I’d lit to cook dinner. Thanks to the new coronavirus, I’d been alone with my thoughts in a studio apartment for 13 days and Googling things like “chest pain coronavirus or anxiety?” When my mom called with the news, it brought out hot tears I’d been suppressing for weeks.

This is what happened, according to my mom: My dad fell in a snow-covered parking lot Monday at work. He started acting funny Wednesday night after dinner. She saw him leaning over the kitchen sink and thought he was choking. He didn’t respond to her right away. When he did, he said he thought he had a piece of meat stuck in his teeth. Then he started shaking and my mom dialed 911. While she was on with the dispatcher, my dad declared himself “alright” and went to sit in his recliner. The dispatcher sent an ambulance anyway. My dad was in the bathroom vomiting by the time it arrived. The paramedics took him to the hospital and told my mom no visitors were allowed. She’d have to wait for the hospital to call with updates.

My breathing eased. What my mom described didn’t sound like COVID-19 so much as a concussion. Did he hit his head when he fell, I asked? My dad didn’t say anything about that, my mom told me, and he didn’t even want to file an accident report at work. Then his boss was calling her and she had to let me go.

I had already spent much of the last two weeks thinking about what I owe my parents and how quickly that bill seems to be coming due. Whether boomers lose their jobs, get sick, or simply need groceries as the coronavirus crisis worsens, their millennial children are being thrust into a caregiving role decades earlier than they expected.

"The coronavirus is forcing us to associate distance with care."

Right now, this role reversal doesn’t look anything like the kind of caregiving I was raised to do. When I last went home a month ago, I sat in a wicker rocking chair in the living room of my 92-year-old grandma’s house and watched her get ear drops. My mom hovered above my grandma, who lay sideways on the sofa with one elbow propping up her white-tufted head, trying to angle the dropper just right to the little curve of her ear. This new ritual, which is supposed to prevent dizziness and falls, recently joined counting pills, doing laundry, and grocery delivery on the list of my mom’s filial duties. She recaps these errands to me in near-daily phone calls when I’m not visiting. The subtext is that, one day, I will be the one discreetly taking her comforter to the laundromat when she poops a little in her sleep.

That level of sacrifice is what’s expected of you in my stereotypical extended Italian-American family, the kind that’s occupied the same street for four generations, with octo- and nonagenarians living next door to or in the same home as their middle-aged children. It’s an intimate way to live, stiflingly so at times. The coronavirus, meanwhile, is forcing us to associate distance with care. I keep 6 feet between myself and my neighbors, and I am currently 136 miles away from my childhood home.

This distance is a point of tension between me and my mom. She offered several times to drive to New York City, pick me up, and take me back to western Massachusetts with her. Each time I declined, she got more creative with counteroffers: “You can stay up in your room for a couple weeks, if that’s what you want?” Her instincts tell her to herd her family, and it would be frictionless to give in to the impulse to be together. But knowing the risk of passing the virus to my grandma forces me to say “no” repeatedly, the way my mom would have talked to 7-year-old me when I begged to stay up late.

It’s painful to push away my parents the moment they become fragile. They recently entered their 60s, which tips them into the class of people the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends take the most precautions against the virus. Even before my mom’s jarring phone call, my mind drew a direct line from her unexplained bouts of chest pain and my dad’s asthma to a ventilator in a hospital. What if they got sick and I wasn’t there? This is the flaw inherent in social distancing: I’m happy doing my part for the greater good — until the second I find out one of my parents is hospitalized with corona, at which point you can bet I’ll squander all my public health karma points in a mad scramble to get home.

"I spent much of the last two weeks thinking about what I owe my parents and how quickly that bill seems to be coming due."

I’d also been worrying about their financial situation. The tavern and the social club where my dad tends bar after working long hours stocking grocery store shelves with soda closed their doors. My mom can’t do her job in billing for a trucking company from home. It’s unclear how much longer she’ll be allowed to go into work and get paid. As a millennial who left the nest at the tail end of the last recession, it’s weird to wrap my head around the fact that I may be in a better position than my boomer parents to weather the coming recession from my laptop-warmed perch on the couch.

Compared to what many other people are going through, supporting my parents financially would be a happy ending. I consoled myself thinking that’s the scenario I was more likely to face because I prepared for it, even if it’s a little (a lot) earlier than anticipated. I tried not to think about what it would be like if they needed groceries, medicine, even bodily fluid clean-up without their kids around to provide it. And I couldn’t bear to picture them alone in the hospital.

Now I was staring down into a cold slick of olive oil at the bottom of a dutch oven, picturing exactly that.

My mom called an hour later to let me know the tests the hospital ran came back fine and she was on her way to pick up my dad. Despite having a fever when he arrived at the hospital and a lingering cough since February, he was not tested for coronavirus. The hospital would only test people who need to be admitted. He was instructed to self-quarantine for 14 days. My sister texted me a grainy screenshot of my dad leaning far back in the passenger seat with a blue mask stretched over the bottom of his face; she must have FaceTimed with them in the hospital parking lot.

Once my dad was safely home, I called and asked how he was feeling. “Like sh*t,” he said, and complained that he was left hooked up to an EKG machine for too long. I told him he should lean into quarantine. He could watch The Irishman, like, multiple times a day! (His dream, not mine.) “We can eat lunch on FaceTime,” I said. “Now that we’re both stuck at home.” “Yes, you should do that,” my mom chimed in. “You should check on him.”

If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC or NHS 111 in the UK for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support. You can find all Bustle’s coverage of coronavirus here, and UK-specific updates on coronavirus here.