Grief in Slow Motion
I have been articulating, in bits and pieces, over the last several weeks the anger and frustration I have felt as we move through the process of surviving a plague. It’s been challenging. My fourteen-year-old grandson became concerned in late December or early January, I assured him, falsely as it turns out, that Wuhan China was very far away and he needn’t worry about it being an issue here. Doctors and scientists would figure it out before it traveled that distance. I could not have been more wrong.
I first posted on my Facebook on January 27, we here at home, were concerned about one Virginian. That person ultimately tested negative. Today, 85,307 have been tested; 14,961 have had positive results, 2,259 have been hospitalized, and 522 people in Virginia have died. In 94 days, that’s how much the landscape here at home has changed. I have been self-isolating for 49 days.
My 93-year-old mother was quarantined in a nursing home in Hingham, Massachusetts before that. My mother was healthy for her years. I taught her how to download and use Skype on her Kindle. She had never done more than check email and read on it before, but she managed it. We had several Skype conversations. On March 19, James Rollins’ newest book came out, it was delivered to her Kindle, and she read it in two days. She was on point.
On March 24, my oldest sister, Janet, was admitted to the hospital in critical condition. She was tested for COVID-19. When her test came back negative, she was returned to the nursing home she lived in. Quarantined.
On April 1, my oldest son was exposed to COVID-19. He was tested, and the next day, on the advice of his doctor, he began a fourteen-day quarantine. He received his negative test results twenty-four hours later. He remained in quarantine because he had surgery recently, and his doctor thought it wise.
On April 2, the nursing home sent a mass text to family members: “We received notification today that a second employee has tested positive for COVID19. The employee worked primarily on the North Unit.” Wait—is that my mom’s unit? “We have communicated with the BOH and the Department of Public Health regarding these test results and are following their guidance. The residents are isolated in their rooms. We screen residents for temperature and signs and symptoms of the virus. All staff are screened prior to entrance to the facility…”
I called and confirmed that Mom was in the North Unit. I asked her if she was being kept in her room. She said no, that she was still allowed to walk the halls, provided she wore a mask.
At 7 PM, I received another mass text from the nursing home, stating they would adhere to HIPAA guidelines. The next day, another text saying a single family member must be the contact point. By April 7, the texts were confirming “patient cases.” On the ninth, a crisis line was set up; again, we were informed by mass text.
And we waited. Manu Dibango, Adam Schlesinger, Mark Blum, Terrence McNally, Joe Diffie, Alan Merrill, Andrew Jack, Wallace Rooney, Bill Withers amongst the dead.
It was the news of John Prine’s illness that hit me like a ton of bricks. How would we continue without his words, his laughter? I recalled the show I had taken my mom to at Harvard. Perhaps he would recover. That wasn’t to be. The last news I heard on April 7 was that John had died. The information numbed me. I slept, fitfully, with the small tiffany lamp on.
On the morning of April 8, as I was preparing for my Skype class, putting my make up on, my phone rang. It was my niece. She was gasping for air; her grief was so overwhelming. “My mother, she’s dead. How can that be real?” We stayed on the phone until she could make words, an eternity. It fell to me to notify my siblings and children. We waited until the social worker at the nursing home could be with my mother to give her the news. My sister’s health had never been good, and my mother took the news with resignation.
I taught my class.
Eye shadow fell from my routine. It sounds like a small thing, but it was one more step away from what I once called normal.
I wasn’t close to my sister. Our relationship was distant. Complicated. Our last conversation was probably ugly. But still, she was my sister, and it was a shock to the system. And though I often didn’t like her, I did love her. I was worried about my niece and mother, both of whom I am very close to. My mother and niece would not have the closure of a wake or funeral; they would have no last goodbye. She was 64.
People were still calling it a hoax. Or possibly a virus spread through 5g towers. The world made me angry. I do not suffer fools well in the best of times. And this is not the best of times.
People sent condolences, posted I’m sorrys. It was awkward for me. I responded to posts on Facebook for my niece. COVID-19 is not mentioned on my sister’s death certificate, but with a 30% false negative, and her compromised immune system… She died of pneumonia and heart failure. No additional COVID testing would be done. So, she is not counted in the almost 60,000 American deaths to date. But in my heart, I know the truth.
On April 9, in a voice that sounded small, my mom told me she had a fever of 99. She was anxious. I asked if the nursing home intended to test her. She said no that it was probably nothing, and the nurses would just wait and see.
What? Had they missed the Pandemic? Why were they not testing? My son had walked into a doctor’s office healthy and was tested and had results in less than 24 hours. I bit my tongue. I was not the designated family member.
Over the next couple of days, Mom complained of body aches and a headache; she was short of breath. The nursing staff was still waiting to see. When I spoke to one nurse, Mary, she insisted my mom was doing better. How so, I asked. “She didn’t have anything to eat or drink yesterday, today she had a sip of water and some bread.”
What. The. Fuck? She wasn’t a concentration camp prisoner; she was a vital and vibrant woman less than a week before.: reading books, installing apps on a smart device. Bread and water? What were we doing about this?
On Sunday, April 12, Mom’s temperature spiked to 101. A COVID test was ordered. Mom was told she would be tested the next day. The staff moved her and her roommate’s beds farther apart, still in the same room.
On the thirteenth, we received a mass text that said all patients would be tested in 1-5 days, and that results would take 2-3 days. Surely, this didn’t include Mom! She would be tested on the thirteenth. They told us so. And I knew that results took less than 24hrs—my son’s test had come back in that time.
But she wasn’t tested on the thirteenth. Nor was she tested the day after that. Her symptoms intensified. No other tests were ordered. No one was looking to see what was causing her fever; no one checked for pneumonia. On April 15, my mother was swabbed to COVID.
And we waited. We took turns calling her. Children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren. Grief in slow motion. I called a priest, and he spoke with her.
On April 17, another family member was tested. On the eighteenth, that test came back negative. In the hours that followed, we learned that my mom’s test was positive. But we already knew that, she was experiencing all the symptoms. At that point, the nursing home told us they had ordered other blood tests, that would be done on the twentieth.
My mother was transported to the hospital she once worked in on the evening of April 18, grief-stricken, frightened, and alone. Abandoned by those who were entrusted with her care. She would never again feel the touch of a human hand. She insisted that she would not use a ventilator.
On April 23, we received a mass text that said, “Good afternoon. Our positive resident cases in house remain at 44 for 4/23/2020.” In house, so this didn’t include my mom? How many others had been transported to the hospital before that? Was my mom’s roommate counted in that number? This text came the day after the Federal Government insisted that nursing homes tell families and residents these numbers. They were doing what the law required; it was not done because they cared.
The doctors asked us about “comfort care,” which, after hearing what that meant, we declined. Comfort care is the removal of all things that make a person comfortable in the end. Yeah, no. Make her as comfortable as possible.
At some point, my brother and sister were told they could do “end of life” visits. Suited up like doctors in the OR, they went. My sister went every day, for three days. She talked to my mother, stroked her hand, held the phone to her ear so others could say goodbye.
On April 24, at 8:30 PM, Jerril Frances Walsh died. She left us to wonder what if… What if she had been tested and treated for pneumonia on April 9? Would that have made a difference? We will never know.
So, when someone says to you that COVID-19 is a hoax, assure them it’s not. When you begin to think, of course, we would not sacrifice our elders. I assure you, we have. I have two family members who walked in, unannounced, for testing, and they had results within 24-hours. My mother showed symptoms on April 9. She was not tested until April 15 and did not have results until April 18. Nine days in which she was given Tylenol for her fever and body aches and nothing else was done. No IV. No antibiotics for pneumonia. Nothing. We are absolutely sacrificing our elders. And history and the heavens will damn us for that.
I don’t want condolences. I want your outrage. I want you to save the people you love.
Note: I have deliberately left out the name of the nursing homes my sister and mother were in--because it's all nursing homes.