My story centers on a fear that has become common amid the global pandemic: the strong, palpable, realistic feeling that I might never actually see my parents ever again.
Somehow, I have to face the fact that I am no spring chicken and, therefore, must be extra vigilant in adhering to health guidelines of maintaining social distance and wearing a mask whenever I leave my apartment in Manhattan.
With 183,000 fatalities recorded to date because of COVID-19, you bet I see this as a matter of life and death.
Which leads me to my parents, who are both over 90 and — knock on wood — still going strong. This age group is especially vulnerable to contracting the virus and not surviving it.
Even though they live a mere hour away from me on an express bus, with each passing day this spring and summer, I had to come to grips with a stark, almost unthinkable reality: I might never see my folks again.
The Last Time I Ever Saw My Parents?
On March 1, my beloved parents, sister, brother-in-law, and nieces and I all got together for a hastily scheduled Sunday brunch at the delightful Sarabeth’s on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The occasion was a joyous one: an impromptu celebration of the upcoming nuptials of my nephew and his wonderful fiancée. It was a great time, full of laughs and nostalgia and heartfelt good wishes for the lucky couple.
Maybe it is the lifelong journalist in me, but I couldn’t help but notice something out of the ordinary pattern of life: my 94-year-old dad and 90-year-old mom had left their apartment on the Queens-Nassau County border to venture the 15 miles to my home turf in Manhattan. For most of my gatherings with my folks in recent years, I happily came to them.
As it turned out, I was on to something.
The Virus Heard ‘Round the World
Of course, less than a month later, the effects of the coronavirus entered our lives with a crushing blow. Overnight, schools shifted classes to Zoom. Office workers were dispatched to work at home until further notice. Sporting events, movie showings, concerts and theater performances stopped with a thud.
Suddenly, the terms “virtual classrooms,” “quarantining,” “home stay,” “six feet apart,” “masking” and “social distancing” became the staples of our language.
Little did I, or any of us who gathered that day at Sarabeth’s, realize that it would be the last outpouring of in-person family love for … what seemed like a long time.
This 148-day drought of affection marked the longest stretch I had ever gone without seeing my folks,
How could I know it would be the last time — until Wednesday, July 28 — that I’d see my parents in these historic, disorienting, often tragic COVID-19 days of upheaval?
This 148-day drought of affection marked the longest stretch I had ever gone without seeing my folks, topping when I didn’t come home to greater New York for Thanksgiving many years ago when I was a graduate student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in Evanston, Ill.
An Inferior Plan B
I went to a much inferior Plan B. I resolved to call my parents every day to make sure they were doing OK. We did a few FaceTime chats, but these were also a poor substitute for meetings in person. Besides, one of us wasn’t so steady with the technology. Full disclosure: That person was me.
My parents proved to be as resourceful with their lives as with Apple’s communications technology. To my immense relief, my mom and dad have been patient and commonsensical throughout. They didn’t go outside their doors. They put on masks whenever any repair people entered their flat. They arranged to have the mail, food and meals delivered right outside their apartment door.
Finally, the State of New York gradually began to loosen the reins on residents. We all decided the time had come for me to see them — in person. My marvelously helpful sister agreed to drive me from a dental implant procedure on Long Island to see them in Queens.
Call me selfish and opportunistic, but after two or three injections on the roof of my mouth that afternoon (understandably, I lost count after the first one), I would need some cheering up. Who better to inject some sorely needed TLC than my ‘rents?
I was actually a little nervous, truth be told. What if they remarked I had gained a few pounds? Or wore an inappropriate shirt? Or had nothing to say? Or made awkward small talk?
Owing to the “new reality,” my sister and I sat in the hallway of the floor in my parents’ apartment building in North Shore Towers in Queens.
They brought chairs out into the hallway; they sat on one end, and my sister and I made sure to sit the requisite six feet apart. We maintained a healthy and safe distance and all wore masks. Even though I make a point of calling my parents every day, the opportunity to make eye contact in person was special for me.
We remarked about how much pain I must’ve been in from the dental surgeon’s needle and whether it was better for me to take Tylenol or Advil.
We exchanged harmless family gossip. We all commented about how we had just gotten our locks shorn, for the first time in many months. Ah, it didn’t really matter what small talk that we shared. I was grateful to be there.
But the emotion I experienced most profoundly was simple: gratitude.
What was going through my mind?
I could get downright mawkish and tug at your heartstrings. But the emotion I experienced most profoundly was simple: gratitude. I appreciated having this opportunity. And I’ll worry about the future in the future.
I’m not the weak and weepy type, but as I thought that I might never see my mom and dad again, I definitely had tears in my eyes. (More full disclosure: The last time I could remember choking up was when the Arizona Diamondbacks somehow thwarted the great Mariano Rivera and upset my unbeatable New York Yankees in the ninth inning of game seven during the 2001 World Series — oh yes, a game that still haunts me).
The Inevitable Aftermath (On Social Media)
When I posted a photo of the get-together with my parents on Facebook the next day, some friends surprised me with their reactions.
Tears. Lumps in throats. Their own similar feelings. Memories. Nostalgia. All that good jazz.
But one of them went so far as to tell me she thought it was “heartbreaking” that we couldn’t share an embrace.
That one word blew my mind. I always reserved “heartbreaking” to describe an end of something that could never be repeated or duplicated. Here, my well-meaning Facebook buddy turned my interpretation of the event on its head and invoked a rather bittersweet, if not melancholic, tone to the proceedings.
Well, my Facebook friend blew it, pure and simple.
I Felt Lucky
My meeting with my parents lasted only about 45 minutes; the Novocain was wearing off and the painkiller pills were only doing so much. I needed to get home to bed ASAP. So, I had to break up the party.
I gave my folks a present that I knew they would love: a box of $20 worth of an assortment of cookies from our favorite bakery at Third Avenue and East 27th St., a custom I had invented a few years earlier.
They flipped! Seeing the look of utter delight behind their masks made it all worthwhile.
But believe me, I felt luckier than they did.
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