CORONAVIRUS

There's A Global Pandemic, And My Father Has Absolutely No Idea

"As rest homes close their doors, the patients in my father’s dementia ward are locked in their own version of reality."
The author and her father at a farmers market in 2018.
The author and her father at a farmers market in 2018.

“You know why it is that we can’t visit you, don’t you?”

My father’s eyes are closed as my mom asks him this question over FaceTime. I stand in mandatory isolation away from her at the other end of the hall as I’m visiting her in Christchurch, New Zealand. The government requires anyone who travels from overseas to separate themselves from others for two weeks.

“We miss you, but we’re not allowed to come in because there’s a virus.”

I see him nod on the screen of her phone. Suffering from Lewy Body Dementia, the second most common form of degenerative dementia behind Alzheimer’s disease, hallucinogenic nightmare-like stories are my father’s day-to-day reality. The concept of the coronavirus pandemic causing most of the world to be in lockdown probably isn’t altogether strange to a man who is often convinced that various people around him are trying to kill him. But he won’t remember that the pandemic even exists tomorrow.

Lesser known than Alzheimer’s, Lewy Body Dementia is the disease Robin Williams was diagnosed with before he died by suicide. It’s the sort of disease that might make someone consider that option if diagnosed early enough, but my father wasn’t. The youngest child of an older parent ― I was born when he was 49 ― now, at just 25 years old, I’ve watched a highly intelligent, charismatic and humorous man disappear into symptoms.

According to a common dialogue surrounding this pandemic, my father resides with the expendable part of the population, in a dementia hospital care facility in New Zealand. I’m based in New York but visiting home, and I’m reminded of his lack of societal value every time someone brushes off a death statistic with, “But they were in a home,” or, “They had underlying conditions.”

Along with being in his 70s, my father’s compromised immune system makes him a prime candidate for COVID-19 complications should he contract the disease caused by the coronavirus. This makes the decision by his care facility to close itself, without warning, to family members more than a week before New Zealand’s nationwide lockdown logical and understandable but, nonetheless, detrimental to his quality of life. 

Over the span of just one week, my mother has received five unexpected calls from his ward that he has fallen, a common outcome of his condition. Isolated herself, I once heard her tell the caller, “What am I supposed to do with that information?”

In the next coordinated FaceTime call, a new bruise had appeared. Yesterday, we received a frantic call that he’d fallen again and broken his leg, his bone described as “protruding.” My mom cried at this in the next room, as I was unable to comfort her, as she was unable to comfort him. We waited, separately, for hours to finally hear from the emergency room that a mistake had been made and his leg, in fact, wasn’t broken.

The author with one of her sisters (far left), mother and father in New Zealand in 1995.
The author with one of her sisters (far left), mother and father in New Zealand in 1995.

Facing a shortage of staff, his carers are doing the best they can, organizing sausage sizzles and happy hours. We even get reports back with intimate details, like that he finished half a glass of lemonade but didn’t want to stay at the party because it was noisy.

This, however, is no match for the daily visits my mom usually made to be with him through his sharp deterioration, his face lighting up each time. “Don’t leave it too long,” he would say as she left in the evening.

The unfortunate reality is that no one is sure how long his facility will be locked down, much like no one knows how long this period of social distancing will be necessary. Because of this, she offered to put herself in complete isolation to still be able to visit him, but to no avail.

The biggest fears that come from this is that the next time we see him, he will no longer remember who we are at all. Before isolation, my father was going through one of his periods where he could actually remember his family. “I think she’s given up on me,” he said to one of the nurses during the first few days of separation, confused as to why my mom was no longer visiting him. The unspoken fear is that we’ll never see him again. This is a nightmare come true for many loved ones during this pandemic. 

Along with our concerns about physical distance, COVID-19 has brought home my father’s disconnect from reality in a new, unnerving way. Diagnosed a year ago, after four years of talk of him possibly having Parkinson’s disease, he was once the most avid news reader I knew. An informed and actively practical parent, he once would have overwhelmed my inbox with headlines and information. In retrospect, as someone who lives on the other side of the world, his deterioration came in the form of receiving continually smaller, shorter and then stranger Facebook messages from him until one day they were gone entirely.

Now, unable to be close to him, I spent Day 12 of isolation turning to those previous messages for comfort. One stuck out to me from 2018: “It’s always darkest just before dawn. Love you, Dad.” 

Two years later, I’m not sure what he was referencing, but it could almost pass as something he’d say during a global pandemic, if he knew it was happening. It also served as a reminder that social distancing won’t be forever. A man of very few words even before his illness, it would be just like my father to know exactly what to say during this time. And for the first time since his diagnosis, seeing those comforting words from him was almost enough to make me feel like I just might be able to get through life ― and a global pandemic ― without him by my side.

Laura Pitcher is a fashion and culture writer based in New York. Her work has been featured by Teen Vogue, The Guardian, i-D, Dazed, Paper, Highsnobiety, Marie Claire and more.

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