It’s 11 p.m. and I’m standing over my kitchen sink stress-eating pasta out of the pot because right now life is the airport and time doesn’t exist. In New Jersey, a quick 18 miles and two river crossings from where I am in Brooklyn, my 88-year-old nana is probably sleeping after another long, semi-quarantined day of watching the news, chain-smoking cigarettes and worrying about me.
She worries about me a lot. She worries that I’m still single at 31 (the horror!). She worries about my career path (“You just ... write? On the computer?”). She worries about me taking the subway, taking the bus, walking from the subway or the bus to my apartment, taking a cab, doing anything at all after 7 p.m., when it gets dark ― you get the picture.
Right now, I’m worried about her. At her age, and with COPD, she falls into both the most vulnerable and arguably the most stubborn sects of the population at risk for complications from the coronavirus. She and her friends have (luckily) been forced out of their usual routine ― going to the mall, going to the movies, going to restaurants ― but if those places had not been shuttered by government decree, I have no doubt they would be there. She is still taking walks, keeping doctor visits, making plans to go to the supermarket to pick up the hummus she forgot to buy and is currently really pissed that her standing weekly hair appointment has been canceled indefinitely.
“What am I supposed to do about my hair?” this delightfully vain woman, who is supposed to be not leaving the house, asked me ― completely seriously ― on the phone.
I haven’t seen her in over a month ― I’m used to seeing her at least every two weeks ― and I’m too afraid to see her now because I don’t know if I might possibly have coronavirus and I don’t want to make her sick if I do. Our other options for communicating aren’t great, either. We can’t FaceTime because she has a flip phone. We can’t text because she doesn’t text. One time, a few years ago, I got a text from her number. It was a photo of a purse. “Do you like this?” It read. I called her immediately, assuming she had been kidnapped. An employee at the store had sent it on her behalf. (I liked the purse. She has impeccable taste).
All over the world families are being confronted with this sense of panic about the way their loved ones are reacting to life being turned upside down and grappling with the fact that often, their levels of concern don’t quite match.
I was furious watching self-righteous spring breakers like Brady Sluder tell Reuters he wouldn’t let the risk of contracting coronavirus “stop me from partying.” But it’s not just millennials who are refusing to follow the guidelines and orders ― whether they think the coronavirus is being blown out of proportion, believe they themselves invincible, or some combination of the two. These college kids who, quite frankly, should have been booted from the beach a week ago and now should be required to stay put instead of returning home to potentially spread the virus to their families, have me drawing parallels to the older population ― to my grandma and her friends. This group of “mature” women are more designer bag than douchebag, but they exhibit, in some ways, almost the same frighteningly blasé attitude about this whole thing and it could be lethal for them.
I sobbed to my mom about this on FaceTime and she matter-of-factly (and rightly) reminded me that I can’t panic about things I can’t control, that my nana is staying away from crowds and mostly staying home. But that word ― mostly. It makes me want to wrap my beautiful nana and her fiery red hair, always-perfect makeup and tiny chic cigarettes in bubble wrap, slap a “fragile” sticker on her and keep her locked away until this big bad virus goes away.
But she is, as many of our grandparents are, not so fragile. I’m always so proud to have a nana who moved to this country speaking no English, who quickly got a job in a doctor’s office and worked there for decades until her boss closed his practice and she was forced (under duress) into retirement at age 84. I’m so proud to have a nana who sees more movies than I do, who has a robust social life, who is headstrong and independent and bossy as hell.
Right now, all of those things that make me feel proud are suddenly making me feel scared. What if she touches an infected doorknob and forgets to wash her hands? What if someone in the refrigerated food aisle at the grocery store breathes too close to her? What if those things don’t happen, but the boredom and loneliness permanently impact her mental health? It might. And I can’t do anything about it. Because ― Oh! Right! Even if I moved myself into her house (I wouldn’t) and locked her in there (I wouldn’t) I could be an asymptomatic carrier and transmit the coronavirus to her myself.
So I’m just here, eating pasta out of the pot over the sink, feeling utterly helpless.
What can we do, then, about the loved ones we have who aren’t taking this pandemic as seriously as we want them to ― and as seriously as they should? We can keep calling them on their flip phones, keep telling them we love them. We can have the hummus delivered to their houses without asking first (since they’ll probably say no if we do). We can keep reminding them to wash their hands and keep lightly pleading with them to stay home. Maybe they’ll start to listen. And we can keep their strength and tenacity in mind and let it help us to keep pushing forward until they’re able to get back to the important things ― like weekly hair appointments and bothering you about not having a boyfriend.
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