Under normal circumstances, the holidays are a time for visiting family members to share special moments, celebrate cherished traditions and give gifts. But this holiday season, amid the sharp rise of COVID-19 cases in the U.S., the best gift you can give your family and friends is to stay at home. You just may save their lives.
In early March of this year, my husband, two kids and I gathered at my parents’ house like we had a hundred times before, ordering Chinese food takeout and swapping stories from the week. We’ve been fortunate to live close to my parents for the last couple of years, moving back to the suburb I grew up in as my dad’s dementia progressed quickly.
Just a few months earlier, we had placed my father in a nearby memory care facility because my mother could no longer handle his care at home herself. Sunday night dinners now required a few extra planning steps: My mom would arrange to pick my dad up from his new home and. bring him to the house they’d shared together, and we’d show up soon thereafter.
My kids would rush over to the toy cabinet in the family room and share books and games with their beloved “Pop-Pop,” nicknamed for the sound he’d make with his finger and mouth after giving one of his grandchildren a kiss. After considering all the dinner options, we often agreed to order the dishes my dad wanted. Sunday night dinners were filled with a new urgency, as we tried to savor the time while he still remembered all of us.
This visit was a bit different than usual. My husband, kids and I had been staying with my mom during a renovation project at our house, and my dad was confused about the fact that we’d be staying at his former house when he left it later that evening.
Given our close proximity to each other, the sharing of typical winter germs was inevitable, and my mom and I had both developed a cough at the end of February. Since my cough lingered, I declined to give my dad a kiss for fear of passing on anything unpleasant. After giving him a quick hug, I shouted goodbye from the dining room as he put his coat on. I can’t even remember if I told him I loved him.
Mere days after that dinner together, life as we knew it began to change rapidly with news of the emerging COVID-19 pandemic. My son’s preschool shut down, state health officials began talking of a stay-at-home order, and my dad’s memory care facility closed its doors to visitors.
My mother, who had been accustomed to visiting him every day, started to worry about what might happen inside the facility. She called frequently to check on his status, wrote letters for staff members to read to him, and kept doing his laundry at home and ferrying it back and forth until she realized she ought to stay home, too.
In early April, my mother received a call from the memory care facility that my dad had tested positive for COVID-19. Two weeks later, he was dead.
The crushing sadness that accompanied my dad’s death was compounded by the absence of normal rituals in grieving for him. Every aspect of his death felt surreal: I said goodbye to him via FaceTime just hours before he died. His graveside funeral was attended only by my mother, our rabbi, the funeral home and cemetery coordinators, and the gravediggers in full hazmat suits. There was no celebration of life, no gathering, no in-person condolence visits. In the days and weeks that followed, I kept wondering, Did it really happen? Is he really gone?
What I’ll never know — and what I’ll always wonder — is whether my mom and I were the unknowingly infectious COVID-19 carriers who led to my dad’s death.
We were sick before most people in the country knew that the pandemic already had its foothold in several major metropolitan areas like ours. We never imagined we might be passing on something that could be fatal to our most vulnerable family member. We found out that other residents and staff members at the facility tested positive, and since safety protocols for nursing homes were evolving at the time, it’s entirely possible that staff brought it into the community and infected residents like my dad.
But the chance that I or my mom, or my husband and kids who showed no signs of illness at the time, could have been the catalyst in my dad’s illness has demonstrated how essential it is to adapt our actions as a family ― and as a greater human community ― to protect ourselves, our loved ones and everyone we come into contact with.
That is why we all should worry about spending time with loved ones this season. As more people share space indoors during colder months, the numbers of coronavirus infections, hospitalizations and deaths have soared. Daily counts of new cases are at an all-time high, skyrocketing in nearly every place where people live in the U.S.
As a result of this surge, local and state governments are calling for more protective measures to flatten the curve, with some reinstating stay-at-home orders, shutdowns and partial shutdowns. Indoor dining has been marked as a high-risk activity, with increased chance of transmitting the virus. Regardless of the venue, spending time with family members and friends who are not members of your household and gathering in large groups are considered high-risk activities, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Despite all this, almost 40% of people in the U.S. said they plan to attend family gatherings of 10 or more this holiday season, according to a survey from Ohio State University. Many of them will be traveling to attend these gatherings, opening themselves up to exposure and transmission during their journeys, and potentially transporting the virus to or from their destinations.
The problem with sharing indoor space with ANYONE this season, let alone our nearest and dearest, is that there’s no 100% foolproof way to protect each other from sharing air, and therefore sharing the virus. It’s not socially distant if you’re sitting together inside, passing platters and bowls of food, breathing the same air that isn’t being efficiently replaced.
Even if you eat outside and wear masks at all other times, if you’re sleeping in the same house, using the same bathroom and touching the same surfaces, an incalculable risk of transmission still exists.
We bypass these truths with emotional appeals like I really miss my mom and dad after being away at college or I’m not sure if I’ll get to see my grandma again. But if we keep making excuses for our selfish desires, the rate of infection will just continue to rise. When our own physical proximity to our families puts their lives at risk, that type of demonstrative love cannot be justified.
If I had known that my illness possessed the potential to induce long-term health complications in my dad, much less cause his death, I would have stayed away. I don’t want anyone else to wonder if they, or the gathering they attend this holiday season, is responsible for a loved one’s illness or death.
My wish for everyone this season is to put our own wants and needs aside. I know it has been such a long and isolating slog so far, rife with every kind of hardship imaginable. It’s been depressing to have to cease so many activities that we enjoyed in our “normal” lives. But the return to normal will be indefinitely prolonged if we act as if the pandemic isn’t happening.
When we do that, the virus continues to move silently among us — between family members, friends, restaurant employees and their diners, grocery store workers and their customers, airline pilots and stewards and their passengers — wreaking havoc on the bodies of those who were already vulnerable and those we had no idea would be.
My husband’s father and stepmother usually visit each summer for a few months, spending time with all of their grandchildren. But scared by the high test positivity rates in Chicago compared to their South Carolina town, and their own risk due to underlying health conditions, they opted to stay home this summer. A couple of weeks ago on a FaceTime call, however, they mentioned they were thinking of coming for Thanksgiving.
Please don’t come, my husband and I pleaded, mentioning the rising test positivity rate. We love you, which is why we need you to stay away this year.
If my dad were still alive, I wouldn’t be seeing him in person this holiday season either. We’d share memories over the phone; I’d write him festive letters and send him themed artwork from the kids. Maybe I’d even get to wave to him through the window of his room at the memory care facility. I’d keep my distance because my distance could protect our futures.
Since I no longer have a next year with my dad, but you might with your parents or family members, please do your part to protect those whom you love — and those whom you might not even know — and stay home.