Mom’s later years were difficult. Her mental decline had her moving from independent to assisted living and then to round-the-clock care. In the last year, her physical health and mobility had declined as well. When my mother spiked a fever in April, my siblings and I assumed it was COVID. It took the doctors some time to work through the possibilities, but they eventually got there, too. They and the nurses reminded us that it was not universally fatal, but nonetheless asked whether she had a living will. She did, and wanted no extraordinary measures taken.
Though many hospitals and nursing homes weren’t allowing visitors, the home where my mother stayed would let us in. Several family members had converged on the parking lot there, and we had a robust discussion of how safe it would be to go inside. My mother’s room was on the first floor, and some family members peered through its sliding glass door. My sister and I decided it was worth the risk to sit with Mom during her final hours, as she would have if indeed our places had been reversed.
On that Friday when Kelly and I entered the lobby, the facility appeared to be taking necessary precautions. In addition to providing PPE, they questioned us about our health and took our temperatures before letting us farther into the building. The main thing I was uneasy about was the use of surgical masks rather than N95 respirators. The N95s, I thought, would provide a level of protection commensurate with sitting in a place where we knew the virus was circulating.
On the second day, two friends teamed up to get us the N95s one had stockpiled during the 2009 H1N1 epidemic. We met in the parking lot for the handover — accomplished with profuse thanks and at a safe distance. The masks eased my mind. The key to weathering the pandemic came not from hiding away, but from a clear-eyed assessment of risks and having a plan to manage them. I had also learned during months of covering the pandemic that even measures inadequate on their own could be powerful when layered over one another. So, though it now seems like overkill, after doffing all the protective gear on the way out, we also changed into clean clothes in the chilly April parking lot, our modesty shielded by open car doors. We stowed the dirty clothes in plastic bags in the trunk and made liberal use of the giant bottle of hand sanitizer Kelly had brought.