It began as a low rumble. We could hear it coming from off in the distance and began to batten down the hatches, making what preparations we could before it struck. Assuring our charges that they were safe, changes began slowly and inconspicuously.
“We’re going to have you sit two metres apart; just to be on the safe side,” we assured the residents as we rearranged their wheelchairs in the activity room.
Then the wind began to pick up and we had to change course.
“Don’t worry. We’re going to bring your meals to you in your room. It’s just to keep you safe.” These words brought little comfort when spoken by someone wearing goggles, a surgical mask and a gown. Their own fearful eyes and trembling lips were not masked by Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
I continue to be positive and focus on spreading joy and not fear. Sweating under my own PPE, I play my guitar and sing songs of faith and hope outside the resident’s rooms as they hum along and gently sway in their wheelchairs, safely perched in the doorway of their rooms. A musical concert played within the parameters of the government-mandated physical distancing.
Now, instead of music, the residents are making the sign of the cross as they listen to their beloved rosary being blared over tinny CD players that are plugged into hallway outlets.
Given the task of connecting family members to their loved ones through Face Time and other means of virtual connected-ness started out as fun and gave me a real sense of purpose.
In a resident’s room, I link a daughter to her mother through Face Time. “Mama, stai bene?” a voice, inches below hysteria asks her Italian mother. “Sei malato?” She’s asking if her mother is okay, or is she sick.
The praise we were once receiving for being there for their loved ones while they themselves are not permitted to visit, has become more accusatory. “Was that a cough? She just coughed! Is she okay?”
I answer as positively as I can. I don’t know if it’s a tickle in her throat or if in fact, she’s joining the number of sick. I just don’t know anymore.
I pass by Ermelinda’s room, peeking my head in her doorway. “Stai bene?” I ask. She says she’s okay, but lonely. What once was as simple as breathing, I enter her room hoping it’s not a mistake.
“This is so hard,” Ermelinda begins, tears already forming at the corners of her eyes. “I know we must do this to stay safe, but for twenty-four hours a day, I’m in this room with nothing but my thoughts.”
“I can sit with you a while,” I tell her, perched at the edge of her bed as she sits in the dark. Ermelinda suffers from perpetual headaches and cannot tolerate the light.
“My Mario died when he was forty-one years old. I know it’s been a long time, but I miss him so much. Especially now when I’m stuck in my room and my sons cannot visit.”
I know a thing or two about grief and what is required to ease the pressure on the ever-present hold it has on the bereaved. “Tell me about him. What was his name? Where did you meet him?”
The next fifteen minutes I learn about her beloved Mario whom she met in the same village in her homeland of Italia. She tells me about her son who was only twelve years old when his father died, thrusting him into manhood and role of provider. Ermelinda’s countenance changes in the brief time she purges herself of memories, both good and sad. A small sliver of light pierces the darkness.
I’m being called away for a debriefing meeting with the administrator and my colleagues. These debriefings are now associated with panic and fear as they usually mean there’s new cases. This meeting is no different. We discover that the virus has now infected one of our residents. Despite our administrator’s attempt as sounding positive–her symptoms are mild, we’re assured–it does little to allay the fears of the caregiver who’s been looking after her for the last six hours. Her head bowed in defeat, her goggles fog up from the tears she’s been trying to hold back. She’s a single mother of two young children. Where is she going to go? How is she going to look after her kids? We’ve already been instructed that beyond coming to work, we are to self-isolate and not venture out, even for groceries.
It’s Friday now, and I hit my own breaking point. I’m tired, but still managing to put on a brave face and crack jokes with the staff and residents. The Nurse Practitioner takes me aside.
“Monica…” he begins slowly as if he had to choose his words carefully. “Would you be able to do a Face Time visit Mrs. M’s daughter as soon as possible? She’s not doing well and her family would like to see her before she…well, you know.”
I go for the iPad, make sure it’s charged and make my way to the residents room. In over thirty years of caring for the elderly, I’ve seen many pass from this life to the next, but never has there been a time when a loved one was not able to have a family member by their side while they did it.
I punch in the contact information and immediately I see a grief-stricken daughter on the screen. I don’t focus in on her mother lying in the bed right away.
“I’m so sorry.” My words are muffled inside my surgical mask.
“Can I see my mama?”
It’s a contortionist’s feat to be able to get Mrs. M in the camera’s view. I’m sitting on the floor beside the bed which is at it’s lowest setting. My own head is resting on the bed beside Mrs. M’s; my arms raised and off to the side to keep her weakening body in view.
My arms are trembling and aching as I struggle to hold the iPad in place. In that moment I’m reminded of the story in the book of Exodus where Moses had to hold up his staff to ensure the Israelites staved off an attack from the Amalekites. His arm grew tired from holding the staff and Aaron and Hur had to put a stone under him to sit on and held his arm up for him until sunset. I feel like Moses, but I have no one to hold up my arms. I find myself weeping along with the daughter, as she pours out her grief and love all at once.
The storm is still raging. More residents have succumbed and others are still being threatened. I’ve lost count, but it doesn’t matter now–it’s all around me, this unrelenting howling.
I still believe in God, but I’m seriously wondering if He believes in us. This feels like deja vu. A trip that should have taken eleven days, the Israelites walked through the desert for forty years before a remnant was permitted into the land of milk and honey. Maybe God is waiting for us to do as He told Solomon in 2 Chronicles 7:14
“If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, I will hear from heaven and I will forgive their sins and restore their land…”
I know God didn’t send this pestilence. I also know that what the enemy planned for our harm, God can turn around for our good. He’s done that in my own life–I’m still here, y’all.
Let’s humble ourselves–listen to what the government is asking–telling– us to do to protect ourselves and others. Let’s pray. Really, I think by now we’ve discovered that Covid-19 is bigger than mankind. What have you got to lose by praying to the Creator of the Universe? Seek His face. What is He asking you to do? What is that inner voice, that thing you call intuition, saying? Turn away from thinking you know better than the next guy. Stop hoarding toilet paper. Stop judging the leaders. Just. Be. Kind.
Yes and Amen