As a teenager, my parents cursed me in the way that all parents curse their children: "When you grow up, I hope you have a kid just like you."
Well, the joke's on all of us: I never had kids. But I've still got my parents, now in their seventies. And, as I learned when I called them last week to encourage them to socially distance due to the coronavirus, my stubborn streak didn't exactly appear out of a vacuum.
As I learned when I called them last week to encourage them to socially distance due to the coronavirus, my stubborn streak didn't exactly appear out of a vacuum.
Since their retirement several years ago, my parents have been social butterflies: in addition to concerts, movies and dinners with friends and family, they volunteer at the village senior center, running sightseeing day trips around New York state; and with another nonprofit arts group; my mom takes language and crafting classes; and my dad helps run a bowling league and a golf league for other local seniors.
Under normal circumstances, their social lives are something I value. I'm well aware of research that shows that social isolation has real health consequences for senior citizens, and I saw how difficult it was for my grandparents (and my friends' grandparents) to be happy when their social circles shrank as they aged — especially when their kids and grandkids didn't live close by, as my sister and I currently don't.
Plus, when left to their own devices with nothing else to do, my parents have a tendency to bicker with each other.
But last week, it became clear to me that this pandemic meant that, at least for a little while, their lives were going to have to be different for their own good. People over 60 are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 and the mortality rate rises based on a patient's age — a lot. Beyond that, public health experts were warning, as the situation in Italy turned dire, that America faces a similar shortage of respirators and ICU beds if too many people got seriously ill at the same time.
And while I figured that officials would eventually recommend social distancing (they since did), and state and local governments would eventually mandate various institutions and businesses close (they have), I worried that those efforts might come too late for my parents' health. Researchers believe that people could have COVID-19, be asymptomatic and still spread it to others; they are certain that people who are only mildly symptomatic do so.
And I knew that the tendency among people in my small hometown, three hours north of New York City, was to think of things like coronavirus as "city problems," unlikely to affect them anytime soon.
So I wasn't exactly surprised, when I called home last Tuesday, to find out my dad was out bowling and my mom said that their social calendar was still quite full for the month. I explained, while trying to sound rational — and not at all like I'd read The New York Times piece about people helplessly watching from a distance as their elderly parents died of COVID-19 in a Kirkland, Washington, nursing home — that I thought they should really clear their calendars. Load up your Netflix queue and settle in until early April, at least, I told them. I also relayed a condensed version of the information I'd heard from scientists and public health specialists about how big pandemics could get, who would be most seriously affected and why it was important that we all take steps immediately to try and prevent being exposed to the virus now, rather than waiting for government officials to tell us to do so.
My mom promised to convey all of that information to my father when he got home from his beloved seniors bowling league. Two days later, she sent an email informing my sister and me that all of their events had been canceled or postponed indefinitely ... except for my father's weekly bowling league. And my father had no plans to stop bowling.
Knuckles cracking, I got to work.
I wrote a 750-word email, with embedded charts, about COVID-19's mortality rates by age in China and the effects of flattening the curve.
I wrote a 750-word email, with embedded charts, about COVID-19's mortality rates by age in China, the shortages of beds and equipment in Italy and the effects of flattening the curve. (I also made some profane suggestions about the bowling league and offered to pay for other forms of in-home entertainment.) I explained about how the lack of testing had led to a false sense of security, and begged them to do just this one thing for their daughters. My dad did not respond. I sent him a note about the number of cases in the state, the shortage of tests, the tiny number of available ICU beds and a list of people I knew who had been exposed already. My dad did not respond. I sent him an article from The New York Times outlining previously undisclosed worst-case estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, showing how bad they thought the pandemic could get. My dad did not respond.
I decided to give him a couple of days to cool off and watch the news — the news that I had predicted Tuesday — play out, as federal and state officials encouraged people to engage in social distancing, banned gatherings of over 500 people, halved the capacity of every venue in our state and closed dine-in restaurants, bars and theaters in various places around the country.
I then called home, and my mom informed me — while my dad listened on the line — that my dad was going to go to one last bowling match and then stay home. "It's not really here yet," he said defensively. "You don't know that!" I said, panicky. "I've made up my mind," he replied sternly, in the this-is-the-end-of-the-discussion tone I remember all too well from my teenage years.
But I'm not a teenager anymore. "I need you to tell me why you are making this decision, Dad," I said. "I need a real reason you are taking this risk."
My mom chimed in, "Because I told him not to go."
I guess whether you have a kid or not, you end up taking care of somebody (or two somebodies) just like you.
So I stopped trying to throw logic at him, to pressure him, or to explain to him, rationally, all the reasons he should temporarily give up his beloved social outlet. And I said, "Dad, I am scared. You don't know who has it; no one does, and it's spreading fast and it's getting worse. If you stay home, I know you are reasonably safe and I need that right now."
And he paused. And then he said, "Fine, as long as you tell your mother to shut the f--- up about it."
So I told my mom to "shut the f--- up about it," and I shut up about it, and we talked about other things for a bit, in a tacit acknowledgment that I'd won this stubborn-off.
But we all know that there are probably — hopefully — more of these to come ... since I did win this one.