Week 11: Social Anxiety

June 4, 2020

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

I just fled a graduation party.

My smart, articulate, lovely niece graduated high school today, and my father and his wife wanted to throw her a celebration. She deserves it. First of all, because she’s worked hard. Second, because she didn’t get a prom or a senior ditch day or a walk down the graduation aisle.

So they set up TV screens in their backyard and placed tables at strategic distances, and about 20 of us sat down to watch the virtual ceremony: my two nieces, my brother and his wife; my dad and his wife; my mom and her boyfriend; my sister-in-law’s parents and brother; three of my niece’s friends; and me and my three kids (my husband was still at work, because it’s a Thursday and the ceremony was at 5 p.m.)

It’s a lot of people, even in a good-sized backyard. Still, I think I could have managed it.

But none of the guests wore masks, and people from different households sat in chairs with far less than six feet between them.

Masked waiters served passed hors d’eouvres, which you had to pluck from the plate with your fingers. Later, after the ceremony, the same waiters would serve dinner, made by (masked) chefs in the kitchen. Ingress and egress was through the house. Teenagers were hugging.

Even still, I might have been able to make it through. I saw no signs of the virus. The evening was lovely, the hostess had been meticulous in her planning and presentation, and the guest of honor is a young lady I dearly love.

But my mom’s boyfriend, Richard, has been ill with cancer for a few months now, and when I left, he was seated right in the middle of it all, mask dangling from his chair, next to my mother, who had also set her mask aside. I tried to tell myself that they are grown ups, and responsible for themselves. I know the risks are low — all of us outdoors, a relatively small crowd of apparently robustly healthy people.

Still. Every time I looked at my mom and her boyfriend, I thought I would sob. I felt horrible about that, because they looked so happy. They have been cooped up since his January diagnosis to a degree that even I, as much as I shelter in place, cannot begin to comprehend. I can see the argument that life is not worth living if you have to spend it caged inside in the same home, day after day.

But that didn’t make it any easier for me to watch them. From the moment he got diagnosed, five months ago now, all I could think was that he must survive this. Richard is one of the best things that ever happened to my mother, and we all love him very much, in no small part because of how good he is to her. I can’t lose him, I thought. I can’t lose him. The word “coronavirus” started to echo in my head. I felt my anxiety start to come at me, like snow rolling down a hill, gathering snow as it goes, threatening to become an avalanche. And I realized there was certainly someone who was going to get sick out of this, and it was me, from stress.

I made an excuse to my dad about a queasy stomach, which wasn’t too far from the truth, and scurried out of there. Now I’m home, writing this blog. The kids will text me when it’s wrapping up, and I will get in the car and drive 15 minutes to get them.

I am not going to argue that I was rational, or that I made a rational choice. I’m emotional and anxious in the best of times. Of course, I’m even more so these days. We are all more so these days.

Here’s what I learned: the world is still out there, and one by one, people are rejoining it. I am, too, to a small degree. I also went to the dentist today, and to Trader Joe’s. But I’m not ready for a party.

I wish I were. I really, really wish I were.

Day 26: Gulp

April 20, 2020

For a family under lockdown, we’ve had our share of drama around here.

We’ve discovered we were running a spider nursery; inadvertently got our labradoodle stoned; and held a pots-and-pans-banging birthday celebration on our driveway.

I got sick with something that laid me low for the better part of a month — but I tested negative for the coronavirus. My husband, a physician, had confirmed COVID-19 exposure and just completed 14 days of wearing a mask everywhere he went (he’s fine now). Our 16-year-old daughter has been coughing for eight straight weeks, a round of antibiotics and a clear X-ray notwithstanding.

Every few days, I ask my brother how the family business is doing. My dad started a manufacturing business nearly 50 years ago, and my brother still runs that company today out of a plant in Valencia. Without getting into details, let’s just say things are quieter than in 2008 — and those weren’t exactly the best of times. To round things out, my mom’s partner of 15 years has metastatic renal cancer that may or may not be responding to the latest treatment (scan coming up on Friday — fingers crossed).

So I’ve been keeping my eye on our kids, the dog, my husband, my mom and her partner, the family business, etc. etc. I thought I had it all covered.

Whoops — forgot about my dad.

My father, who is 85 and lives in the Pacific Palisades, had a minor stroke on Friday and landed in a bed at St. John’s Medical Center in Santa Monica. This shouldn’t be a shocking turn of events, given his age. But he does push-ups and sit-ups every day, hikes in the mountains with a gaggle of lady friends twenty years his junior every weekend, and jets off on ski trips to Whistler and the Alps. He still works, at the business I mentioned above, and until the virus forced planes out of the skies, regularly traveled abroad for his job.

As you might imagine, it took some convincing to get him to stop driving up to Valencia every day. He and his wife have continued to avoid both delivery services and asking grandchildren for help buying groceries. Instead, he’s been hitting senior hour at Gelson’s every other week to stock up for the household.

The stroke shook him a little off balance, and more alarmingly, partially paralyzed his throat so that he struggled to swallow. He seems nearly back to normal now, but on Saturday, the hospital staff was sufficiently alarmed to limit him to a saline drip, no foods.

But here’s how indestructible my dad believes himself to be. On Saturday night, when no one was watching, he fished a pack of crackers out of some private stash of his, and ate the contraband in the dark. “I was hungry,” he said the next day. “And it was fine.”

Before he was admitted to the hospital on Friday, he and my stepmother got tested for COVID-19, thanks to my resourceful sister-in-law who set it up through the City of L.A. We don’t have the results back yet. Neither do we know what caused the stroke, thought not for lack of testing (although my husband is an internist, he works at Kaiser, a closed medical system, and so hasn’t been a part of my father’s care at St. John’s).

As I was writing this, I called my dad and found out — no surprise there — that he’s skipping the three days at the rehab home that he was offered, and is heading to his house tonight instead. His balance is back, he said, and as for his swallowing, “I only have to be told something once. They (the therapist) told me what to do, and I did it at lunch today.”

Oy.

Of course, part of the reason he’s not going to rehab is he wants to avoid more viral exposure. And he is meeting tomorrow with his internist.

To listen to him, his health is once again under control and chugging nicely forward. And it’s not like I can do much about anything, stuck here in my house, unable to even visit him when he was alone for four days at the hospital. The nice thing about him going home is I’ll be able to stand on his front lawn and wave at him, which I’ve learned is not nothing.

I’ve also remembered how much I love the sound of his voice on the other end of the phone. It wasn’t available on Friday. It sounded like a truck had dumped a load of gravel on it on Saturday. It was still scratchy on Sunday, but I knew my engineer father was back when he started explaining to me the physics of how blood flows through the heart.

I hated physics in high school. I hated that the only tutor on offer to me was my dad, and that he insisted on explaining physics with calculus, even though I was barely passing calculus and my physics course didn’t include it anyway.

But I’ll take it these days. Crackers and hubris and physics and all.