I hold a canister of disinfecting wipes in one hand and a squirming baby in the other as I run to answer the doorbell. As I wait warily, our father enters, dark circles under his eyes and N95 mask creases on his face. My little brother screams and cries to break free and grab our dad, but restraining him is my best chance of keeping us safe. My dad takes the wipes from me and heads back out to clean the interior of his car. Six months ago, my siblings and I welcomed our father every day with a hug and a peek in his pockets for the candy he kept there. Now, when we open the door, we do it so he can avoid touching the handle and contaminating our home.
Both of our parents are doctors at hospitals in New York, in the epicenter of the coronavirus crisis. The mood in our home has changed drastically. With four kids in the house, ages 1 to 16, it used to be chaotic but cheerful. Now, it’s filled with worry, like dark clouds building before a thunderstorm. When front-line workers’ shifts are over, they can’t just leave their troubles at work – and the people they love and live with feel the ripple effects. We, their children, feel a rush of anxiety at the thought that our parents might get infected – and the distant but unignorable possibility that they might die of the disease. We worry not only for their safety but for our own.
Our mother, a critical-care surgeon now working more than 100 hours a week in the intensive care unit at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, also has new homecoming rituals. After she comes in from cleaning out her car, I notice how she takes care to fold her jacket inside out, so as not to shed any virus particles in the house. There is little logic to this, she admits, but she clings to the smallest bits of control she can exert against this hidden contagion. She always changes into new scrubs before leaving work, but now, unable to shake the fear of the virus coating her hair and skin, she removes those and showers, changing again. My father keeps his work scrubs on for the drive home; he won’t spend a minute more than necessary at the hospital, exposed to the virus, the suffering, the death. As a nephrologist, he hadn’t anticipated being so needed during the crisis. But nearly a third of the most severely ill covid-19 patients develop kidney failure, and he spends his days struggling to stabilize them with dialysis.
Only after all this do my parents sit down for dinner. Often, when he is the first one home, my dad will gulp down a bowl of cereal and milk. My sisters and I miss helping our mom prepare elaborate meals. With limited time and energy, she is more strategic these days, boiling boxes of spaghetti with tomato sauce, in batches big enough for leftovers for the rest of the week. Dinner is usually their one meal of the day, despite the free pizza and food that neighbors and restaurants deliver to their hospitals. Their work pushes them into a kind of accidental fast: There’s always another patient with an emergency, and the layers of masks and plastic shields that they’re not supposed to touch make it hard to break for a bite to eat.
I feel guilty every time they leave the house in the morning, while my two younger sisters, ages 12 and 10, and I complete our schoolwork. Even with the added responsibility of checking on their assignments and quizzes – and with a baby constantly demanding our attention, despite our babysitter’s attempts to keep him busy – my days have gotten easier, in some respects. Remotely, my school’s classes start later than they used to, and our teachers are more laid back. With few commitments aside from my daily assignments, I have much more free time, which I mostly spend with my siblings, taking masked walks or playing board games. Surprisingly, we’re less interested in the Internet now. Since we have to remain distanced from our friends, the only people we can socialize with in person is each other.
Since I am at home all day, I have had more time to help around the house, trying to minimize my parents’ burdens. Between troubleshooting WiFi connectivity for my sisters’ Web-based music and dance lessons, I check the mail, tidy the house and fold the laundry. Our babysitter finishes her day at 6:30 p.m., handing off my brother so I can ready him for bed, which allows my parents to focus on eating dinner.
At home, my ordinarily upbeat parents try to hide their feelings by putting on a smile. But they have less time and energy now to check on our homework, to catch up on gossip, to hear about our days. Their sorrow haunts them at work and lingers with them at home. Their fear is palpable, a wall erected between them and us. They always seem to have a thermometer or pulse oximeter out to take our vitals, looking for the symptoms. They are always asking if we still have our ability to smell, since many people lose that sense when they contract the disease. They’re terrified that we may catch covid-19 from them.
And I’m terrified that they’ll get sick: Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that thousands of health-care workers have contracted the disease. The pandemic, and the prospect of losing my parents, have made me newly aware of how much I depend on them. They tell us, over and over again, that everything will turn out fine, that they are taking every precaution. But they are also trying to reassure themselves. For the first six weeks of the crisis, they slept in separate beds to avoid close contact. Late at night, when they think we’re asleep, my mother and father commiserate. They mostly talk in the living room, trying to mask their voices by turning on the television. They whisper in hushed tones about the record number of deaths, about how no one is tallying the excess mortality rates.
Sometimes, my parents let down their guard around me, their eldest child. They tell me about their exhausted colleagues, about their patients, about how hard it is to watch people in the ICU struggle to talk to loved ones through a tiny tablet screen, wrapped in a plastic bag. In these moments, the wall separating us as adults and children comes down a bit: We are all equally at the mercy of this virus. It makes me feel close with them – trusted, mature, confided in.
My parents used to try telling us about their most interesting cases (not that we understood much about the nuances of the gallbladder). Now our discussions have more depth. Though we sometimes argued about my schoolwork or Internet use, or whether I could go out with my friends, all that feels silly now. I worry all the time that they will end up in intensive care, and that I will have no way to help them or even see them in person. But I know the best way to help them is to remain safe and calm at home – to help out where I can, so that they have one less thing on their minds. Perhaps my job in the pandemic is to make their lives as easy as possible and to try to contain my own anxieties. I hope that, as a result, my mother and father can better focus on saving the people who come into their hospitals.
I’ve always admired my parents. I knew how relentlessly hard they worked to provide for our family and to help people heal. Now, the pandemic has made me see their heroism – the risks they take, their sacrifices. I watch the nightly news and I read the newspaper. I see the statistics and know that the patients my parents care for contribute to those climbing numbers. These are not distant figures but a grim reality they experience every day.
My parents’ daily courage and persistence – along with that of grocery store employees, delivery personnel and others – have never been clearer. Every day that essential workers show up for their jobs, they leave countless family members at home: a new latchkey generation, with sometimes scary new responsibilities. The pandemic is making some of us grow up faster than we expected.