A year ago, our grandmother Angelina (Ann) Segno, then age 98, began to have difficulty walking. For several years, she had lived in a rural house in upstate New York, a group home with three other elderly ladies and their caregiver, settling into what my wife Chris calls the happy form of dementia. We raced north within hours over Christmas break, when she was admitted to hospital after a fall, and spent the next two days visiting nursing homes in the area, seeking a placement for her. We had an ace in the hole that made this search fruitful. Back in the day, Grandma and Grandpa had bought a cottage in the town of Pelham just outside the Bronx, and after he died and she moved into the group home, it was sold for a tidy sum. When nursing home managers learned that she wasn’t a Medicaid patient, but could pay out of pocket, beds became available. We chose the new, bright and airy Lutheran facility in Poughkeepsie, with its activity-focused memory unit, and left for home feeling Grandma had already settled in comfortably there.
Three months later, Covid hit. We never saw her again. Aunt Mary and Cousin Lisa, who live nearby, visited often, waving at her through a window. For months the memory unit functioned as it had, with music, arts and crafts, and other group activities. But that was considered too dangerous in the fall, so patients were largely confined to their rooms. Chris was Grandma’s legal guardian, so she spent weekends managing her finances, and weeknights on the phone asking about her condition. Pictures showed her growing thinner, looking more confused. A woman who, even in dementia, loved to chair dance, to use her hands, to clap and smile and enjoy the company of others, was made a prisoner to Covid. Before dawn on New Year’s Eve she died, two months shy of her 100th birthday.
So our family has these bookends, our 102-year old Grandma Connie, who died in the very early weeks of the coronavirus, last March. And Grandma Angelina. Neither, we think, had the virus. Both died alone in isolation.
I’ve taught hundreds of occupational therapy students during my tenure at VCU, and some of us stay in touch. Last April, as hospitals reeled with the first onslaught of the virus, they cried on the phone, exhausted, undermanned, treating patients in parking lot tents. Things are more difficult now. It turns out that many people who survive hospitalization end up with long-term disabling conditions that require rehabilitation therapy. But home health companies have scant PPE, the nursing homes where many of our graduates work are hot spots, the hospitals are overrun again, and some of my former students have caught covid not once but twice. Chris, an OT at the VA hospital, has been vaccinated. My students, one by one, will get their shots, too. But the cases have spiked dramatically, as has the workload, and everyone is so tired.
Until last month, my friend Corey was in the sixth year of his stay at a minimum security federal prison in Butner, North Carolina. A model prisoner, he taught an English language course for Spanish-speaking inmates, served as commissioner of the prison’s softball team, wrote letters and legal pleas for others. Coronavirus hit the prison hard. As of this writing more than 40 inmates have died, and half the prison population has tested positive. When newspapers began to write about this, the administrators decided to farm prisoners out across the nation, perhaps as an effort at seeming to care. Corey — who had survived three covid-positive cellmates, who had heard prisoners cough themselves to death in the SHU (the “hole”), where they were put when their symptoms got too bad — was told that he was on the transfer list. He spent Thanksgiving in the SHU – a cell with a roommate, a narrow bunk bed, a trickling shower, and a toilet – having broken no rule, as a way to isolate him from Covid in preparation for the move. After three weeks of pacing wall to wall, they bused him all the way to Yazoo City, Mississippi, where he spent Christmas and New Year’s in that prison’s SHU, and where he lives to this day (45 days and counting now). As would be expected in the institutional Catch-22 that is the American penal system, we now hear that Butner’s Covid case load has zeroed out (perhaps they hit herd immunity), while Yazoo City’s has exploded. President Trump’s Bureau of Prisons appears to function like much of the rest of his administration, a protracted SNAFU.
I go back into the classroom on the 25th, teaching a hybrid version of my lab-heavy assistive technology course, along with a zoomed stroke seminar, just as the Covid case numbers in Virginia hit their projected peak. It’s possible that I may get vaccinated, sometime this semester. Our boys, college seniors, are still in their bedrooms, fledglings flushed back to their nest, learning whatever their professors can teach remotely.
I haven’t mentioned the insurrection at the Capitol. Driving back from Grandma’s funeral in New York last Wednesday, we listened to it unfurl on the radio. Since then we’ve watched the video footage of the American carnage the impeached (and soon to be re-impeached) President spoke of at his inauguration (even then, that rainy day, didn’t it seem that this was something he craved?). I’ve been thinking about the day Christmas week, when I drove down to the southern end of Chesterfield County to drop off cookies for my sister, who has become a devout fundamentalist Christian Trump supporter in her retirement. Nearly two months after the election, on the winding country roads down her way, driveway after driveway waved a Trump flag or a Blue Lives Matter flag or some other flag of the right wing cults. It’s the water she swims in. But I miss her.
So that’s my update. President Biden is a brave old man with a hopeful heart, but what a burden he will lift to his narrow shoulders next week! Covid and Trump and Fox and Friends have conspired to separate us, to tamp down our prospects and set us against each other. Old folks die alone, hospital workers collapse of exhaustion, prisoners languish, students and teachers pretend to an education, family members unfriend each other. Military leaders prefer to let the Capitol be invaded, rather than risk putting troops on the Mall, for fear that the President might order them to join the revolt. But, we say: Vaccines! New President! 2021! Hang in.