How Things Are Now

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.

Autumn Postcard, Virginia

Exhaustion seems to be the order of the day.  The year has taxed everyone. Most of us have behaved admirably, but we’re tired.  And there seems to be no rest for the weary.  Here in Virginia, after the initial explosion of hospitalizations and deaths last spring, when my former students at hospitals here in Richmond wore the stripes of N-95 masks on their tear-streaked faces as they told of their labors, there was a lull across the summer, Governor Northam having imposed lockdown rules that seemed to work (at least among those of us who followed them), but here we go again. 

What a beleaguered summer it was, too.  For two months protestors marched on Monument Avenue, making a communal art project of the Confederate statues that came down one by one, until only Massa Robert is left (soon to fall).  Tear gas, cars set on fire, right wing provocateurs driving their F-150s through crowds.  Eventually, when the General Assembly came into session, some changes were made to policing, not enough but a start, and the protests petered out. 

A national exhalation last Saturday with the election decided for all except the die-hard MAGA contingent (ironic in a year of on the nose ironies that Biden won by exactly the same electoral college count as Trump had in 2016, and which he had touted as a “landslide”).  But this week, shoulders slump. What can Biden do?

Lonely.  No closure for so many things.  Our grandma, my dear friend Sarah, colleague Rondalyn’s husband all three dead but no funerals yet.  Chris’ other grandma in isolation in a New York nursing home all these months, anxious and confused in dementia.  My friend Corey in a low security federal prison where Bill Barr’s trial of herd immunity has killed at least 30 of his fellow inmates, where more than 1000 have tested positive. 

I teach via Zoom, my students stony-faced on the expanded Hollywood Squares style screen. I see them once a week for face-to-face labs, but in masks and goggles cannot make out who they are, have forgotten some of their names.  My boys completing their senior college year in their bedrooms.  All of us knowing this is not an education, that this whole generation in virtual school is getting ripped off.

Meanwhile, the powers that be grind on.  The stock market soars, the rich get richer, that old song.  Of course, Chris and I are lucky to have jobs, to have so far avoided the virus, to be resilient enough to carry on, all of us at dinner every night and our dog Buddy at our feet. So many have it so much worse, we all know that.

But I miss my friends, I miss the ceremonies and celebrations that mark milestones and offer closure, the interactions among colleagues and students at work, scribbling a poem over coffee at my favorite breakfast spot, going to a movie, having drinks with pals in a noisy bar, browsing museums, and jogging along in a local road race.  I’m an introvert, a loner, but maybe not as much as I’d thought. 

And with the cold weather upon us, the toughest months are coming.  A midnight call from the nursing home to say Grandma has developed a nasty cough, a friend coming off his last chance chemo, first holidays for families who have lost loved ones, laid off colleagues sending out resumes into a jobless void, my inmate pal getting shipped off to a faraway prison as a way to pretend they’re doing something about the virus, the President, of course, ignoring the pandemic entirely as he pouts about his loss over golf. 

Our fatigue is physical, emotional, spiritual.  We all need a good hug.  Somehow that socially distanced Wakandan salute doesn’t cut it anymore.  Trudge on, live in gratitude, one day at a time, yada yada.  You imagine that a time will come when all these photos of people in masks will spark nostalgia – as Springsteen sang, “One day we’ll look back on this and it will all seem funny.”  One can only hope.

Paired Viruses: a poem

A virus can’t act alone.
Needs your participation.
Just a burr of contagion
sucked in on the air you breathe,
that finds a weak link, a chink in a cell,
then incubates until the fever burns.

Clots your brain, swells your lungs,
inflames the hearts of children
too young to understand.

With this one, we have carriers
who infect others but never suffer themselves
and super-spreaders who sicken whole crowds
as if spewing from megaphones.

How it preys on the weak, the under-served,
those frayed at the end of their rope.

One thing, though, some recover.
Yet speak of its tortures with awe.
How it knelt on their throats and chests
until they gasped their mama’s name.

A virus is a frightful thing.
A virus can’t act alone.

Dear Governor Northam

This is the letter I sent to Virginia’s governor this morning, as we cross the line of 100,000 deaths from Covid-19 in America. Let’s all keep pulling together in keeping that curve bent down here in the Commonwealth.

Dear Governor Northam,

Like many Virginians, I have family members who have come down with coronavirus.  We wait to bury my wife’s grandmother, who died in the early days of the pandemic.  My wife, an occupational therapist at the Richmond VA hospital, spends part of each day 3-D printing face shields and zealously guards the one N95 mask she’s been allowed.  My sons, both Virginia college students, came home at spring break and studied via Zoom the rest of the semester.  My older son, an ocean rescue lifeguard in Nags Head, has been trained to maintain health precautions to the extent that he can (he wishes beach goers there would do the same). My younger son, a film student who lost his chance at a summer internship, is still working in his bedroom, picking up special effects editing gigs online and wondering if it will be worth it to do his senior year if it’s just going to be more of the same.  I’m a professor, had one week to convert my hands-on laboratory classes to virtual versions back in March, and spend part of each day now gaming out strategies for how to manage these courses in the fall.  We all wear masks when we go out, we stay home otherwise.  We even turned down an invitation to a Memorial Day picnic at a neighbors’ house, because older people would be there, and we’d hate to think we somehow might have infected them.

I say all this by way of introduction.  One other thing:  All four of us voted for you.  We applauded your swift and straightforward coronavirus restrictions, even though they directly impacted our lives, because as we have seen they “bent the curve” of deaths this spring.  Since then, however, we have been disappointed by your team’s management of the information and guidance we receive.  Your confusing sort-of-mandate about mask wear in public places, for instance, does not seem to provide any additional incentive for sensible people; in fact, one might think it is intended to poke the hornet’s nest of never-maskers who marched on the Capitol early on.  Your team obfuscates in answer to simple questions.  Perhaps they don’t intend to, but it’s worrying.

I teach my sons and students not to complain without offering a suggestion, so I would like to practice what I preach here, if you please.  This is what I ask:

Recognize that most Virginians will act responsibly when provided with the facts they need to make decisions and the tools they need to act on them.  Trust us to do the right thing.  Understand, however, that we need those facts and tools in order to do so.  That said, please:

Follow Tennessee in making all Covid-19 testing free.  Set up testing tents in the parking lots of county libraries or public schools across Virginia at least once a week; for those who cannot travel to those locations, offer a roving test van and a call-in number to schedule a test.  Turn no one away who wants a test, whether they are symptomatic or not.

At these testing sites, provide literature and guidance on what to do if the test is positive.  Provide explanations for home quarantine, including information on how to notify people we have been in contact with while contaminated, encouraging them to quarantine as well.  Offer free paper masks to anyone who needs one.

(If testing and mask giveaways at this level are still unavailable, clearly explain why, and say when they will be.  If testing must be rolled out in stages, show us the plan for that.)

Put the power of Virginia’s church congregations to work supporting their parishioners who are in quarantine, with food delivery, phone check-ins and prayer.  Other volunteer groups, such as the Lions Clubs, PTAs, and Scouts, may be enlisted to similarly support people who are spending two weeks in isolation.  Reach out to them and provide guidance on how to provide this support safely.

Provide free on-site testing at least twice weekly for all residents and staff at nursing homes and assisted living facilities, as New York is doing.  Do the same at all Virginia state prisons.  Encourage any business where people must work in close proximity indoors (grocers and meat processors, for instance) to do the same.

Provide emergency salary protection for anyone who must quarantine and make it illegal to penalize any employee who is in quarantine.

Break the stupid and unhelpful rule that says nursing homes, prisons, and food processors do not have to report out their numbers of infections.  Communities need to know where the virus is spreading in order to act safely on those risks.

Please provide more accurate, up-to-date and granular local data about the virus’ spread on the Department of Health webpage.  Include the information noted in my previous point.

Explain in plain language what you will do if the virus comes back.  What would trigger back-tracking on the phases of reopening in a particular community?  Stick to whatever plan you have in place for this. Make it clear to all of us that you are acting on the triggers and that you have the numbers to back up your plan.

Please continue your efforts to prepare the state for an upsurge in cases.  At each of your press conferences, list how many ICU beds have been added, how many ventilators, how much PPE.  How are health care workers being trained to meet an upsurge?  Show your constituents that the Commonwealth will be ready for the expected upsurge in the fall.

Finally, if a business chooses to reopen, yet an employee does not yet feel safe to go back to work, do not rescind unemployment benefits for the duration of the crisis.  Workers need to know that the governor has their back.

Governor Northam, as I said, I am confident that most Virginians will act as responsible citizens who care about each other in this crisis.  We have already shown that, in following your initial guidance and bending the curve of cases.  But we need honest, open, and clear information and direction from your office in order to continue on this path.  One more suggestion, please be sure to model mask wear next time you go out?

Thank you for your leadership and for your team’s hard work. Stay safe, stay well,

One Gift of Our Sequestering: a poem

They came home
fledglings flushed
back to the nest
and, of course,
we welcomed them.

Their rooms still theirs
nothing changed.
We’d washed the sheets
that’s all.

A throwback
that had us thinking
about times we’ve shared
that won’t come back.

Chris said, “You were at work,
and it was just Nick and me.
I’d get tired and lie down on the sofa.
I’d lift him up and down,
whee! until my arms got tired
then he’d rest his head on my chest and we’d nap.

I said, “What I wouldn’t give for one more
game of Grabber-Man.”

So when the colleges turned them out
it felt like, alright, not quite the same
but take it as a gift.  And strangely,
it has been.  A rewind/replay
all of us together at dinner every evening.

That had me thinking of other last things. 
Like:  I can point out the Cary Street corner
where it happened.  I took Stephen’s hand
to cross the street and he sort of swatted it away.
Told myself, I guess that’s it for that.

But I didn’t mark the last time we chased hot air balloons
or that Nick woke up early just to hang with Dad
or the boys took off their capes, put down their swords
and plastic shields and never picked them up again.

(Hand-me-downs for the neighbor children,
still giddy and chubby and fresh.
I want to school their Dad on that, but he, up to his elbows
in his four little kids, he’d look at me askance.) 

(Well, that’s probably half the dream of grandparenting
creaky old knees and old man bad breath
tumbled on the floor to wrestle with the new kid
one more round of Grabber-Man indeed
almost not quite but hey.)

So yesterday when I outrigged a kayak and its paddle,
a surfboard and a bike to his little car
and Nick headed off for the Summer of Covid-19
lifeguarding in the Outer Banks
this wash of feelings, memories, trepidations,
breaking with a shush on the sands of our parenthood.

Buddy sleeps in our room every night
but last night he didn’t come up.
He lay by the front door maybe wondering
when Nick would come back in.  He gets it.
Though like us he only dimly understands.

April By the Numbers: A Rant


N-95 if you care to survive.
The cruelest month, indeed.
For Covid-19.
Contagious 3 days before you’re sick
and maybe 2 weeks after that.
The model said 1-2 million dead.
Then 100k then 60?
No 60k by May Day.
MayDay?  MayDay for true.
N-95?
We all need somebody to lean on.
Coronavirus the 19th.
100 body bags to a reefer truck.
Zoom meeting at 9 am.
14 days in quarantine.
The Dow down by 1/3.
30 million out of work.
Presser at 5 o’clock.
N-95?  (He put it on upside down.)
3 trillion spent and still where is the check?
Quadruple the numbers from China.
Must fall 2 weeks in a row if you want to flatten the curve.
To get the R number down to 1 or less.
Canned beans limit of 2.
1 teaspoon of bleach in 12 ounces of water is what the man prescribed.
N-95, anybody got a N-95?
Mostly they made love from 6 feet away.
18 months to vaccine.
6 to the election.
That lady was Patient 0.
Uganda has 1 ventilator.
5-fold increase in cyber-attacks.
Fuck the N-95, wear this bandana like a cowboy thief.
3 million so far.
In Europe 1/2 the dead lived in care homes.
But the little boy was just 3.
They’re called numbers because they’re numbing.

Well how about this:
Already in April more people have fallen
than all the cherry petals on our lawn.