(Some people bake when they’re stressed. I write. I’m going to do that here, partly to vent, but also to connect with people. Since we can’t step out from our homes to be with one another we can at least keep connecting on another level, by reaching out with words and shared experiences. Please feel free to do that in this space. I don’t have anywhere else to go, so I’m here and would love to hear from you and know how you’re doing. I’ll start…)
An agoraphobic is a person who’s afraid to leave the house.
Nowadays, that doesn’t sound unreasonable.
But before it was fashionable to lock ourselves away like some Rapunsel in her tower, I struggled with agoraphobia for years. It wasn’t a picnic, trust me. It’s taken a long time for me to feel a little more comfortable in the world.
And now, this craziness called Coronavirus.
Such a cruel cosmic joke!
Except I’m not laughing and neither is anyone else. Well, on certain days we do look for a way to laugh and manage to find something on Facebook: “Tomorrow I’m visiting Puerto Backyardia. Los Living Room is getting boring.”
It’s been 18 days? No, 19? Who can keep track of the calendar when there’s nothing on your calendar except “Stay Home!”
Everything in life has changed – seemingly over night.
FLASHBACK to January 1st when I began to check flights to France.
At Christmastime our family sat around discussing my birthday (a big one) in June. “We have to do something special to celebrate it, Mom,” our daughter said. She suggested a family trip to Paris and the Basque country, where my grandmother was born, and where our family still owns 23 acres and a crumbling 200-year-old stone house. My children have never seen the little village, St. Etienne de Baigorry, where their great-grandmother was born and lived until she came to America at the age of 14. The Basque country and her people are part of their lineage and I eagerly jump at the idea of introducing them to Euskal Herria.
The House of Magnanea in St. Etienne de Baigorry
A trip to France for seven people is not going to be cheap and that concerns me. Eager to have everyone come along and not wanting to break my kids’ bank accounts I decide to break my own. I check the flights (and the prices) and feel faint. It’s going to be a lot of money. But my portfolio has done well over the last two years, so I decide to take the risk and book seven seats on Air France to Paris at the end of June.
I let my kids know with phone calls.
“There’s a virus in China,” my son tells me.
I’m not worried.
“That’s China, Josh and it’s a million miles away. They’ll knock it out.”
“I don’t know, Mom. It’s spreading fast and they’re starting to lock up areas.”
Lock up? What’s that? I’ve never heard of such a thing.
I will learn about that later.
“Well, that’s China. I’m not worried,” I tell him.
I make hotel reservations. Paris. Biarritz (pre-paid to save money). An Air B&B in the Basque country. I look into train reservations. I’m about to book two cars for rental.
“That thing is spreading, Mom. It’s in Italy,” my son tells me.
“We’re not going to Italy,” I tell my son. Am I in denial, or what? No, I’m just an American who feels invincible because well, I’m an American. We’re protected from all those nasty things happening outside our shores, aren’t we? And, I’m privileged. Middle class. Not poor. Flush with credit cards. My life is good. I trust the world I live in. I believe in governments and healthcare systems (because I’m covered by insurance) and I’m a believer that those in charge will protect me and my family. I don’t live in Italy. I’m not going to Italy. I’m a safe American and so is my family.
February comes and I’m starting to see more news about this virus. I see Italians being shut away in their homes. But I see them singing and it makes me feel safe. How bad can it be if the Italians are singing?
Then, the numbers come out about people dying.
And the numbers are growing.
So too are the news stories about how this thing is spreading.
I start reading up on travel insurance.
I always buy travel insurance for our trips, but this time I put it off because frankly, it’s not cheap to cover seven people on a family trip. Now, I seriously start figuring out the costs for some kind of travel insurance (cancel for any reason?), and yes, they’re high, but I’m contemplating buying some, just in case.
And then, this article comes out in the Wall Street Journal: travel insurance doesn’t cover this virus. You get it, you own it. The whole cost for the insurance is on you and it really doesn’t pay you anything back if the virus stops you from traveling.
That gives me pause.
What happens if the virus hits France and one of us gets sick? Will travel insurance pay for that? To keep us in France until we’re better? I start reading every article I can find about insurance – trying to get an answer as to whether I should insure this trip or not.
And while I am researching it hits.
That terror that seemed so far away hits us. Hits here in the U.S. Washington State first, and California soon after. NYC is getting hit hard and the virus is spreading rapidly.
The market starts to tank. There goes the money for the trip that has no insurance. The news is on fire and in the middle of this crisis-in-the-making another hits our family: My mother-in-law dies.
Gloria Levien (Nanny)
She was 94 and it was expected, but this pandemic was never expected, and it especially wasn’t expected to be growing so quickly. Nanny has been living in a nursing home and she’s been on hospice for months. The last few weeks she’s been bedridden and not really eating. My husband’s been visiting her every day, and now on March 11th she passes away and the nursing home is locked up to visitors.
And then, there’s the funeral: it’s scheduled in New York City.
We’re Flying to NYC In The Middle Of A Pandemic?!
Nanny was a life-long New Yorker; the last thing she wanted to do was to move to a small town in California. But a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s and a son and daughter-in-law living three thousand miles from New York City, where she was living by herself at the time, made the move a necessity. She fought it for about six months, and then, as the Alzheimer’s progressed, she settled into her new life. The nursing home became her resort, and she enjoyed being pampered by the staff. Meals were taken care of, activities were around every corner, friendly caregivers were there when she needed them, and there was a lovely dining room with a classy menu and a waitstaff dressed in uniforms. With such a devastating illness, my mother-in-law was lucky enough to live in a beautiful and loving environment. She lived there for almost seven years and when she passed away her caregivers cried and said how much they loved her, that she always had a smile on her face, and she said “I love you!” to all the staff every time she saw them.
But now it was time for Nanny to return to NYC, to the city she loved so dearly.
The funeral was all spelled out in her will: funeral services were to take place at one of the most well-known mortuaries in the country, and burial would be in a family plot that dated back to the early 1900s, when Nanny’s family first arrived in the city watched over by Lady Liberty. The plan was all set: We would have to fly to New York City.
And then, the virus hit the Big Apple.
While Nanny’s funeral is being planned, everything else in NYC is being cancelled.
Music events. Live theater. Weddings. Bar Mitzvahs. The numbers keep going up higher, the infection keeps spreading, gatherings of people in large groups are being re-scheduled, dropped from calendars, postponed.
But what about funerals?
Loved ones need to be mourned. Need to be buried. Family and friends need the comfort of each other, hugs and kisses, laughter and tears shared as we grieve together. That human connection has always been imporatant when people say goodbye to a loved one. It’s part of our humanity. But that humanity is at odds with fear today. Our need to comfort and be comforted is in conflict with our need for self-preservation and survival.
Nanny picked a heck of a time to pass away.
And to be buried in New York.
New York is a hotbed for coronavirus infections right now. The number of dead are just starting to rise. Hotels ands restaurants are still open, but over the last few days Broadway has shut down completely. There’s not enough medical equipment – ventilators and masks – for the medical personnel and the hospitals are filling up too quickly. There is fear everywhere you look, increasing by the hour.
The family talks about how to handle the funeral, but the plans have been made in advance, and no one seems to want to admit that this is not the best time to travel to New York City. We try to find some levity to all of this – searching for something amusing to get our mind off the big question: whether to go to NYC or not. We say that his is so appropriate for Nanny – many times whenever she travelled there were problems: a military coup in Panama, a typhoon in Southeast Asia while she sat in an airplane on the tarmac waiting to take off, traveling to China when the students were rioting in Tiannamen Square. And now, a pandemic in her own hometown of NYC.
We watch Cuomo on television, and tune into the news 24/7 to see if it’s safe to travel. Flights are being shut down internationally, but domestic flights still are available. Should we book? Do we even have a choice? What if they quarantine in NYC? What if everything goes on lockdown? Each day we seem to be creeping perilously closer to the edge of the cliff. And frankly, it’s terrifying.
I’m a recovering agoraphobic, so I don’t need a reason to stay home. Staying home is my normal go-to position. But this time I have family responsibilities – I’m a mom whose kids have just lost their grandmother. I’m a wife whose husband has just lost his mother. I don’t have room in this equation to call the shots or make decisions for everyone. I have to suck it up and go with whatever choice everyone else is making.
Hell no, I don’t.
It takes one long sleepless night before the day I’m supposed to buy family plane tickets for me to finally speak up. My agoraphobia (once tamed, I thought) now reappears.
“I can’t do this,” I tell my husband. “It doesn’t feel safe.”
We talk. My husband understands. I don’t want him to go, either. Or the kids to go. It doesn’t feel safe, he says, but he’s not sure what we can do. The plans are set. We talk some more. Cookie, our friend talks with him. There has to be another way. “What if you get stranded in New York, in quarantine, and you have to pay for all those hotel rooms for the family to stay in NYC? That’s thousands and thousands of dollars.”
My husband calls the mortuary, calls his brother, the family talks, and the decision is made.
The funeral will be televised.
What seemed so new to us for Nanny’s funeral on March 20th has now become a way of life for all of us. ZOOM enters our world and we seem to be stuck with it for the immediate future.
None of us know how to run the damn software, but Frank E. Campbell’s Funeral Home, one of New York City’s finest, handles the entire event seamlessly. People from all over the country – family members and friends – are able to attend through the magic of one videographer and his camera, and a link that is emailed out to everyone.
The eulogies are spoken. The Rabbi says the prayers. Photos of Nanny and her life fill the screen. It was a beautiful service. And yet, we the mourners watch from a distance. Separated by this unseen stranger that cruelly keeps us hidden in our homes and away from each other. One moment in the day, however, serves to finally connect us – at the graveyard, as the Rabbi speaks the Prayer for the Dead in Hebrew, the celebrant says the names of each family member and drops a single rose into the grave with every name spoken. Those who are connected to Nanny, now finally are connected together in this last gesture of love and honor.
And New York City now shelters-in-place.
Wake me when this is over.