The Coronavirus Pandemic Healed Our Broken Family28 mai 2020
My brother, sister and I wouldn’t even answer the phone when our parents would call us. Years of damage from our father’s violence, years of disappointment at our mother’s acquiescence, years of their tag-team invalidation of our hurt had left us estranged from them but inseparable as siblings.
But when my brother texted me and our sister that Mom was going to start coronavirus duty at the hospital where she works, the two fragments of our family snapped together in the face of this threat.
Since the coronavirus had encroached on New York City, an unease had settled into our group chat. We had been texting about the mounting case count, the demographics of the dying and, most relevant to us, the shortages of personal protective equipment, hospital beds and front-line workers.
We had worried about a spillover of Covid-19 patients from Bellevue Hospital to its neighboring Veterans Affairs Hospital where my Mom, who had immigrated from South Korea after getting an international nursing scholarship, has been a registered nurse since 1981.
That night, our unease became dread. And in a reversal of everything normal in my family, we called our parents — not out of polite obligation, but with an urgency to speak to them. Up until that night, I hadn’t even had their landline number.
My sister got through to my parents first and texted us live updates of their conversation.
“She has to reuse them. N95 mask.”
The fear turned jagged. Coldness spread over my neck, chest and arms. I knew this fear.
Sirens blared outside my Astoria home. My mom had to go in for a late-night shift on Monday, sleep there, and resume working at 8 a.m. Once my sister texted that she was off the phone, I called their house.
“Mom, you have to quit.”
She chuckled, “I can’t. I have to go.”
As always, she made light of her situation. Selfless responsibility, underpinned by a subjective sense of right and wrong that I could never crack, had always piloted her decisions. She explained that the hospital had asked for volunteers, but with no takers, coronavirus duty had become mandatory. All the nurses and doctors were in this together.
My voice got high-pitched. “But you’re 67. You’ve worked past retirement. The virus kills older people.”
I felt the familiar helpless fear. It was the 7 o’clock fear of the 1980s and ’90s when my sibs and I would peer out the kitchen window anxiously awaiting my parents’ return from work. My mom would leave our home under the dark early morning sky for the graffiti’ed 7 train on her way to the hospital, only to later join my dad at their jewelry store in East Harlem.
There, they carried out their version of the immigrant manifesto — the one where the parents grind so the children can uplift the family into a niche of white-collar internships and newfound comfort, demonstrating that they unquestioningly belong to this country (although the recent spate of anti-Asian-American attacks spawned by our president throws a wrench into that).
For my parents, a minority couple in a poverty-stricken neighborhood hit hard by the crack epidemic and gang warfare, it was a battle for survival, slinging 14-carat-gold four-finger rings and iced-out grills.
My dad was an angry man whose experience fighting with America’s ally, South Korea, in the Vietnam War at the age of 18 didn’t help matters. My mom was a very nice woman who had willingly swallowed the bitter pill of old-school chauvinism and refused to “fail” by not establishing a nuclear family — at any cost. Even if a burglary or a grade less than A+ flared up into household turbulence. So on any given evening at the kitchen window, my sibs and I worried: Were Mom’s eyes red? Any bruises? What would tonight bring?
After years of cringing and seething, when we were old enough to leave, we left and never looked back.
Yet here we were again, looking for signs of danger. We wondered, would she have difficulty breathing? Would she have a dry cough? Would there be enough ventilators for my parents?
With death lurking at every insufficiently protected breath, love broke through the hardened layers of hurt, and invaded the safe space my sibs and I had created for ourselves.
As soon as I hung up, my sibs and I did a three-way call, and we went into triage mode. My sister would research meds, treatments. My brother would get said meds and leave them at my door. I would cook nourishing bone broth and ginger paste, and my husband would do the big drop-off on my parents’ doorstep.
Over the next weeks, we spoke daily. More than we had in the past two years combined.
On a recent Zoom session, my mom was sitting down, limply. Her sore throat, initially a scratch, had become painful. Badgered for details by my sister, she admitted that she’d started coughing the night before. Our dad — a scar from a burglary-driven knife wound showing on his neck — said he’d taken NyQuil. We implored her again to quit.
My parents started talking over each other. “Thank you, children. You never call us. We didn’t know you cared.” We always did, but until now, we couldn’t show it.