I have a health condition that puts me at risk for complications from COVID, so when the vaccine came out I was eager to be vaccinated as soon as possible. My immediate family was supportive and on the same page. However, one family member, my aunt, remains unvaccinated.
“Saturation” is a word used to describe an overcrowded hospital, where every bed is full, as is every gurney in the emergency department and every waiting room—and there’s a line of ambulances waiting outside to offload still more patients.
“Saturation” also refers to a swelling riverbed, to color devoid of light, and to the cotton-rag–like lungs of someone with COVID pneumonia.
It’s been almost nineteen months since the first case of COVID was declared in the United States. Since then, health-care workers have endured surging cases, periods of eerie calm, more surges, and, now, a hurricane.
I retired from critical care nursing in the wake of the COVID pandemic. I had been an avid runner prior to my retirement, and I was then able to start a rigorous exercise program as well. While I had been thin prior to retiring, my new regimen became an obsession, as I focused on exercising, running, and eating “right.”
I considered the idea of survival only when I found out, postsurgery, that the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes. I wondered what would have happened had I waited any longer, had I ignored going to the hospital to follow up about the lump on my breast.
After his wife died, he changed his mind. “No ventilator,” he told me, shaking his head. “No ventilator.”
And so, I thought, now we wait. He had been prepared to wait for his wife to get better when it was she in the hospital alone. No visitors were allowed, so he talked to her by phone for hours each day, even when neither of them would speak, even when she couldn’t speak; he would listen to her breathing, willing it to ease, to settle into the pattern he knew so well from years by her side.
I tiptoed into the slippery hallway of the hospital near Dublin where I’d stayed for three weeks as a baby, trying to find some answers as to why I had been there. I still expected to be reprimanded by sisters—what nurses are still called in Ireland—with raw faces and pursed lips.
The walls were awash in institutional sea-foam green. My boyfriend at the time took a picture of my frightened face, the flash bleaching me out to only dark eyes.
I retired from a deeply satisfying teaching career just before I turned sixty-five, having always thought I would keep teaching well into my seventies. The decision came in the aftermath of my parents’ illnesses and deaths.
The years between stroke and death for both my mother and father seem, with hindsight, to have been a time of accelerated aging for me, not so much in my legs and arms and feet as in my heart and brain. Not so much the aging that reaps wisdom but the aging that topples into vulnerability. The aging that makes it seem too hard to keep up with a challenging job, to keep giving my students the education they deserve. The aging that makes each ache or pain or worry that I would have shrugged off at a younger age feel like inevitable decline, a one-way street.
In my very first job as a doctor, working in a London hospital in the 1980s, I always took a ridiculously detailed past medical history for every patient I saw. I started to notice how many elderly women had had septicemia, a life-threatening infection in which enormous amounts of bacteria enter the bloodstream.
The neighborhood surrounding the hospital had once been the worst slum in London, and it didn’t take me long to guess that these infections were probably caused by illegal self-induced abortions during the hungry years of the Depression.
“I’ve been having some gender issues lately.”
I was on the phone with my eighteen-year-old granddaughter Amy who had recently moved across country to attend college.
“Want to talk about them?” I asked.
“I want to be a boy.”
“Wow! Where did that come from?” Amy had come out to me as lesbian two years earlier, but I had never heard a word about gender dysphoria.
“I went to an LGBTQ meeting on campus last week, and the speaker said we need to honor who we are. This is who I am.”