Life

When the Coronavirus Finally Came for My Family, I Thought I Was Ready. I Was Very, Very Wrong.

A woman looks out the window.
Emily Deltetto/EyeEm via Getty Images Plus

Coronavirus Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring how the coronavirus is affecting people’s lives.

When my mother tells me she called the ambulance, I can only think that I cannot go to my parents’ house and see my father get in it. My sister takes the car and runs over there. I am positive for COVID, and leaving the house would mean risking a fine. But I want to see Dad. See how he is, how he walks, if he walks, how many kilos he has lost, how he lies down on that stretcher. I want to see if everything I’ve written in the past year is happening to us too.

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I wander back and forth in the hallway of my house. I compulsively call people in my family on the phone. My 7-year-old daughter, the oldest, asks me what’s going on. I don’t know. I should reassure her, but I can’t find the words, nor do I have the strength to look for them. “Dad is very weak. He waved at me. The neighbors were all looking out from their balconies, greeting him,” my sister tells me in tears. I feel a mixture of anger and sadness. Go back into the house, people. Close those balconies; there is nothing to see. My dad will be back soon. What happened to millions over the past year is not happening to us. I burst into a deep, unknown, frightening cry.

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I have not seen my parents for two weeks, after the positive outcome of my father’s swab, and the fear that our story may resemble the dozens of stories I have written as a journalist in Italy covering this virus over the months terrifies me. Will I also become that daughter who lost a father to the virus? I know perfectly all the practical and emotional steps of this situation. I know them by heart. I wrote them, recognized them in a thousand stories. But living them is quite another thing. If there is one image that has always struck me, it is that of the family greeting the sick person and who does not imagine that it could be the last time they will see him. What will be his last word before the black hole?

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My father has COVID. My mother, my brother and I do as well. My daughters don’t. I have no idea where we got it. We haven’t done anything for a year now—we put on masks, wash our hands. But we have COVID. Moments away from the vaccine, it’s hard not to feel a bit stupid, if not unlucky. It’s hard not to think about it right now.

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In Italy, we are at the beginning of the third wave dominated by the U.K. variant. Intensive cares are filling up again. The schools are closed. We are in lockdown. A year later, it seems to be back to square one. Spring is coming, and we are watching it from our windows and our gardens. Ambulance sirens can be heard on the phone with friends. “Here they are,” we say after a pause of silence. Just like a year ago.

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I have severe pain in my legs and back, but no fever and no cough. What wears me out is the concern for my parents. Dad is 72 years old and in the hospital with oxygen. He writes us some messages on WhatsApp. Usually just numbers: 91, 89, 90. The readings from his oximeter. We are now one of those families waiting for a call from the doctor on duty at the hospital. It takes place around 5 in the afternoon. The wait, the anxiety that surrounds the hours around 5 is unimaginable. I always thought that if I had to face this situation, I would be ready. I felt my job prepared me pretty well for it. But I’m not equipped for anything. Meanwhile, my mom is also starting to feel bad. Cough, high fever, unstable blood-oxygen saturation. None of us can visit her. Thoughts overlap, especially in the evening. What if mom is sick at night? What if the saturation goes too low, and she is alone in the house?

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We too experience the violence with which the virus divides families. Once, a lady from Bergamo, in Northern Italy, told me that of all things, perhaps this division was one of the worst. My parents have been together for 54 years. This year they will celebrate 50 years of marriage. They lean on each other. They love each other very much, and have never been apart for more than three days. Alone they feel lost. Dad, with whom I can sometimes even talk on the phone, with a faint and tired voice, from behind the mask tells me: “Please, take care of your mother.” His only concern is for her; he is afraid that she might end up in the hospital, and it hurts him very much. This is yet another teaching of love that they give me, unwittingly, in one of the most difficult moments of their life.

Doctors say dad is getting better and his lungs are fine. He tells us about his roommate who had a respiratory crisis the night before, and the nurses put oxygen helmets on him while he was crying. Seeing a man floundering is terrible, Dad tells us.

After five days, he comes home and starts taking care of my mother. Finally, we are more serene. After three weeks of hell, we breathe a sigh of relief.

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