I’m at a restaurant a thousand miles from home, seated closely around a table with ten beloved family-in-law members. We are eating, drinking, chatting, unmasked, and I’m thinking, how the hell did I get here? Alarm bells clang in my head.
A landslide starts with a few pebbles skittering down a slope, eventually becoming a cascade of rocks, and before you know it you’re sliding along in an unstoppable avalanche.
I would never have predicted this hastily thrown together funeral trip during a pandemic, but what started with my mother-in-law’s stroke at the end of July, followed by her death, was just the beginning of what I now call Lost August.
At first I’d assumed a graveside memorial would never happen –
- because there’s a pandemic, and a quarantine
- because nothing about an in-person funeral was safe or desirable
- because most of our family members have underlying conditions or are of an age that puts us at risk, especially our 91 year old aunt
- because the governor was threatening to close Oregon’s borders
- because busses, airports, airplanes, rental cars, hotels, restaurants, public restrooms, elevators….
It felt like a virus filled balloon waiting to explode in our faces. Peril lurked on stairway railings, light switches, door handles, steering wheels, restaurant menus. There were so many arrangements to consider, too many moving parts. Humans are unpredictable and dangerous. Am I being extreme? Maybe. Maybe not.
It’s gotten so that I get anxious watching old movies where people stand too close together. Move away! I yell at the screen. Cover your face! Some people might say I’m over-cautious and hysterical. Others might say I’m not cautious enough. Sadly, the only time I truly feel safe these days is at home.
I spent the past five months “bubbling” only with my daughter’s family, also very cautious, and seeing my son and his partner infrequently, outside, and at a distance. We used separate spatulas for our shared pizza for god’s sake, with rounds of hand sanitizer between courses. On our infrequent grocery store trips we wear N-95 masks AND a cloth mask. We still wipe down our groceries.
But death changes everything.
My brother-in-law arrives at our house for his mother’s final days. I assume because he’s a physician that he’s at least as careful as I am. I trust him, it’s lovely to see him, and I’m grateful he’s with us. But he just got off an airplane, where he changed planes in Chicago, a hot spot airport. We don’t hug. I step back.
At first we sit outside, distanced. I seat him for dinner at the opposite end of our six-foot table. Later we chat in the living room, masks on. He steps closer, I step back. Then we’re all doing an unmasked cha cha, forward, back. By the end of his visit, Alan isn’t stepping back. I stop stepping back. I’ve known my brother-in-law for 40 years; it feels absurd to be distanced day after day, while both he and Alan are in and out of the ICU, looking after their mother, and grieving. I am anxious about everything. Death is everywhere.
We wave goodbye, floating vague ideas for a graveside service in the following weeks, but no decision about if or how or when. It seems impossible to even entertain the idea, so fraught with risk and complexity. My anxiety skyrockets when it’s suggested we could invite up to a hundred people; I can’t even speak. My sleep is full of violent images.
The stones fall more freely now, and the ground trembles. We whittle it down to a dozen close family members. I still feel a tug of resistance, but it becomes inevitable. Drive or fly? Airbnb or hotel? Takeout picnics in parks or on restaurant patios? With each decision I try to control what will happen on the other end. We reserve airline tickets, we book a hotel. Another decision, and another. Gravity takes over, and the stream of loose rock flows visibly, unstoppable.
I step into the airport shuttle bus. Five others, all masked, distanced. Then into the strangely empty Portland airport. No TSA line. Masks are required, but as we line up to board, everyone stands one after the other, no distancing. I sit on a sparsely seated plane (thanks Alaska), and wipe down the seat, the tray, the armrest, the window shade, the air nozzle. Our layover means a five hour flight, so I use the airplane restroom (oh Alaska, do better). Into another deserted airport, another restroom, and into a rental car. My defenses are already crumbling, and I’m forgetting things that had become second nature – hand sanitizer, don’t fiddle with my mask, don’t rub my eyes, don’t touch public surfaces. Step back, step back.
Of the dozen of us, four go out to work every day, and three of those work in hospitals. Even those of us who have been fairly locked down went through airports and hotels to get there, had room service delivery, pressed an elevator button, forgot to wash our hands.
By the end of the trip, there we are on that restaurant patio, the Pacific ocean waves crashing delightfully behind us, palm trees swaying overhead. We struggle with masks on and off, occasionally and randomly slipping them back on in between sips and courses. Are the menus wiped down? Do they wipe the chairs between diners? Is the waitress asymptomatic?
At a certain point you almost give up. It’s nerve-wracking to be continually on alert, constantly watching where you put your hands, gauging distances, while enjoying this face to face reunion, sharing stories, grieving, and celebrating the life of our mother. I love these people, but I hate looking at them with fear or suspicion. I don’t want to get sick or pass the virus along. My hard-earned imperviousness and sense of safety is lost in a split second. Gravity wins and I’m sliding, tumbling full speed over the mountainside. I wonder whether we will take our place in one of those headlines, “Family funeral leads to hundreds of infections across five states.”
I’ve adjusted to the pandemic over and over, tweaking my approach: grateful, anxious, taking it easy, exercising, hysterical, proactive, depressed, resolved, mourning losses, empowered, outraged, laser focused, self-care, scolding myself, going out in nature, rekindling a passion, letting go, buckling down, drawing inward. Each time I shift it’s with renewed resolve; here’s my new approach to all this. Leaving town overnight via airplane was not on that list.
People who go to work everyday, or socialize frequently seem more inured to the dangers. “I’ve been safe so far, I’ll be fine.” But when I hear the travel warnings – “vacation” linked with “extreme caution” – it’s just not compelling. I had wanted to bust loose and get out of town, have an adventure, but now that I experienced it, quarantine sounds better.
One enjoyable part of travel is the return home, revisiting my creature comforts, settling in, remembering the good times. This time, the relief is pronounced as if I fled a battlefield. I lean back against the front door with a sigh; oh glorious quarantine stuck-ness! I put my travel clothes in the washer, scrub my hands a little longer, and sleep harder than I have in a month, dreamless.