In addition to daily humor almost every day, McSweeney’s occasionally publishes original and timely creative nonfiction on this website.
“That’ll teach me to be a star fucker,” my mother says to me on the phone, before we know for sure. I don’t know if the joke is about the famous actor and actress who are in the chain likely leading back to how my parents got it — if they have it — or about my father. Either way, we all laugh.
My husband Traver and I are at a funeral in Cape Cod when we first learn my parents are sick, sicker than we first thought. The mourners wander around, uncertain how to grieve. As of now all we know is don’t touch, stay six feet away.
We had seen my parents a week before the funeral, at a gala. My father had a cough, but he has chronic bronchitis that always flares up around this time of the year, so we went. I’m in the bathroom of the funeral home when they call. I’m having another bloody nose, a pregnancy symptom. The blood gushes down the back of my throat in a warm, slick wave. I tilt my head back.
“Alex and Judy are positive,” they say. My dad is coughing so much he can barely get the words out. “We saw them a week ago and ate off the same plate like idiots. They saw her a week before that. Jesus.” The her they’re talking about is the actress who had also been diagnosed with the virus.
“How are you guys feeling?” I ask.
They both have fevers that come and go like hot patches of sun. It’s worse at night; they wake with wet collars and damp backs and brows. They are a little worried, but not too worried yet, and my mom makes the joke about the star fucking.
“Don’t worry about us,” they say. “We have each other, we’re okay. We’re more concerned about you and the baby. Are you feeling okay?”
I pull the tissue paper out of my nose. “He hasn’t been moving as much the last few days, but I know it’s way too early to start counting. Other than that, we’re fine.” In truth, the baby’s lack of movement was keeping me up at night. I had only slept three hours the night before, but I didn’t want to tell them that. “I’m only thinking about you guys. Mom, you never get sick.”
My mother says she has body aches, but no cough. She can barely move; all she wants to do is sleep. “Maybe whatever I have triggered the Lyme,” she says. My father, when he isn’t coughing, says he’s having difficulty breathing, that his chest is tight, tighter than it is with the bronchitis.
“So do you think you guys got it from them?” I ask. “That would make sense. Can you go to the doctor?”
They tell me again not to worry. They are in contact with people looking for a test, trying to figure out what to do.
“Okay,” I say. It’s early, after all, and they’re healthy. They take vitamins. They exercise. “I have to get back to the funeral, I love you. Keep me updated, okay?”
My mother begins to cry. “What I can’t stop thinking about is how I saw you a week ago, she says. And I hugged you. I hugged you! I hugged you I hugged you I hugged you.”
She repeats this mantra of grief over and over, full of self-loathing and disbelief. She asks if I hate her. The misery and guilt in her voice frightens me more than her body aches. I understand then that they aren’t scared they have it; they’re scared they gave it to me.
My father shhs her, the effort making him cough so much I hear him move away from the phone.
I imagine them together on their couch in their apartment on the Upper West Side, the dog’s head in my mother’s lap, a shawl wrapped around her aching shoulders, my father coughing and weak, the phone between them on speaker, how my mother thinks I hate her because she hugged me. Will this be the last thing between us? I want to punch the mirror.
“I don’t hate you, Mom. I could never hate you.” I think I feel a drop of blood under my nose, but it’s a tear. “The baby and I are fine. We’ll all be okay, okay? I love you.”
The baby gives a little roll, which shocks me so much I stop crying. I shouldn’t be crying about this now, anyway. My friend’s father has died suddenly and tragically and both of my parents are still alive.
At the wake, Traver and I try to stay six feet away from everyone. At the funeral at the church, we sit in a distant pew. We do hug the grieving family, the widow, the two daughters. We do.
When we’re driving back to Jersey from Cape Cod, my parents call to say they’re on their way to the emergency clinic. They ask me to call my sister to let her know they don’t feel well, but to do it in a way that won’t alarm her. If it comes from me, it will be less scary.
I say, “Yes, of course I will.” I am steady, strong.
When we hang up, I cry so hard I think I must be hurting the baby. Traver tells me there isn’t anything we can do just yet, that whatever is happening is out of my control, that the most important thing right now is that I try to manage my stress. I don’t want to trigger my panic disorder; I’ve done so much work to get the attacks under control.
I do some cognitive behavioral therapy on myself, then FaceTime my sister and assume the role I have played out since childhood: See? I am okay. We are all okay. It’s going to be okay.
My father texts me a picture of my mother from the emergency clinic. She is wearing a mask, and there are dark circles under her eyes. Even so, you can tell how beautiful she is just from her brow and the shape of her. My father texts, “Isn’t she so cute?!” A few seconds later, “(Please don’t post).”
He doesn’t want the rag mags to speculate. He doesn’t want to be on the news. He’s just a person right now, dealing with the same things the rest of the world are. He isn’t Abe from The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. He isn’t Monk. He’s just my mother’s husband. He’s just my dad.
A week later. We are all in self-isolation, now. State-mandated. My husband, two dogs, and I are at our home in New Jersey, my parents at their apartment, my sister on the ranch she works at in Colorado. We are not together, but have never been closer.
Over the past seven days we have been checking in with each other constantly. We talk about how my parents couldn’t have asked for better quarantine company than each other, how lucky we are to not have to worry about losing income, to have health insurance. We talk about the things we used to take for granted: fresh vegetables, toilet paper. Facials. We talk about the administration, how they are failing. We talk about our canceled trip to Turks and Caicos, the last family trip we were going to take before the baby, and how silly it seems to be disappointed about something like that now. We are so lucky, it’s embarrassing, we say.
Only my father was able to get the test because my mother didn’t have the incessant dry coughing at the time they went to the clinic. If he comes back positive, it’s assumed she is, too. They are feeling worse, then better, then worse. It’s been eight days of waiting. In the last one hundred and ninety hours, I have texted “How are you feeling?” twenty-four times. Said “I love you” more than that.
I know we are lucky, but I also know this virus doesn’t discriminate. This isn’t a reservation at a restaurant, a car to the airport, better seats at the theater. It doesn’t matter who you are. It never did.
I am in my basement office working — I am one of the lucky few who has a job that allows them to work from home — when my father calls for the third time that day. He tries to FaceTime me, but when I answer it says CALL FAILED . I try not to take this as an omen and call him back right away. Usually, if I’m busy, I let missed calls and texts like “Call us when you can” sit for a few hours, a day, but over the last two weeks I stop everything whenever I see either of their names flashing on my screen.
When he answers, I can tell it’s just him. Usually both of my parents are on speaker together. This feels different. “Hi, Jos,” he says.
I know what’s coming, but I ask anyway. “Did you get the results?”
“Well, yes,” he says, pausing to catch his breath. “It turns out I’m positive.”
I have spoken to my mother about her death. Last Christmas, she pulled me aside and told me that if anything ever happened to her, she wanted me to be the one to pull the plug, to stop the medicine, to do whatever it took to make sure she went quickly. “Will you, Josie? I know you’ll be strong enough.” Her eyes had borne into me, to make sure I understood.
Since I was a little girl, she has told me she doesn’t fear her own death, and that I shouldn’t fear it either. “Who knows what happens?” she says. “It could be the best part.” Over the last year, she’s gone off her antidepressants and has been experimenting with alternate forms of medicine to help her greet and accept this new stage in her life, the one that is closer to death than not. Imagining her doing these things terrifies me, because when she does them she goes somewhere else, and is not my mother. She is just a person. But I support her, because that is what she needs from me, and so I give it to her.
My father and I haven’t spoken about his inevitable death, and I don’t want to hear what I know he is going to say next. I am not ready, not now. Now that we are all elsewhere, that we are forced to be apart, I know more than ever that my parents are my home. When they are gone, where will I live?
“Look,” he says. “I just want you to know that if I die from this, I’ve had a really good run.”
I can hear him smiling. He is joking. Now that he’s feeling a bit better, he wants me to be able to laugh about it, to put it in the past, to move forward even though it is still happening. I can also hear the memories in his voice and am glad he can’t see my face and that I can’t see his, because then he would see how much this is scaring me, how unprepared I am to have this conversation over the phone, even if it isn’t real. Because it is real. I wonder if he is doing this for me, for him, or for both of us. The generosity, the amount of love in the moment, fills me with unspeakable pain.
I do laugh, even though I don’t want to. This is ridiculous, my laughs says. It says, You aren’t going to die from this. It says, We are so lucky it’s embarrassing, remember?
What I say is: “This won’t be what does it.” I sound lighthearted and sure. “You have to wait to meet your grandson!” I look upwards when I say this, my hand instinctively going to the hard swell of my belly. I change the subject and ask him if his doctors are giving him anything.
He says, “What doctors? My doctor thought this was my seasonal bronchitis, and now look. There’s nothing to do but wait.”
“Like Vitamin C, though? I saw some influencer on Instagram who has it and her doctor gave her high-dose Vitamin C gel packets.” I am furious now. Why aren’t there answers? Why isn’t there medicine? Why don’t my parents have those fucking Vitamin C gel packets?
He senses my rising anger, my fear. “Don’t worry,” he says for what feels like the millionth time. “I don’t want you to worry about me. Look, the very good news is the doctor said we’re most likely out of the period where we could die from this. Mom and I are fighting. We’re taking our vitamins, we’re healthy. Nothing is going to happen to us. We’re going to be okay. But if—”
I cut him off. “Good,” I say.
Since they got sick, I haven’t let them know how scared I am. I know that my fear is worse to them than anything else. Every day they ask me how I’m feeling, desperate for confirmation that they didn’t give it to me. I tell them I feel fine, downplay the sore throat I’ve had for the past few days. We try to protect each other, in our way. Even though they are the ones suffering, they say to me “Don’t be scared, sweetie, don’t be scared.” At night I lie in bed and rub my belly and whisper the same words.
When my father and I hang up, I place my phone carefully to the side, then sit at my desk and weep. I cry without sound, so hard and guttural my stomach contracts and aches and the baby does a somersault. After that, I go to the bathroom and shine my phone’s flashlight down my throat, poke at the swollen glands I’ve been ignoring.
I call my ear, nose, and throat doctor. I tell her I’m twenty-four weeks pregnant and that I’ve had a sore throat for a week.
“Should I come in, in case I have an infection?” I ask. “It’s probably just allergies, honestly. Or stress. I’m only calling because I’m pregnant. I don’t think it’s Coronavirus or anything.” I laugh at the last part, a throwaway. I am so full of laughs today.
The nurse says she’ll share my symptoms with the doctor, and get back to me to see if I should come in, or have a virtual consult. These are the times we live in, now: we see doctors on screens.
“Oh, actually, I probably shouldn’t come in,” I say. “Just to be safe. My parents just tested positive and I saw them two weeks ago.”
The nurse is silent for a moment. “And how long have you had the sore throat again?”
“Um, a week?”
“Are you having any shortness of breath?”
“Well, yeah, but I’m pregnant.” Another laugh. “I’m also having slight body aches, but, again, I’m pregnant. I really think I just have a sore throat?”
She tells me she’s going to have to call me back. Eight minutes later, my phone rings.
“Hi there. I spoke to the doctor and she wants you to go to the emergency clinic right now.”
I listen as she tells me the protocol. About how I will be triaged at the front door, about how my temperature will be taken, about how I won’t come into contact with anyone, about how I will be seen in a tent they’ve set up in their parking lot. I will be tested for strep and the flu, and if both come back negative, a swab will be sent to be tested for the virus.
I sit back down at my desk. It is raining and gray out, the water a steady thrum against the windows. I text my husband, who is working at the dining table upstairs.
“My parents have it,” I write, shaking. “Can you come help me?” I didn’t know I was going to phrase it like that until I did.
I hear him stand up immediately, his chair scraping the ground above me, the reassuring rhythm of his footsteps, the two dogs scurrying out of his way. I hear him coming down the stairs, opening the door to my office, his socks swishing against the wood. He pulls me from my chair and we stand, holding each other.
“They’re going to be okay,” he says. His palm smooths my back in rhythmic circles.
“I know,” I say. “I know. But I will never forgive the world if he doesn’t get to know them.” We both touch my belly, feel him twitch.
After a while, I say that I spoke to my doctor and that she wants me to go to the clinic. He pushes me away, holds my two shoulders in his two hands, and looks at my face. “Okay,” he says, nodding. “Okay.”
I feel the wetness on my face, my already round face that has become so full these last few weeks, even more so now with the crying. I’m not wearing makeup. I’m in my pajamas. I haven’t been able to get dressed, or shower, and only put on real clothes for virtual work meetings.
“I must look so ugly and fat right now,” I say. “Don’t look at me.” I try to turn my face away but he grabs my chin.
“Stop it,” he says, looking right at me. “You’re so beautiful.” He touches my stomach, presses down to feel him. He kisses my forehead. “You’re his beautiful home.”