The Tearing Guilt of Coronavirus

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This pandemic has us all anxious and afraid. How do we keep ourselves safe? How do we keep our families safe? Can we be the loving family members we want to be if we aren’t able to be there for those we love?

For me, the COVID virus has brought on a whole new sense of anxious Catholic guilt. Italian Catholic, “you need to be a good girl” guilt.

I’m the oldest daughter of a 90-year-old Mom. She’s one of the very lucky ones; she is still relatively healthy, and she still lives in her very own home. In spite of her increasing physical fragility and a case of slowly advancing dementia, her kids have managed to do what it takes to keep Mom in the home where she has lived since 1960. The home where she and my Dad raised the six of us and hosted a thousand family parties and dinners. The home that three of her married kids came home to with our children and spouses in tow as we struggled to get on our feet.

She is frail now. In need of help to carry out her daily life. We have a wonderful woman who lives with Mom five days a week and keeps her fed and safe and clean and amused.

But on the other two days, Mom needs her kids to help her. She can’t be left alone at all anymore.

I’m her oldest daughter.

In every version of Italian American lore, I should be there. I should be in and out of her house, bringing her food, cooking, helping to do the laundry, and looking through the photo albums.

But I can’t.

I can’t be there, in spite of my deepest wishes, my deepest fears, and my darkest guilt.

Because my daughter just gave birth a month ago to her third child. A beautiful boy, who was born with clubbed feet. Easily treated, not a big deal, plain old garden variety clubbed feet.

In the “old normal,” my daughter would have simply taken her son to the doctor once a week to have a cast put on and changed. In the “old normal,”, I’d have watched her two toddlers while she went, and then I’d have gone to see Mom the next day.

Only we aren’t living in the “old normal” anymore. We aren’t even living in the “new normal.” Instead, we are living in a world of fear and uncertainty. A world where my child takes her child to the hospital for his treatment, and both are screened, temperature checked, and questioned. A world where she labored, gave birth, and nursed her newborn while wearing a face mask. A world where coming back from having the baby’s casts changed means stripping off clothes, taking a shower, and putting everything in the wash.

We live in a world where I am afraid to go to the grocery store because I fear bringing the virus back to my perinatal child and to her children. A world where the latest horror is an outbreak of a dangerous and deadly inflammatory disease in children who have had COVID.

We live in a world where people like me, the old “sandwich” generation, are caught between protecting our children and grandchildren and helping our parents.

Because I know my Mother so well, I am choosing to take care of my grandchildren right now. They have lost so much already. Preschool, friends, every family member except for Papa and I. They are confused and sad. They tell us how happy they are that “you didn’t go away like Grammy and Grampy.”

We need to keep them safe. We need to help our daughter and son-in-law as they try to work from home, care for their young children and watch out for each other.

I am not able to be there for my Mom. But she has told me, more than once, “You need to be with the kids. You’re doing the right thing.”

When I was a young Mom, my own mother was here for me. We weren’t in a global crisis and we weren’t living in fear. But she was here for me.

I know, intellectually, that I need to take care of my girl and her children. I know that going to see Mom would mean exposing myself to whatever is brought into her home by her lovely aide, and by my siblings. I understand the risk of asymptomatic transmission.

I can’t risk the kids.

I can’t.

I will never feel comfortable with this situation, or with my choice to abandon my Mom at this late stage in her life.

The coronavirus is tearing my heart in two. And I’m sure that I am not alone.

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