When It’s Safer to Stay Apart

We gathered in the living room and debated whether or not it would be safe to stay. My mother, still in her pajamas, sat on the floor by the window. I was sprawled on my back on the carpet, keys in hand, my eyes locked on a spot on our plain white ceiling; with my brothers, we had just packed the car with clothes and enough food for two weeks away, or more. On the couch, my father, an infectious disease doctor in a public New York City hospital, stared into space, already dressed for a potential emergency weekend trip into work. It had arrived: his hospital was being “overrun” by potential COVID-19 patients. 

“So, if I’m understanding correctly,” I said slowly, “once you go to work, today or tomorrow, it’ll probably only be a matter of time before you’re exposed.” As I said them, my words almost sounded ridiculous, like a line from a movie.

“That’s right,” my dad replied. “And then I’ll come home, which would mean that you’d all technically be exposed too.”

“We need to leave before that happens.” My mom’s mind was already floating to my 88-year-old grandmother, who’d suffered a debilitating stroke a few months back and now needed 24-hour care at home. My mom is also a doctor, with a private practice that treats new mothers with breastfeeding medical problems, and she switched to virtual visits weeks ago with this very same fear in mind. If any of us were to be exposed, it would no longer be safe for her to care for her own mother.

Suddenly, as most of my friends returned home from their respective cities or colleges to be with their families during this worsening crisis, my own family might be pulled apart. We did not know—we do not know—for how long.

In times of crisis, these are the kinds of decisions families are confronted with when one or both parents are health care workers (or first responders, or members of the military, or any others) for whom the nature of their courageous line of work means balancing public service with the instinct to look out for one’s own family.

I’m very lucky: my parents have always seemed to be able to figure it out without compromising their commitment to the communities they serve, to each other, or to us kids. They were just-married residents on the front lines of the AIDS epidemic in the early 1990s. They were still finding their footing as young doctors and new parents when this city was rocked by the September 11 attacks. And most recently, the last time I remember us having this kind of conversation as a family was during the lead-up to Hurricane Sandy. My dad had been told to prepare to sleep several nights in the hospital dorms—but we were still relatively young kids then, my brothers and I, and so my mom begged him to stay. 

The night the storm hit, the five of us all slept on a queen-size air mattress downstairs, away from any windows. I remember how safe I felt, even as the winds howled and a tree in our yard caught fire from the power lines and it seemed like the world was ending, that we were all there together. And just after dawn the next morning, amidst a closure of almost all bridges in a battered New York, our blue Prius was one of only a few cars allowed to cross the 59th Street Bridge, so that my dad and four other doctors could complete a roundabout commute from Westchester to Queens and care for the patients who needed their help.

“I think you should go,” my dad said finally. My gaze shifted from the ceiling to the window; now, almost a decade later, the tree that had caught fire was gone. I don’t remember exactly how many years later it fell, but it did, taking our childhood swing and a chunk of our grass away with it. I thought about how comfortable we were here, right now, and just how hard it might be to get through this if we were not together.

For weeks my dad had been preparing for this outbreak, pacing and planning on the phone with his colleagues—doctors, nurses, hospital officials—strategizing their response to what would inevitably be an unmitigated flood of patients far beyond their capacity. They canceled clinic sessions to free up time and space; decided on “televisits” over in-person ones whenever possible. 

But there was no amount of planning that could adequately prepare us for this kind of moment—the realization sinking in that our family would be safer passing the time of the coronavirus apart. My brothers, mother and I would hide away with my grandmother; my dad would come home and quarantine himself in an empty house.

Despite all of the difficult moments, however—despite all of the anxiety and uncertainty over what lies ahead of us in these uncharted waters, and despite the tremendous grief that is surely still to come—it’s also during the most trying of times when you remember just how many people there are looking out for you. That for every mind-blowingly incompetent response from our President, there are hundreds of people thinking many more steps ahead in order to try and make up for it, making the most difficult decisions, doing everything in their power to help. 

We owe it to them, at the very least, to do everything we can, too. Follow their instructions. Stay home. Call up your neighbors, your relatives, your friends to check in. And we’ll figure out a way through this as a family, even though we might not see each other for a while.

Read more about the coronavirus outbreak here.



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