There’s been so much in the news about spoiled and privileged New Yorkers fleeing the city in the face of COVID-19, bringing the unseen virus with them to the Hamptons, Florida, and places even further afield. I am one of those who left.
Articles in The Atlantic, Vogue, and The New York Post, have scolded New Yorkers for leaving during this time of crisis. And I admit, I have occasionally been as judgmental as the next person as I read those articles, feeling incredible anger on behalf of the locals in some shore town as Manhattanites and Brooklynites descend upon them and buy extra freezers to store the overpriced meat they’re hoarding.
But then I have to ask myself: am I just as bad? A New Yorker now for over 18 years (I allowed myself the privilege of calling myself one once I hit the ubiquitous ten-year milestone), I am not braving out this crisis with the rest of my beloved city. I read the New York Times online and watch Cuomo’s daily briefings from (for now) relative safety 100 miles away in Southern New Jersey. I text with friends who are dealing with and recovering from milder cases of the virus and learn about colleagues who have been hospitalized.
I left before they told us not to leave, which is how I justify it to myself, and before I honestly thought I could potentially be a carrier. I was a bit ahead of the curve, leaving town the morning of March 13, and had been relatively isolated before that in a very spread out but small sized office. We also had the benefit of a boss who had us sanitizing and Clorox-ing like fiends since the end of January. We attribute the fact the no one in our company has gotten the virus thus far to her lessons on how to touch elevator buttons with your elbow.
Not that I hadn’t also been preoccupied with the virus since the accounts of its devastation in Wuhan first started being reported on the nightly news. I live in one of the most international cities in the world, and I'm incredibly proud of my city. I knew that in our current world, it would be almost impossible to contain such a threat—and that inevitably, like so many other things, it would find its way to my adopted city.
I am the first to admit than I am, even on good days, an anxious person. As a child, one of my nicknames was worry-wart (another was Lady Macbeth, for my incessant hand washing—not a bad trait these days). As most of my friends could tell you, though, the bulk of my anxiety often has one focus: my parents.
When I was just out of college, my mother had a massive stroke which left her with full right-side paralysis, brain damage, and aphasia. My father, eight years her senior, became her full-time caregiver. Over the years, most of the brain damage has healed and she has learned to cope with the aphasia, but the paralysis and corollary health problems—weak lungs, heart issues—remain.
When Mom first got sick, my older brother was still active military, and my sister had a young son at home. Whether by default or inclination, I became the “secondary” caregiver, and seventeen years later, remain so. As time has gone by, though, what that means has evolved, especially as my dad has gotten older and has developed some health conditions of his own. I ended up home with my parents in their south Jersey home most weekends over the past years, helping them out, and if Mom needed a visit to the doctor or Dad had to stay in the hospital, I've been the one taking time off work.
That and the pandemic is what brought me here today. When I first learned that the elderly and people with underlying conditions were most vulnerable, my first concern was for my own parents. Last year, after Mom had a bad bout with pneumonia, we sold their house and moved them to the “independent living” section of a senior community—meaning, they have an aide come in to help in the morning and at bed, they eat dinner with friends in the dining room, but otherwise they are on their own for their day.
If Dad doesn’t feel well, or one of their aides doesn’t show up, where would that leave them, I wondered. How vulnerable would they be? And how could I be there to take care of them if I was on lockdown in another city?
So, during February, I planned. I started slowly stocking up their storage closet with extra Campbell’s soup and Lysol. I talked with them about contingency plans. I spoke with the medical staff at their community. And the decision we all came to was that if things started looking bad, I would move in with them to be on hand as a caregiver.
The directive to stay away from seniors during this crisis is sensible and ultimately, hopefully lifesaving. But our most vulnerable seniors, as well as others with underlying health conditions, need actual physical help to get through every day. And while many rely on professional nurses and aides to provide these services, for so many it is family who are the ones lifting and transferring and feeding and bathing—often in an intergenerational household, where both the grandparents and the grandchildren live. And so how do you care for your most vulnerable family members when your very presence could be a risk?
Ultimately, my parents felt safer with me here than without me, and so earlier in the week before our office officially decided to work remotely, my very understanding boss agreed that I should start self-isolating with my family in South Jersey. Not knowing at the time how long my sojourn would be, in hindsight I clearly didn’t pack enough and would have brought all of that toilet paper that is taunting me from my apartment closet in Manhattan.
Only once I was already here, sleeping on the couch in their living room and working from their small enclosed porch, did the virus explode in New York, and the greater risk of me carrying it down wracked my conscience. Those first two weeks, I was taking my temperature so regularly that I now know how my personal thermostat fluctuates over the course of the day. Every little throat tickle or back ache from the aforementioned couch sleeping became a symptom. I was making myself ill out of my fear of being ill.
I hit the 14-day mark on Friday morning, the 27th, and finally started to breathe again. I take my temperature once a day, when I wake up, just like my parents. When I sneeze, I recognize that it’s probably from the grass being cut outside my open window.
But I don’t take chances. The residents here are on lockdown, and so I abide by their laws. I haven’t been outside since arriving, and rely on friends and family for grocery deliveries. My world is as small as if I had stayed in my Manhattan apartment, only I have two other people here with me. And my usual means of escape, reading a book in a bathtub or drinking a glass of wine with friends, aren’t here to help: my parents only have a shower, and I took all the alcohol out of the house when Dad’s diabetes got bad.
But family is home. The people I know who have left New York City aren’t privileged with second homes or vacation hideaways; they are thirty and forty-somethings who have gone to hometowns in south Jersey or South Carolina or San Diego. And while motivations varied from asthmatic children to the need for more space to losing a sublet, the underlying desire was the same: to be with the people we love as we try to face each scary new day.