Nancy Townsley shares another heartwarming essay, “Independent Living,” about life during COVID and her elderly dad’s move to a retirement center.
Monday, 34 degrees, and it’s threatening to rain. Or snow. It’s hard to tell which. All I know is the air has that funny dry-but-also-wet consistency the Pacific Northwest is famous for.
Bernie pulls at his leash on our quarter-mile morning trek up to a wide, grassy area above the Columbia, eager to run around, do his business, sniff the fallow ground. My too-big wool hat has drifted down over my eyes, so I push it higher on my forehead in order to see my phone. News alerts tell me the U.S. COVID-19 death toll has topped 460,000.
“That’s a really big number,” I say to Bernie, but he’s already off.
In Oregon, reporters are using words like “plummeting” and “trending downward” when they talk about our state’s current experience of the pandemic. I know this because even though I’m retired after a long career in community journalism, I still do a bit of copy editing for one of Portland’s newspapers. The stories I’m reading say cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are all decreasing, but a scary percentage of inmates at area jails and prisons are still testing positive. The governor has prioritized inmates and educators over seniors in the long wait for vaccines, stirring up arguments between factions vying for the shots. Doses are slow to arrive and website signup portals are overwhelmed.
Weary minds want to know: When will coronavirus no longer be a thing?
It’s all quite confusing.
Things are unclear.
The barometer’s falling.
Up on the dike road, I shiver in my blue all-weather jacket, my gloves, my fleece-lined boots.
“Time to go, boy!” I shout to my dog, above the wind. He acts as if he can’t hear me. His muzzle is buried in a tuft of Zebra grass.
Dogs have something like 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses, compared to about six million in humans. Scents are potent distractions.
“Let’s go home,” I repeat, and Bernie finally gives up and ambles over, lets me hook his leash to his collar. He gets a nice pat on the back. We can both do with some warmth.
It’s 7:01 a.m. Dad is just getting up on his sixth day in Independent Living, inside a new-ish retirement center in the formerly sleepy community of Cedar Mill, west of Portland. The nearby Bales Thriftway went out of business in 2019. After that, there were no more bouquets of seasonal flowers wrapped in pink cellophane, no more organic elixirs in the home health aisle, no more honey-almond croissants warm from the bakery. Just a boarded-up building that gave way down the road to an even fancier market and a dog boutique that sells peanut butter biscuits.
That was before the virus, before we knew what lay ahead, before social distancing and masks and people on ventilators in COVID wards across the country.
Before we couldn’t go anywhere anymore.
Before we had bubbles and pods.
Before all the unfathomable loss.
Dad’s Miniature Schnauzer died in November. He sold his house in December, in one day, and moved in January. He watched a TV ad, took a tour, and decided this place—with its soaring brick façade and giant gas-lit lobby fireplace—was where he would spend the rest of his life. He turned 90 the summer we began to quarantine, still sharp, still Steve McQueen handsome. We had a progressive birthday party in a park so none of us would give Dad the virus.
“That about does it,” he says the day the movers haul out the rest of what he doesn’t take to his apartment: the ranch oak furniture, the military awards, the fake Christmas tree he just bought, all the pictures of Mom.
In his new bedroom he fashions a shrine to her, his wife of 58 years, who faded away from Alzheimer’s in a care home far different from the one Dad has chosen, except in all the ways it wasn’t. Her clear brown eyes shine out from under a faux-pearl crown in their wedding picture, situated on top of his dresser.
“My ’Cile,” Dad says, and moves the walnut frame a half-inch to the left.
My mother’s name was Lucile. She and Dad went to high school together in Iowa. After flight training, they went where the Navy said to go, from Pensacola to Puerto Rico, three daughters born between duty stations. A photo Dad took of the four of us aboard our sailboat, the Delonix—Mom in her Jackie Kennedy-style sunglasses, me and my sisters tanned and spindle-legged, flotation buckled around our waists—sits in a shoebox in his walk-in closet. Some memories are more worthy of display than others.
I’m done with breakfast. Bernie’s snoring by the fire. I look out my east window at the river, muddy, mysterious, flowing on. Shake the water from my fingers as soap bubbles disappear down the drain. Twenty seconds, they say, that’s how long to wash your hands. I do it a little more, for good measure.
I set Pandora to Joni Mitchell, sing along to “Big Yellow Taxi” while folding laundry on the kitchen counter. Daydreaming blunts the boredom of isolation.
It’s nearly 8:30 a.m. Dad has shaved by now, combed his full head of snow-white hair, ready to take the elevator three floors down to the dining room for breakfast. After Mom started her long decline, he cooked, “Such as it was,” he says, but he never liked it. One of his main reasons for moving was food, so he wouldn’t have to spend each day wondering what to eat, going to get take-out, winding up in the fast-food drive-thru for another tasteless hamburger.
He keeps a small pile of N95s on the coffee table near his black leather recliner, which has a broken spring. The seat fits his body, so he isn’t sure he wants to replace it even though it’s only about a five on a 10-scale when it comes to comfort. He smiles a half-smile and loops a mask around one ear. Balances himself on the arms of his walker, heads for the door. “It closes automatically,” he says, “like in hotel rooms.”
So far, he’s met his next-door neighbors, Peter and Mary, “Peter and Mary without Paul,” we joke together in a ’60s folk-singers reference. Peter is a former Marine who earned a Distinguished Flying Cross in Vietnam and allegedly had John McCain—yes, that John McCain—as a flight instructor. Dad doesn’t know anything about Mary yet. At dinner one night, he sits with a man named Tin who hails from Burma—Myanmar now—but it’s hard to understand him through his mask. It’s nice to think Dad might make some friends. He’s been so lonely since Mom died, and since his dog died.
Before the new owner moved in, Dad went back to his old house to re-hang some drapery rods that were taken down by mistake. He missed a step on a small ladder and fell, bruising his hip. He dialed his daughters and got the youngest one, who took him to the ER. “Thanks for helping the old feller out,” he said on the wheelchair ride back to her car.
One remarkable COVID story among dozens I’ve read so far comes from Ohio, where the children of Dick and Shirley Meek, who’d been married 70 years, report that their parents died minutes apart in the first month of this new year, holding hands, her head on his shoulder. It gives me chills to think of 90-year-old Dick and 87-year-old Shirley resting in each other’s arms in the moments before the virus took them both.
So very Titanic.
So terribly sweet.
There are far worse ways to leave this Earth.
The retirement center has a vaccine clinic scheduled this week. Every resident will be offered the shot, and most will take it. They want to see their families again. Right now, Dad can receive visitors downstairs, but only we sisters are allowed up in his apartment, one at a time. We got a doctor’s note saying we’re “essential workers” who perform necessary tasks for him. Things like putting away groceries, breaking down cardboard boxes, throwing away the piece of thick plastic underneath his desk chair, lest he trip on it.
When I arrive on Wednesday, I knock and open the door. “Yoo-hoo!” I call, even after I spy Dad in his chair, the walker in front of his feet. I sit down on the loveseat across from him, notice a clock in the shape of a coffee cup above the fridge. Too high up to hang without using a ladder. My head snaps left, my eyes meet Dad’s.
“How did that get there?”
Dad looks sheepish. “Oh, I don’t know,” he laughs, and changes the subject.
He claps his hands on his thighs, makes a point. “Things are going to be all right here,” he says.
We chat a bit more, about Mom, about change, about nothing much. He pulls at the sleeve of his tracksuit, checks his wristwatch. It’s almost 2:00 p.m. Time for his nap soon.