My parents were miserable people to begin with. When the door crashed open only half an hour into their book club meeting, I prepared myself for a long evening.
“Can you believe it?” Mom said to me. I half listened, dozing in a love seat by the television. “They kicked us out of book club.”
I blinked my eyes and straightened up a little bit. We moved to the kitchen where I spiked my Coke with a generous amount of rum. I needed this to get through my mother’s ramblings. She was the kind to keep the news on at high volumes all day at the cost of my sanity. Dad was no better. He shot his mouth off about the president every chance he’d get but kept his mouth shut in front of our neighbors, the Democrats. All southern sweetness there.
“How did you manage that?” I said.
“Susan told us to show our vaccine cards,” Dad piped up, hanging up his coat in the other room. “We said we didn’t need them. If God wants us to die, then he wants us to die. Well, Susan didn’t like that one bit and banned us until we realigned ourselves to the views of the club. Imagine that after all the help we gave them over the years.”
“So just get the vaccine,” I said halfheartedly. “Then you can enjoy book club again.”
“Hard to enjoy it when everyone in the room is a bunch of foolhardy Dems who cheated the election. They’re no friends of ours.”
I’d long given up on both of them. This conversation needed a lot more than rum to get through. My parents were the only people who could get kicked out of a book club over a stupid vaccine. They’d known Susan for nearly a decade. She was my second grade teacher. Throwing her away like that seemed cold and heartless. I tried not to pay attention to my parents’ shenanigans. It was better that way. Whenever they pushed my buttons I thought to myself, “Just a couple more months and you can pay that security deposit. Just a couple more months.”
What was so difficult to process for them? I got my shots soon as I could. How could I not when I watched people die every day? Anger coursed through me as I thumped my head furiously to the pillow. Anger was my old friend throughout my childhood and now in my adulthood. I wanted to force my parents to take the vaccine, to see how it would save their life, to help repair their fractured relationships with their friends.
Sleep never came easily anymore. I stared at the ceiling in the dark for most of the night, dreading the upcoming alarm. The lines blurred between sleep and wakefulness so I couldn’t tell the difference. When the alarm came, I was still as exhausted when my head hit the pillow. I donned my scrubs, noted the dark circles around my eyes in the mirror, and headed out.
“Get this down his throat,” said Sunita, throwing me a long plastic tube across the young man lying in the gurney in front of us. He was a big guy, football player type, gasping for breath like a goldfish. He was strapped to the side of the gurney, looking wildly at every corner of the room. I stabbed the patient with a sedative and tossed the needle away as the tube hit me in the face.
The man on the gurney, Mr. Sunderson, twenty-six, father of two, would die if I didn’t force this tube down his throat. Sunita held Sunderson down as I fed the tube through his throat. He stopped struggling and when he was consistently breathing, we relaxed for a brief moment before going on to the next patient.
Nursing never used to be like this. St. Agnes was flooded with coronavirus patients. With Mr. Sunderson being rolled to the ICU, he filled the last bed St. Agnes had available on a stroke of morbid luck. An elderly woman named Dolores died alone the night before, lungs shattered beyond repair. Like the vast majority of the coronavirus patients at St. Agnes, Dolores wasn’t vaccinated. Neither was Sunderson.
Twelve hour shifts, longer on some days, hustling to get one patient his prescription, bustling to help a flat lining patient before it was too late, keeping my sanity long enough to scarf something from the vending machine. Sunita was the only reason I could stay sane during these long shifts. With as little support the government gave us, running out of basic supplies like needles and ventilators, Sunita kept her head up and pressed on when so many others quit. She was in love with the work.
“How do you do it?” I asked her over a hurried cafeteria lunch.
Sunita shrugged. “The pandemic won’t last forever.”
“People are still dying. I’ve seen more people die here in the last two months than most doctors see in their careers. When is it going to stop?”
Sunita had no answer for that. I had a feeling she thought the same thing from time to time. She doesn’t have to go home to her loved ones who won’t take a vaccine because they think the government is trying to control them. She doesn’t have to live in fear of passing the virus to someone in her life.
I came home to snide comments and remarks from my parents. I never talked back not out of a consciousness of being disrespectful, but because I didn’t have the energy and didn’t want to get kicked out before I had the money for the security deposit. The damn TV blared as I hung up my coat.
Mom snorted, “They think masks protect them. Come on. They’re still getting themselves killed.”
By they, she means the Democrats. My parents went out to restaurants, went to their club meetings, all without wearing masks or showing any notion there was a pandemic going on. True, there were fewer deaths now, and some states were reopening. By summer, the governor said Tennessee was going to be fully functioning again.
Most people were slinking back into their usual routines by summer. I wanted to think Sunita was right that the pandemic was ending. I didn’t bother twiddling with the radio anymore on the way to work. Even on the music stations the endless talk of the pandemic persisted, claiming the pandemic was fake, that we have nothing to worry about. If they had lived my life, they wouldn’t be so resistant.
As May turned to June that year, the Delta variant swept through. The same day the Delta variant was broadcast on the news, an ambulance brought Dad into the emergency room.
Sunita and I did our best to keep Dad up and running. He was in bad shape. Gulping for air like it was the last breath he’d ever take, lungs worse than Dolores’s had been. We told him everything would be alright though we knew it wouldn’t.
“Gene,” said Sunita.
Sunita’s voice was far away and hazy. I pretended I hadn’t heard her. I feverishly checked Dad’s oxygen levels and kept him breathing normally.
“Gene.” This time, I was brought back to reality. Sunita’s lip trembled. “He’s not going to make it. He’s lost.”
“Damnit, Sunita. This is my father and you will do everything in your power to keep him alive!”
I spoke with such authority I couldn’t believe it of myself. I never spoke as if I was in charge, like everything was on the line. Despite of what I thought of Dad’s choices, he was still my dad, and I still loved him. I had to do whatever I could for him. We pushed his gurney into one of the few free ICU units available and continued monitoring him.
The fear in Sunita’s voice when she said my father wasn’t going to make it tingled through my spine. It was the first time I saw her frightened, not the apprehension on a surgeon’s face as they’re operating but true despair. Sunita, the warrior of the medical field.
We did the best we could for him and put him in a unit to relax. Dad was dying, only able to breathe through a ventilator, helpless against his own mortality. Mom watched her husband die of something she pretended for so long did not exist behind a sheet of glass.
I, who fought on the front lines against the invisible enemy, couldn’t helping thinking I might have given the virus to him. How many days had I come home from sometimes sixteen hour days and passed by my parents raving over the president’s actions against the virus? I was frustrated and angry with my parents. I wanted to show them reason, to make them believe the coronavirus was real. Every time I told them to get vaccinated, to keep themselves and others safe, I was doing it for them. But my efforts were futile.
I put on all the protective equipment, gloves, smock, mask, face shield, and went into the unit where Dad lay on the bed, trembling, barely breathing. This wasn’t how I imagined being with my father in his final moments. I looked like a robot in a dated science fiction film. He wouldn’t see my face, only my eyes.
I pulled the curtain back and took the seat next to Dad. He was sweating, breathing irregular, ventilator over his mouth and nose, helpless to the course of nature that put him in this predicament.
He took off the ventilator for a second. “Son.”
I smiled at him for the first time since I was twelve. He took me out for a baseball game for my twelfth birthday. He bought us hot dogs and let me have a sip of his beer when no one was looking. I choked on it and called him disgusting.
“Dad.” My voice faltered and my hands shook as if controlled by an internal earthquake.
“I want to take the vaccine. Please.”
Everything inside me broke. All the years I resisted his Trumpian politics, all the times I wanted to hit him for being so stupid, all the the times I wanted to make him see. All that melted away when I stared into his frightened face. People hate doctors until they get sick and tell them, “Cure me! Save me!” They’re believers then.
“Dad, it’s—it’s too late.”
“There’s nothing you can do?” He said it calmly.
I shook my head once. Dad put the ventilator back over his face and laid back in his bed. I hated being right. The worst part of this was I might have given the virus to him. What else could I have said to him? Then, he gave me a look only a son would recognize. It was a look that said, “I’m proud of you.” He resigned himself to his fate.
My father died a few hours later. When the heart rate monitor flat lined, I stumbled out of the room and made for the nearest exit. I passed Mom’s worried expression as she read a magazine. I cursed the morning sunshine blinding me as I rushed to the smoke area. I didn’t notice until I already collapsed against the pillar that Sunita followed me.
I hid my sobs with my hands, but Sunita’s coconut hands were already wrapped around me.
“I’m quitting,” I said in between sobs. “I can’t do this anymore, Sunita. Why do they keep doing this to us?”
“They! These sick people who won’t protect themselves. The government, the doctors, the—the—the everybody!”
Sunita gave me a wad of dirty napkins. I blew my nose for what seemed like days.
“I can’t pretend to know what you’re going through. My mother died when I was really young. But I do know talking to someone does help.” Sunita handed me a folded scrap of paper. Inside was a phone number. “He’s a professional. He helps and he really cares. Try it.”
I nodded. I was grateful for the gesture.
“This is my last day on the job too,” Sunita went on.
“Not so loud, Gene. I’m being transferred temporarily to Mississippi. There’s hardly any staff there and the Covid is worse there than here. So I volunteered. It’ll be good on my resume for when I become a doctor.”
Of all the nurses I worked with, Sunita was the most genuine. Though I didn’t say it to her, I think she would be an amazing doctor. We gave each other one last hug before separating. I tried to put a lot of unsaid things into that hug. Perhaps Sunita got the message because she grinned. As one career closes, another flourishes.
I went to my car, started the engine, and realized I didn’t know where I would go. I felt like Dr. Frankenstein trying to assemble all the pieces to create new meaning. I looked back at St. Agnes, thinking for a moment to go back. It wasn’t too late. I took the scribbled phone number out of my pocket. This number was my ticket to do something else with my life. I didn’t know what it would be. The only thing I knew was there’s nothing for me at this hospital except for the doctors preparing my father for the hearse.