It’s taken me days to write even a handful of words to describe how I am feeling about the events of the past weeks and months. For all of us, there is a shared unease to the COVID-19 virus and the exponential quickness of its spread. There is a communal loss in not seeing friends, co-workers and even some family because of social distancing. And everyone can speak to the financial stress of it all. Within the layers of our collective trauma are the personal stories we must also share with each other.
My dad fell and broke his hip on February 15, 2020. The robust man in the picture above from a 60th wedding anniversary in 2018 had already been slowly losing strength in his legs and endurance in his lungs. His longest walk became a slow stroll across the living room with a walker. We also noticed that his 81 years of exuberance and effusive conversations were fading into a more subdued daily persona.
Within hours of his hip replacement surgery, doctors and nurses quickly realized things were more serious than just a broken hip. Dad had medical issues that seemed to converge and snowball into a delicate balance of getting his extremely low sodium and hemoglobin levels up while reducing the severe edema in his extremities. Suddenly, our work, family and activity schedules flexed so we could be at the hospital to help keep him talking, moving his legs and give Mom a chance to go home for a shower since she was sleeping at the hospital.
For almost three weeks, the hospital staff worked to address those life-threatening concerns and help him start moving again with very weak, very heavy and very swollen legs. They were amazing. And their collaboration worked to get him physically stable enough to go to rehab.
He had improved enough to be released, but he could not yet stand or take a step. He also was not remembering or communicating the same as before. The hospitalist shared with us that going under anesthesia at dad’s age can potentially affect those things. Since surgery, he doesn’t always remember when someone visits him, food holds less interest for him and he can’t stay with a conversation much longer than a few short sentences.
One week ago, I would have said that his situation was better, but still fragile. There have been many conversations with my mom and siblings over the last month about next steps needed to get Dad home. The obstacles facing him were intimidating, but we were hopeful.
Then comes the last seven days of realizing the sober reality of COVID-19. Dad’s rehabilitation facility officially closed to all visitors at noon on Thursday March 19. We had continued the practice of taking turns visiting him every day in order to keep him alert, practice talking, exercise his legs and encourage the man who has always loved sharing a meal with people to please just eat a little more. But at 11:30 Thursday morning, I looked into his bright green eyes for as long as I could hold his gaze, told him I loved him and that I would be back to see him as soon as everything settled down.
The helpless feeling of not knowing what’s going to happen to him without his family there to cheer on his recovery has wrecked me because he is so fragile and is in a care facility that like all other convalescent homes, is most vulnerable to the spread of the virus. We have come to terms with the reality of a limited recovery, but the idea that he won’t have us there at all is a new trauma. Knowing my mom goes home alone at a time in our nation when she cannot just get out and shop for distraction or grab coffee with a friend for support is so hard. Dad truly is the love of her life and trying to navigate his care, financial decisions, and their new normal isolated from their community on top of this cultural crisis has been heartbreaking for her. The timing for all this couldn’t have been worse.
Our family is holding on to each other and figuring out what to do each new day. It is the best of family dynamics in communication, taking turns and being in this together. As siblings, we have enfolded Mom into our family meals and grandkids have gone over to hang out with her. There are lots of texts, phone calls and video chats. Dad has an iPad so we can try to FaceTime him and say hi. There is a lot of checking in on each other. There have been so many tears. But there is also so much love.
I have walked alongside people in their pain and loss during 25+ years of ministry, yet there really is nothing that prepares any of us to feel less stress or anguish when the pain becomes our own. In reading this, you have most likely already thought of your story and the pain that no one can help you avoid. That’s what we share. A spiritual and emotional fragility that is not unlike my dad’s vulnerable physical condition. And for me, two truths are carrying me through this, albeit with my feet dragging on the ground– believing that God’s mercies renew with each sunrise and that he is always with us.
God is our refuge and strength, an ever present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging. There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells. God is within her, she will not fall. God will help her at break of day. ~Psalm 46:1-5
In reading Psalm 46 again this morning, I am reminded that this is true for my dad as well, even as he is separated from us. With the faint color of each dawn, God reminds my dad of his care and protection even in the blurriness of his internal thoughts. And I will do my best to trust that Dad is experiencing the very real presence of God and his strong peace in that 12′ x 12′ rehab room.
I am acutely aware that my story is in the wading pool of the deep suffering waters for many people. It is just my hope that with this glimpse into my moments of worried tears, hopeful conversations, mental and emotional weariness, anxiety for what has often felt like an impossible situation, and a constant reminder to draw near to the God and people I love without explaining away my sadness and doubts, will do it’s small part in helping someone hear these words, “You are not alone.”