Despite the heightened uncertainty and lack of toilet paper on the supermarket shelves, life wasn’t that different for us at first. Honestly, it just felt like Tuesday, besides the smell of bleach that hung in the air of our home. Like millions of other Americans forced to stay at home, I learned how to bake sourdough and worked out to YouTube videos.
My parents, both lifelong Republicans, lived a few miles down the road. Like many families in the United States, I have different political views from my mother and stepfather, who owned a well-worn MAGA hat that proved his affiliation with the current iteration of the party.
September 15: My stepdad, a medic in the Korean War and a Bronze Star recipient, returned home from a rehab facility, where he was treated after several falls, to receive end-of-life care on a hospital bed in the middle of their living room. My mother was told that four employees at the facility had tested positive for Covid-19, but they assured her that Darrell tested negative. She had no reason to doubt their word.
September 23: On our way to my mom’s she calls to ask if we’re still coming over. We are, but we’re running late and if I’m being honest, I’m procrastinating. In the seven months since the pandemic started, I haven’t been inside my mom’s house for longer than five minutes.
When we arrive, my mom is unsure if her husband is still alive. “I think he’s still breathing,” she says. My husband Erik steps towards the bed and feels for a pulse on Darrell’s wrist and says, “No, he’s cold and there isn’t a pulse.” My mom weeps as I embrace her. She is not wearing a mask. I am.
September 24: Today my mom’s voice sounds hoarse. It could be from crying, but with every sneeze and sniffle, my thoughts careen to the catastrophic. I ask, “Are you sick?” “I think I’m coming down with something. I have a cough and a fever, but it’s only 99.4,” she replies. I tell her that I’m taking her for a Covid-19 test in the morning.
September 26: “I tested positive,” she cries. Because I don’t know what else to do, I make a huge batch of chicken noodle soup and drop off tea, a jar of honey and over the counter cold and flu medication on my mother’s doorstep. Luckily, James, who flew to Texas to say goodbye to his father, is still in town to take care of her.
September 27: She can’t keep food or medicine down and she feels as if she’s on fire. James tries to convince her to go to the hospital, but she refuses. She doesn’t want to wind up isolated and alone for 28 days like her husband at the rehab facility.
September 28: I schedule a Telemed appointment with her primary care physician. He advises we take her to the ER. Because Texas recently rolled back lockdown restrictions, I am able to sit with her in an isolated room for several hours. Her temperature is 103 Fahrenheit. I place cold washcloths on her forehead as they start fluids, X-ray her lungs and ready her for admission. Because she is infected with the coronavirus, I won’t be able to visit during her stay. I squeeze her warm hand and say, “You’re going to kick Covid’s ass. I love you, Mom.”
The next few days, I text with my mom, who loves Facebook and her iPhone as much as any teenager. I also get twice-daily updates from the various nurses, although the quality of information relayed to me is dependent on the nurse. There isn’t much consistency of care and I fear my mother is tiring from having to charm this evolving cast of caregivers.
October 1: James goes back to California after two negative Covid-19 tests. I enter my parents’ empty duplex to find a stack of mail, including their unopened mail-in voting ballots.
October 2: President Trump announces he has tested positive for Covid-19.
October 3: After five days and worsening health, my mom is moved to the intensive care unit. My last text from her is on this date. She writes, “Thrush couldn’t swallow panic drowning. No food only trying to pee hooked up to pee in bed. Pad etc device. No out of bed stuff. X-ray lungs, mouth feels terrible. Meds on way. Trying to stay calm. XO”
October 7: It is my mom’s 88th birthday. The doctor calls. “Your mother’s oxygen needs are too high. She needs to be intubated. She is refusing and I can’t do it without her consent. Can you come in?”
After sanitizing my hands and donning the hospital-issued mask, I’m ushered into a conference room where they initiate a FaceTime call. My mother’s eyes are wide and panicky as she gasps for air. “I’m miserable,” she moans.
Once again, I don’t know what to do. “You’ll be sedated. You won’t feel it, Mom. Please let them do it.” The palliative care nurse is in the room with her. She informs her, “If you don’t get on the ventilator, you will die from lack of oxygen. Do you want to live, Ora?” My mom nods yes. When the nurse asks, “Can we put you on the ventilator?” my mom replies, “I guess,” and pushes away the phone.
After intubation, each report from the ICU staff is more of the same: anxiety, a need for oxygen, low saturation levels, elevated heart rate, low blood pressure and high PEEP (Positive End Expiratory Pressure) score measuring the pressure in her lungs. Despite my assurances, my mom is not completely sedated while a tube is running down her throat. I learned that her hands are restrained so that she can’t pull it out. What she is experiencing, alone in that room, is my worst nightmare. Two weeks pass with no improvement. I get a second Covid test.
October 21: A tracheostomy and a feeding tube are not my mother’s idea of living. Up until three weeks ago, she was a vibrant, active woman with no comorbidities and no need for medication. Even on a ventilator, she was a social butterfly, alert and aware, waving her restrained hands at the nurses as they passed by her room.
At 10 a.m., my mom is extubated. My sister and I dress in personal protective equipment to spend the last 20 minutes of my mom’s life with her. We spoke of love and gratitude. We cried. Our face shields fogged up, clouding the view of our beloved mother as she took her last labored breath. It was unbearably awful.
Despite the president’s callous statement that Covid-19 “affects virtually nobody,” more than 228,000 Americans have died from this virus. My mother was not just another statistic. She was not just a “a Bedford woman in her 80s with no underlying health conditions.” Ora Elizabeth McCully was someone, and she will be terribly missed by everyone who loved her.