I have held only one person’s hands recently; and hugged and kissed only that one person, but I have been growing deeply fond of and emotionally wrapped in the arms of lots of people whose faces I have never seen. People speaking in Spanish and sometimes in English, have been telling me their stories with the hope that I might be able to help them a little bit. They have been breathing for me into their cellphones as I listen for wheezes, and they have texted me photographs of their hands and feet. They have trusted me with their concerns and shared their fears: the fear of going to work, and the fear that staying home will cost them their livelihoods. The worry about finding enough food to eat, and how much they miss their loved ones, alone in the hospital. Sometimes the worst has already happened. I have been laughing with them as well, mostly because my Spanish can be quite unintentionally funny; praying with them, receiving their blessings, and I have cried a few times with them too.
I usually work in a miraculous little gem of a medical outpatient clinic; hidden away in plain sight in the shabbiest, oldest building of Boston’s most beloved hospital. There, we provide wonderful medical care to people who come from all over the world, and also from right around the corner. When COVID-19 descended upon us, our clinic was converted overnight into Boston’s first Respiratory Illnesses Clinic and suddenly we were confronting its reality head on.
As an older physician, I was deployed to work remotely; backing up the nurses taking calls from people who receive their care at the Chelsea Health Center. My day begins at about 8:30 a.m., with a list of messages from two nurses whose faces I have never seen, but who have become beloved friends. For eight weeks now, we have shared our days, good and bad, and we have been bearing witness to the way that this virus does, most definitely, discriminate. It discriminates most viciously against the people we speak with, all day, from the safety of our kitchens. The essential workers, and their families, have suffered greatly. In normal times, we might not even really see them or notice the work they do. But we all depend on them to supply our food, our power, our sanitation and other public services. They care for our loved ones in nursing homes, and they clean the buildings in which we live and work. They tend to be poorly paid and live in crowded conditions. They bear a burden of poor health that puts them at much greater risk of becoming infected with, and succumbing to, the worst effects of this virus. Our job is to answer their phone calls and listen to their concerns, and then we do whatever we can to help. We never cease to be humbled and inspired by the enormity of what our patients are going through, and the fortitude they need to withstand it all.
Suddenly, ensconced in this new life, gratefully immersed in the embrace of Chelsea – where the poetic Spanish language of South America mixes surprisingly well with the grittiness of life in Massachusetts – my father, in London, known to all of us as Daddy, did not wake up. The early morning call came from my sister and two brothers, who had miraculously been allowed into Daddy’s room at the care home, in London. They had not seen each other, or Daddy, for six weeks, and they were all unrecognizable in full PPE. But they were there with him and I am sure he could hear them singing together and could feel them holding his elegant, long-fingered hands. I wished I could hold his hands too, and kiss him, but instead I whispered nice things into Daddy’s ears, FaceTiming on my brother’s cellphone.
It was a long day, tranquil, with some funny moments, because it was Daddy after all, who was always apt to suddenly burst out laughing at inappropriate moments. Yet we all knew what nightfall would bring. In the evening, as the sun was thinking about setting, and Venus was clearly visible in the night sky, my sister and two brothers decided to sing “Etz Chayim Hi,” and a few of Daddy’s other favorites, including a really soppy old song called “Whispering Grass.” A tear ran down Daddy’s left cheek and the look on his face was the same as it was in a photo we have always loved, from 63 years earlier, as he watched Mummy signing their ketubah. Daddy’s room had gone silent, and the red vixen who had been curled up all day, at the foot of a blossoming cherry tree outside the bedroom window, had disappeared. We had had the enormous privilege of being with our father at the end of his long, eccentric and brilliantly colorful life, and he had not suffered. All of us were conscious that death in the time of COVID was not usually like this.
I was very sad not to be standing side-by-side with my siblings at Daddy’s funeral. There were many people present, Zooming in from England, Israel and several states of America, and yet, according to British Orthodox rules, we didn’t count as a minyan and so were not allowed to say kaddish. The next day we had the most wonderful Zoom-shiva, which was attended by an even wider variety of people, including my new colleagues from Chelsea, whose faces I still have not seen because they modestly kept their video dark. We sent Daddy off in laughter and tears the way he would have liked it. We even managed to say kaddish, despite it being against the strict rules that Daddy followed, because honoring your father sometimes involves a little disobedience.
A week after Daddy died, I was back at work in my kitchen, virtually in Chelsea. When patients told me about their relatives, sick with COVID-19 in the hospital, I was pierced with emotions even more poignant than those of a week before. I know what it’s like to not be able to hold your father in your arms as he passes away, but I cannot imagine what it is like to suffer the pain of not being there at all, knowing he is alone in a hospital with no visitors. I feel deep concern and compassion for the people of Chelsea, whose lives I have encountered as a result of this awful pandemic. Their culture revolves around “cariño” which is the Spanish version of our Jewish “chesed.” I am inspired by my heroic colleagues working on the frontlines, and gratefully humbled by the patients for whom I am caring. And, although I never thought I would say this, I am grateful for modern technology too.
Dr. Alison Rosalie Brookes writes from Salem.