Christmas in a Corner

The Covid Granny Diaries




Snot came out Liza’s nose, she laughed so hard when I told her about the PPE.


I had thought the whole thing through. If I got COVID, I knew she would come to take care of me even though I had told her not to (and same in reverse). The thing to do, I conjectured, was to make it as safe as possible for her to do so (and vice versa). So I got on amazon and ordered PPE in bulk: gowns, shields, masks, and bouffant caps (but not shoe covers, which I thought was over the top).


I figured I could wear the whole outfit if I had to drive to Boston and once I got there, change every few hours or whatever. But if she had to come to me, I wouldn’t want her to walk into the house unprotected. So, I put the boxes in a waterproof bag and hid them under a gardening bench in a corner of the front porch.


But then I had to tell her where the stuff was. And she couldn’t even catch her breath for a minute or two.


Like a heat-seeking missile, my mind always goes straight to the worst-case scenario. I am one of the few people you know who actually got the bottled water, plastic sheets, and duct tape during the 2001 anthrax scare. I figure this behavior is the logical result of having spent my childhood crouched under a school desk, hiding from nuclear bombs.


You can imagine, then, what I was like in the lead-up to COVID Christmas. No one in my family gathered for Thanksgiving. We had all been super careful since March. Using the family text thread, we had observed the worst of it together, all the time hiding at home, hoarding toilet paper, and having everything delivered. And we all got a little crazy, as, I suspect, did most folks.


My sister Susan lives alone with her rather fractious dog on a major street in Brooklyn. During the New York crisis last spring, the street below her condo was silent, except for the ambulance sirens that penetrated the air every few minutes. Imagine it. The governor of New York was on TV every day at noon telling the world he needed 100,000 ventilators and only had three (or something like that). Can we really be surprised that Susan washed her groceries down before putting them away and obsessed over who would walk the dog if she got sick?

Just-delivered Mexican Martini on Kathy's back patio. So jealous.

The Texas governor allowed the bars to deliver mixed drinks. We were pretty envious when my sister Kathy sent around a photo of the Mexican Martini that Austin’s famous El Rancho had just set on her doorstep. (That drink is so strong, it would probably kill coronavirus. Definitely better to drink it at home so you don’t have to drive.) When she got angry at her neighbors for talking to each other outdoors, from across the street, it did seem a little manic.


We had stayed safe through it all. Still, the prospect of a COVID winter surge loomed dark. Rhode Island, the state where I live, is the smallest the Union, but it had become one of the top hot-spots. Two field hospitals had been put up in the suburbs of Providence to handle the post-Thanksgiving surge. By Christmas week, they had reached capacity. Someone on the news said that if the rate of infection continued at the same pace, 100 percent of Rhode Island residents would get COVID. A vaccine seemed a long way off. I imagined body carts rattling through the streets as we waited.


Then the pandemic hit us. My niece and her fiancé, who also live in New York, got COVID. And the virus appeared in the residential nursing facility where my mother lives. And two weeks before Christmas, Nova’s school had three cases of COVID—after having none since June—and decided to close. It felt like we were cornered.

In spite of all this, my kids wanted to have Christmas. All the stories in the press about “how to talk to your relatives about not gathering at Christmas” were wholly inapplicable, as they all seemed to contemplate old Uncle Fred who wanted to get together or some random college student relative who was coming home for Christmas. These were my children pressuring their mother, who they know cares a great deal about Christmas, but is really feeling cornered by COVID. And, because Caitlin and Liza will both finish school in spring of 2022, there might only be one more Christmas before they moved away. In light of that, it was painful to skip this one.


We went around and around about it, with each daughter getting upset at different times—and me getting pretty emotional, too. My therapist said, “Don’t do it. Defend your boundaries.” Caitlin said, “You’re treating me like a leper.” (WTF? She works in an emergency room!) She had had no sleep for days.

Liza's birthday is also in December. I sent her gifts through amazon. She celebrated with her bubble. Her friend Emma made this great cake. There was still time to quarantine before Christmas. (Barbie cakes are a standing joke in our family because my mother made one on my sixth birthday, with a great fluffy skirt made of paper doilies. As soon as the candles were lit, the whole thing went up in flames. Also because they are just so kitschy.)

On top of everything else, Nova’s birthday is December 22. We talked about how to have a good birthday party with only the immediate family, just as we had done at Halloween. Nova chose “vampires and princesses” as the theme (OK, she’s only five). We were all going to dress up. Caitlin bought Vampirina plates and napkins. We talked about putting up a curtain in a doorway, so that we could each throw the line of a “fishing pole” over it to retrieve (with the help of an “octopus” on the other side) various small treats. Caitlin found “pin the tail on the mermaid” (so now it was “vampires, princesses, and mermaids,” which just gave everyone license to invent their own costume). It was hard for me to pull out of all that.

Nova and me posing with paper lorgnettes at her Bday party. My costume was dubbed "Vampire Queen Mum."

Finally, we made a plan that seemed safe. Scott, Liza, and I would quarantine for ten days (not too hard for me because I hadn’t left the house since Thanksgiving) and then get tested. Liza has to be tested every week at school and school would be out for a while before Christmas, so that wouldn’t be too hard. Scott is working from home. And Nova’s school was closed. People don’t test children because of how intrusive the test is, unless they have been directly exposed, which we knew had not happened to Nova.


So that left Caitlin, who was going to be working in the ER up until the night before Nova’s birthday. It was really touchy because Cait, more than anyone else, wanted to have Christmas, and seemed to be perceiving a lot less risk than she had last spring, when the case levels were much lower. Because she was working up to the last minute, a late-breaking test result might not be accurate. She explained to me that “we know a lot more about COVID now, including how to treat it.” But I had visions of ending up in one of those field hospitals and being set aside in the triage to die alone. And with the vaccine so close. . .


Eventually, we found a solution. Caitlin was able to get a rapid test. She explained to me that, actually, for the case rate and population size of New Haven, the rapid test was 97 percent accurate. OK, that reassured me a good bit. Then she also got a regular test (PCR), which would give us results in a day or two. It might be too late if we were exposed at Nova’s party, but at least we would know and we might be able to have Christmas worry-free.


Both of Cait’s tests came out negative. We partied at Nova’s birthday, with good reason to think we were OK. And then we were able to have Christmas free of fear. It was a bittersweet holiday anyway. After all, we were lucky. We knew that many others would not be. I gave additional money to the local food bank, as I had done at Thanksgiving, even though I was spending even more money than usual on Christmas.


Maybe because of the pervasive memento mori, I wanted to blow it out this Christmas. I went way overboard on gifts. Nevertheless, I also wanted to minimize the cooking and clean-up. And I didn’t want to go out to shop, so everything had to come in by delivery.

We pulled it off. I look like Mr. Magoo without glasses. Oh, and the tree topper—a Labrador retriever in an angel outfit—we have had for years. The girls named it "Pagan Dog" and refuse to have Christmas without it, even though we all agreed it's weird as hell. From left, Scott, Caitlin, Eliza, and me.

I ordered Christmas dinner from MacKenzie, a gourmet place that ships fancy meals flash-frozen. It cost a fortune plus a ridiculously high charge for shipping. But I’m glad I did it because we were all just too tired and stressed, even though we were lucky to be having a celebratory dinner together at all.


In the end, both the birthday and the holiday came off beautifully and, despite all the bad stuff going on around us, we had an even better time than we usually do. I hope yours was a safe and sweet Christmas, too, but if you had to stay in, let me tell you that this was probably the wisest course. My family did not get sick, but we could have, even with all the tests and everything.


The vaccine seems just over the horizon now, especially with Biden and his very good pandemic team coming in. Still, until further notice, I am leaving my PPE, bought at volume, wrapped and hidden under the gardening bench on the porch. When Liza laughs at me (and I am sure readers of this blog are going to laugh, too), I will just grin and bear the ridicule.

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