Far from home: Living a time zone away with aging parents at the heart of the pandemic
By Ben Farrell
It was a grey March morning in Madison, Wisconsin. I sat, slouched in Helen C. White library “cafe”, kneading the final quarter of that day’s peanut butter Clif Bar in my left hand, trying to gauge the minimum effort possible to earn the ever-illusive AB on a test I had later that day. I opened my email, falling back on procrastination, thinly veiled in productivity. “Updates to Campus operations”, from Chancellor Becky Blank, was the first message I saw.
Though what I read wasn’t entirely unexpected, I was shocked. Classes had been moved online until at least April 10th. At the time, I was dumbfounded. Was this Corona thing really that serious? In just under 48 hours, I had a flight back to New York to see my mother and father. Until that moment, I hadn’t had any second thoughts about going home. But if an institution of this size was exercising extreme caution, shouldn’t I be too?
That same day, my mother, Denise Rinaldo, boarded the subway at Beverly Road near our home in Flatbush, a neighborhood in south Brooklyn. She was on her way to teach a fourth grade english class, help highschoolers locate much-needed books, and keep the general peace in the ever-chaotic library. My father, now retired, sat at home in the kitchen, preparing a pot of coffee, waiting to embark on his daily walk around prospect park. None of us knew it, but that was the last normal day we would have for who knows how long.
As an only child, the focus of our familial anxiety is almost always directed toward my academic pursuits. After I decided not to come home, things felt different. My father suffers from Parkinson’s disease and has poor heart health, rendering him extremely vulnerable to severe infection. My mother, though healthy, is a senior. We are extremely lucky in our relative financial and home security. Even so, my parents have been stripped of their agency (along with everyone else in New York). I’ve never felt more physically secure than them, and so responsible for their wellbeing. This change prompted me to ask a question: How have their lives changed in the past couple of months? I decided to interview in the hopes of answering that question.
On April 22nd, I stepped out of my house, and walked down to James Madison Park. I took my place on a bench, and dialed my phone, “Mom?”
“I hear you’re outside. Is your mask on?” she scolded.
“You’re in New York, not me”
I started out by asking her a simple question: when did it become clear to you that this was really and truly going to affect your life, in a way that other things just hadn’t?
“I realized when I talked to my friend Eileen. She’s 85, and her husband just died. We go to the same dance class, she’s still in really good shape, but she hates being stuck inside. As each thing closed, she got more and more upset and there was just nothing we could do.”
As stores shuttered and the city’s residents fled, my mom said she was looking for a way to do something. For years, a network of thousands of people had built up around her. The unspoken co-dependencies and silent relationships every New Yorker has, from aloof neighbors to the man on our corner who sells watches out of a suitcase, began to fall away. This sea of many individuals, which becomes the unified medium onto which your life cast, can only be seen for what it is when its gone, “I found myself just standing by the train station the other day like waiting for the Q train to come in, just to see the Q train, to help me imagine being with everyone each morning,” my mother said, exhaling.
My father, unsurprisingly, started our interview with a joke, “soon there’ll be kids roaming the streets again. As soon as it’s warm, I bet they’ll be out.” He also made sure to let me know that unlike my mother, he was managing to stay positive, “unlike your mother I’ve been starting to hate the subway. How many times can a man my age be expected to let some dweeb like you cough in his face?”
A goofy seventy two year old, his approach to things both serious and trivial has always been tinged with humor. But, as our conversation continued, a twinge of sadness became audible even through the phone, “Mr. Vincent, our barber, he’s worried. He might be going bankrupt. What can I do? I don’t know. No people, no haircuts, no haircuts no money.”
“I just want to walk down the street and greet people, say hi to people,” he said almost indignantly, “I’m here with your mom but you know how I talk to people. Now everyone crosses the street when they see me. Well not me… But that’s how things are.”
In essence, what my father was trying to tell me was this: never before had New Yorkers been defeated like this, “A lot of people draw the comparison to 9/11. To me that’s just wrong. When 9/11 happened, it was this horrendous thing. Then in a week or so, at least in New York, me and the people we knew, we were back to business. We all talked about it, we wanted to help each other as a community, but it wasn’t fear that won the day. Now, it’s just fear. People are afraid.”
The phone line fell silent. My father, like my mother a few minutes earlier, let out a long sigh, “It’s creepy Ben. I don’t know what else to say. I don’t like uneasiness, and that’s what it is.”
After I said my goodbyes to my Paul, my dad, my mom took the phone again, “let me tell you one more story; we were standing outside of this church, on Flatbush, admiring it… and this guy got out of his car and said, ‘want to buy it?’
Obviously, we didn’t. But he was really nice, and you know, socially distanced, he showed us everything about the church. The pastor, this guy, was involved with the black power movement in the 60s or 70s. And he said that Sunday, they were having their last service. And I just in that moment, realized how sad it is that, like, people can’t gather together and like how you take it for granted that you can just, like, go and play Sunday with their community.”
My mother said she wanted to remind me that, as bad as things got in our heads, we need to remember who to really look out for. Who it is that doesn’t feel uneasy, but is uneasy. We exchanged our love, and hung up.