Into Life and Loss in a Pandemic
Trymaine Lee: Seven-and-a-half years ago, my daughter was born. I was the first person to hold her. The doctor hoisted her nine-pound self into my arms and she settled into them as if she'd been there all along. I looked down at her and then on my wife and smiled. My mother and siblings were on the way and I couldn't wait to get home to introduce our little girl to our small village of family and friends who'd feed us with love and laughter and the occasional home-cooked meal.
This is how it's always been, welcoming life. And it's not unlike how we say goodbye in death. See, mourning can look a lot like celebration if you look closely enough. It's a form of communion. At every funeral I've ever gone to (my best friends, two of my step-brothers, my grandmothers, aunts, uncles), we'd push into each other's arms and fill that new emptiness with love and laughter. There's the visiting, the reminiscing, and the huge post-funeral meal at the repast. In the age of COVID-19, babies are still being born.
Archival Recording: Everyone was already planning their flights of when they were gonna come, you know. I think people were already planning on how they were gonna help us.
Lee: And loved ones, they're still dying. But now, instead of coming together around these life events, we're being told to keep our distance.
Archival Recording: When she passed away and the shock sort of faded, I realized, you know, I have to plan a funeral in the age of the coronavirus. You know, how is this gonna work?
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee and this is Into America, a podcast about politics, about policy and the power that both have in shaping the lives of the American people. This week? Into Life and Loss in the Midst of a Pandemic. (LONG PAUSE) When 34-year-old Victoria Andrade and her partner, Endo, told her family she was pregnant, they were thrilled.
Victoria Andrade: And I have to say I was kinda surprised, I guess, by my family's reaction, which was, like, utter excitement, screaming up and down.
Lee: A few nights later, they were out with his family.
Andrade: We were out at sushi and my boyfriend's brother had ordered us a round of, like, sake bombs. And I was like, oh man, I can't drink that, and I can't eat sushi, 'cause I'm pregnant.
Lee: More over-the-top excitement.
Andrade: And it was funny because people were coming up to our table like, "What's happening? Why is everyone screaming?" You know, and everyone was, like, screaming, like, "She's pregnant. She's pregnant."
Lee: Victoria is a nurse in the San Francisco Bay area, the youngest of four from a Mexican American family. Victoria has always wanted to be a mom with or without a partner.
Andrade: I always thought that I would even do it alone. (LAUGH) You know, like, I thought that if I didn't find someone who I would, you know, want to delve into that journey with, I had it in my mind that I would have a baby on my own, yeah.
Lee: Victoria did find someone; that's Endo. They've been together over six years and they're 36 weeks' pregnant with their first child. After a miscarriage a year ago and a nerve-wracking few weeks at the beginning of this pregnancy, they're eager to meet their baby.
Andrade: I always tell him he's gonna be a better parent than I am. He has a lot of (LAUGH) patience. I think he's equally been waiting to be a father as much as I have been waiting to be a mother, to be honest.
Lee: As a former nurse in the prenatal unit, Victoria knew she'd have to roll with the punches of this pregnancy. She's seen other people's plans go straight out the window.
Andrade: You know, I would even tell my patients when we would talk about their birth plans, I would tell them this is called a birth plan but it's really not a plan. It's more of kind of, like, a preference. Like, if you could have a choice, like, how would you see your labor going, you know? I took the same mentality for myself. The only thing I think I really had planned was, like, I was gonna have my mom there and my partner there. And I was just going to see how things went.
Lee: But the world looks much different now than when Victoria and Endo first celebrated their pregnancy.
Andrade: You don't prepare for giving birth in a pandemic. So, this is just something unexpected, obviously.
Lee: There are really just basic things that all new parents need, like hand sanitizer. Victoria and Endo can't find it anywhere.
Andrade: Like, wipes were out everywhere; out of stock. You know, I'm anticipating that I will breast-feed and, you know, that's totally gonna be my goal. And hopefully, it works out for me. But there's a chance that it doesn't. And so, I was starting to look for formula to buy, and it's out of stock.
Lee: Supplies? That's one thing. But then there's the really, really hard part; people and family. On March 19th, Victoria and Endo arrived for a prenatal checkup. Victoria's pregnancy is considered high risk because she's a diabetic. So, these checkups are really important.
Andrade: Like, right at the front door of the clinic, they had stopped my partner. Like, I'm sorry. You can't come in. I was very much thrown off. I was like, "I'm sorry, what?"
Lee: Endo was turned away, told he had to wait outside; social distancing for safety's sake.
Andrade: They probably saw the look on my face. Like, yeah, we're, like, you know, really sorry but no visitors.
Lee: At that same appointment, another blow. Victoria learned that her hospital was tightening up the rules for the delivery room. She would be allowed only one person with her for the birth; her mom or her partner but not both.
Andrade: You know, I think I'm still grieving the fact that I'm not gonna have my mother there, which was really devastating to me as of, like, last week. And even that small, little thing that I had planned in my head is not gonna happen, you know. So, it's pretty upsetting.
Lee: And she's worried that this could escalate. A nurse mentioned to her that by the time Victoria delivers, the hospital might bar anyone besides staff from the room. That means Victoria would be all alone.
Andrade: When you're in pain or when you're going through this experience, you need someone to help be your advocate, your voice. You need someone, you know, not only there to encourage you but sometimes you do need someone to speak for you. And to not have that person there is really hard to swallow. If something, you know, God forbid, were to happen to me or the baby, like, you want your partner to be there to help make those hard decisions, you know. If there's a time where I'm incapacitated, my baby's going to be alone.
Lee: Hospitals everywhere are having to make these hard calls, balancing the need for support during birth with the need to limit the risk of coronavirus. In New York, after some private hospitals barred partners from the delivery room, Governor Andrew Cuomo issued an order that all hospitals allow at least one companion in the room during childbirth.
We reached out to the hospital where Victoria plans to give birth; Kaiser Permanente's Oakland Medical Center. They told us that, as of now, their single-visitor policy stands. But Victoria's concerns don't stop at the hospital. Like so many new moms, she's been counting on help from family and friends when she gets home. But for now, it looks like it will just be Victoria, Endo and their new baby.
Andrade: I didn't expect me and my partner to do this alone. We have big families. You know, they were all planning to come visit. My mom was a postpartum nurse, herself. Like, if I needed help with breastfeeding, she was gonna be the person who was gonna help me do that, and she can't.
Lee: What advice has your mother given you about childbirth and especially giving birth now? But she's been in this field for a long time as well. Like, what is she tellin' you?
Andrade: Oh, my mom is, like, the most positive person in the world. So, you know, when she calls me, she's empathetic. She tells me the thing that she would always tell me whenever I was upset about anything, which is that I'm gonna be totally okay.
Lee: You don't believe her?
Andrade: No, I believe her. (LAUGH) I think she's right. I think we'll be okay. It just sucks. Hi, Mom.
Andrea Andrade: Hi, mija (PH).
Andrade: Mom, can you hear me?
Andrea Andrade: Yeah.
Andrade: You can hear me?
Andrea Andrade: I can hear you. Can you hear me?
Lee: Victoria and her mother, Andrea, live a little less than an hour's drive apart. Social distancing means they can't be together physically, so they talk on the phone a few times a week.
Andrea Andrade: Well, I'm just thrilled that you're gonna be a first-time mom. And maybe you'll get another little Victoria.
Andrade: I don't know if wishing you to have a little Victoria is a good thing. I heard I was a difficult child. Man.
Andrea Andrade: It's all part of the package, so. (LAUGH) But you were Victoria (LAUGH) and we love you anyway.
Andrade: So, I think I've expressed to you that I'm, you know, pretty devastated that you can't be there, you know, during labor and delivery.
Andrea Andrade: Yeah.
Andrade: But I actually don't know how you feel about not bein' there.
Andrea Andrade: Yeah. Well, it's very disappointing. Because I was really lookin' forward to bein' there and seein' the baby and seein' the excitement in both you and Endo, you know, at the birth, holdin' the baby for the first time. So, all of that I will be missin'. But it's happened. I will be just excited--
Andrea Andrade: --over video. And right now, my biggest, biggest disappointment or concern will be that Endo is not allowed to be there.
Andrade: Yeah. You gave birth to four children. If I have to do it alone, what would be your advice?
Andrea Andrade: My advice would be just to be right there at the moment, whatever's happening. You're having your first baby, mija (PH), and focus at the moment of just seein' the baby for the first time, holding her, givin' her her first kiss. I mean, it's just wonderful to have that moment and that feeling. You're doin' it. You're doin' it, you know. You're doin' it for the baby. So, that would be--
Andrea Andrade: --my, you know, main focus. Focus on her. (UNINTEL) you can forget about that. But that moment of just holdin' her for the first time and seein' her, yeah. Okay, mija (PH).
Andrade: Okay, Mama, thank you. I love you.
Andrea Andrade: We'll talk another time and I love you. And I'll hear from you soon.
Andrea Andrade: Bye bye.
Lee: After the break, we'll take a look at the other side of the circle of life; at families who are having to say goodbye, apart.
Lee: Losing a parent is hard enough under normal circumstances. But this is what it was like for one man during this pandemic. Carolyn Williams loved to sing and she loved her church. For 60 years, she sang in the choir at St. Timothy Community Church in Gary, Indiana. Even after her son, Eric Deggans, left home, when he visited his mother, he stuck around for church services.
Eric Deggans: Well, first of all, I made sure I was in town for Sunday morning 'cause we gotta go to church. (LAUGH) And so, I always made sure I brought a suit and I always made sure I was here for enough time that I could go on Sunday morning, as long as that was possible.
Lee: Eric is a TV critic for NPR and a contributor for MSNBC.
Deggans: And what I remember is her gettin' up early and singing her gospel songs.
Lee: Miss Carolyn was a middle-school teacher for 50 years. And she went to great lengths to make sure Eric, her only child, got an education that went far beyond their neighborhood.
Deggans: So, she sent me to a private school in another town, a 45-minute bus ride each way. It was a Jewish middle school. So, I got to learn the Jewish religion and culture, and we had Hebrew classes. And it was an amazing experience for a kid from Gary, Indiana. And then she sent me to a Catholic high school, so I got to know a whole new group of kids, very different from the kids I was in middle school with.
Lee: Miss Carolyn was also a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority and someone who always took the time to care for other people.
Deggans: I used to joke with her a little bit because whenever I would visit her, her mailbox would be crowded with junk mail from all these charities. And it wasn't until she passed away that I realized the reason she was getting all that mail was because she was making small donations to probably, like, a dozen charities on a retired teacher's salary.
Lee: Carolyn Williams died two Sundays ago, on March 22nd, at the age of 81. Nine days before she passed, she took a bad fall at home, weak from cancer treatments. Friends found her and got her to the hospital where doctors determined she was severely dehydrated and had two infections. Eric arrived from his home in Florida the next day. And within 24 hours, it was clear that the hospital was startin' to crack down on visitors.
Deggans: My mother's pastor and three of her friends were in the room and they were praying over her. And security came in and said that they had too many people in the room and, you know, made some of them leave. And then I think that following Monday, we were told that there could only be one visitor in the room at a time.
Lee: Hospitals across the country are implementing these types of rules as the number of coronavirus cases climb. They're designed to protect patients with compromised immune systems; patients like Carolyn Williams, as well as other visitors and staff. That left Eric spending 18-to-20-hour days in the hospital with his mom, just the two of them.
Deggans: Then on that Wednesday morning, a nurse came in and said, "Well, they're not gonna allow visitors anymore. You're probably gonna have to leave."
Lee: Up until that point, Eric had been helping out with his mother's care in any way that he could; helping turn her over when the bed pan needed changing, alerting nurses when her IV drip needed attention, and making sure she stayed warm and comfortable. And then, all of a sudden, he couldn't do those things anymore.
Deggans: A huge security guard shows up and explains to me that I have to leave. And so, I started, you know, packin' my stuff up and tryin' to comfort my mother who was getting agitated and startin' to cry at this point.
Lee: Eric was told that patients could have visitors in only two dire circumstances; if they couldn't make decisions for themselves or if recovery was no longer possible.
Deggans: So, it was a double-edged-sword kinda situation because I knew that if they let me visit her again, it would be because they thought she was gonna die.
Lee: Eric had to settle for video calls with his mom. And he had to rely on already busy hospital staff to help set those up. Then, four long days later, he heard from her doctor.
Deggans: You know, I knew then that she didn't have much time.
Lee: Eric was able to spend the last 12 hours of his mother's life by her side.
Deggans: She wasn't lucid for much of it but I think she knew I was there. And so, we just sat together. I talked with her a little bit. But it was mostly just to let her know I was there. I held her hand through most of it. And you know, you're just sitting there, waiting for it to end. You know, and then she passed on.
Lee: What was that like for you?
Deggans: So many things: frustrating, sad, grateful for the time that we had. I was so glad that I got those last hours.
Lee: For Eric, those last hours were precious. But what weighs on him were those four days when he couldn't be there with her.
Deggans: You know, I know she was frightened. I know she was scared. We talked about that before I left. And that also concerns me.
Lee: That she spent some of her final days scared?
Deggans: Yeah. And alone, you know, sitting in a hospital room by herself. You know, these guidelines created a situation where the church family that she had supported for 60 years couldn't really be there for her physically in that moment. You know, the son that she had supported for 54 years couldn't be there for her in those last few days.
Lee: Eric is not only heartbroken, he's frustrated.
Deggans: There really isn't time or resources to figure out anything better. It's like changing a tire on a moving automobile. And people are just kinda makin' decisions and then we're being forced to live with it. And it's continuing, you know. We're gotta be allowed a maximum of ten people in the sanctuary when we hold the funeral tomorrow. That's including the people who work at the church.
Lee: The day after Eric and I spoke, his mom's funeral was held at her beloved St. Timothy Church.
Archival Recording: We thank God for her life. We thank God for her love.
Lee: The funeral was live-streamed.
Archival Recording: Let me first start by welcoming all those who are viewing this home-goin' service online. We've come to celebrate the life, legacy, of Sister Carolyn Williams.
Lee: Let's stop for a moment and let that sink in: Saying goodbye over the internet. There is no shared meal after the services, no lingering in the parking lot telling old stories, and no choir.
Deggans: I mean, there can't even be a choir. There can't even be a choir to sing for a woman who sang in a church choir for 60 years.
Lee: That's not how any of this is supposed to go. Eric is hoping that once the coronavirus has been contained, he can hold a bigger service.
Deggans: Perhaps around her birthday in February, we'll do some kind of memorial tribute concert with all the groups that she sang with, as many as we can get to perform on a single day, and give the community a chance to give her the tribute and send-off that they want to give her now.
Lee: And Carolyn Williams the home-going she deserves. And so then, Eric treasures the unexpected tributes, hearing the ways his mom loved people and the ways they loved her.
Deggans: The person who delivers the mail where she lives, you know, came up to me to say that she was sorry that my mom was gone. Like, somehow she had found out and expressed condolences. You know, when I die, my mailman (LAUGH) is not gonna be aware--
Lee: Right, right, right.
Deggans: --that I had passed away, and is certainly not gonna go up to my kids and say, hey, you know, sorry about your loss.
Lee: As the Into America team was putting together this week's episode, a phrase kept popping into my head: Born alone, die alone. It felt like such a cruel sentiment, so I had to look it up. And it comes from a quote by Orson Welles. It goes, "We're born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through love and friendship can we create the illusion for a moment that we're not alone."
Love and friendship, that's what's saving us. That's the glue. As we maintain physical distance to fight this coronavirus epidemic, please check in on your loved ones. Call 'em. Send 'em a text. Tag them on social media with funny memes. Whatever it takes. But let's do all that we can to stay connected until we can be close again.
Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll catch you next Thursday.