A day before my son’s visit—our first get-together in six weeks—he called to assure me that he and his wife were now fully vaccinated, and that their two children (my granddaughter and grandson, ages nine and seven) had recently tested negative for Covid-19. I’m 88 years old and live alone—Evelyn, my wife of 66 years, passed away two years ago—and though in reasonably good shape for a man my age, I do have several conditions—emphysema (I was a chain smoker until my 73rd birthday), diabetes 2, and high blood pressure—that would put me at major risk should I contract the virus, and so my son’s assurances were welcome.
The prospect of seeing my son and his family—the loneliness I’d felt since Evelyn’s passing had become persistently acute during the pandemic—gave me the courage to do what, for a while, I’d been wanting to do: telephone Madeleine Levine, a woman I knew from our synagogue. Like my wife, though perhaps a dozen years younger, Madeleine was a psychotherapist in private practice, and at Oneg Shabbat social hours that followed Saturday morning services, we’d had several pleasant conversations. I found her attractive and easy to talk with, and so, her contact information listed in our synagogue’s member directory, I called and said that with local restaurants now open, but with our synagogue once again in lockdown, I missed our conversations and wondered if, spur-of-the-moment, she’d like to get together for dinner that evening. She’d be delighted, she said, but wary of being in public spaces due to the recent aggressiveness of the Delta variant, she thought it made more sense for me to come to her apartment where she could put together a quick supper for us, and where, she said, with a light laugh, we would of course follow social distancing protocols.
Which we did, though after dinner and an excellent bottle of Côtes du Rhône, when she invited me to sit beside her on her couch, I tried to take her hand in mine. “Please!” she said, pulling away. “I have a headache!” When I stuttered an apology, she laughed, said that although handholding was definitely verboten for people our age, cuddling was not, and she moved close to me and rested her head on my shoulder.
The next afternoon, my son and his family drove up from Brooklyn to my Upper West Side apartment, and we spent several lovely hours together—we sent out for pizza, talked, laughed, and watched an old Laurel and Hardy movie, Air Raid Wardens. Except when eating, we wore masks and (mostly) maintained social distance, though when they arrived and when they left we exchanged hugs and kisses. That evening I called Madeleine and told her about the visit—we talked for more than an hour—and we made a date for the following Saturday night.
But before that could happen—five days after my son’s visit—I began coughing and feeling feverish. The next morning I ached from head to toe, the coughing became worse, my chest hurt, and on the morning after that I felt so weak that when I got out of bed and tried to stand up, I nearly fell over. I emailed Madeleine and asked if we could reschedule our dinner for the following Saturday night. Then I went back to bed and slept the sleep-of-the-dead until the early afternoon, when, though my breathing was labored at times, I was able to walk to Mount Sinai Morningside Hospital, three blocks away, where, no surprise, I tested positive for Covid-19.
What to do? I’d read newspaper accounts of children and grandchildren who had not taken precautions and so felt that they had “murdered” a parent and/or grandparent, and I’d also read that there was now evidence that elderly and immunocompromised individuals, even if fully vaccinated, could not only become infected, but could also be carriers of the virus, and were at risk for severe illness and death. In and out of sweat-drenched naps, I found myself obsessing about how to protect my son and his family from feeling responsible for my condition. I also experienced a fierce desire to call Madeleine, and to be able, figuratively and literally, to put my head on her shoulder and share my feelings and my fears. But of course I didn’t, and when my fever shot up past 103, I called my family doctor, and while on hold, waiting for him to come to the phone, a solution came to me.
I hung up, took a dose of an extra-strong over-the-counter flu medication, then began taking Tylenol every six hours, and drinking glass after glass of water. With the help of Ambien, I slept well at night, took long afternoon naps, and took Robitussin when my coughing increased. I followed this regimen for five days during which Madeleine replied to my email with several phone calls, in some of which she expressed concern and asked if I was all right. I replied by writing that I would, with regrets, again be unable to keep our date for the following Saturday.
On the evening of the seventh day after I’d tested positive, and more than two weeks after the visit from my son and his family, I loaded up on cough, flu, and pain medications, walked to Amsterdam Avenue and 110th Street, and sat outside at the V & T Pizzeria and Restaurant, where I knew many of my neighbors often ate. I ordered my favorite meal, chicken marsala, along with a carafe of house red wine. By the time I’d started on my second carafe, I was feeling magnificently light-headed. I took off my mask, became outrageously flamboyant, proclaimed that it was time to create a new nation-state—The Free Democratic Republic of the Upper West Side—and stumbled from table to table to tell friends, neighbors, and strangers tall tales about my lives as a taxi driver, taxi-dermist, and devoted partner to a taxi dancer. I made sloppy and floppy passes at two waitresses, and at midnight I allowed myself to be transported back to my apartment house, my arms around the shoulders of a young couple who lived two floors below me.
As I’d hoped, word got around fast. Early the next morning, two neighbors called to ask how I was feeling and if they could do anything for me, and at noon Mike, the superintendent in our building, stopped by to tell me he’d heard I’d put on quite a show the night before and wanted to make sure I was all right. Two days later I called my family doctor—this time I waited until he came to the phone—and described my symptoms. He told me to go straight to the emergency ward at Mount Sinai Morningside Hospital, where he would see me later in the day. I called Mike, informed him of my symptoms, asked him to telephone my son and tell him what I was too upset to tell him, and that he need not be discreet: he should let my son know that I’d gone on a bender several nights before, had disregarded all safety protocols, had what seemed to be Covid-19 symptoms, and that I was on my way to the hospital. And I added that he should be sure to tell him that a waitress I’d flirted with at the V & T had whispered to me, “Ah, if only you were five years younger …”
Before I left, I opened an email that had arrived the previous day from Madeleine, but that I’d put off reading. Based on her experience with patients through the years, she wrote—she and Evelyn had once talked about this—she had come to a conclusion that our brief friendship confirmed: in these matters, the motor in men’s engines was usually sex, while what women wanted was romance, and that this difference often continued into marriage.
At the hospital, I was diagnosed with the virus and with pneumonia, and sent to the ICU. The next day I was put on a ventilator. What surprised me was how much, in my waking moments, I found myself thinking about Madeleine, and about how I wished I could tell her how wonderful it had been, during the days that followed on our one evening together, simply to know that she existed—and also, like a young man still alive in the older man I’d become, about how much I’d been looking forward to seeing her again. I wished, too, that I’d felt free to tell her why I’d behaved the way I had during the previous few weeks, but as I drifted in and out of consciousness the words of her email kept repeating themselves until they brought me to the comforting conclusion that she would, in time, forgive me for behavior she would attribute not to me, but to my gender. Less comforting, however, was the realization that I’d been so intensely focused on protecting my family from feelings of culpability that I’d given no thought as to how, were I a carrier, my act might have affected others.
The doctors were not optimistic about my chances for anything resembling a full recovery, and from the way my son choked up several times when we spoke on the phone, I assumed the doctors had been candid with him about how debilitated my condition was. Still, there was good news, I believed, and the good news was that while my son, his wife, and my grandchildren might think of me as being a fond and foolish old man, they’d be able to take comfort from how sweet our last visit had been, and—most important!—they’d believe it was not their visit, but the irresponsible binge I’d gone on that had brought me to the ICU, and so, should a worst-case scenario come to pass, they would be free to grieve for me without guilt.
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