My mother met James Lee at Lenox House Senior Center. She was 68, he was a mere 67. My mom was long divorced, going broke, living in the East Side rent-controlled apartment in which she’d been raised. Jimmy — as everyone called him — was retired, but he had volunteered to teach a class in internet literacy. My mother was his student, and one day he shyly handed her his business card, telling her to call if she needed more help.
They made an odd couple: he was the youngest of ten children, his parents Chinese immigrants who had settled in Ocean City, New Jersey. My mother was Jewish, a former child prodigy figure skater, dancer, and actress. In later years, she’d worked as a screenwriter. He had worked in finance. But they both loved the ballet — Jimmy had season tickets. And Jimmy was handsome and adoring and funny. She bought him books. He bought her a bathrobe. It was love.
Two years later, my mother had a stroke. She bled for hours into her brain. Jimmy was, as far as I was concerned, excused from any obligation. He had not signed up for dementia, not for the pain nor the trouble of it. But there he was, standing outside my mother’s hospital room, with a bouquet of red roses and the New York Times.
We hoped my mother would heal. She did not. She got worse, in fact. Jimmy became a regular at her assisted living facility. He took her to get her hair trimmed and colored, he bought her smart blazers, he took her to Lincoln Center for every ballet. She was still his best girl. My mother wouldn’t go on field trips with the other residents unless Jimmy went too. She wouldn’t listen to the band that played on Friday nights in the dining room unless Jimmy sat beside her.
Jimmy and I coordinated on all of my mother’s needs, even though he was also in charge of caring for his older siblings — filing their taxes, monitoring their mental health, cleaning their houses. He also took care of his neighbors, even walking a single mother’s daughter to school every morning. Somewhere along the way, he became my stepfather.
Now, he’s 81. He got sick last year — very sick — with a spinal infection. He lost his ability to speak or swallow for a long time. I picked him up from New York Presbyterian and saw about a walker, a speech therapist, protective eyewear because one of his lids wouldn’t close. We sat in his apartment, surrounded by photos of my mother, and watched TV together. Our relationship is gruff and tender, funny and argumentative. I think he’s a curmudgeon and he thinks I’m a hedonist. We text almost every day.
He’s back at New York Presbyterian Hospital now. Jimmy has COVID-19 and he’s on a ventilator. We texted two weeks ago, when I told him to ask for apple juice in the ER, where he was awaiting his test result. He wrote back: “Apple juice great idea. Feel better.” Then, an hour later: “I have this coronavirus.”
At the time, 339 people in Manhattan had been officially diagnosed. He was transferred to a room. I sent him photos of my daughter, Lydia, whom he dotes on and spoils. He told me that his room was sealed shut. He was alone for hours except for temperature and oxygen checks. He sounded pretty good for a grumpy old man in the hospital.
Then I got a call from Dr. King; Jimmy was being placed on a vent. A vent? I just talked to him a few hours ago. He sounded fine. A vent? Really? But that’s how COVID-19 is. Sudden drops through the ice. Tectonic shifts at lightning speed.
In February, Jimmy was able to go back to his seats at the ballet, after a long battle with the damage from his varicella infection. He took me to see Swan Lake. It was freezing that night. I told him that everyone rushing in their coats to the theatre reminded me of that famous New Yorker cover, “Night at the Opera.” He said, “Well, you know about that stuff.” I clutched his arm for the third act Black Swan variation. Jimmy’s favorite dancer at New York City Ballet is Sara Mearns. We both fell in love with Ashley Bouder that night. And we both felt my mother there, in her silk blouse and Bal a Versailles perfume, her bright smile and relentless commentary.
Neither of us mentioned her. But I knew he was thinking what I was thinking.
I speak to the “team” at New York Presbyerian twice a day now. The doctors are tender and calm and supportive with me on the phone, even as COVID-19 multiplies and takes over their hospital, their colleagues fall ill, they know they are running out of masks and gloves and vents. They weigh Jimmy’s care every day. Because of the varicella, Jimmy’s throat is thick and swollen –extubation isn’t working. He can’t get enough air in not because of COVID-19, from which they believe he is on the mend, but because of his damaged throat. Should they wait for his throat to heal or perform a tracheotomy, which risks infection of the entire surgical team? COVID lives in the lungs, and cutting a hole in someone’s throat gives an aerosolized virus a means of escape and transmission.
I can’t bear to think of Jimmy as a volcano of poison. They don’t see him that way, though. They seem to love him as if he were their own father, using his name and telling me he responds to commands; once he even asked for his phone. Maybe he wanted to see the latest photo of Lydia. Does he know he’s been sedated for two weeks now? Is he panicked while vented, does he have sleeping hours and wakeful hours? The doctors admit they aren’t sure, though they monitor for “signs of distress” as best they can. Once, when Jimmy’s sedation was dropped in preparation for a “breathing trial,” something he does every day, he pulled his own tube out. They had to put it back in; he was still struggling for air. They know he can’t be vented for much longer — long term use is a big risk. They are trying to thread the narrowest of needles.
So, we wait. If he is released from the hospital — when he is released — I cannot pick him up this time and put him in a cab. I will have to order everything remotely and have it delivered. There is no substitute for seeing your daughter arranging flowers from the local bodega on your coffee table. But this time, I can’t give him that. Still, I have a feeling he knows what he needs to know to get him through this. “I love you,” I told him, the day before he was intubated. I had never said that before. “I love you, too,” he said. So many things have been broken by this virus. But affection — a resource we all need desperately — grows more plentiful by the day.