For most of us, our world started to unravel in March 2020. The numbers of dead and ill during this global pandemic continue to be mind numbing. But behind every number and every statistic is a story that we need to hear.
The clerk behind the counter in the big box store was a gracious young woman in her late twenties. My visit was to purchase more professional grade masks because I am in a high-risk group and in an environment on a medical center campus where COVID is a major threat to fragile patients despite every reasonable precaution being taken.
I deliberately went to the store when it first opened to avoid any unnecessary crowds. I brought the box to register 3. The young woman and I made eye contact over our masks, and it was obvious that she was anxious, distressed. She recognized me perhaps because my books have my photograph on the cover and maybe Rochester is a small enough town that I have some measure of notoriety as a physician. She was crying. And I had not even said a word and just patiently waited in line.
“Today is the anniversary of my father’s death,” she said. “He had been battling lung cancer and doing well, but COVID came. He died.”
I expressed my sadness for her and her family.
“If we all wore masks,” she asked me, “is it possible that my father would be alive today?”
This was not a time for an academic narrative but a simple acknowledgment that we just do not know. This was one of those powerful moments of human engagement where we learn to simply be attentive, to listen, to be present. A fellow human being needed to connect.
She shared with me that her father developed very subtle shortness of breath, did not have his usual energy and vitality, and passed away in approximately 72 hours. No time to say goodbye, no time to reminisce about the good times, no time to say, “I love you, and I am sorry for some of the stupid things that I did.”
As we talked, time stood still. Two total strangers separated by a Plexiglas shield and masks, two strangers riveted by the bond of grief. Neither of us wanted to leave that sacred space.
But life is neither fair nor convenient, and she gently reminded me “to swipe my card and then press the number 4 button” and of course to sign when the black box shows up. And then we each started to laugh over the absurdity of life. There was a weird sense of relief and a weird sense of closure. I took the receipt and was about to walk off with my new mask.
But she had a need to talk and I had a need to listen.
She then shared with me how she was dealing with the uncertainty of COVID, the absence of a clear light at the end of the tunnel. And a real concern about being enveloped in the cold, dark Midwestern winter ahead and how she will handle the isolation—common concerns that most of us have during this time of unparalleled peril.
Her father represents just one person in an alarming and growing statistic. One death. One family in grief. One story. A lesson for us all.
We need to control what we can: handwashing, wear a mask, and be mindful of crowds. Take care of ourselves. Exercise, prudent meals, at least seven hours of restorative sleep. Get a flu shot. And stay connected with another human being as best we can.