The author and her mother, photographed in Oregon in the 1980s.
Courtesy Nicole Chung
Ideas
March 13, 2020 5:03 PM EDT
Nicole Chung is the author of the memoir All You Can Ever Know and the editor-in-chief of Catapult magazine.

Businesses, basketball games, Broadway shows, baby showers—every area of life has been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s impossible to go an hour without hearing of another cancellation or closure. Like many others, I’ve spent the past weeks stressing over which key supplies and shelf-stable foods to stock up on, whether we should keep our kids home from school, how we’ll manage if we’re asked to shelter in place for weeks or even months. But the most gut-wrenching decision I’ve faced, by far, is whether I should travel to see my sick and immunocompromised mom, potentially exposing her to a virus from which she might not recover.

I live on the East Coast; my mother lives on the West. Sometime in the next couple of weeks, I have to decide whether I will visit her in April, as planned—and, if I do, whether I’ll bring my kids along. It takes two planes and anywhere from 12 to 18 hours, depending on layovers and travel mishaps, to make the trip. During the years when my father was sick and on dialysis, neither my parents nor I could afford frequent cross-country journeys. I’ll always regret not being able to spend more time with my dad in the last years of his life.

My mom was diagnosed with cancer in late 2018, months after my dad’s death. She was in remission for a short time, but then it came roaring back, Stage IV, and within a few months her doctors stopped saying optimistic things. I knew that whatever happened, I didn’t want to have the same regrets I had when my father died—I’m grateful that my financial situation has improved to the point where I’ve been able to visit her more often and send money when she needs it. For months we’ve gotten nothing but terrible news—the cancer has metastasized; it’s everywhere; it’s not responding well to chemotherapy—but at least, I’ve been able to tell myself, we can see each other. We can spend time together, the time my dad and I never got.

Then came COVID-19. I was worried, but I assumed it wouldn’t affect my travel plans. When I first spoke to my doctor, she said I’d probably be fine, despite my asthma, as long as I practiced good handwashing. There were only a handful of cases in our area.

Now community transmission has begun, and every day brings what feels like a month’s worth of bad news. Given the Administration’s weak response and the subsequent test shortages, we can’t know how widespread the virus is in the U.S., but many believe the actual number is well beyond our ability to test for. Nursing homes are on lockdown; schools and churches are closing. Most people I know are working from home as much as possible. While there are still no domestic travel restrictions, Trump has indicated they’re not off the table, and it seems everything else that can shut down has already done so.

I don’t assume this will remain the case, as it seems COVID-19 will soon be everywhere, but for now I would guess my mother’s risk of exposure is relatively low. She lives with her sister in a town of about 5,000 people, hours from the closest major outbreak. She has regular visitors, but she doesn’t go out much. And while we now know that she won’t get better, she is in a “stable period,” according to her care team. If I travel to see her, carrying germs—no matter how careful I try to be, how many times I wash my hands—I might be the one to compromise her fragile, hard-won stability.

My kids ask me every day if we’re going to see Grandma soon, and all I can tell them is, “I hope so.” But even if I go, bringing them with me seems foolhardy. While children don’t appear to be in great danger from COVID-19, have you ever tried to keep two kids from touching various public surfaces for an hour, let alone a full day of travel? It’s been impossible for me to stop touching my face, and I am an adult who spends approximately a quarter of her waking time thinking: Don’t touch your face!!! If we pick something up while airborne, or in any one of the three airports we’ll have to travel through—or if we contract the virus but are asymptomatic before we even leave—there’s a chance we could pass it to my mom.

The situation is changing daily, but almost every article I’ve read about air travel within the U.S. has laid out both sides, noting that many people are still flying while urging readers to reconsider travel plans if they are older, have medical conditions that make them vulnerable, or know they will come into contact with those at greater risk. If my mother didn’t have a terminal diagnosis, I wouldn’t even consider traveling; I know staying home could help suppress the spread of the virus. But I don’t know how many more chances I’ll have to see my mom, and no one knows how long the pandemic will last.

Friends, including those who work in public health, now seem torn when I poll them on what they would do in my place. If I’m leaning one way or the other, whoever I’m talking with will say, “That’s definitely the right decision,” and I might agree—until I start second-guessing myself again. Maybe everyone is just being kind, telling me what they imagine I want to hear, even though we all know that my mother and I have absolutely no good options at the moment. And I know so many other people who are facing the same terrible choice, trying to figure out if they should visit sick or aging loved ones; what the incalculable danger might be if they do; how they will live with whatever decision they’re forced to make. How do you weigh such an enormous health risk, one that isn’t solely or even primarily your own?

I try to keep the worst of my anxiety from my mother, because God knows she has enough to deal with, but she’s aware that I’m wrestling with this. As of last week, she still wanted me to come out soon and bring the kids. But she’s also following the news, if not quite as obsessively as I am, and when I talk to her now, she sounds less certain. A typical mom, she’s worried for me, too—and her grandkids—even though we aren’t terribly at risk. She says she’ll understand whether we travel soon or try to wait it out, and it is a relief to know she won’t blame me either way. But I know from bitter experience what it is to blame myself for distance, for time missed, for painful separation from my family, no matter how unwanted or unplanned.

It seems we’re all afraid in this moment; it’s hard not to be. I’m afraid of so many things, especially the suffering of people I love and a world without my mom. Even after my father died, I assumed my mother would live to see my hair turn gray, my kids grow up. It’s devastating to know that this is happening to her, that I will lose her far earlier than I’d ever imagined. Now, as this virus sweeps through our country and the world, it feels as though my need to see her is in direct conflict with my wish for her to stay comfortable, stay alive for as long as possible. I can’t predict with confidence the next time we will see each other, nor can I guess how many more memories my kids will make with her. Of all the sudden and drastic changes the new coronavirus has wrought in our lives, this is the hardest for me to accept.

 

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