March 22, 2020

WU | Masks for My Mom

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On Friday, I watched my mom bask in the 75 degree daylight on our back porch. She sported her typical lounge outfit — a light magenta athleisure jacket and gray capris — and browsed the web  on her iPad, taking occasional sips of jasmine tea and enjoying her time off from work. I felt like I was watching her in a video: It was my mom, but from a different, slower, easier time. It was so normal.

But nothing as of late has been normal. If I had to guess, I would say that my mom was reading about coronavirus. The pandemic has infected every thread of our lives, even if it has not yet infected us. I’ve returned home on some dystopian spring break  and — after the pandemonium of packing and unpacking all of my belongings — have quickly languished into a bored, constantly binging human blob. However, between all the episodes of Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Killing Eve, my mom serves as my reminder of, and my telescope into, the frenzy of the coronavirus pandemic.

My mom is a hospitalist, a general physician who works in a hospital. When my mom gets home from work, she first strips in the garage. She then immediately jumps into the downstairs shower, which has been unused since my grandma returned to China. She has also moved into my grandma’s old room downstairs, quarantining herself from our upstairs bedrooms. She eats separately from the rest of my family, making sure we don’t touch anything she uses.

As the daughter of a doctor, reading national news coverage provokes a disconcerting anxiety — healthcare workers are being hospitalized for COVID-19, some are self-quarantining and all face the abysmal shortage of masks.

That’s my mom.

In her self-quarantined state, my mom has spent blocks of time arguing for more personal protective equipment for herself and her colleagues, much of which has proven futile. Thankfully, she acquired her own masks — a variety of donations from family friends in New Jersey and our family back in China. Seeing masks in my home brings me a sense of relief, knowing that at least there will be some barrier between my mom and the virus.

But when there is Coronavirus at the hospital where my mom works, I can never truly be calm. Everyone who comes into contact with Coronavirus is ordered to self-quarantine for 14 days. Everyone except healthcare workers. They have to keep working. PPE and quarantine can prevent the virus from spreading, but they can’t kill it. So all I can do is hope my family will come out unscathed. Many will. Some won’t. 

In these times, I owe my mom two things. The first is a thank you. Thank you for assuring us that you have the training and PPE to protect you, even when you yourself are fearful. Thank you for going through the extra hurdles to keep your family safe — having dinner by yourself, living downstairs. These seem like small things, but it must be lonely living separately in the same house.

The second is an apology. First, I’m sorry I didn’t do the dishes Friday night. I forgot. Second, I’m sorry that you’ve had to find ways to acquire your own masks, but I’m grateful you were able to do so. Most of all, I’m sorry that healthcare workers are being made martyrs. You and your colleagues shouldn’t have to disproportionately bear the burden of risk in the midst of this public health disaster, especially when our president is still lying, and people are still taking “coronacations”.

My mom goes back to work on Tuesday. I hope Tuesday never comes. But, all too fast, it will.

In the meantime, I’ll take a page from my mom’s book. Spend some time reading out on our back porch. Watch the next episode of Killing Eve. Sew some cloth masks with my sister. Houseparty call with my friends. And hope. For me, for you, for my family and for my mom.

Lei Lei Wu is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at lwu@cornellsun.com. Get Lei’d, and the column will run alternate Mondays this semester.