Across the state we drove, navigating a giant black pickup across almost-empty interstates, deserted back highways and the sleepy main streets of various Minnesota towns.
The three of us — my brother, my mother and me — joked that our journey to Mayo Clinic in Rochester during a major virus outbreak was like a geriatric, slow-action version of “Mad Max.” Except instead of Tina Turner in mohawk and chain-mail miniskirts, you got Mom in her headwrap and me in my sweatpants.
Normally, any member of our family would have been happy to accompany Mom on this trip. But the timing was terrible. People are being warned not to leave their homes, much less travel across two states. Every restroom stop or lunch break could increase our chance of exposure. My mother is 82 and sick, which makes her a prime target for the highly contagious, potentially fatal respiratory infection.
Relentlessly gray skies added to the dystopian vibe of the whole experience. This constant canopy of clouds, set against a backdrop of very few pedestrians and little traffic, made it difficult to judge direction or time. We seemed to drive for hours without stopping, knowing full well that it might be hard to find a place to stop and eat.
Even our accommodations felt strange. Our favorite hotel had a very similar name to another hotel, and we had accidentally made the reservation at the wrong place. Our replacement inn was miles out of the way and almost deserted, with surly front-desk staff. The continental breakfast had been downsized to prepackaged oatmeal, juice, yogurt and coffee. Even then, we eyed every item with suspicion, wiping down the disposable cups and little cream containers with Clorox wipes.
The make-your-own-waffle bar was shut down, to prevent the wanton sharing of batter that occurred PRE-C-19. So was the pool and the fitness center. We were among maybe seven guests staying there, including a couple who was never spotted anywhere without their facial masks. Maybe they were trying to fight infection, or maybe they were infected. Either way, we didn’t make eye contact with the couple — or with any other guests, for that matter. It was just easier if we didn’t acknowledge each other’s humanity.
My little brother, who works in a hospital, was a one-man infectious disease control center. He schooled us on the importance of disposable gloves, the proper way to put on a face mask and the amount of time a disinfectant had to stay on a surface to kill 99.9 percent of germs. We sterilized the whole hotel room before unpacking and changed clothes after medical visits.
The trip to the world-famous medical center was equally surreal. If you’ve ever been to Mayo, you know it is like a great, bustling international airport of health care. Thousands of patients from across the globe come through its door each day. Many are quite ill, yet the whole facility has an atmosphere of order and calm, thanks to an incredibly efficient logistical structure and the complete absence of television monitors.
But at 7 a.m. last Monday, we pulled right up to the front door as if we were transporting the Queen and the entire staff was expecting us. We joined the small trickle of patients through the screening stations. Do you have a cough? A fever? Have you taken a COVID-19 test? (My mom actually had, several days earlier, but it came back negative.)
Once inside, it was virtually empty. Mayo had taped signs to every other chair in the waiting room to encourage social-distancing, but it wasn’t necessary. Patients and their plus-ones kept to themselves — some, like Mom, in wheelchairs and face masks.
In the end, the news was good. The surgeon said Mom’s tumor had shrunk commendably and even struggled to find it on her CAT scan. He recommended another five weeks of radiation, followed by five weeks of rest and healing before surgery. We were overjoyed.
During this whole episode, I couldn’t help but think of what we were doing at this time last year. Mom was probably making Easter bread and had no idea renegade cells were growing in her pancreas. I was probably worried about the sump pump or my budget.
Big things then. But tiny things in this new, strange, uncertain world.
Nowadays, we’re clinging a little more closely to the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We need health. Safety. Shelter. Food. And jobs to help make those other needs possible.
For now, my family has those things. And for that, I am grateful.
Readers can reach columnist Tammy Swift at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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