“Who are you?” she wants to know. I have been on the phone with my stepmother for maybe five minutes. She is clearly agitated, having what we call “a bad day.” She wants to know why I haven’t called or visited and why I’m asking so many personal questions. I finally ask if Dad is around. “Well, he’s not my dad,” she huffs. Then, handing the phone to her husband, “And who are you? My grandfather? No wait, my great-grandfather?”
They have been married 46 years, since I was nine years old.
I last saw my dad and stepmother in November. She still recognized me in November. She still knew my dad was her husband in November, when we thought her end-stage, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) was the worst thing we had to worry about.
In November, the word coronavirus was not yet common lexicon.
In November, my dad and I finally made up. We had not spoken for three years, since shortly after Donald Trump’s inauguration. He voted for Trump. I was sickened by Trump. And tell me if you’ve heard this one before: We had our big falling out on Facebook. Plus, he and my stepmother live 320 miles away, in a small Missouri town, so not speaking came sadly easy.
But in November 2019, I drove over to see my stepmother, and my dad and I took a long, meandering drive. We stopped for Mexican food and a beer. We talked. He had questions. What did I think of Bevin losing to Beshear? Did this impeachment thing have legs? What to make of stronger storms and hurricanes and heatwaves, this climate crisis?
Enter the coronavirus. My stepmother’s health, mentally and physically, is deteriorating, and I worry about the stress of isolation and caregiving on my dad. I worry I will never hug my stepmother again. “The good news is,” Dad reminds me over the phone, as he explains how at least she can’t wander off and get lost, “her oxygen cord won’t let her get past the porch.”
I conjure an imagine of my beloved stepmother tied-up like a dog on a chain in the yard. Her lack of freedom, and his. When we hang up, I sob like a child.
I recently stopped at ACE Hardware in Lawrenceburg for those reflective number stickers you put on mailboxes. No one was wearing masks. I asked the clerk if there was a policy. “Not really,” he chuckled.
I said, “Y’all need to be wearing masks,” and as I walked out the sliding glass doors, the customer in line behind me yelled, “Fuck you, you fucking bitch.” The laughter of men trailed me out the door. I climbed into my truck, shaking mad, and instantly recalled the words of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford in the Brett Kavanaugh hearing: “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter.”
“What’s wrong with people?” my dad said when I told him.
Last weekend I called Dad as I was finishing up a three-mile run. “You sound outta breath, kiddo.” He tries to be cheerful, but he’s had to unplug the house phone because his wife has taken to calling 911 at all hours to report someone is in her house, she’s scared, can they come right away. And my dad — 75 years old, exhausted by loneliness, by repeating himself, by changing the sheets, by keeping her from throwing away her medication — has to spend an hour on the porch with police, in the middle of the night, explaining.
Where we used to avoid talk of politics, now we use politics as a distraction. “You see the big crowd at the president’s Nevada rally last night?” I said to my dad, plopping myself down on a curb to catch my breath. “Packed in like sardines, hardly a mask in sight.”
“I say it again and again, kiddo, what’s wrong with people? Sixteen thousand fans at the Chiefs game. We couldn’t have fans at baseball, but we can do this?” He told me about a 9/11 remembrance he’d watched last week, how we came together as a country back then, adding. “We’ve sure shot all that to hell, now, haven’t we.”
“Who are you?” my stepmother wants to know. Which, as it turns out, is a question I often ask of myself these days, of friends and neighbors, of men at ACE Hardware, of the thousands attending Trump rallies railing on about their freedom. Of the president himself.
As of this writing, 194,000 Americans are dead. Health experts warn that number could reach 400,000 by year end. Why? Because we won’t wear masks and we won’t social distance. Such rules, folks say, impinge on their freedom.
Is this what freedom is? Because even my once-Trump-voting dad disagrees.
Who are you?