Traveling 5,000 Miles to Say Goodbye From Six Feet Away

Traveling 5,000 Miles to Say Goodbye From Six Feet Away

Traveling 5,000 Miles to Say Goodbye From Six Feet Away

Traveling 5,000 Miles to Say Goodbye From Six Feet Away

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TOKYO — It is every foreign correspondent’s nightmare: a family emergency when you are half a world away.

For me, the call came last month. My 76-year-old father was sick, not with Covid-19, but with complications from congestive heart failure. There was nothing more his doctors could do, and he was entering hospice care.

I was in Tokyo. He and my mother were in California. Suddenly, I was facing questions unique to the pandemic — whether it would be wise to travel, or whether I could forgive myself if I didn’t. If I did go, I wasn’t sure I could return to Japan because of an entry ban on many foreign nationals, including Americans.

I knew that others in my situation hadn’t been able to make it to the bedside of their dying loved ones, with goodbyes delivered through the cellphones of hospital nurses.

My father told me to stay put, not wanting me to get stuck indefinitely in California when my two children and job as Tokyo bureau chief for The New York Times were in Japan. My mother agreed, but I could hear her stress mounting on the phone. I am an only child, so there was no one else to be with her.

In the end, I resolved to go. I applied for, and was granted, a humanitarian exemption from Japan’s entry ban.

The next day, I stepped into the nearly empty airport in Tokyo, where I felt like an alien arriving on Earth to find an entombed ruin of a dead planet. On the plane, which was perhaps a fifth full, I had a row to myself. I was slightly unnerved when a preschooler marched down the aisle, unmasked, shouting, “Ah-CHOO!”

To protect my parents from any coronavirus I might have picked up en route, I checked into a short-term rental, providentially right next door to the home where I grew up in California and where my parents still lived. With the state under a stay-at-home order, Airbnb owners could not accept tourist bookings, so the house was available for my self-isolation.

When planning to visit my father, I would put on a cloth mask and text my mother that I was walking over. She would open the door and back up six feet inside the foyer. I would slip off my shoes and go straight upstairs.

Standing in the doorway of my parents’ bedroom, I was about six feet from where my father lay in bed, a cannula for round-the-clock oxygen nestled in his nose.

We discussed what I could safely do to give my mother the household help she so desperately needed. My daughter, back home in Tokyo, came up with an idea: I should take their laundry next door, where I could use the rental’s washing machine and dryer.

The first load contained sheets and a pair of Dad’s underwear that looked impossibly large for his now emaciated frame.

At the bottom of the laundry basket were fabric scraps my mother was preparing so she could sew masks she wanted to donate to a local health care center. That effort had been halted by the sudden deterioration of my father’s heart.

I recognized dozens of pieces from my childhood, when my mother often sewed my clothes. There was the indigo print covered in orange, green and yellow balloons from a Japanese yukata — a summer-weight kimono — that she had turned into one of my favorite dresses in fifth grade. There were also scraps from a quilt my mother had made for my grandparents — her in-laws — on their 50th wedding anniversary.

Each remnant reminded me of my mother’s generosity and her years of caregiving, now adapted to the Covid-19 era.

The day before I arrived from Tokyo, she went to the grocery store during the early-morning seniors hour to stock up on fresh berries because she knew how much I missed California fruit. She wrapped homemade brownies in aluminum foil to stock the refrigerator in my rental. When she cooked dinner for my father, she would put aside a portion on a tray and set it out on the porch for me to take next door.

My father had been officially sick with congestive heart failure for five years, but in truth he had needed a lot of care for at least a quarter of a century, after he had undergone open-heart surgery at age 50. For years, my mother made well-balanced meals catered to his diabetes and heart condition. His doctors told her they believed he had lived as long as he had in part because she had taken such good care of him.

As my father’s condition quickly worsened and his breathing grew more labored, texts would pop up on my phone late at night while I sat next door. My mother was administering morphine drops, and she wanted me to record the time and dosages for the hospice nurses.

I suggested one afternoon that we take a socially distanced break in the backyard. My mother said I could come over and sit on a picnic bench while she watered the plants. “Can’t have both dad and plants die at the same time,” she texted.

One night, my mother laid out a Japanese teishoku — a set of several tiny dishes — that consisted of soba noodles and small meatballs and a grated daikon radish salad. I stood at the back of the bedroom as Dad ate it with relish — a sign, we thought, that he had more time.

But the end would soon come. On the night my father died, I was only a week into my self-isolation and had not received results from a coronavirus test I took, so my mother and I stayed masked on either side of the king-size bed. She crossed her arms over her chest in a sign of the hug we were afraid to exchange. I considered just taking the risk, but then thought: What if I test positive and I’ve just sobbed and snotted all over her?

At my father’s cremation ceremony, my children read their remembrances on FaceTime. My son said he wished he had a chance to say goodbye in person. “To say ‘I love you, Jiji,’ one more time,” he read, using the Japanese shorthand for grandfather. “So I’m going to do that now.”

On the way back from the funeral home, we paused to observe a Black Lives Matter protest wending its way down one of the town’s main thoroughfares. My father died three days after a police officer had killed George Floyd. Our personal loss seemed small in the context of the compounding losses around us.

Once I received my negative test result, my mother felt it was safe for me to be inside the house for longer periods of time and at closer range.

  • Updated June 16, 2020

    • I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?

      The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.

    • What is pandemic paid leave?

      The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

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      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • Will protests set off a second viral wave of coronavirus?

      Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

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    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

The aftermath of death is a strangely busy time, consumed with paperwork and the excavation of belongings. And pandemic-related restrictions made simple things difficult.

I emptied my father’s unused pills into a gallon-size Ziploc bag. Normally, the police station accepted such medications, but because of the lockdown, the precinct lobby was closed. My mother wanted to name me as her health care proxy now that my father was gone, but submitting the forms took numerous phone calls because no one was sure how to verify me without an in-person visit.

Not knowing when I would be able to return again, I was frantic to get as much done as possible. But I was moving too fast for my mother. I wanted to clear out decades of accumulated papers and magazines. She agreed to let me take care of some of it; other things she would get to in her own time.

Perhaps the guilt of an adult child with an aging parent is universal: We can never do enough. But it is doubly so when we live more than 5,000 miles away, and even more so during a pandemic that makes travel difficult.

At home in Tokyo, I am once again in isolation. I arrived just in time for my daughter’s 16th birthday but could not hug her. I watched the broadcast of my son’s digital promotion from eighth grade, sitting on a chair six feet behind them in the living room. My first morning back, my husband came to the doorway of our bedroom, where I am isolating, a reversal of my last conversations with my father.

My mother texted from California. She had gone grocery shopping for the first time in three weeks. She had picked up coffee beans and gassed up the car. She assured me that she had tossed her clothes in the washing machine and showered immediately after returning home.

The morning I had left, Mom rejoined her Zoom yoga class. “Self care means care for each other,” she texted.

My mother had been building a life independent of my father for years. She had done it for herself, of course, but it was also a gift to me. When I am on the other side of the world, I will know that she is going to be OK.

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