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The Ethical Dilemma of My Parents’ Death Wish

They wanted to see their grandchildren, despite the risk of catching the coronavirus. I couldn’t say no.

Illustration by Jenn Liv

When my mother is about to sob in the middle of a sentence, she has a tic where she punctuates the last thing she’s saying by sternly pointing her finger—at your chest, almost as if to ascribe blame—before putting the finger to her mouth and turning away. She’ll excuse herself to the other room to fight tears back, sometimes unsuccessfully. The last time I saw it was when we packed the kids in the car after our weekly Sunday dinner in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood around the second week of March. I don’t recall the exact sentence that set her off, but it was something about her knowing she’d see her grandkids again. She didn’t sound confident.

I’d seen the tic many times during the year prior, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and subsequently agonized over every test and appointment, certain that it would be the one where she got the bad news she felt was inevitable. It never came, and the prognosis turned out to be a positive one. She was able to avoid chemotherapy, and her cancer went into remission after a few months and a major surgery. Still, cancer diagnoses have a way of reminding you of your mortality even when the outlook is good.

I didn’t see the tic after mid-March because I didn’t see her, though I knew the sobs were happening based on the increased frequency of texts, calls, and requests for pictures of her grandchildren. My parents retired to Pittsburgh when my first child was born, returning to the side of the state where they grew up after a couple decades spent raising me and my brother in southeastern Pennsylvania. It wasn’t really a homecoming—they rarely even visit their hometown of Uniontown, 45 miles south of the city.  Rather, they were enlisted in the service of grandparenting. Since they got out here, helping take care of my two kids is what they spend their time talking about or planning for. Losing that for an unpredictable amount of time was like being asked to pay penance for the sole reason they’d moved back across the state.   

Separating my parents from my children was an easy decision at the beginning. But as the weeks wore on and we all began to understand with dreadful clarity that this was not going away any time soon—and maybe ever—it became harder to keep them away. Sacrificing in the short term so that your parents can attend your children’s high school graduation is a nice platitude, but it assumes another decade of life. My mother is an almost-68-year-old breast cancer survivor. My father, 66 going on 67, has reached the age at which his father died from type 2 diabetes (which my father also has). He’s been convinced of his imminent death for four or five years now.

I don’t know how to tell someone I love not to put themselves at risk when they’ve decided that risk is inherent in their day-to-day existence, with or without a plague. And, so, I let them see my kids, and I cringe each time my two-year-old (who understandably does not quite grasp the social distancing protocols) hugs my mother, or puts his hands on my father’s glass of water, or generally exists near them.

The grandparenting hiatus ended on Memorial Day. Cases were declining in Allegheny County for consecutive weeks around the end of May, and there was a rumor that a “phase green” limited reopening was imminent. I’d given up fighting with my parents about seeing the kids a few weeks earlier, allowing outdoor, socially distanced meetings for an hour or two in the garden. I lost my temper after catching my mother breaking the rules of engagement, hugging my two-year-old son and furtively looking up at me to see if she’d been caught. She seemed to see it as somehow getting one over on me instead of tempting fate. She listened and nodded as I tried not to raise my voice, our roles reversed from two decades ago when she would catch me with burnt roaches in cargo shorts pockets or a whiskey bottle clanging around in a backpack on the way to a party.

I didn’t sleep well that night, and I didn’t think of much else for the next couple of days. Then I picked up the phone and told them that if they wanted to see their grandchildren they were allowed to do so. That if they were willing to accept that this was potentially putting them at risk of catching a disease that would almost surely kill at least one of them—in addition to diabetes, my father has a paralyzed diaphragm from years of smoking—then I didn’t feel right stopping them.

I wasn’t even sure why I did it. Though I wasn’t thinking of much else, like many of the decisions I’ve made during the pandemic, it wasn’t exactly deliberate or rational. It seemed to come from exasperation more than anything else, kind of like the time early in the social isolation period when I bought my first package of ice cream cones in a decade during a panic attack at the grocery store. 

This situation presumably won’t last forever. But I find myself haunted by how much any resolution depends on our decayed institutions to address what has become an existential problem. The consensus seems to be that we’ll have a vaccine next year, but that’s far from guaranteed, and anyway there’s no consensus on its likely effectiveness. Meanwhile, the virus will rage on as our societal infrastructure collapses around it, taking its toll on families inside and outside of hot zones. With every sign of the impending flood—of millions of people forcing themselves back to work to avoid eviction; of millions of unemployed abandoned by their government—I’m reminded of the Haitian proverb about the leaky roof that can fool everyone except for the rain.

If we’re going to make it through, it’s on us. Everyone should wear a mask, and wash their hands, and stay at home. But it is impossible to expect everyone to follow suit, not only because some people will cheat for selfish reasons but because we are human beings who aren’t meant to live cut off from the people we love. There’s a fairly effective argument both for and against my granting my parents’ wishes to see the kids, and it is the primary reason I haven’t been sleeping as much. How do I live with myself if I deny them memories with their grandchildren? Then again, how do I live with myself if my indulgence leads to an illness?

We took a driving vacation to the Delaware beaches at the end of June. Around the same time that we started allowing my parents to see the kids, we were also faced with the decision to either cancel our rental or still take our trip. Perhaps because of the momentary weakness brought on by things feeling somewhat normal for a second—in Pittsburgh, we barely had any coronavirus cases relative to our population size, let alone deaths—we stayed the course. I warned my parents about my concerns but didn’t feel right denying them their vacation. They’d been going to Delaware beaches in cheap coastal rentals since they were kids, and despite the increasing difficulty of trudging through the sand on reconstructed knees and with aging backs, it’s important to them. 

We took precautions, of course. Masks in public except by the ocean, no interaction with other families, no restaurants, cooking at home. Essentially, the trip was meant to be an extension of the small social circle and adequate isolation tactics we’d implemented in Pittsburgh, but with a six-hour drive in between.

The week overlapped with July Fourth weekend, a detail that we’d tragically overlooked. Starting at the middle of the week we noticed more cars, more noise, more fold-out chairs on the beach. One day, as the beach got more crowded, I checked in with my mother each hour, asking her if she wanted me to take the kids so she could head back to the house. She declined and kept her distance from the people around us. If wearing a mask and taking other precautions is like wearing a seatbelt, by Friday it had become increasingly clear that we were among a handful of drivers wearing their seatbelts, stuck in the middle lane of the Autobahn. 

Meanwhile, at home, case counts were rising in Allegheny County, with hundreds more per day (our previous highest daily count, during the height of the first wave, was 76). I felt relieved by the fact that the news was going to force us back into isolation, then ashamed of my cowardice. I was letting the pandemic make the decisions I couldn’t make myself.  

On the last night, we sat up on the top deck and talked about our favorite memories of the vacation: my daughter holding her breath and going under a wave for the first time, my son finally working up the courage to go in the water. My mother cried a few times, but the tic never came out. The fireworks started around 9:45, first on the bay side and then on the ocean side, terrifying the dogs who looked to us for comfort, unaware that we were all in the same boat.