Steve died twenty years ago today. It was an ordinary day, like so many of the days before. His lung disease had been a bit worse over the last week with some dropping in his oxygen saturation making him more confused, but we were over the worst of that and he was coming back to his usual baseline orneriness. Tameka, his caretaker when I was at work came at her usual time and she and I exchanged pleasantries while I finished my coffee and headed out the door to work. Steve was at his art table at the dining room window, working on a watercolor with pen and ink overlay of some flowers. The weather was sunny and he had a couple of visitors lined up for the morning. Jim Elrod, his hospice chaplain was due to stop by as was Peter Maynard to shoot the breeze for a while before lunch and then, if he felt up to it, an outing with Tameka to just get out of the house. The two of them were quite the pair rodding around town in his blue Mustang convertible.
About 11:30 that morning, after enjoying his visitors, he had been sitting on the couch in the living room. He stood up, turned to Tameka, said ‘I don’t feel so good’ and then dropped like a rock to the floor. His heart, which had been under incredible strain trying to pump blood through his increasingly fibrotic lungs simply gave up and stopped and he was dead pretty much as soon as he went down. Tameka called me in a panic. It was a Wednesday and I was on VA duty doing house calls for their home based primary care program. In those days, we piled the whole team into a van and did home invasion of all the disciplines at once. With Steve being so ill, I knew I might have to race home at any time so I had taken to following the van in my own car. I told Tameka to relax, call the hospice and I would get home as soon as I could. I excused myself from the home visit, got in my car and started to race across town. The phone rang again. It was the police who had somehow been summoned and gotten there before the hospice nurse informing me that Steve was most definitely dead.
I don’t remember a lot after that point. I know I got home. Steve was lying on the floor where he had fallen and was most definitely no longer among the living. I calmed Tameka down and sent her home. The hospice nurse showed up as did the funeral home transport. I kissed him goodbye on the forehead and made sure that Patrick, his cat, was able to sniff and recognize that he was gone. A few friends showed up. I needed to keep myself busy so I kept doing stupid things like unloading his pillboxes just to keep my hands and brain doing something other than thinking about what had just happened. I called our pastor, who was out of state awaiting the birth of her first grandchild. I decided on having the memorial quickly that coming Sunday afternoon.
What I remember most was just feeling. I’ve never been good at emotions or understanding them. To this day, I cannot always tell when an emotional response is positive or negative, much less what the emotion actually is. It’s odd. I’m very good at understanding and identifying emotions in others but not so good at doing it within my own brain. Even a few courses of psychotherapy have not been able to help me much with that one. I suppose that day it was truly a mixture of lots of things, both positive and negative. Love for Steve. I was 39 and we had been together since I was 26 so he had been my constant companion through my mature adulthood up to that point. Loss and regret that we had no more time together to build new memories. Relief that his suffering (and by extension, mine) was over. Fear at what would come next. I had no idea how to be alone as a mature functioning adult. At that time, I had no idea that Tommy was out there. (We had met each other when he had waited on me and Steve at the local Olive Garden but I have no recollection of this). I had not been prodded back into the world of performance, music and theater. I was thinking it might be time to return to the West Coast somewhere.
613,000 plus American families have gone through that shock and loss over the last 18 months. The current death toll from Covid is currently inching up, but isn’t accelerating at the rate it once did. This may not hold much true much longer. Both Louisiana and Florida are reporting numbers of new cases on a par with last winter at the worst of that surge. Other undervaccinated states are starting to accelerate in the same way. It will be a month before we know what that’s going to do to the death toll. I spent my last post trying to lay out the facts about what’s happening to us with the spread of the Delta variant which is significantly more transmissible than the Alpha variant which caused last winter’s surge. I’m not sure what I can add to that.
Breakthrough infections in the vaccinated are definitely increasing. Fortunately, the vaccine is doing its job and the majority remain relatively mild. The chance of a vaccinated person dying from Covid is somewhere between 1/100,000 and 1/1,000,000 which is roughly the same as being struck by lightning in any given year (1/500,000). If you’re vaccinated, don’t panic. You’re protected. The new recommendation to mask up again isn’t so much about you as it is about protection of society and the unvaccinated (especially kids). Masks are more about others than they are about protecting you and are a mark of social altruism. It comes from the recent data out of Provincetown around the Fourth of July weekend which showed that fully vaccinated people are capable of spreading Delta, even if they aren’t getting that sick themselves.
The Provincetown data are very good. The CDC has gone on record as to how well people cooperated and helped them trace contacts and they were able to map out infections with an accuracy and ease that they weren’t used to seeing. That’s because we’re dealing with gay men. This isn’t their first time at the pandemic rodeo. They know what to do and how to be good citizens, even though their country isn’t always great at repaying them. Now, as gay men, when they gather en masse, tend to crowd themselves into bars and onto dance floors, their may have been a bit more ease of transmission going on then you will find at your neighborhood Publix. Unless you’re living in West Hollywood..
.I’ve been getting a lot of questions about kids. I’m not a pediatrician or an elementary educator (except Sunday school) but I do try to keep up on the latest. The political forces that are trying to ban masking in schools are crazy, but laws have been passed. Very young children before school age may have issues with masks but once they get to Kindergarten, they’ll comply if it’s reinforced. And they can take them off outside at recess. Masks will not stunt their growth or lower their oxygen or any of those other things. There are cultures in which that part of the body is routinely covered and they don’t have any issues. We just believe in Western society that if you cover any part of your face, you have something to hide. At the moment, masking should be universal indoors in schools. The Delta variant appears to hit kids a bit harder than the Alpha variant. There have certainly been more hospitalizations. Whether it has increased mortality for children we don’t yet know. Things might change as more and more adults get vaccinated. Studies are ongoing as to whether it is safe to vaccinate kids. There should be at least some preliminary results this fall. In the meantime, how do you best protect your kids? If they are twelve or older, have them vaccinated. If they are under twelve, make sure all of the adults around them are vaccinated and that they mask when indoors at school or in other public places.
So what to do? Repeat after me. Wear your mask indoors in public (unless actively eating or drinking). Wash your hands. Keep a reasonable distance from those you don’t know. Get your shots. There’s no need to go back into lockdown if we just do a few simple things for our friends and neighbors.