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Birth, Death, Weddings: An Oral History of Covid-19 Disruptions


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Birth, Death, Weddings: An Oral History of Covid-19 Disruptions

This is the second chapter in a living oral history of the Covid-19 pandemic, an attempt to capture in real-time the stories playing out across our country in the words of those who are experiencing the pandemic. In the first chapter, we heard the voices of those sickened by Covid-19 and those of the caregivers…

This is the second chapter in a living oral history of the Covid-19 pandemic, an attempt to capture in real-time the stories playing out across our country in the words of those who are experiencing the pandemic. In the first chapter, we heard the voices of those sickened by Covid-19 and those of the caregivers performing heroic efforts to combat the illness.

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Beyond the illness itself, the rapid onset of the pandemic has transformed daily life in the US, rapidly shuttering daily commerce, closing restaurants and bars, crushing small businesses, and grounding airplanes while at least two-thirds of US residents suddenly find themselves living under variations of state and local “stay at home” rules. Even for people far from the virus’s epicenter, major life events evaporated in recent weeks and others continued under drastically altered conditions.

For this second installment of “Covid Spring: An Oral History of a Pandemic,” WIRED interviewed and compiled the stories of eight Americans who have watched what would normally be some of their lives’ biggest and most quintessentially human moments—births, weddings, loved ones’ deaths—remade and altered forever by the virus’ shadow.

Editor’s Note: This oral history project has been compiled from original interviews, social media posts, reader submissions, and online essays. Quotes have been lightly edited, copy-edited, and condensed for clarity.

I. Birth

Henry Chu, 41, insurance underwriter, New York City: My wife was scheduled to be induced on Tuesday March 24th. Last Sunday afternoon, a friend of ours in New Jersey whose wife was also pregnant said he wasn’t going to be allowed in the delivery room because of the Coronavirus. I started Googling for news about our hospital, Mount Sinai. As of March 17, it said that one partner was going to be allowed. But that Sunday, New York Presbyterian announced it’s going to be limiting partners. I started getting nervous. My wife was pretty calm about it, but I figured other hospitals would follow suit. I kept searching on Twitter “Mount Sinai” “Mount Sinai.” Then we got a note on Tuesday from our doctor saying they were going to start enforcing the no-partners policy. Then we started freaking out. The day of our delivery it went into effect.

On Tuesday, we brought our other two daughters along to the hospital. It was very eerie. The roads were quiet. Even the ER entrance was very quiet—we were expecting a line of ambulances to get in, but there was almost no one. Outside the main entrance, I hugged her. She hugged the kids. I couldn’t even walk through the door. I watched her walk up to the reception, then someone escorted her away. It was such a weird feeling. It didn’t feel right.

The doctor said they understood it was a unique situation, so they allowed us to FaceTime during labor. They set up the iPad so I could witness the birth, but it’s not the same. The girls watched their mom, talked to their mom. I sent them away for the actual delivery. The angle wasn’t great. I didn’t even realize when the baby came out. I could see my wife, but not the baby. They ended up picking up the iPad and showing me our baby. Once the baby was out, I called the girls over too to see. I got choked up. It was relief.

We were hoping they’d be released Wednesday. They’re trying to get moms and babies out of that environment as quickly as possible, but there was something with the baby’s glucose levels so they kept them for another night. When I pick her up, I can’t even go inside. I’ve got to wait outside.

All I know is I will never be able to say that I was there holding my wife’s hand the day she was born.

II. Graduation

Ryan Carroll, high school senior, Loudon County, Virginia: It started small for me. I heard about people being infected in China, then the first cases in Italy. Even when cases reached the US, I never thought it would impact my day-to-day life.

On Thursday, March 5, I attended the meeting for my high school band’s annual spring trip. My band director assured us that he would keep us updated on whether we would be able to go on the trip that year. This is when it started to become real for me. Three days later, our trip was canceled. Now I know that I will never perform with my band ever again.

On Wednesday, March 11, I walked out of my high school for the last time ever. I will never attend my school again as a student. We had no idea that schools would close—first until March 20, then until at least April 10, and then for the remainder of the year. I attended a bonfire in my school’s parking lot that night. I left early, because I wanted to get up early to go to the gym the next morning. I’m convinced I saw friends and faculty for the last time ever that night. On Thursday, March 12, I did not go to the gym. It had closed overnight, along with most other “nonessential” businesses.

I will not have a senior prom, a senior trip, a senior picnic. I will not walk across a stage at my high school graduation and hug my principal and receive my diploma. I will probably not be hugging, or even shaking hands, for months.

III. The Big Trip

Aliza Goldberg, communications specialist, Virginia: I have been with my boyfriend for three years; he lives in London now. We’d lived together for a year and half, and then I got this job in Virginia, so we knew it was going to be long-distance for a while. I hadn’t seen him since mid-December, when I started the new job. After March, my hope was that we’d have a sense of normalcy in our relationship and could start doing long weekends visiting each other. I’d booked a flight for the 19th and was supposed to return on the 25th.

I work in communications, so I read the news everyday. I have a master’s in international affairs. I’d been following this since before it was relevant to my daily life. I was aware of what was happening. I still had this romantic vision of being quarantined with my boyfriend in London. That was when the UK was not taking this seriously at all. Everyone was saying if you don’t have underlying issues, you’ll be fine. I was thinking, “I’m 28, I’ll be fine.” That felt like it was so long ago. It was just last Monday.

I knew the trip was a bad idea, but I kept trying to find these loopholes. I thought I’d just bring my work laptop and work from there. My company had already sent everyone home. I could work remotely from anywhere. I’d been so excited because it had been four months since I’d seen him. A lot had changed in both of our lives.

I was already fully packed and had been for a few days. I was so distracted. Should I go or should I not? I was looking down at my packed bag. My boyfriend told me it was my call. Last Monday, I called my manager and told him I was still thinking about going. He told me he couldn’t tell me not to go, but he strongly encouraged me not to go.

The situation in the UK was getting more serious. My romantic ideas of a quarantine in London were dwindling; he has two roommates. It’d be a very different situation for them if they suddenly had a fourth roommate for the next four months.

Last Monday night, it was almost midnight, alone in my apartment, I just reconciled that this was going to be the only choice. It was going to be the only choice all along, but I’d spent so many days trying to rationalize the trip. I texted him that I was going to cancel the flight.

I just rescinded my vacation days, but my boyfriend couldn’t rescind his vacation days, so he just spent the week we were supposed to be together in his apartment. After he heard I’d canceled my flight, he bought 500 Magic the Gathering cards and had them express-mailed to him next day. He spent the first day of what was supposed to be our vacation together just organizing them. He tried to explain it all to me, but I really still don’t understand it.

I’ll rebook as soon as I can.

IV. Weddings

Shane Savitsky, associate editor for news, Axios: We were set to get married on Friday the 27th in Washington, DC—160 people, a good chunk of friends locally, then family and friends elsewhere. I’m from Pennsylvania, she’s from Michigan and has family in New York, New Jersey. We had friends coming from Germany, the UK, all over. That’s what it was supposed to be until two weeks ago.

It was all so fast. The very first day where it seemed like trouble was Wednesday the 11th—the Axios office closed, her office closed. We watched that Trump speech, the NBA canceled, Tom Hanks said he had it. That was the first moment I thought “I don’t really know where this is going.” We also had two different guests cancel—my aunt and uncle from Wyoming, who are both retired Air Force medical professionals, and then her aunt and uncle.

That Thursday the 12th, we sent out an email, saying this thing is still on, we’ll have hand sanitizer at the table, here are the precautions our caterer and the venue are taking. By Friday evening, we had 35 more people drop out. Saturday, we both sat down and really talked it through. Cancellations kept rolling in. We hit 50. As uncertain as things were then, we just couldn’t have our friends and family making that trip. That Saturday we made the decision, and sent an email on Sunday saying it was off.

I can’t believe it’s only been 12 days. We put a year into planning this. It feels like time is simultaneously moving very fast and very slow. It feels weird to go make to normalcy in your daily routine after planning toward such a big life event like that, but then nothing we’re doing now is normal.

It’s an unreal thing to have happen. When you plan something like that and think of all the things that could go wrong, global pandemic wasn’t on the list. Instead, Friday, we’ll get dressed up and drink some good wine.

Stacy Mason, Kansas City, Kansas: My wedding is scheduled for this Saturday, the 28th—or was, I’m still having a hard time saying “was.” It’s been scheduled for two years. I had bought a custom wedding dress, had two bridesmaids, a huge reception planned with an open bar. It was going to be a great party for us.

When they started talking about the virus, I thought, “We’re in Kansas, we’ll be fine.” I’m not canceling, everything will work out. Then they put us on restrictions on groups of 50 or more, but weddings, funerals, they could still happen. We canceled the reception, and cut the ceremony to just immediate family—I think it was going to be just 23. We figured we could go to Olive Garden for dinner afterward, stay at a hotel at one of the local casinos, eat breakfast at one of the buffet restaurants.

Our minister contacted last Thursday, and told us that courthouses were starting to shut down. She said, “Go get your marriage license!” My fiancé took off work Friday early—I’d called the courthouse at 11 and they said they were still open. We got there at 1:15, and the guard said, “We shut down the courthouse at 1.” I called the lady I’d spoken to earlier, and she let us in a side door. We went ahead, got the license.

Then Monday they made the announcement no gatherings larger than 10, and weddings and funerals were canceled. I was devastated. My fiancé was like, “You knew it was coming.” My fiancé has taken all this better than I have. He said, we’ve waited two years, what’s a couple months?

I have a friend getting married in May who is freaking out. They haven’t canceled anything yet. They’re where I was—holding out hope. They’re in the hope stage.

V. Death

Bridget Trogden, professor, Clemson University, South Carolina: This is a weird time in history. We have a 12-year-old son, and we’ve told him that we’ve never experienced anything like this.

My mother-in-law died on Tuesday. She had dementia for several years and had wanted to stay at home as long as she could. They live in Knoxville, Tennessee. Last summer, it got to be too much for my father-in-law, and we moved her into a nursing home. She would only eat with family members and never wanted a feeding tube, and three times a day, my father-in-law or his sister would go over to the nursing home and make sure she ate. She’d forget to eat or chew or swallow.

A couple weeks ago, we realized Covid-19 was starting to be a big problem; when there was that nursing home in Washington state with the big outbreak, nursing homes across the country just started saying “no visitors.” My husband said, “My mother’s probably going to die.” I said, “No, don’t worry, she’ll figure out to eat.” She didn’t.

The nursing home called on Monday, and let my father-in-law and our aunt in to say goodbye. My husband was able to FaceTime using someone’s iPhone. He hadn’t seen her since Christmas. He said his mom was like a skeleton. They could tell pneumonia was starting to enter her lungs. Her death is not directly related to Covid-19, but for the protective procedures put in place, she probably wouldn’t have passed away now.

My mother-in-law’s from a big Appalachian family. They’d all come out for a funeral. They take it serious. It’s an Appalachian tradition when you see a funeral procession, you pull over to the side of the road for respect. We’re not going to have a funeral. We’re going to have a graveside internment on Saturday. We’re not even having a minister, because that’s one more person. We don’t want a lot of extra people.

We haven’t even shared it in social media, because we don’t want to encourage people to show up. It’s sad. You don’t get to celebrate the life, as you should. Our son and I, we’re going to just drive up the three and a half hours, up and back that day, because we don’t want to take any extra chances. Tennessee hasn’t been great at the social distancing.

That’s living in the face of this. There are so many unknowns right now. We’re proceeding with extreme caution, even at the risk of appearing disrespectful to someone we love. Navigating all of this on top of social isolation and anxiety is just almost too much.

Jonathan Salant, journalist, Washington, DC: My Uncle Sam, my father’s brother, passed away over the weekend at age 91. When I last went to visit him earlier in the month—I was there in New Jersey for a work conference—he was in the hospital. He’d taken a turn for a worse. He was having heart problems.

My cousin, who did yeoman’s work taking care of him, and my aunt—his last surviving sibling—were there too, and even when we were there, the nurses came in and said, “We’ve now changed the rule because of the coronavirus, only one person at the bedside at a time. His aide had to go, my cousin, everybody else but me. We talked about baseball, the Mets, politics. Then he was tired, so I left.

When he died, we immediately thought, what are we going to do? New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy had put in all sorts of restrictions. Can we do anything? I actually contacted the governor’s office. I was wondering, can I go? Can I travel from Maryland to New Jersey? It turned out there’s an exemption for small family gatherings. So we did it.

We gathered at the Floral Park Cemetery in South Brunswick on Tuesday to give Samuel Salant a proper burial. It was small by necessity. His last surviving sibling, my Aunt Eileen, was there. But my 92-year-old mother stayed away, though you wouldn’t have been able to keep her away any other time. The rabbi who conducted the service, Jonathan Rosenblatt, began the service by showing his talent for understatement. “We are gathered in radically unusual circumstances,” he said.

The service was so much smaller than it would have been. Uncle Sam’s line always was to tell us, “You know, you’re a good guy.” Then I’d say the same to him. He was a good guy. It would have been nice to have a big outpouring, a grand farewell. But even for our generation, we’re all in our 60s, so we’re high-risk too.

Growing up, we were very close. We used to have 30 to 40 people for seders and bar mitzvahs. The cousins, we hardly get together anymore. It would have been nice to have the nieces and nephews present. Normally, they could travel, but not in this context. My wife didn’t come. In the end, there were just eight of us. The rabbi tape-recorded the service, so others could listen to it. He donned gloves to pass the tape recorder around as people spoke.

The funeral was surreal. You want to embrace my aunt—there were six siblings. You want to hug her and comfort her, not yell across a six-foot distance. This would have been a chance to talk and share memories. You can’t do that. You don’t want to do that when you’re shouting at his sister from 12 feet away, with someone in between us. You spend the entire time thinking about the coronavirus. Was this a good idea?

Normally, the shoveling—the covering of the casket, where everyone takes a turn—is one of the most important parts of the Jewish service. It’s supposed to be one of the biggest mitzvahs you can do, because they can’t do it back for you. Initially, we were told we couldn’t do it—the cemetery wouldn’t let us. When we got there, they allowed us to do it, but told us we had to wear gloves. In the end, I put gloves on, but I decided not to participate. I passed it up; I didn’t need the risk. Why tempt fate? I’m clearly high-risk. It’s more important that I’m there.

And then we ran into one other problem unique to these days: The memorial prayer known as Kaddish is supposed to be said only in a group of 10 or more Jews aged 13 and older, known as a minyan. Ordinarily, that’s not a problem, since friends and family coming to pay their respects and comfort those who have lost a loved one usually ensure there are plenty of people around. Not this time, though. We used a special version of the prayer for when there aren’t 10 Jews. I’m sure my uncle didn’t mind.


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