This Is Us

‘You Can’t Kill a Legend’: My Mother’s Battle With Covid-19

She’s known as the Uninformed Correspondent — but to me, she’s Mom

My mom and I on-board a cruise ship in 2015 #neveragain.

My mother and I are close. Sometime around my 21st year on this Earth, my mother shifted from the matronly figure who raised me to my best friend who I can always confide in. People tend to become absurdly close with their parents once they recognize what little shits they’ve been their entire lives. I fell hard into that camp — and man, was I a little shit.

I work for the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Sitting in my boss’s office in May 2018, I was panicked because I didn’t have any pitches for the upcoming midterms. I do not like being caught without ideas. So, I thought back to the numerous conversations I’ve had with my mother. My mom has a giant heart, but her worldview only spans the entirety of her 55-inch television screen. Sadly, that screen is often littered more with Showcase Showdowns than the nightly news. Often, when she’d ask me about work, we’d talk about Trump and politics and the conversations would veer off into very surprising territory.

I’ve often thought pigeonholing uninformed voters as malignant idiots is small-minded in itself. I snapped back into my boss’s office with an idea: Take an uninformed voter and try to teach them why they should care more about voting and current events. With that, my mother became Late Show With Stephen Colbert’s Uninformed Correspondent.

My mom and I have done five segments together now for the show. We covered the midterm elections in 2018, the Russia investigation, Comic-Con (gotta have fun once in a while), the Chinese trade war, and most recently we decided to cover the global pandemic of the coronavirus.

I arrived at my mother’s house with a camera crew on March 9. Nothing in the United States had been canceled yet. Jokes were still flying about the severity of this virus. Wuhan, China, was under siege, but it was still inconceivable that the virus would ravage the United States. I say this out loud sometimes because the guilt I have felt since March 9 has been oppressive, and it often feels like it’s going to swallow me.

Most of that day felt like any other day. We laughed a lot. We had a crew meal at our favorite diner, The Stack pancake house in North Arlington, and we went to a doctor’s office to talk to an expert on the outbreak. It wasn’t until Dr. James Hamblin started stressing the severity of the situation we faced that I started to get uneasy. “People with preexisting conditions will die. It’s going to feel like wartime. You must take proper precautions now.”

On the drive home, my mom and I laughed about the segment and marveled at getting to do them. We really do enjoy sharing our relationship with the world. But a lingering sense of unease and dread also started to edge in. Hamblin’s words bounced around the silence, along with a small sense that things were about to change.

“Mom, I think you should quarantine starting tonight. Don’t go outside your house. Better safe than sorry.”

She smiled and reassured me that I was overreacting, but I could see the uncertainty in her eyes. She pivoted to conversations about Eleanor, my daughter.

“I can’t die. I gotta be Grandma!”

I smiled and kissed my mom goodbye. It was the last time I saw her before the outbreak.

In a moment where I could sense her anxiety, my mom’s first instinct was to soothe her son.

The days after are a bit of a blur. I edited the piece at the Ed Sullivan Theatre in two days, which is generally pretty fast. In retrospect, I think all of us felt something was coming — and we tried our best to race against it. By March 11, all professional sports had been canceled and Tom Hanks had been diagnosed with Covid-19. The next day, the show lost its audience and by March 13, we were all self-quarantined in our homes — uncertain of when we’d tape another comedy show or feel normal again.

The phone rang.

“Mom, how are you?”

“I feel fine. Please stop worrying. You can’t kill a legend.”

My mom often jokingly referred to herself as a legend. It made me smile. Even in a moment where I could sense her anxiety, her first instinct was to soothe her son. I put the phone to Eleanor’s mouth, and my mom cackled with joy. We hung up. All I could hear were sirens outside my window. Dread returned.

Conversations carried on like this for 12 days. I knew the CDC had said the standard time for incubation of the virus was anywhere from five to14 days. We were so close. I could feel the anxiety start to lift.

On March 21, things shifted.

“Mom, how are you?”

There was a pause. I felt it, and my stomach flipped.

“I feel fine. I just got a little sore throat. And I got this fever. It’s not bad. 100.9. But I’ll be fine. I’m drinking a lot of fluids and getting a lot of rest. How are you feeling?”

I didn’t want to be honest with her. We both just wanted to comfort each other. For the first time, we seemed incapable of laughing together. I had my mom call her primary care physician, and the doctor urged my mother to stay home and rest and avoid the hospitals at all costs.

The days after were vicious. I’d call her, and she’d tell me the fever was still there, that the fatigue was brutal, but that everything was fine. How are you? Around Day 6 of the infection, I stopped calling her and started communicating through my dad. He was worried. The man never worries. I could feel my center start to spin.

On day 9, my mom was tested for Covid-19. A doctor looked at her chart, saw her preexisting conditions, and told her they had a few tests left. My sister rushed her there and they stuck a swab so far up her nose she said she could feel it near her eyeball. My mother had felt good that day. She felt she was turning the corner. With death tolls in my city skyrocketing, I clung to any sort of optimism. The technician performing her test tethered us back to Earth — the virus usually takes a turn around 14 days. It either gets better, or it gets much, much worse.

On the morning of April 2, I learned my mother had managed to break her fever overnight with a dose of Tylenol. She wasn’t feeling better, but still wasn’t feeling worse. She had talked to her doctor via telemedicine and was told to just rest and keep staying at home. My mother told me she’d call me later. She wanted to go lie down.

At 4:00 p.m., I FaceTimed with Eleanor to try and cheer my mom up. My sister answered and said my mom didn’t want to talk, but I insisted that I’d have her granddaughter doing really cute things. All the bargaining in the world would not work; my mom was getting sicker.

5:00 p.m. that day: She sounded breathless and admitted she’d become gassed by a simple walk to the bathroom. Panic was lodged in my throat, but I didn’t want to let on. I knew my mother may be taking a turn, so I started looking for evidence to prove it. I asked her simple questions.

“What are you eating?”

“Oh… uh… you know.”

“I don’t. Are you eating ice cream?”

“Yes. I’m eating… What do you call it?” She called out to my sister. My sister responded, and my mom slurred back the answer. I knew then I was racing against time.

Seemingly out of the blue, an executive producer at the show texted me to ask how my mother was. I responded honestly, which is not normal for me, and said that things seemed to be taking a bit of a dip. He advised I talk to a doctor he knew. I ran and opened up my laptop. My fingers pounded out an email within five minutes, and I pressed send. Five minutes later, the doctor called me.

“You’re wasting your time. She has to go to a hospital now.”

“But her primary care physician said she should rest it off at home.”

“I could not be more clear with you — you need to get her to a hospital now. You are wasting time even talking to me.”

I thanked the doctor and hung up. My wife looked at me and asked if everything was okay. I could feel a rush of emotion swell up into my throat. I caught myself. It couldn’t be now. I swallowed back and said that my mom needed to go to the hospital. I called my father.

“Dad, she needs to go to the hospital. I just got off the phone with a doctor who knows what he’s talking about, and she needs to go.”

“Jake, no. Her doctor here said she should sleep it off. I’m just going to have her go to bed, and if it’s bad in the morning, I’ll take her then.”

I insisted. I got my sister on the phone, and she admitted my mom was declining — that she was sitting at the kitchen table out of breath and confused. Finally, my dad relented.

“Okay. Uh, Rylee — you call the hospital and see if anyone can take her.” The break in my dad’s stoic voice will haunt me for the rest of my life. In that moment, I could feel the fear of a husband terrified of losing his wife. I could feel the fear of the loneliness that would come after. I could feel the fear of having to deal with that reality, but more importantly, those emotions. Emotions just weren’t acceptable to an old-school guy like my dad. And yet, here he was, unable to hide them.

My sister found a hospital willing to take my mom. I urged my sister and father to pack a bag for my mom and include her cellphone, her iPad, chargers, and her headphones. I didn’t want my mother to be lonely. I wanted to cling to the hope that I could talk to her again—that I would talk to her again.

“Please keep me updated. Let me know when you get there.”

“We will. Bye.”

My sister hung up. I could feel the silence as I sat in my daughter’s empty room, and yet, I also didn’t feel anything. I opened the door and walked out to the living room where my wife was entertaining our daughter. I sat at the kitchen table. I could see my wife look at me, unsure of what to say. I told her my mom was en route to the hospital. She smiled and said that it’s a good thing that she’s getting proper care. I offered a weak smile back. Then, the mountain rumbled, and I could feel all the emotion I had swallowed earlier avalanche back into my throat.

“Sachi, what if that’s the last time I ever see my mom?”

“It won’t be.”

I could see the uncertainty in my wife’s eyes. It was the uncertainty filling the world. The same uncertainty that filled my mom’s eyes riding home after filming our segment. It was the uncertainty that broke me.

I am not my father. I cry. In fact, I like to cry. I watch sappy television shows like This Is Us because the crying feels cathartic. I like to feel. This was different. It was a bellowing sob that rose up through my chest and cannon-balled out my mouth into the air. I heaved my head forward into my hands and wept into the table. For a brief moment, I forgot my wife and child were in the room. My shoulders heaved and breath escaped furiously. In that moment, I was broken.

I don’t know how much time passed, but I snapped back into myself when my wife put her hand on my shoulder. Her hand transferred a sense of stability and warmth that gave me a sense of grounding. My axis was stabilized, and miraculously, the tears stopped pretty easily. My body had released what it needed to, and I steadied myself for the phone calls to come.

My dad called me two hours later and told me that my mom was admitted. She was put on oxygen but not a ventilator. I thanked him for calling me, told him I loved him, and picked up a bottle of whiskey. I got blisteringly drunk and slept off the worst day of my life.

My dad called the next day and said she may need to go on a ventilator. That was a very, very bad thing. People my mother’s age with her preexisting conditions don’t get off ventilators. Her kidneys were failing. Her heart had an arrhythmia. My mother was dying.

The next day my dad called and said the doctor wanted to put her on an experimental drug called remdesivir. This disheartened me. In all the films and television shows I’ve ever seen, “experimental drug” generally means “last-ditch effort.”

We decided to go for it knowing that we didn’t have much choice. We waited.

On April 6, my mom called me from her hospital bed. She. Called. Me. She asked to see her granddaughter. I put the phone down and smiled. I cannot put into words the sense of relief that filled me. My mother was back. In that moment, I felt true optimism.

The doctors and nurses showed my mother an immense amount of compassion and dedication.

Two days later, she was home. She had survived Covid-19.

I still cannot believe it. And yet, here’s the thing — I still can’t see her. It’s been 40 days since I hugged my mom. I spent 20 days dealing with a virus through Zoom calls and FaceTime. I would not wish this feeling of helplessness on my worst enemy. And yet, those 20 days were filled with an outpouring of support. The Twitter community rallied around me and kept my hopes up in between whiskey sips. My mom’s friends on Facebook shared comments that made her smile from her hospital bed. My colleagues filled Slack channels with messages of love and warmth.

In a time of such great sorrow, there has been such an incredible amount of love and good. I do not think humans are inherently decent, but some of that has melted in the last month. The doctors and nurses showed my mother an immense amount of compassion and dedication. They were determined to save her, and they did.

And oh, by the way, remember my executive producer texting me? The doctor in the ICU said that if my mom had tried to sleep off the virus that night, she probably would have passed. I just don’t know how to square that without thinking that maybe there is something inherently good trying to fight back the bad. So I offer this: Allow yourself to get down. Feel the depression. Cry. But then allow yourself to feel the same warmth and hope my wife offered me with a simple touch on the shoulder. Because people do care, and things will get better.

My mom is on the mend. Her kidneys are back to functioning fully, and her heart is still beating. She can breathe on her own. And she calls me five times a day asking to FaceTime with her granddaughter.

In one of those calls, I asked her how she was feeling.

“I feel great. You can’t kill a legend!”

I smiled. The certainty in her eyes was back. I had my mother back.

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