Whack-a-Mole Dentistry

Reprinted from Medium.com

Carla Stockton

The Dangerous Mouth Game

Carla Stockton May 4·7 min read

The Dangerous Mouth Game

My father was eleven years old when he was summoned to his father’s bedside. “Remember this, my son,” the old man said. “Respect your mouth. Teeth can kill you.”

Grandfather knew whereof he spoke. He promptly died. . . felled by a cluster of abscessed teeth extracted too hastily in the days before Penicillin.

I grew up with that story in my head, reiterated over and over by my ever-grieving dad. By the time I reached old age and the disintegration of my own teeth, I had seen similar results in others. One close friend would have died of myocarditis, a heart infection that resulted from an untended tooth, had she not undergone open-heart surgery.

Our vulnerability is no secret. Even though people talk about dental work as though it were cosmetic frivolity, we all know better. So how is it that dentistry has become a golden calf we must worship from afar?

Last Sunday I woke up with what I was sure was a broken tooth. I had suspected that I might be grinding my teeth at night. Here was proof.

Knowing better than to seek help on a Sunday, I began first thing Monday morning to call the various oral surgeons around New York City in and out of my insurance network. In each case, I explained that I had a broken tooth. In each case, I emphasized the fact that it was increasingly painful. In each case, I said I can come in anytime. Alas, there was no room at the inn. No appointments whatsoever anywhere in town.

Then, miraculously, I found an oral surgeon with an appointment . . . ten days later.

“Can you wait that long?” The receptionist asked cheerily.

“I hope so, “I said doubtfully. I had already called fifteen doctors’ offices. “I guess I’ll have to take my chances.”

“Okay, then,” she chortled chipperly. “Next Thursday it is, at 11 AM.”

“You don’t have anything earlier?”

“I’m sorry. The doctor only comes in on Thursdays, and he does not begin his day till 11.”

Okay. At least I had an appointment.

By Wednesday, the tooth hurt whenever anything as invasive as my tongue got near it. I began to talk like Daffy Duck, spitting words with a sibilance that wet my clothing. By Friday, I was in real pain. Ibuprofen, acetaminophen, aspirin individually and collectively offered little relief.

I called every “Emergency Dental” number I could find.

“Sorry,” said one typical respondent, when I asked for an appointment. “Dr. only comes in on Saturdays, and he is booked up through July.”

I called the emergency rooms at every hospital in town. In the olden days, before Covid, Beth Israel, now Mt Sinai Union Square, had an oral surgeon on duty in their emergency room, of whose services I gratefully availed myself a few years ago. Nowadays, that ER, like every other ER in Manhattan, tells me the same thing: “There is no dental specialist on staff here. You can come in, and a doctor will treat your pain, so that hopefully (yes I am hopeful) you can wait till you can see your dentist.”

I finally found a clinic in Washington Heights, open Monday-Saturday, first come first served. I called to be sure they would take me and my insurance. Since they don’t answer the phone till 9, I was out of luck for that day. “We open at 7,” said the kind voice on the other end. “Be here by quarter of seven, when we open the doors. We stop treating patients when we reach capacity, and that usually happens by 7:30.

“Do you take my insurance?” I queried. She checked.

“We do,” she said with great delight. “No problem.”

I arrived as instructed at 6:45. There were five people ahead of me, which meant, I figured, that I had a reasonable chance of being seen. I stood behind them, waiting in the cold, windy morning, as more and more prospective patients arrived. It was 7:45 when they finally opened and began letting us in one at a time. My turn came just as the sun was beginning to warm my back. The receptionist looked at my insurance card and shook her head.

“We can’t take this one,” she sniffed. “Their office isn’t open on Saturday, so we cannot verify your eligibility or what to charge you.”

“It’s okay,” I said after ascertaining the exorbitant cost. “I’ll pay out of pocket. My insurance will reimburse me for what they do cover.”

Now she shook her head vigorously.

“We won’t be able to verify that you were our patient. We do not have the personnel to fill out the paperwork.”

It wasn’t absurd enough that they claimed my insurance company is not open on weekends — I mean it’s Medicare, and it serves old folks! — but to tell me they won’t sign off on the work so that I might be reimbursed? Now I was furious

This woman was either lying or she was part of the laziest workforce in America. Either way, I was not about to stay and let them excavate my mouth. Wordlessly but with a sniff of disgust, I left.

On the bus headed back to Harlem, I decided to go to the Web MD near my house. At this point, I figured if I at least got a prescription for antibiotics, I had a better chance of surviving till I saw an oral surgeon. The people there had no trouble accessing my insurance information, and I was seen right away.

Doctor checked my ears. “Ears look good,” she said.

“That’s a relief,” I snorted, trying to keep the sarcasm out of my voice. “I wasn’t sure if the tooth had pierced my eardrum.”

She laughed and wrote me a prescription for penicillin. By Monday the pain had subsided. It’s Tuesday now, and I am confident I’ll make it to Thursday. So long as I refrain from eating and talking, I’ll be okay.

My situation is far from unique. According to the website EmergencyDental.com, over 800,000 Americans showed up in Emergency Rooms in 2019 seeking dental care and were turned away. The number is likely to quadruple this year. That’s a problem for all of us, not just in terms of tooth trauma. Emergency Room care creates costs for taxpayers, and the resulting illnesses compound the shared expense.

For some, the cause of this scramble for the emergency room is the high cost of dental care. When I was young, my husband and I both worked, and between us, we were adequately covered for cleanings once a year, regular check-ups, and a filling or two as needed. Such coverage was not unusual. Nowadays, my annual cleaning and requisite fillings are on the Medicare House, but all Medicare plans are not so generous, and fewer and fewer employers offer dental benefits with healthcare coverage. Of course, the working poor, who are neither covered by employer benefits nor eligible for Medicaid, are entirely disabled. Private dental insurance, which is typically provided by Dentistry associations, is almost as prohibitively expensive as the services theoretically covered.

Regular cleanings and exams by reputable doctors can run patients upwards of $800 before any major work is done. A single extraction is likely to cost nearly $2000. There are clinics that offer less expensive care to people in poor neighborhoods, and most of them accept Medicaid though not Medicare. There the wait for any kind of care there is absurdly long, and, in the time of Covid, sitting in a crowded unventilated space with people coughing and sneezing and children running around for hours is, at very least, terrifying.

Chain store dentistry, such as Tend, et al., claim to be offer transparent, affordable cost, but their advertising is largely false. The reviews on the Tend website, for example, tell the tale. Patients regularly complain that the cosmetics of the space are great, but once in the company’s clutches, patients are treated unprofessionally. Personnel, they say, use the tactics of used car salespeople, and bully “clients” into buying services they did not plan for.

A typical complainant wrote that, in need of emergency care, she called and was relieved to get an appointment. “That turned out to be the first disappointment. . . . The emergency dental services they advertise are not true. The dentist comes up with a treatment plan and you have to pay for all of it upfront, even services you don’t receive that day. Horrible horrible experience. Left there with a few less hundred dollars with zero work done, in pain, and lost a day of work.”

Several reviewers complain of ill-prepared dentists, who are unable to numb their patients, who order prosthetics that do not fit, and leave their patients with gaping holes for days after scheduled appointments to place a crown or fill a tooth. They say that the company charges for services unrendered. One disgruntled customer told me, ”I am obsessive about brushing and flossing and using mouthwash, but I had a slightly chipped tooth I needed to have examined. I’m on an unpaid furlough from work, but I didn’t want my tooth to go untreated. Tend promised to do a cleaning, x-rays, and exam for $350. That seemed reasonable, and, based on how lovely the people were on the phone, I went in expecting to love Tend. What a mind-blower when they told me I needed a deep cleaning that would require two visits and would cost me $1200. In addition to my $350. The dentist kind of laughed at me. ‘Oh, no,’ She said. ‘We won’t clean your teeth unless you agree to accept our recommendation.’”

A few years ago, I complained to a young dentist, who was working on my teeth, about how hard it is to get good dental care. “Teeth can be as harmful to our health as any vital organ,” I asserted. “And yet when we do find a reputable practioner, we have to pay ridiculous prices for services rendered.”

“Yeah,” he agreed. “I don’t get it.”

He sighed and commiserated, “I’m from Canada, and it’s just as bad there. As good as our national health care is, we have no coverage for dental work.”

“What do you think is the problem?” I asked.

“I’m not sure,” he bemoaned. “Dentistry gets no respect. People don’t realize that teeth can kill you.”Carla Stockton

Carla Stockton is aging as gracefully as possible in Harlem, NYCARLA STOCKTON FOLLOWS

New Yorker Magazine Cartoon by Edward Frascino

Pandemic Ponderings — Collateral Damage (Reposted from Medium.Com)

Covid-19 has been kind to me so far. I suffered a bit from the usual wishing to be out in the world with friends, the ordinary desire to be back in the routines, to return to exploring the city I love. Still, no one close to me died, was displaced by unemployment or afflicted with hunger. I managed to teach online, and my income, while diminished by falling enrollment, has been sufficient. I can pay my rent. I can buy food. I am whole. As are my family and closest friends. I am grateful for my great good fortune.

There have been, however, some collateral damages.

Such as the reliable soundness of sleep.

An alarm in the abode above me sounds at 2 AM. My overhead neighbor has made his presence more audible of late. He bounces balls and hammers nails at the oddest hours. A personal trainer, he seems to have clients who suffer from pandemic time dissociation. His doorbell rings. Dumbbells crash to his floor and shake my ceiling. A torrent of new-age violins accompanies the scuffling of feet and then the singsong squeak of sneakers running in place.

By 2:30 AM, the outside world comes screaming through my open window. The pandemic has turned deep night, when police are less likely to be vigilant, into a time for blatant socializing. It’s too early in the morning or too late at night to be woke about the disturbances from the street.

My open window admits the uninhibited voices of day laborers out in the predawn cold hoping against hope for some kind of work to fall off a truck. Rapped repetitions and heavy bass runs blast from angry speakers. Salsa and reggaeton bleed from whining car radios. Scurrying feet of squealing kids, who should be tucked in at home, scrape the streets.

Once awake, I lie in bed fighting fears I was can no longer keep at bay, the ones I used to control with ease. I stuff my ears with earbuds, listen to podcasts, novels, short stories that distract me. And then I drift into a semi-sleep from which I wake feeling tired all over again.

There’s also the loss of hugging.

We all hug less than we ever did. Even post-vaccination, I find it hard to trust that touching, holding onto human flesh is safe for those around me. My closest and dearest friends, once demonstrative to a fault, now withhold their affection.

I wear a mask in the presence of my grandchildren, and though I long to return to cuddly sleepovers, to lying in bed telling stories and listening to theirs, they remain a threat to the unvaccinated around me. So I curtail my contact. It’s a painful abstinence that seems a small price to pay.

At times the absence of love’s simplest physical ministration has led to more permanent deprivation. By losing physical contact, I lost touch altogether. I truly believed what I said whenever I promised, “When this is over, we’ll catch up.” Then I went about my business and made do with what was in my reach, and I began to repel intimacy with anyone outside my purview.

In the earliest days of the virus, I would call to invite an old friend, who lives just beyond a two-mile walk from me, to meet for a *socially distanced visit in the park. She inevitably responded, “I don’t want to interrupt your work,” or “I know you’re busy, and I won’t distract you.” At first, I protested, but then I heard her implication: “I have closer people to see today. I won’t extend beyond my pale.” I understood. I accepted the rejection and honored the choice that she’d made. We spoke regularly by phone, sharing our individual experiences with the quarantine. Then we spoke less often, and finally came a day when we said we’d catch up the next week but did not. I failed to make that call.

Though either of us could have been the one to follow through, I embraced her recrimination for not having stepped up. “Your apology sounds insincere,” she scolded when I did call.”I must consider whether I want to be your friend.” Honestly, I understood her rebuff. I was remiss. In fact, I was thinking what I clearly heard in the substance of her subtext.

“It’s too hard now. It’s been too long, and I’ve filled all the gaps where our friendship used to be. I’ll be moving on.”

The losses are incalculable, but they are losses I will live with. Like everyone else, I make adjustments to a life that will never be normal again. Each of us shapes and reshapes a new way of being that won’t necessarily embrace what was. Those relationships that can be born anew will prevail, but some will scatter.

We’ll never be the same, but we must count our lucky stars.

Pandemic’s been kind to me so far. . . .

Memorial Day Musing (from Medium.com)

The Second Battle of Bull Run, August 28–30, 1862–15,000 Union troops died in two days, and the Confederacy wond a decisive victory. Hiram Terwilliger fought valiantly and (barely) survived.

Memorial Day Musing

Insomnia plagued my childhood. My mother was a refugee from Nazi Europe, who never spoke outright about what had happened back there. Eavesdropping on the muffled conversations she had in clandestine German with her sisters and parents, however, I felt the anguish wrought by the dismal truths they shared. I inferred that some dark force was out there, still looking for us. When I closed my eyes, I pictured evil monsters, and I could not sleep.

In those days, my father was rarely home. He traveled around the country, representing, depending on the year, surgical supply or pharmaceutical firms. He repaired machinery, consulted with physicians, sold his products, and was often absent for weeks at a time. When he was at home, he was the center of my universe. In his presence, I felt safe. We had animated, prolonged family dinners. There were Sunday afternoon restaurant meals and bedtime stories that extinguished the nightmares.

Mom was not one to wait bedside until I drifted off to sleep, but Dad reveled in the opportunity to display his performance repertoire. It was a rich one that included Biblical episodes delivered with dramatic flourish, Chaucerian tales recited in crisp, Middle High English, a medley of Protestant hymns sung in a sonorous baritone, and, my personal favorite, tales of his grandfather’s Civil War exploits.

Hiram H. Terwilliger(1838–1935), ca. 1923

Hiram H. Terwilliger was my father’s maternal grandfather and the god of his idolatry. A gentleman farmer in the Catskills, Hiram was descended from a line of Dutchmen who had emigrated from the Netherlands early in the second decade of the 17th Century. By the time of the American Revolution, in which Hiram’s own great-grandfather had distinguished himself as a warrior patriot, they had begun to intermarry with English landowners and had taken their place in the highest echelons of Knickerbocker society. Dad’s narration of this family lore always had a pointed purpose: Terwilligers take heritage seriously. It defines how they are to live their lives..

A lay preacher in the Dutch Reformed Church, my great-grandfather was a rabid abolitionist. He and his sister Sarah were conductors on the Underground Railroad, and the family farm was a relay station. Though passionately pacifist, when the purveyors of human beings refused to end their vile trade, Hiram enlisted in the Union Army, in 1861. He was wounded and sent home mere months after he joined. As soon as he was healthy again, he re-enlisted, this time elevated to the rank of Corporal and subsequently to Sargent.

Sarah Elizabeth Terwilliger Warren(1840–1940), ca 1940

In 1862, at the second Battle of Bull Run, Hiram was shot nine times, sustaining at least three wounds that should have killed him. He refused to fall. After retrieving the Union flag from the ambushed color guard, Hiram kept moving, leading his battalion into the fray. I can still hear my father’s tear-stained voice whispering, “He said he would not rest so long as all Americans were not free.”

Recovery from the wounds and from the subsequent surgeries was long and painful. Summoned to the hospital in Fredricksburg, where Hiram had been taken from the field, Sarah, who volunteered with the corps of battlefield nurses, cared for him until he was well enough to travel. She accompanied him back to the family homestead, where she dutifully nursed him for over a year.

Though they both married and lived separate lives, brother and sister remained to committed to the cause that nearly killed him.

Sarah, who lived to age 100, was a popular local heroine, known in Ulster County as Auntie Warren, her married name. She became a suffragette. Hiram marched with her. He preached universal suffrage from his pulpit and took his message to conferences and convocations around New York and New England. Toward the end of his life, Hiram suffered paralysis from his waist down but continued to preach from his wheelchair. Whenever he heard of discriminatory practices enacted against any of his neighbors, Hiram was there to preach equality. He had a special affinity for Native Americans and was a continual thorn in government’s side, writing letters and making sermons admonishing the powerful hypocrites, who betrayed the People with broken promises and violated treaties.

Dad would finish Hiram’s story with a grand flourish as he looked into my sleepy eyes with a singularly intimidating look. “And so,” he would whisper, “now you understand your responsibility.”

“My grandfather nearly died,” Daddy would whisper as he left the room. “So that what happened to Mommy’s family in Europe will never happen to people here”

Since Mommy had clearly suffered from whatever it was that befell her beloved home, I embraced his assertion. She had escaped the Nazis and had come to America because here she could be safe, and her children would be protected from discrimination.

Every year of my growing up brought new awareness of America’s salient truths. People were not safe here. Discrimination was rampant. My father’s best friend was a physician, who was forced to take maintenance jobs in order to feed his family he finally found a hospital willing to grant him admitting privileges. I spent a weekend billeted with a Mohawk family on the St. Regis reservation, and I was appalled to come face to face with what my white forebears had done to this proud, generous people. By the time I graduated from high school, I deeply understood the hypocrisy of the opening words of the Declaration of Independence, grasped the depth of the evil perpetrated on villages in Korea and Viet Nam in the name of American democracy. My great-grandfather’s story became my reassurance, my inspiration.

I attended Malcom X lectures, marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., explored the beliefs of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, et al. I studied languages and traveled abroad so that I could obtain a deeper understanding of the world around me I believed that it was possible to be an American, and to uphold the rights of humankind, to extol the virtues of immigration, to embrace multiculturalism. I struggle now — a struggle exacerbated daily by new events, such as this week’s brutal murder of George Floyd and the idiocy of Christian Cooper’s encounter with a white woman’s performative fear in Central Park — to suspend my disbelief.

I miss the days when I bought into the myth of America. Once a year, I force myself to make a valiant effort to retrieve my faith.

Every Memorial Day, I doff my cynicism and think about old Hiram Hauslander Terwilliger and his sister Sarah Elizabeth Warren. While many of the principles they espoused are still unwon, their story reminds me that we can do better. Men and women before and since have given their lives to the belief that we will do better.

The future of this country demands that we must do better.

Corporal Hiramm Hauslander Terwilliger, 1861

A View from the Edge (Reposted from Medium.Com)

These days, my oldest grandchild, age 11, often telephones me from her home in Westchester. We have not seen each other since mid-March, and we are not used to so extended a separation. We normally spend at least a weekend a month together. So, she calls to tell me about her day, to ask for advice choosing the right word to complete a verse of the song she’s writing. Then she asks me to tell her what my day has been like here in the valley of the shadow of COVID-19. Last week, she issued a challenge.

“You should record your observations, Lala. Write down what you see, what you hear.”

I wish I had more to share with her. It embarrasses me to admit that, in truth, I am observing little. My sequestered life leaves me out of the loop, experiencing this crisis vicariously. Watching through the veil of social distance puts me at odds with my natural inclination to engage with the world around me.

In fact, I hardly know myself. At 72, I have always taken pride in being somewhat intrepid. Growing up in a remote region of upstate New York, I spent many teenage nights listening to the Milkman’s Matinee on WNEW in New York City. I would lie in bed straining for reassurance that the vigilant denizens of my emerald city were monitoring the myriad dangers that lurked beyond the mountains. I nurtured the delusion that confronting the things that threatened me meant I could control what happened to my family and me. Then I grew up and migrated to the city, became an insider at last. I traded my childish notions in on a thick skin, an existential shell that enabled me to be nosey, be involved, observe from the inside of whatever’s going on, to calmly assert myself wherever I might be relevant.

These days I am never free of the unfamiliar knot of anxiety in my stomach. At night, I succumb to sleep only after setting the timer on the television. Its mindless banter drones out the perseverating voices in my head shouting, “Run. Run.”

When I wake, I walk.

Each morning, sunrise finds me on the far west side of Morningside Heights. I dodge the occasional runner, sidestep the meandering drunks, race the sparse but speeding traffic and hike toward Riverside Drive. It’s a great time to be out. The eerie city is more like it was in olden days — two months ago — no emptier than it is on any predawn weekend morning I would venture into. Pink wisps of clouds linger over the Hudson, and a floral profusion of varicolored petals dance contentedly in the springcold breeze. Finches, cardinals, robins sing without restraint. For them the absence of people means the absence of danger.

I notice that there is little garbage to mar the pristine landscape, and the lifeless blue gloves strewn insouciantly about remind me why the sudden clean is as disturbing as it is delightful.

Too soon light begins to blanket the streets. The absence of cars, the desolation of sidewalks, the darkened storefront windows revive the irksome panic, and I hasten back to my little apartment, to my illusion of safety.

My seventh floor windows overlook a dormant Catholic Church and its tenants: a vacant parochial and empty charter school. Cars park in front of the buildings all day, all night, unencumbered by the “NO PARKING ON SCHOOL DAYS” sign. No steady stream of worshippers, no laughter of children at recess, no chatter of activity outside the corner bodega clutter the air. Occasionally someone plugs in a boom box and blasts loud rap while he cleans his car. Several times a week, a zealot with a microphone stations herself on a nearby corner to scream end-of-the-world warnings to the deserted streets and open windows. Sometimes at night a drunken cluster of errant youngsters gathers to blast music and throw bottles and chicken bones at the church walls. Until the FDNY arrives and points a megaphone blaring, “Please disperse . . . COVID-19. . . . “

Because there is nothing I can hope to control, because I cannot dive into the fray, I deliberately limit how much I take in. From up here, it’s easy to look away from the harbingers of disaster. I avoid electronic babble and listen mostly to my I-Tunes library, When I do seek something to watch, I am more likely to choose Larry David reruns than Governor Cuomo’s Dire-side chats.

What I see from my precarious tower is mostly a world torn between fear and disbelief. It is fear that governs the new abnormal, a fear exacerbated by the counter-intuitive way we are forced to respond to the crisis. It is the wont of most humans to lean on one another when we are threatened. This virus forces us apart at a time when we most need to cling to one another.

All around me fear expresses itself as derision or anger. A neighbor blurts obscenities then laughs maniacally because I don’t join her unmasked self in the elevator. When I pass her from my 6-foot distance, she scowls. On Amsterdam Avenue, fights break out over small disagreements. In grocery stores, beleaguered cashiers yell at customers who ask too many questions.

Everyone feels powerless. A weak imposter president, who would gladly sacrifice every one of us to the gratification of his ego, endangers us all. This reckless narcissist defies science and encourages the covidiots, who worship him, to flaunt their disregard for herd immunity. He suborns sedition by promoting rebellion against state governments that insist on sheltering. Our citizenry is caught between logic and farce, between sanity and idiocy. Confusion augments the fear and compounds the anger.

Few among us are free from financial concerns. Many in this time of Covid-19 teeter on the edge of an ominous precipice. One of the lucky few with a job I can do remotely, I am obligated to keep working. I cannot afford to be ill. No net is in place to catch me. Should the scourge erase my limited salary or eliminate my miniscule annuity, I would be left without resources.

I am not unique. Widows and divorcees in NYC are typically under-equipped for disaster. We comprise a confederacy of older New York women, who have cast ourselves adrift on an ageist, sexist sea of limitations. When I pass my cohorts in the grocery store or on the street, I can see my strain mirrored in their eyes, etched in their faces.

Also reflected there is the lingering doubt that we will ever see our progeny again. We are repeatedly told that we are at great risk. Who among us will get out alive?

Many of our children, now in their thirties and forties, comprise the essential work force and are constantly in harm’s way. My son’s wife, a fearless physician, who specializes in the care of newborns, is back at work in her hospital, having wrestled with the disease and won. My daughter’s husband, too, a pilot for an international airline, has probably been through an unconfirmed case. These two and sare emblematic of their co-generationists. Even as they protect themselves with maximum caution, will they be safe enough?

I hate to disappoint my granddaughter. Her mother the doctor would be a much more reliable narrator, were she less engulfed in the maelstrom of responsibility with more freedom to record what she sees.

The only light I am able to shed is a lesson I learned in high school French class, where first I encountered La Peste, Albert Camus’ chronicle of a plague year in Oran, Algeria in the 1940s. Frequent references to this book have been cited since the pandemic began. And for good reason. Though Camus meant his pestilence to symbolize the Nazi occupation of France, it is a perfect mirror of our current morass.

The Oran plague is allegorical, Camus’ exploration of what happens when The Absurd engulfs reality and renders it incomprehensible. A cautionary tale. There will always be, Camus asserts, diseased rats of one kind or another that will rise up and roust the world from its complacency. There is no antidote that can change uncertainties to reassurances, threats to promises. No messiah is on the way. Our only hope of vanquishing our foes is to find the best that is within ourselves and live with grateful enthusiasm in our present, providing the most comfort we know how to give to those we care about.

We can’t know what’s coming, and there is only so far we can go to stave off disaster. The rest is submission. Submission to the belief that all things pass. That there will eventually be sunshine or a rainbow. . . .

Or at very least a nice big puddle to jump into at the end of the storm.

Carla Stockton
18 April 2020

Motherless Child (Reposted from Medium)

Bad news from the Bronx. The virus has killed my student’s mother. He’s only seventeen. She must have been young. Horrifying the alacrity with which his world is disemboweled.

No preparation, no goodbyes, no final words of wisdom or instruction. Just here today hi-mom-i’m-home, gone tomorrow, empty house. COVID-19 wins. Mom is dead. She’s been murdered by an invisible assailant, abetted by the country’s evil leadership that refused to enact precautions until it had spread unchecked, until it was too late to prevent the catastrophe that is our Now. I am overcome with impotent rage. What must he be feeling?

In saner times, I could perhaps visit him, take the family a covered dish or a tear-moistened cake. Even if that were possible, he’d probably hate it. I would have at his age. But still I want to reach out. I want to tell him I know what he’s going through, I guarantee his life will get better, and he will prevail. Would I be lying? Not entirely.

Years ago, as a teenager, I learned out of nowhere that my mother wasn’t coming home. The message was brutal. An unlicensed driver had plowed head-on into the van she was driving. He was a blind drunk, they told me, who left her a mess of shattered bones, profuse bleeding. Her prognosis was bleak.

At first, I felt nothing. When the initial numbness wore off, I succumbed to a seething, bottomless anger that sharpened the pain. I thought the only way I would overcome my voracious ire was to kill the driver or kill myself. The impulses passed, and my story ended more happily than this boy’s.

My mother did not die.

We were dissembled, but she was alive. Further, the evil that upended my mother’s life had a specific shape, a recognizable form. My student’s mother’s assassin is an insidious, invisible monster, empowered by the administration of a Nation that should have been her refuge. There is no justice to be sought. No stopping the demon. No closure. I had that much.

The drunk driver was apprehended, fined, incarcerated. It satisfied me to know that his children would be kept from him the way I was kept from my mother.

For the first few months, I saw my mother intermittently, for brief intervals. I stood silent at the foot of her hospital bed as she meandered between the black void of her unconscious and the small, rectangular room. I didn’t try to talk. That would have been futile. She didn’t know me or any of her seven children. Even when she was awake, she was unable to focus for more than mere seconds before she lapsed back into her quasi -comatose state. Doctors could not be sure she would survive, but they were certain she was in imminent danger of losing her leg.

My anger turned inward as I shifted into ersatz adulthood. There seemed no other solution but to become my own mother and to care for my siblings. I was fifteen, at best a poor imitation, a second-rate surrogate. I failed miserably, which fueled my self-loathing. There was no one to lead me. My father, paralyzed by his fear of losing mom, sat endlessly by her bedside, holding her hand. He only occasionally left her to eat or to shower or to make perfunctory, fruitless attempts to find us assistance. I applauded, often assisted the demise of the erstwhile caretakers. Eventually, there was no other solution but to temporarily entrust the care of the younger children to friends and relatives.

For twenty months, mom lay between life and death. She survived the initial danger and then a second, the invasive surgery to save her leg. Once the kids were safely ensconced, I wandered dysfunctionally through my rudderless adolescence. I ate too much, read too much, cried too much and talked to no one. Without a mommy, I did not matter.

Still, I was the lucky one. Mother’s presence returned, and for a year, she commandeered our household from the hospital bed installed for her on the first floor. She martialed our activities, relying on me to potty train my baby brother, to quiet the restless quarreling and mischief of the others, to maintain order. I did laundry, cooked meals, and drove everyone to their appointed rounds. I was no better at it than I was before, but I did have guidance.

In the evening, when Dad was late returning from his sales routes and the kids were asleep, Mom and I talked. We argued over the symbolic implications of The Brothers Karamazov’s Grand Inquisitor. We compared Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories. We listened to music and planned for the week ahead. For the first time, Mom allowed herself to open up, to share the details of a life she had kept carefully concealed: her childhood in Europe, her escape from the Third Reich, her myriad losses. I felt trusted for the first time, almost her equal. Without realizing it, however, I had lost the ability to trust her.

I did not tell her about the man on whom I had a serious crush. Nor did I confess that I was terrified of the drinking among my peers, which defined all social engagements. She was impatient with my “scribbling,” the journaling I did on weekend mornings when chores needed doing, so I shared little of myself. I won speech contests, wrote prize-winning essays, starred in our class play, and she came on her crutches to applaud me. But I could not tell her that I was desperately lonely and, despite my outward extroversion, inordinately shy. I wanted to explain — but how could I without suggesting recrimination? — that those two years without her had robbed me of my ability to make friends because my carefully-constructed emotional walls blocked out the sunshine of healthy attachments. When I chose a faraway college I had never seen, I lied and said it was the only school that would have me. I could not find the words to confess that I needed to escape her omnipresent limp, the dizzying reminder of that devastating message: your mother’s not coming home.

My student’s predicament reminds me how grateful I should be.

That boy will never know the kind of reversal of fortune that was my gift. His mother won’t be there to cheer at graduation or help him buy the corsage for his virtual prom date or sign off on his AADA (American Academy of Dramatic Arts) loan applications. She cannot hold him now, wipe his tears, soothe his anguish. She’s never coming back.

If I am still ferreting through the damages wrought by my two years of aimless self-destruction, at least I have the consolation of an adulthood spent getting to know my mother as a woman, as a friend.

It’s my natural impulse to want to put my arms around this student, to offer him a shoulder or an arm or whatever support he might be willing to accept. But between Metoo and our absurd new Abnormal, contact is impossible. I can only send him virtual hugs, electronic condolences.

So I stand aside and hope he will be allowed to grieve as long as he wants. That he has the license to remain a boy until he is fully ready to be a man. That when the time comes, he will mature into someone who is without the weight of anger, someone who can, in the absence of justice, find his own closure.

4/1/2010