An Ethic of Care in a Time of Pandemic

by Sharlee DiMenichi

My husband crouched by the month-old grave and fished a flat stone from the crumbly, pale earth.  Peering at the smooth edges and bleak strata, he spoke of geological time dwarfing human life spans. I silently reflected that Margaret would once have held such a stone between thumb and middle finger, hooked her index finger just so and sent it skipping across a glacial pond.

            Margaret, our friend, and my former colleague, died while waiting for the result of her COVID-19 test. She had agonized over not knowing what was causing the fever, persistent cough and body aches that kept her home from teaching her toddler class, where she drew on her experience as a British nanny to guide little ones through tantrums and toileting. A flu test had come back negative. Overwhelmed lab technicians took more than a week to read her COVID-19 screening: also negative. The coroner ruled that she had died of atrial-fibrillation.

            Her epitaph read “Beloved Wife,” but she died alone.

She had invited me to visit on a lonely Saturday night, and we sat in her shadowy living room flanking her late husband’s picture. Her usually lyrical voice turned husky as she recalled administering medicine every few hours that rendered Jim too muddled to hold a conversation. After Jim’s 2019 death of bladder cancer, she talked daily to his photo.

She told him that she faithfully wound all the wooden clocks he had made her. She reminisced about their hikes near the ancient ponds in Acadia National Park. About a month before Margaret died, she imparted to Jim’s picture the news that her sister Jeanette, her last living sibling in her native Scotland, had died of a stroke. Caring for her small charges helped Margaret endure the personal trauma of losing both her beloved husband and cherished sister.

            Commitment to caring for people who are sheltering in place helps my husband, Stefan, who ships food and medical supplies, endure the national trauma of the pandemic. After one of his co-workers tested positive for COVID-19 during the height of infections in our county, he balanced his care for strangers with his concern for my health and moved into an extended-stay hotel. We met daily for masked and socially distanced walks in the park when the weather held. On a cold, rainy Sunday we ordered takeout sushi and parked our cars in the parking lot of the restaurant with the driver’s sides facing each other. We opened the windows, removed our masks and saw each other’s full faces for the first time in days.

            Stefan had painstakingly made his mask on the classic Singer sewing machine I borrowed from my cousin to meet my goal of making 100 face coverings for hospital employees to help them address a PPE shortage.  After Margaret died, I filled my non-work hours stitching. I had not used a sewing machine in 20 years, so I watched a video in which the vice-president of a Midwestern hospital effortlessly demonstrated how to sew masks. Hers had straight seams and no snagged threads. She estimated that it would take a novice clothier 20 minutes to make each mask. After toiling for 15 hours, I produced three raggedy creations. I sheepishly donated them, along with the remaining fabric, to my local hospital. A gracious receptionist assured me they were “perfect” without having set eyes on them.

             Coping with anguish by offering succor drew my mind to Margaret’s commitment to helping me care for one of my preschoolers who had witnessed a car fire. When incendiary nightmares awoke him at naptime, I would stroke his hair and sing to him. Still the bad dreams persisted. Margaret reminded me that Mr. Rogers had suggested helping children overcome trauma by focusing on community helpers. I bought a plastic firefighter hat and encouraged my little student to pretend to douse the flames he had seen. At the art table, he used his whole hand to grip a fat red crayon with which he drew lines to represent firetrucks rushing to the scene. Finally, his sleep became restful again.

            Caring for children by encouraging them to remember the helpers applies whether they have experienced personal or collective trauma. In the weeks following the September 11 attack on the Twin Towers, flyers near my Jersey City apartment featured cartoon animals dressed as first responders and invited families to bring children to Ground Hero parties, public gatherings aimed at helping little ones cope.

            When I told Margaret my story of September 11, she exhibited her trademark compassion by listening deeply, silently mulling each word. “A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center,” said a fellow commuter as I waited to take the train under the river to my temporary job setting appointments at a modeling agency across the street from the Twin Towers. My mind’s eye pictured a puddle jumper and I boarded the train feeling sorry for the luckless pilot. When the train emerged, smoke billows marred the scintillating sky. I witnessed the second tower’s fall. Fine dust covered my clothing and shoes as I joined the astonished throng surging away from the attack. Fearing more assaults, authorities suspended subway service. I walked ten miles uptown then rode the bus to a Red Cross shelter in Yonkers, where I spent the night. During my trek, I passed a shopkeeper who said, unprompted, “Get out your combat boots, we’re going to war.”

            By 2019, the nearly two-decade Afghanistan war he predicted had killed 2,298 U.S. military members, 3,814 U.S. contractors, 43,074 Afghani civilians and 42,100 opposition fighters, according to Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. As of September 11, 2020, Johns Hopkins University reported 192,792 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S.

            In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, anthrax-laced mail killed five and infected seventeen others. I like to think my mail carrier embodied an ethic of care for me and the others he served when he donned a gas mask and kept delivering. I felt particularly grateful for the mail knowing that he had risked his life to bring it.

            I feel similarly grateful to the coroner who risked his health to examine Margaret after her colleague found her dead, huddled under bedcovers. Her body remained in the morgue and her house under quarantine until the results of her COVID-19 test came back negative. Thinking of her uninterred oppressed me, and I slept thirteen hours a night as I had when my mother died. When she was finally buried, friends could not gather to commemorate her due to the pandemic-induced ban on funerals. In lieu of a ceremony, I walked the three blocks to Margaret’s cozy rowhome, stood on the empty sidewalk and prayed for her. In the dark window hung a stained-glass candle reminiscent of the handmade Christmas ornaments she gave our colleagues every year. I remembered her seeing my hopelessly aspirational “Love Thy Neighbor—No Exceptions” bumper sticker and saying, “You don’t know my neighbors with their god-awful blasting music, dogs that bark all night and year-round fireworks.”

            Margaret also joked about her Luddite tendencies. Computers proved inscrutable to her. She used a flip phone, eschewed texting, and never learned to drive. Jim drove her to and from work daily. After he died, she began taking driving lessons from a friend, but she remained too terrified of other drivers to take Jim’s car out of the empty parking lot where she practiced.

            My sympathy for her fear ran heart-deep. After my friend Donald died in a car crash the same month that Stefan suffered a concussion in an accident, I swore off driving for four years. The burden of care I felt for Donald’s bereaved loved ones made me try to avert the devastation I had seen at his funeral.

Surviving a brain tumor and relying on medicine to treat a heart condition brought Margaret eye-to-eye with the potential for that kind of devastation. Despite our thirty-year age difference, we shared the fear that if we predeceased our husbands, they would quickly follow us to the grave. We confided that we felt called to nurture young lives but wanted evenings filled exclusively with adult conversation. We agreed that we did not regret our choice to educate other people’s children instead of bearing and raising our own.

One evening after our students went home, Margaret recalled how seeing the mountain of confiscated shoes at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum —each pair signifying an innocent life lost—had crushed her for days. I thought of the ultimate commitment to an ethic of care that gave Holocaust rescuers the courage to risk their lives to hide Jews.

One of the last plays I saw before theaters closed due to the pandemic was Irena’s Vow, a biography of Polish Holocaust rescuer Irene Gut Opdyke. After witnessing a Nazi slaughter a baby and mother in public, she vowed that if she ever had a chance to save a life, she would do so at any cost. She hid 12 Jews in the villa of her employer, a German major. Yad Vashem honored her as Righteous Among the Nations for risking her life to protect her Jewish friends.

Righteous New York City health workers who risk their lives to care for their patients receive much-deserved honor through a nightly ritual in which Gotham residents beep car horns, cheer, and bang pans.  As the pandemic crested in the city, hospital employees reused masks for days at a time and resorted to wearing trash bags when they ran out of medical gowns. With 12,541 COVID-19 deaths in Queens, the Bronx and Manhattan, New York City is once again an epicenter of national tragedy. Applauding frontline workers recognizes that their commitment to an ethic of care gave them the courage to risk their lives.

The life-threatening circumstances healthcare workers have faced include understaffed COVID-19 screening labs, an insufficient supply of reagents, inadequate contact tracing, and lack of masks, gloves, and gowns. Healthcare workers have exemplified living by an ethic of care. We owe them more than honor. We owe it to them to bring the care full circle by allocating sufficient federal money to hire lab technicians and contact tracers. We owe it to them to federally subsidize enabling shoe and garment manufacturing plants to mass produce N95 masks and medical gowns.

Our nation should commit itself to an ethic of care that meets the current moment and extends into the future.  By forcing us to forgo funerals, the virus has robbed us of a comforting traditional response to personal tragedy. Families of the hundreds of thousands of U.S. COVID-19 victims have the same universal need to memorialize the departed that led me to visit Margaret’s empty house. After a vaccine prevents further COVID-19 deaths, may we unite to erect public memorials such as the ones that commemorate victims of the September 11 attacks and the Shoah. Healing from the devastation of losing a loved one can take years and we can come together to righteously care for those bereaved by this pandemic.

About the Author

Sharlee DiMenichi's second book, Holocaust Rescue Heroes, is forthcoming from Royal Fireworks Press. Her first book, The Complete Guide to Joining the Peace Corps, is available from Atlantic Publishing, or through her web site: www.sharleedimenichi.com. She holds an M.S. in journalism from Columbia University.