But last week, as the escalating threat of the coronavirus pandemic continued to reverberate across the country, that simple and cherished daily routine came to an abrupt halt.
“Now I get the mail, wearing gloves and a mask, and I bring it to my mom and leave it on her front porch,” says Robinson, 52, who also explained to her daughter that she could no longer spend hours with her grandmother every weekend. The decision was made swiftly, as the severity of the pandemic came into sharper focus: “Over the weekend, it feels like the message really coalesced clearly into ‘everyone needs to stay put.’ And for a few nights, I could not sleep,” Robinson says. “I kept waking up, and reading articles, and trying to figure out: What’s the right thing to do?”
The gravity of our new reality is setting in, and Americans are beginning to grasp the sacrifices required to slow the spread of the virus, which has left families wondering how to protect their loved ones. These decisions carry particular urgency when it comes to interactions between grandchildren — who appear less likely to experience serious cases of covid-19, but can still transmit the virus that causes the disease — and grandparents, many of whom are among those most at risk of suffering potentially severe complications. Against the backdrop of a crashing stock market and emptying grocery store shelves, there are other, intangible losses being calculated by parents: Should a long-anticipated visit be postponed? A family vacation canceled? What to do about upended daily routines, the loss of help with child care, the sudden absence of grandparents whom children have come to depend on?
Nevaeh and her grandmother are very close, Robinson says, but her daughter understands the need to stay away for now. “She is bummed that she can’t see her grandmother, but she gets it, and we’ve talked about ways we can try to work with this,” Robinson says. “Maybe eventually we could sit at a safe distance apart, outside in my mother’s backyard, and talk. And of course there’s FaceTime.”
For most families, the practice of social distancing has only just begun, and there’s a sense that the reality of the coming separation hasn’t fully registered yet. Stuart Wexler, a 44-year-old father of a 10-year-old son in Alexandria, Va., suspects that it won’t be too long before his son, Dash, starts to truly miss his wife’s parents, who live about an hour away and spend time with their grandson often.
“He sees them very much as a part of his security blanket; they’ve been there since the day he was born. So I think as the days go on, it’s going to get worse and worse,” Wexler says. “We got my mother-in-law set up on Skype — we’ve never Skyped with them because we see them all the time — but we’re going to try that and see if it does anything to close that distance.”
Wexler’s mother, who lives in Florida, canceled her plans to fly up and see them this week. Dash only sees his paternal grandmother a few times a year, so missing the visit “is really disappointing,” Wexler says. His son is supposed to take a special trip to Disney World with his grandmother in June, and Wexler has hoped that would be a chance for the two to create a formative childhood memory. Now that, too, seems uncertain: “We’ll see how it goes,” Wexler says with a rueful laugh.
Charlie, a 51-year-old father of two in Bethesda, Md., who spoke on the condition that his last name be withheld to protect his family’s medical privacy, says that his wife and 16-year-old daughter had planned to travel to Boston this week to visit Charlie’s father-in-law, who temporarily relocated to the area for cancer treatment. But his father-in-law called several days ago to ask them to cancel. This was a disappointment for his wife and daughter, Charlie says, adding that his 6-year-old son is especially close to his grandfather.
“My son and my father-in-law are best friends, and it’s going to sink in soon that he hasn’t seen his Pop Pop in a while,” Charlie says. “We aren’t sure if or when they’ll be able to come back from Boston. Especially once the weather turns and Pop Pop is not taking my son to the park, when he’s not at my son’s soccer games — if we ever have soccer again — he’s going to really feel it then.”
The sudden absence of grandparents is not only an emotional blow but a profound logistical stress for those who count on them for primary or backup child-care support — like Katherine Marcano-Bell, 34, who has to keep her family’s farm in rural Iowa running. Her 4-year-old son’s preschool has closed, and she pulled her 2-year-old out of day care last week amid growing concerns about the coronavirus. Normally, her in-laws would watch the boys while she and her husband tend to their livestock, but her father-in-law has a compromised immune system because of cancer treatments, and now she isn’t so sure what to do.
“The nightmare is where it comes to the farm,” she says. “This week and over the next three weeks we’re selling hogs, and I need to be there, and we are not sure what’s going to happen.”
Maybe her in-laws can still watch her kids, if they’re all feeling healthy, she says. “But if they’re not —” she trails off, then sighs. There’s no ideal solution, and she wants to keep her in-laws safe.
“I see it as we have to be responsible,” she says. “Not so much for ourselves, but for others.”
It was difficult for Jeana Woody, a hospice nurse in western Colorado, to tell her father-in-law — a cancer survivor of more than a decade — to stop picking up her 9-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son after school two weeks ago.
But Woody and her husband, who works as a public information officer for their community, knew that the coronavirus threat was something to be taken seriously even before schools started sending kids home. They didn’t want to risk having potentially asymptomatic children around her father-in-law, she says, and her kids understood why; they still have vivid memories of seeing their grandfather on a ventilator five years ago, when he became gravely ill from bacterial pneumonia. But for him, she says, it’s been harder to accept the separation.
“We’ve been FaceTiming a lot, and I think that will become daily,” she says. “I think he’s starting to feel isolated and down. You know, these are his only two grandkids, and they bring him so much joy.”
About a week ago, Suzy Leanos was watching a morning news report about the coronavirus when her 15-year-old son drifted into the room. The whole family had just returned the day before from a weekend visit with Leanos's parents, who live about an hour from her family's home in Orange County, Calif.
Her son watched the news with her for a little while, and then declared: “‘We’re going to have to stay away from my grandpa. He just turned 68, and I don’t want to get him sick,’ ” Leanos recalls. “It was really touching. We’d talked about seeing them again soon like usual, and he was like, ‘I think we’re going to have to put the brakes on next weekend.’ ”
Her son and daughter were supposed to spend their spring break with their grandparents; her father is teaching her son how to drive, and her 10-year-old daughter was excited to cook with her grandmother. “They look forward to it every vacation we get,” Leanos says. “They’re bummed. But I also think it hasn’t hit us that hard yet. I know it’s probably going to hit them harder in a week or so, when we can’t go over, we can’t spend time together.”
For many families, the looming threat of the coronavirus has amplified an uncomfortable, underlying awareness that there is a finite number of holidays, family vacations and visits to spend all together in the years ahead — which makes the loss of even one feel all the more significant.
“Normally, once your parents get older, you have a general sense of, ‘Well, the clock is definitely ticking, and something could happen at any time for any reason,’ ” Stuart Wexler says. “But that doesn’t feel as anxiety-producing as it does now, knowing that this virus is around.”
Eddie Pasa, a 43-year-old musician from Springfield, Va., says it is “heartbreaking” to keep his 9- and 7-year-old kids away from his parents. But his 76-year-old mother had spinal surgery in February, he says, and protecting her health is a priority. His kids are missing their grandparents, and even when Pasa recently stopped by to check on his mother and father, he stayed outside their house.
“We are calling them periodically and letting them know we’re okay,” he says. “Their voices lift our spirits and — for a little while, at least — make everything all right with the world.”
This is what remains, and for a while, it will have to be enough: the phone calls, the text messages, the sight of a loved one’s vaguely pixelated face on a phone or computer screen. The hope of a long-planned trip to Disney World that might still work out. And maybe — after enough days have passed — a few chairs set up in a sunny backyard, far enough apart that a grandmother and a granddaughter can safely speak to one another across the strange new distance.