As told to Eli Saslow, Washington Post, May 30 2020
Voices from the Pandemic: Francene Bailey, on passing the coronavirus to her mother
They keep telling me it’s not my fault, and I’d give anything to believe that. The doctor called after my mom went to the hospital and said: “Don’t blame yourself. You didn’t do anything wrong.” The pastor said basically the same thing at her funeral. “Let it go. You had nothing to do with this.”
I know they’re trying to make me feel better, but it’s a lie. I had everything to do with it. This virus doesn’t just appear in your body out of nowhere. It has to pass from one person to the next. It has to come from somebody, and this time I know it came from me.
I keep thinking: What if I’d stopped going to work when the first people started to get sick? What if I didn’t live with my mom? What if I’d stayed upstairs in my room like I’d been doing all week? What if I’d kept my mask on? What if I’d turned away when she reached out to hug me? We only had close contact that one time, and it barely lasted a few minutes, but that was all it took. A week later she was in the hospital. Ten days after that she was gone. That’s the timeline I have to live with, and it points right back to me. I got sick and then she got sick. I lived and she died. How am I supposed to let go of that?
The thing is, I was trying so hard to be careful from the very beginning. It’s not like I was one of those people who didn’t pay attention. I work at a nursing home. I knew how fast this virus could spread. As soon as a few of the residents started spiking fevers in March, I went online to buy extra masks. We didn’t have the right protective supplies, and you can’t social distance when you’re a nursing aide. I work on the lockdown unit. These people need a lot of help. We feed. We wash. We do everything. I came home one day with a slight headache, and then I started to cough. My mom said to me: “This doesn’t sound like your sinuses. This is different.”
I told her not to come too close to me. She was healthy for a 70-year-old lady, but I wanted to be safe. I called off work. I moved out of the bedroom I share with my daughter and her father so I had my own space upstairs. I started drifting away from everybody. I didn’t know for sure if I had corona yet because I was waiting on the test, but I had a good idea. My 5-year-old would stand outside the room for hours calling after me. She likes to cuddle underneath you. That’s the kind of person she is. She kept banging on the door. “Mommy. Mommy. Let me come in.” I begged for her to go away. “Please, baby. Pretend like I’m not here.” She wouldn’t leave. Eventually, I had to stop answering.
We’re a tight family, and all of us have been living on top of each other in this house for 20 years. That’s how we like it. It’s the Jamaican way. I’m upstairs with my kids and my sister is downstairs with hers, and my mom went back and forth. We share the bills and the child care. We rely on each other. Some days, we might have 15 people staying here, and my mom was always at the center. She wasn’t a person of so many words, but she would sit in the kitchen all day, watching and listening. She knew I had something bad. She had 10 children, and she’s a caretaker. I had to fight her from coming into the room. She told me to steam my head with orange and lemon. She started making this tea drink. It had turmeric, garlic, lime, honey and ginger. She would put it in a cup and leave it at the door five or six times a day. She stood outside in the hall and called me on the phone to make sure I was drinking it. “Put the phone where I can hear it go down.” When I lost my voice and couldn’t talk, she would stand out there and text me. “Did you drink it? All of it?”
Anytime I heard people moving around in the hall, I would never go outside. If I needed to leave the room, I waited until it was quiet. They say the average person gives this virus to three or four people, but I thought: This is going to die inside me. I drove myself to go get the test. I drove myself to the hospital a few days later. I drove myself to the pharmacy to get all the meds even though I was hyperventilating so bad I could barely hold onto the steering wheel. I took Clorox with me every time I went to the bathroom and tried to sanitize behind myself, but sometimes it got too hard to stand. I would text my mom and my sister: “I sprayed the bleach but I had to leave it.”
At night, I was like an animal. I couldn’t breathe, and lying down made it worse. I was running a fever and the doctor said I had pneumonia. I drank so much cough syrup that my body started to smell like it. I would pace in the bedroom all night, from the wall to the doorway and back, counting steps and watching the clock. My mom has the bedroom right underneath mine, so she could hear my feet on the floor, and she would call in the night. “Are you okay? Francene, you’re scaring me.”
One day, my back and my neck were on fire and I couldn’t keep walking. I tried to lie down, and it felt like the whole house was falling in on me. It felt like I was dying, and I started to have a panic attack. I took off running because I wanted to find air. I went downstairs, and I kind of tripped over my slippers. My mom heard me, and she came to the bottom of the stairs. I was gasping and sobbing. I couldn’t talk. She told me: “Take off your mask. Let the air in.”
I pulled my mask down around my neck, and she held me. I needed it, and she needed to help. Our faces were touching. I was breathing on her. I wasn’t thinking about anything. I leaned on her until I was calm again, and then I put my mask back on and went upstairs. I tried to forget about it. It was only two or three minutes. I didn’t even know for sure yet if I was positive for the virus. I tried to tell myself it would be fine.
A few days later, I heard her start to cough downstairs in her room. It was nighttime, and I leaned against the floorboards to listen. I said, “Oh God, no. No. Please, Jesus, don’t let her be sick.”
But I already knew. She sounded exactly like me.
She had diabetes, so maybe that’s why it went downhill fast. I don’t know. She was so out of it that she stopped taking some of her other medications. I talked to her once over the phone when she was at the hospital. She had a Z-pack mask on her face, and the doctors didn’t want her to do much talking. They were trying to get ready to put her on a ventilator. I told her she needed to listen to the doctors. I told her I was sorry. I didn’t have my voice back, so I was kind of whispering, and I’m not sure if she could hear me or understand me. She said: “Don’t worry about me. Focus on yourself. Are you drinking the tea? Please, drink the tea.”
I was still in isolation in the bedroom when her doctor called again. The Department of Health told me to stay up there until three days after I stopped having symptoms. It was 7 in the morning, and I was winded from taking a shower. Sometimes, it took two hours for me to recover from the shower and get dressed. The doctor said they were doing chest compressions, but she wasn’t going to make it. He said it wasn’t my fault — that the virus could have come from anywhere. I told him: “What do you mean? She never even left the house. It was me. I know it was me, and I killed her.” I threw the phone. I was so lost and so angry. I didn’t want to hear it.
The phone kept ringing. People started coming over to grieve, and I heard them downstairs, crying and consoling each other. A few of them knocked on my door. They were worried. Nobody was blaming me. My 19-year-old stood in the doorway and talked to me for like an hour, telling me it was okay, trying to get me to come out. I told him: “I’m not getting near anybody.” I closed the door and stayed upstairs by myself.
It’s been almost a week since the funeral, and I’m still afraid to go outside. I’m scared to be within 10 feet of anybody. I start shaking whenever I walk out the door. What if I catch it all over again, or what if I can still give it to someone else? The doctor told me that’s not factual, since they cleared me as recovered. He says it’s paranoia and anxiety. He wrote me a prescription and told me to take two tablets every time I leave the house, but it’s easier to stay here. If I’m by myself, nothing else can go wrong.