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REFLECTION: Coping with Corona in the Family

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Driving down the tree-lined, gravel path to my grandparents’ Nashville house used to give me a sudden rush of excitement. With each passing dip along the long driveway, I knew I was closer to the warm hugs and greeting smiles of family. My grandparents’ driveway has been the centerpiece of many marvelous memories: Christmas card photo shoots, competitive Easter egg hunts, sledding in the snow and joyful wagon rides behind my grandfather’s lawnmower.

But that all changed several weeks ago.

As I navigate down their private drive, I am no longer filled with elation but disheartenment, because inside the house sits my 78-year-old grandmother, Dena Williamson, battling the coronavirus. It has not been an easy fight.

Instead of the usual affectionate reception to which I have grown accustomed over the years, I am now forced to quickly drop off my delivery of homemade chicken noodle soup on their front porch before hurrying back to my car, making sure that I don’t touch anything or even breathe the air. As the image of their house fades in my rear-view mirror, all I can see is the gloom and despair that now manifests all over this pandemic filled world.

The unforeseen coronavirus outbreak has changed the way we all approach our daily lives — the way we work, learn, play, socialize and so much more. With schools and universities closing down for the remainder of the semester, professional sports leagues canceling their seasons and individuals being asked to work from home, the coronavirus is destroying the life we took for granted and replacing it with fear and unease.

A young Caitlin Williamson and her family on Easter
A young Caitlin Williamson and her family on Easter. Photo credit: Caitlin Williamson

The United States is currently up to 856,209 confirmed cases of coronavirus. In my home state of Tennessee there are now 7,842 cases of COVID-19 according to the Tennessee Department of Health, the 19th highest amount in the country. I never imagined that one of those case numbers would mean so much to me.

My grandmother has lived in Nashville her entire life. As a bridge extraordinaire, gardener and avid walker, she is quite active and rarely takes a day off.

That lifestyle changed dramatically three weeks ago when she developed a terrible headache and began to feel achy all over. After going to her regular doctor to get a test for the common flu, she was stunned when she received a call two days later revealing that she, in fact, had the coronavirus.

“I was absolutely shocked to hear I had corona because I did not have any of the other symptoms. In my mind, having the virus was never an actual possibility,” my grandma said.

Public health experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have urged older adults to stay at home as much as possible because of the considerable risk for the demographic. Their risk is especially high if they have other underlying health conditions such as diabetes, asthma or heart disease.

On March 30, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee issued a statewide stay-at-home order. Under the order, Tennesseans are still able to obtain groceries, take out food from restaurants, and go to medical, household and automobile supply stores, but nonessential businesses are ordered to shut down.

“For the first two weeks after being diagnosed with corona, I had on-again-off-again fevers and never felt good enough to even get out of bed,” grandma said.

My grandfather, Paul Williamson, knew that once his wife had the coronavirus, he was also very likely to get it. My grandmother moved to the guest bedroom and tried to avoid as much physical contact with him as possible, but it did not take long for him to start experiencing the same fevers and sickness. Thankfully, my grandfather has not endured as acute symptoms, and has been able to care for his wife of 56 years.

“I tell her every day that we will get through this and remind her how much I love her,” my grandpa said. He added, as he always likes to say, “we are all in this together.”

Between working from home and being unable to go anywhere nonessential, my dad, Charley Williamson, has had a difficult time trying to do all that he can to make sure his mother is okay. He calls her each day to check in and see if her symptoms are getting any better or worse, but says it is frustrating not being able to go see her.

“My main concern is making sure my mom can breathe on her own and does not need to be rushed to the hospital for a ventilator,” my dad said.

Caitlin Williamson in the snow with her family.
Williamson with her family on a snow day. Photo credit: Caitlin Williamson

After several hard-fought weeks of sickness and worry, my grandmother is beginning to feel better. She remains strong while fighting the coronavirus, but it has not been an easy journey. It has been a battle that she and my grandfather have had to tackle as a team while watching out for one another.

As of April 14, Gov. Lee extended the stay-at-home order through April 30, hoping to reopen Tennessee’s economy in May. Lee said he has formed an economic recovery group, working with legislators, local mayors, health care professionals and representatives of impacted industries to develop safe operating businesses as the pandemic continues. Such measures are critical to revive our economy while protecting our most vulnerable citizens.

As my family has rallied around trying to take care of my grandmother — teaching her how to order her groceries online and have them delivered, training her to use FaceTime and showing her how to live stream an Easter church service — we have actually grown much closer as a household, even while social distancing.

The Williamson family practicing responsible social distancing.
The Williamson family practicing responsible social distancing. Photo credit: Caitlin Williamson

During my time at home, I have been reminded that family relationships are vital and that each of us should take this unique time we have been given at home to better understand who we are and where we come from. Since I’ve been away at college, I have not been able to share in all of my family’s experiences. It has been nice to reconnect with everyone while I’m home, especially my 14-year-old dachshund Snickers. Because of my grandparent’s strong devotion to one another, I’ve learned to invest my time in the people that I love, knowing that life is too short to be anything but happy.

Four weeks after her diagnosis, my grandmother is determined to find her stamina and fight her way back to normal; including her old workout regime. She now uses their driveway, not for the joyous egg hunts, sledding or lawnmower rides, but instead to walk a couple of (very slow) life-sustaining laps. On days when she feels up to it, she walks with my grandfather down to the end of the tree-lined gravel driveway, rebuilding her strength. She is fighting step-by-step, literally and figuratively, for the life and family she loves dearly. It is through my grandmother’s strength and determination that I am encouraged and confident that we all have the spirit within us to beat the coronavirus.

Dena Williamson on April 22, celebrating her 79th birthday.
Dena Williamson on April 22, celebrating her 78th birthday. Photo credit: Caitlin Williamson

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