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The Discourse

Caught in the Ripple

What the pandemic did to my father.

The pandemic’s effects on all of us will last a long time.

Not just for the people who have died from COVID and their grieving loved ones, or the people living with new, chronic health conditions, but also the people who are unable to work from home, who have jobs that keep our communities running and are given very little to show for it, or who have suffered from job or housing losses.

This ripple of secondary effects on workers will be felt for lifetimes to come, whether through employment, housing, and food insecurity or through mental and physical health problems. COVID has pushed into disarray the lives of people it may never physically infect.

My dad is one of those people. For over a decade, he has worked for a family-owned chain of restaurants mostly located across Texas. He wakes up early in the morning and gets to work hours before the restaurants open up, and he does maintenance on various appliances. He mostly works at one location these days, but he’s tended to other locations in the past.

Sometimes he’s on call and is beckoned back later in the evening to fix a margarita machine, or a soda gun, or any of the various things that would make a floor manager go “oh shit” if they weren’t operating on a weeknight. He used to get sent to other areas of Texas for a week or so if they were down a technician for another location, but not so much recently. Sometimes someone in the kitchen makes him lunch, or he comes home with a basket of chicken tenders upon a mountain of fries.

This job has been good to him, for the most part, even when he gets into disagreements with floor managers who think they know his job and his appliances better than him. Many people have filtered in and out of these restaurants while my dad has stayed. He’s had very, very shit technician jobs before this.

One time he was sent to fix an air conditioning unit during a thunderstorm at a Jack in the Box in downtown Austin. As he was climbing off the roof, through the hatch and down the ladder leading back into the restaurant, the wind swung the hatch shut and the handle cracked down right on his skull. He started bleeding profusely, and needed stitches to close the wound. The Jack in the Box eventually closed down, but often in college I’d catch myself looking down at the abandoned restaurant from the fourth floor of my journalism classes in a fancy new building across the street. The things my dad has done to send me and my sibling to college and take care of our family cannot be paid back.

He was furloughed for a few months when the pandemic started, and it really depressed him. His life thrives on productivity; he didn’t know what to do with all this new free time, especially as my mom was still stuck going into work at her call center job. He worked on home improvement projects around his house, and then around my house, and went shooting with his brother, and watched some new TV shows. Eventually, he seemed to adjust to, if not enjoy, getting to stay home while getting paid. He’s 64, and I don’t care for him still working himself tired anyway, but I was glad he got to rest.

Then, a very unexpected personnel change at the restaurant required him to go back in early June. Weeks into his return, he injured his shoulder, something he kept from me and my sibling until my mom casually mentioned it during one of my backyard visits. He’s kept working, but he’s still in a lot of pain and will need surgery.

He’s waiting to get the approval to schedule the operation, and even then it’ll be another two weeks until he can get an appointment because they’re booked that far out. He asked me if I’d drive him when he goes in — my mom doesn’t drive on highways and the hospital is in downtown Austin, 20 or so miles away. Weeks ago, even the thought of being an enclosed space with my dad would have freaked me out, but I didn’t hesitate to say yes. I’ll wear a mask, he’ll wear a mask. I don’t care what we’ll have to do, I just want to help him.

After the surgery, his arm will be unusable and in a sling for six weeks. Then he’ll be in recovery for another six months, though I’m not sure if it’ll be paid time off or what. He told me on the phone yesterday that he’s currently thinking up hobbies he can take up or skills he can learn in that six-week period that don’t require the use of his arms. I asked him if he’d like to borrow a puzzle I bought a few months ago but haven’t opened, but he doesn’t like puzzles, he’s realized. I told him I started cross-stitching, and that he might be interested in that, but he used to help my grandmother with her sewing crafts decades ago and has decided he’s done with those, too. He eventually just let me give him my HBO Max login. (If you have any low-motor hobbies you’d like to recommend, do let me know.)

My mom’s health is deteriorating too. She’s been to the doctor several times this past month for various ailments. One weekend a few weeks ago she was mowing the grass in the backyard when she overheated, and on her way to sit down on the back patio, she fainted and hit her head on the concrete. She’s doing better, but I know a lot of this is the stress of the pandemic. She keeps telling me about the asshole customers who keep yelling at her over the phone because their orders are delayed. Fuck them all.

I just know there are hundreds of thousands of people out there who are suffering like this because of the pandemic. I’m sure many of you who are reading are suffering, and have family or friends who are, too. I’m sorry for all of us, but mostly I’ll be forever angry that our governments have completely left their people to fend for themselves.

They haven’t canceled rent and mortgages and made health care universal and paid people to stay home, or given hazard pay to people whose very existence prevents our communities from collapsing. Now, the impact of that is hitting my parents. I have “old parents” compared to other people my age, and growing up I always knew I’d still be young when I’d watch them grow old. I just never thought I would be watching them age like this.

Photo via Samantha Grasso