Illustration by Alissa Martin

A first responder comes home to her second shift

Her key scrapes in the lock and the dogs announce her arrival with frantic barks. She steps into the house after a 12-hour shift in the emergency room. Her nurse’s uniform is wrapped carefully in a Kroger bag and set by her feet as she puts on hand sanitizer and sprays her shoes and work bag with Lysol. She hasn’t left the doormat.

At work, the hospital makes her wear a mask all day paired with gray suction goggles, which she wears over her glasses. At times she feels like she’s suffocating. Last week, after spending her shift assigned to COVID-19 patients, she had a panic attack.

Even as a kid, my mom loved taking care of people. Instead of finding a place in her father’s company, Gorsuch Realty, she went to nursing school and started her first nursing job, working night shifts.

She later worked in the emergency room, radiology, surgery pre-operations then return to the ER. She doesn’t feel like a nurse right now. She says she’s never felt more detached from the patients. The hospital expects nurses to be machines with the sole purpose of detecting the coronavirus.

Mom goes upstairs to shower and comes down sporting a ratty pair of gray flannel pants, a red long sleeve Christmas shirt that says “warm and cozy” (antithetical to her mood), and a thick headband to hold back her short, wet hair. Her L.L. Bean clogs pound every step despite the carpet.

She takes her uniform down to the basement to wash. Wet clothes were left in the washer and dryer.

“Aaandy! Why is there laundry in here? You know I need to wash my uniform after my shift.”

My stepdad Andy is getting the water ready for the noodles and stirring the sauce. He stops, already exasperated, and heads downstairs. An irritated exchange is muffled through the vent.

When she comes up from the laundry room, she starts picking everything apart. She notices an Amazon box on the counter, which has not been properly sanitized. There are at least 36 COVID-19 cases within the Amazon empire.

“Why didn’t you take the Amazon package out of the box?!”

She is in grad school to be a family nurse practitioner. She works two shifts a week and does homework on the other five.

Mom is used to the quiet of being a (usually) empty nester. But with two daughters who moved back from college mid-semester and a laid-off husband, the house is fuller than it’s been in years.

This is the part of the coronavirus people don’t see on TV.

She sweeps the floor like it’s never seen a broom and sprays cleaner on random surfaces.

 “Such bullshit,” she says. “I shouldn’t have to do fucking chores when I get home.”

She rifles through the shoe bin, piled to the top.

“Don’t keep so many shoes downstairs. It’s common-fucking-sense.”

She examines the living room. She yanks the couch into its proper position.

“Someone pushed the couch up against the wall again. I have to fix it everyday.”

The water is boiling, noodleless, and steam begins to billow from the lid. I try to visualize portions of noodles we might need by looking at a handful of yellow sticks.

“Is this enough?” I ask.

“There’s another box in the emergency bin. Go look!” she yells.

Before I get the chance to put away the noodles and look for another box,  she’s marching down the stairs again, making herself known. I start to follow.

“Just don’t! I’m already going down here aren’t I?!” her head snaps back at me.

“Seems like you had a bad day today,” I say.

“Yeah, I had a busy fucking day.”

This is the part of the coronavirus people don’t see on TV. First responders are worn out and overwhelmed, not smiling ear to ear. Families are overcrowded and tense. For many, the stay-at-home order feels like a time bomb and the clock is running out.

I go back up and a few minutes later, a box of spaghetti flies up from the basement. It hits the kitchen floor with a bang.

“Here’s your pasta,” I hear from the stairs.

I put in the spaghetti and Andy comes back to take over. As he tries to finish dinner, she goes upstairs loudly closing doors and cabinets.

Andy’s phone rings and it’s Mom, calling from upstairs. She interrogates him about the insurance and his unemployment.

He puts down the phone and shakes his head.

“I’m not gonna be here much longer, Abigail. I love you, but I’m sorry I can’t do it. This ain’t my life,” Andy says to me.

I don’t reply.

Andy is out of work for the next few weeks. He was one of the last four employees kept on at a commercial flooring company. Mom has been filing unemployment for him because he doesn’t use computers often.

“It’s not right that I have to take this on also because you don’t want to learn,” she bites. “Also you can walk the dogs tomorrow. Since you’re not working. I have so much schoolwork.”

Andy starts to eat his spaghetti. She prods him further about his job. He leaves, taking his plate with him.

“If this whole quarantine doesn’t end, I’m getting a divorce,” she says to me.

“God, can you please just be silent. Please.”

Silence. In China, the quarantine skyrocketed divorce rates. Both of them try to bring me into their problems like I could change anything. I just want quiet.

“Well, how was your day?” she tries again.

“Fine.”

“You have schoolwork?”

“Yup.”

The only sounds left are the forks scraping our white Ikea plates and the slurp of long spaghetti noodles.