Amber felt numb. The death of Rufus’ parents from COVID-19 made the pandemic so real and no longer an abstraction. Sickness and death from the virus happened to other people, not the parents of a good friend. She wasn’t sure what to do. She sent flowers and cards to Rufus and Ellowyne, and arranged for a home meal delivery service to make suppertime easier. Amber also made a donation in their names to the hospital at which Penn worked. Yet, there was something missing.
The next day, she dragged herself into the kitchen for breakfast. She stared at her chocolate croissant and what Lizette always called her “weasel poop” coffee.
Marisol took note of Amber’s distress. “Señorita, you seem so sad today. What can I do to help you?”
Amber burst into tears. “Marisol, I just don’t know how to deal with the death of my friend’s parents. I’ve done some practical things that should help but my gestures feel hollow. Inadequate. And I don’t know what I should do to make them feel meaningful.”
Marisol put her arm around Amber, who turned, embraced her, and cried onto her shoulder. Amber sobbed, “I don’t know what to do! And I’m afraid, really afraid. I mean, Rufus’ parents and the people Penn takes care of in the ER. He gets exposed to COVID every shift. He might be the next to get sick. Or die.”
“Shhhhh, Señorita. Va a estar bien. No te preocupes.”
“Gracias,” Amber replied. “You’re right. It will be okay. And I shouldn’t worry. It’s futile and wastes time. I’ll text my friends later today. Thank you for listening.”
Later that day, Amber got a text from Penn. “I have the day off! Do you have time for a FaceTime chat?” he asked.
“Yes! How have you been?”
“Welp,” he said. “It’s busy. And it’s overwhelming. Oh, please thank you and your parents for the ‘anonymous’ donation for PPE. There were a few days in which we had to wear masks many days in a row, even though we were supposed to change them daily, even more often when treating really sick patients. We also appreciated you all sending us coffee and doughnuts, and sub sandwiches and pizza.”
She asked, “How did you know the donations were from us if they were ‘anonymous’?”
Penn chuckled when he responded. “Because that’s the kind of thing your family always does.”
“You know, there was a time when my family craved the attention. We wanted to be seen at the best parties, the most prestigious events, the most elaborate events. Then things changed. It’s a lot more fun to be anonymous and stealthy. But there will be at least one donation that will be anonymous but in the memory of Rufus’ parents. It’s earmarked for COVID treatment and testing, and supplies like PPE.”
“That’s a great cause,” Penn replied. “I’m sure the donation will be greatly appreciated. Which reminds me, have you heard from Ellowyne or Rufus lately?”
Amber felt chagrined to admit that she hadn’t been in touch recently, mostly because she didn’t want to be a bother.
“Oh, Amber,” Penn said. “You’re not a bother! I’m sure they’d appreciate a call or a chat. I need to get in touch with Rufus. Vaccine trials are beginning, and he told me he’d be interested in participating.”
“Can you participate in the clinical trials?” Amber asked.
“No. The hospital considers me as more valuable as a working nurse than as a test subject. Besides, I get exposed to COVID all the time. It would be difficult to tell if the vaccine produced an increased antibody response or if I had been exposed but didn’t have symptoms. Hey, you want to hear a great story from my days as a medic?”
“Well, when it was flu season, the Army wanted all its soldiers vaccinated. The other medic and I were busy with some instruction that day, so neither of us was available. The chaplain wanted to get his vaccination and the sergeant gave him an option: wait for one of us or have the sergeant, who rarely gives injections, administer it. Apparently the chappie, who rarely used salty language, cursed a blue streak even before the vaccination was done!”
Amber laughed so hard she almost snorted her iced tea out of her nose. “Penn, you are a nut!” She paused briefly, then said, “I miss you.”
“I miss you, too,” Penn replied. “I’m going to be so glad to see you when this is all over.”
“How much longer do you think the pandemic will last?”
“I wish I knew,” Penn answered. I thought it was going to be just a few weeks but there’s no sign of this letting up. You have heard that we’re not walking at graduation, right?”
“Yeah. The schools are trying to decide if our classes will be on campus or online, or if we’ll have a delayed start. I’ve also heard that some classes will be cancelled for the semester,” she said dejectedly. “But now you’re done with your courses since you’re working at the hospital. Any word on when you’re taking your licensing exam?”
Penn sneered. “We’re supposed to get time off so we can study for the test, but so far that hasn’t happened. I haven’t had the time to study, much less take practice tests or get tutoring if we need it. The tests are done online, and they give you a minimum of 75 questions. If you’ve passed, they turn off the test. But if you fail, they also turn it off, probably because the great gods of testing want us to suffer while we wait for results. Oh, and they will give you questions categorized by clinical area, so you might have mostly mental health questions or medical-surgical specialty questions—but no questions on obstetrics or pediatrics or other areas. What I need is a couple of weeks, holed up in my room, drinking beer, and studying. I’m sorry. I hope I’m not boring you!”
“Penn, you don’t need to worry. You are never boring!”
He smiled. “I’m going to let you go for a while. I need a nap!”
“Get some sleep, Penn. Many happy dreams!”
“Thank you, Amber. I really can’t wait to see you again. Thanks for being there.”
Amber was chagrined. Long ago, she and Penn agreed to become friends with benefits. They swore they would not get emotionally involved with each other and they were not going to be exclusive. That, of course, was moot during a pandemic that kept people apart. Penn met nurses and other hospital colleagues during the course of a day, while Amber was remaining at home, rarely venturing out and certainly not meeting anyone new.
She took another sip of her iced tea and texted Ellowyne to see how she was.
To be continued…