Portraits of Loss
A collection of stories and essays that illustrate the indelible mark left on our community by a pandemic that touched all our lives.
I remember thinking, “I guess I’m having the full COVID-19 experience,” though I knew immediately it wasn’t true. Having the full experience would mean switching places with the frail woman before me. It would mean my eyes were the ones that were closed, my breath silent and shallow.
But I also knew she wouldn’t want it that way. My mother, Alynne Martelle, was protective like that.
It was April 2020, and I was sitting in a Connecticut nursing home across the bed from my sister Kelly San Martin. I wasn’t thinking about how outlandishly I was dressed, but each glance across the bed provided a reminder. We were both wearing thin, disposable yellow gowns and too-big rubber gloves, with surgical masks covering our noses and mouths. We were each hoping the protection would be enough, but at that point in the pandemic’s first spring surge, nothing seemed certain.
Earlier that day — a Friday — I had been working from home and heard from my sister that my mom, 80 and diagnosed with COVID-19, had taken a turn for the worse. I called the nursing home where she’d lived for nearly five years, and the nurse said to come right away. So I told my editors at the Gazette what was going on, got in the car, and headed down the Pike.
I had a couple of hours to think during the drive. As a science writer for the Gazette, I routinely monitor disease outbreaks around the world — SARS, H1N1, seasonal flu — and discuss them with experts at the University. My hope is to lend perspective for readers on news that can seem too distant to be threatening — yet to which they might want to pay attention— or things that seem threateningly close, but in fact are rare enough that the screaming headlines may not be warranted.
There were two times during my coverage of the pandemic that I felt an almost physical sensation — that pit-of-the-stomach feeling of shock or fear. The first was when Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist and head of the Harvard Chan School’s Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics, said early on that, unlike its recent predecessors SARS and MERS, which got people very sick, this virus also caused a lot of mild or asymptomatic cases. As that news sank in, I realized how difficult the future might become: How can you stop something before you know it’s there?
The second time I had that feeling was just a few weeks later. Through February 2020, the number of cases in the U.S. and globally had continued to grow, and it became clear that a major public health emergency was underway. Harvard’s experts, among many others, were offering a way forward, and I was writing regularly about the pandemic, about the new-to-me concept of “social distancing” and the importance of using masks to reduce spread — even as faculty members at our hospitals were also warning of shortages of personal protective equipment, or PPE — another term now embedded in our daily language. That was when President Donald Trump used the word “hoax” in discussing the pandemic. When I read that I thought, “This could get a lot worse.”
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By the third week in April, it had. Then, of course, the winter’s much larger surge was still just a vague threat and 100,000 deaths nationally from COVID-19 would soon warrant front-page treatment in The New York Times. Nursing homes — which concentrated society’s frail and elderly — had been hit hard early, as protective measures were being worked out and individual habits — life-saving ones — were still being ingrained.
I suspect that a nursing home isn’t part of anyone’s plan for their final years, and it certainly wasn’t for my mother. She was born in Hartford, poor and proudly Irish. She was artistic, eccentric, and joked later in life that if she hyphenated all her last names, she’d be Alynne Cummings-Powell-Martelle-Martelle-Herzberger-Harripersaud. Though she was tough on her husbands, she was easy on her kids. Despite the roiling of her married life, our home in the Hartford suburbs was mostly stable. That was largely due to the stick-to-it-iveness of my stepfather Sal — the two Martelles in there — and the fact that her four kids never doubted that she loved them.
She traveled even more than she married, preferring out-of-the-way places and bringing home images of the people who lived there. Among her destinations, she spent a summer in Calcutta volunteering at one of Mother Teresa’s orphanages and, on her return, she struck up a correspondence with the future saint.