Day 1,098,268,288 of quarantine. I write this column with fingers chapped from excessive hand-washing. I sit at a messy desk in one of our spare bedrooms. I’m surrounded by dirty coffee mugs and a plate from a couple of days ago. My hair hasn’t been cut in six weeks. I’m wearing sweatpants and a hoodie. My beard is providing shelter to a menagerie of small critters.
The novelty of quarantine officially has worn off. Most of us now have endured weeks of Zoom video calls with clients and colleagues in which the first 10 minutes invariably involves some repetitive recitation of “Please mute your phones!” followed by “My phone is muted!” (clearly, it wasn’t, Karen). We’ve gotten to know our spouses and children in a very different light. Our pets are actually getting tired of us being around. My dishwasher hasn’t seen this much action since that one year we hosted Christmas. Never again.
Of course, many of us also have started to experience the much more difficult aspects of living during a global pandemic. Law firms of all shapes and sizes are furloughing staff and cutting attorney salaries. Clients are making incredibly difficult decisions about whether to lay off employees or file bankruptcy. A good part of my practice, which focuses on hospitality M&A, has come to a halt. My days have shifted from advising clients on complex mergers and restructurings to pouring over legislative guidance and helping small businesses apply for SBA loans. It’s a good reminder that attorneys always must be nimble, particularly in the age of COVID-19.
And yet, the economic implications are far outweighed by the personal struggles and loss many in our community are experiencing. Unfortunately, I know this all too well. A couple of weeks ago, my father, Bill, was admitted to the hospital with COVID-like symptoms. He had all of the tell-tale signs: digestive issues, a fever and difficulty breathing. His doctors and our family were convinced he had the virus. The hospital administered the test, but we were told it would take at least 24 hours to get the results.
In the meantime, my entire family kicked into gear to try to do anything we could. My stepfather — also an attorney — reached out to his contacts at the hospital, including the former general counsel, to make sure Bill was being treated well. My father-in-law, a vascular surgeon, offered to call the doctor directly to discuss some experimental treatments that were beginning to show promise in China. I was calling colleagues with family members who had been diagnosed with the illness to find out what treatments had helped their recoveries. My mother, brother and wife kept Bill apprised of our efforts while also keeping him company (by phone) and letting him know how much everyone was thinking about him.
To our surprise, the test came back negative. We all were shocked but obviously overjoyed. The hospital, presumably wanting to free up bed space for the impending influx of patients, released him the next day. His caregivers had no idea what was wrong with him, but he seemed to be doing somewhat better, so they believed it was appropriate to continue his treatment from home. We spoke often during the next few days, and his condition seemed to be improving. My wife and I spoke to him on Saturday night, told him that we loved him and talked about coming to visit this summer when everything returns to normal. He died in his home the next day.
We’re not sure what ultimately took my father’s life, but we suspect that COVID-19 may have been to blame — despite the negative test result. We likely will never know for sure, and perhaps it doesn’t matter. My family’s heart is broken all the same, and regardless of the cause, this pandemic has made the grieving process that much harder. We can’t gather to comfort each other or have a physical memorial for at least several months. We were forced to organize a video call to say our final goodbyes.
This cruel illness has forced all of us to experience grief and loss in various ways and to differing degrees. Our way of life has been fundamentally altered. It’s hard to imagine if or when things will go back to “normal”. But as lawyers, we have a responsibility to use our expertise to help people navigate these difficult times. My mentor once told me that the most important quality of a great lawyer is the ability to remain calm under intense pressure and help guide those who are in panic. Now, more than ever, that advice rings true for me.
We also should take care to be empathetic and kind, and recognize that we all are experiencing difficult emotions right now. In the words of author Wendy Bass, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” Unfortunately, I’ve gained a new perspective on that quote this week.
I’ll sign off with “The Mower,” my favorite poem by Philip Larkin, which has brought me some comfort during this time:
The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found
A hedgehog jammed up against the blades,
Killed. It had been in the long grass.
I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.
Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world
Unmendably. Burial was no help:
Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful
Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.