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Essential





I’m listening.


I’m listening. That’s what she said whenever there was a lapse in the conversation, or she wanted him to talk. It started back when they were dating in college, continued while he was in medical school and she worked her way through grad school. By the time he began his residency, that’s how she started each conversation, the long hours without contact adding to the miles between them.


Their relationship spanned five decades and that many states. They met back in ’87 when he was a junior at Clark College and she a freshman at Spelman. He stayed in Atlanta to attend Emory’s school of Medicine, a couple of years later she was heading back to Philadelphia to study at Wharton. There was a short separation, fearing the distance would cause a strain, but that lasted maybe a month. His residency took him to Charlotte, she found a job for an insurance company in New York City. It was 1995 before they found themselves together for more than two weeks at a time. A second promotion in less two years brought her to New Jersey and he soon followed, jobless. It took close to a year, but Dr. Gerard James landed in a hospital minutes away from Rutgers University.


On a cold March night twenty years later, he wasn’t Dr. Gerard James head of internal medicine or med school professor, he was Gerry. Gerry, Sabryna’s husband. Gerry, father of Miles, Lena, and Toni. Gerry, watching the only woman he ever loved die.


It had been seven, no, eight days since the two of them were last together. The virus took a new name, pandemic, and the entire world took notice. Gerry was torn between the professional and personal. The country was shutting down, but he was on the front line. It was all hands on deck at the hospital. So little was known, but the one thing that was understood was he needed to help as many people as possible.


Gerry kept Miles and Lena home from school and made arrangements to get Toni home from Atlanta. She put up a bit of a fight but deferred to Dad’s medical knowledge and came home during spring break, for what was supposed to be two weeks. Sabryna ended a business trip out west a few days early and booked a red-eye home. The last time they hugged was that night. 

The next morning, Gerry was out early, dealing with an overflowing ICU and cases that looked like pneumonia. But worse. COVID-19 was here and killing people overnight. It was unclear how it traveled or was transmitted, but the doctors were warned to stay away from their loved ones. Gerry and Sabryna decided he would stay in a hotel near the hospital for a few days until things calmed down.


Gerry’s work had always been important. As was Sabryna’s. However, in these unprecedented times, he learned he was essential. Essential. That was the new buzz word around the country. Those who provided services for others to live were now essential. Doctors, nurses, EMT, police, fire, grocery store workers. Essential. Everything deemed to be non-essential was shuttered.


He spent the first few nights in the hotel on the phone with Sabryna. They talked about the things he saw in the hospital, the uncertainty of the kid’s school year, taking a vacation over the summer, and the president’s task force briefing that day. 


That week felt like a month. By Saturday, the hospital was overrun with patients and staff members dealing with varying symptoms. The ICU was at its capacity, the emergency department bursting at the seams, doctors, and nurses pushing their limits. He lost a patient to the virus that evening and when the wife was notified, she was downstairs in the ED. Dr. James spent nearly 20 hours on his feet that Saturday, exhausted and overcome with emotion, he crashed at the hotel at 2:00 AM without a shower or calling home in hours.


The message from Miles was straight to the point, Mom’s sick


Dr. James excused himself from a meeting and walked the hall until he found an unoccupied alcove. He FaceTimed Sabryna and when she didn’t answer, Miles. She was coughing uncontrollably and complained she had the chills. The kids explained she’d developed a cough earlier in the week before but didn’t want to bother their father. She thought it was nothing. Today was a different story and Miles couldn’t hide his mother’s condition from his father any longer.


Gerry had Toni bring her to the ER, but it was almost five hours before he was able to see her. By that time, she was on a ventilator and his colleagues told him the prognosis wasn’t good. Everyone backed out of the room and allowed him to have a moment with his wife.


“I’m listening.”


It was the first time he’d said it to her. This close to the end, this far from the beginning, he could see the side of her mouth curl into a smile. He began to cry and apologize for not being home to protect her and the kids. He apologized for all the times he wasn’t there. The time he could’ve spent loving her. He took two steps closer, removed his gloves and mask, then held his wife’s hand.


One doctor started to enter the room to remind him of protocol, but a nurse stopped him, there’s no protocol for grief.

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