Thirty-five years ago, my grandfather’s doctor told him he couldn’t have Christmas with his grandchildren unless we all wore surgical masks when we were in the same room with him. We did it, we survived, and so did he!
The world of 1986 wasn’t toiling through a pandemic. We just had the ordinary winter colds and flu drifting around. But there are some people for whom any illness can be fatal.
My grandfather’s name was Ralph, and we grandchildren called him Ralfather. I didn’t write about him on what would have been his hundredth birthday, like I did Janmother and Grandma—because I didn’t think of it until the actual day arrived, and on that day my son had to go to the emergency room so I ended up writing about the value of eleven cents instead. Ralfather would have appreciated that story. He was a person who knew the value of every cent and the value of counting your blessings. He survived poverty, various hardships, and the 1918 flu. He was raised by a single mother after his father “ran off with a floozy-woman,” and it was his yearning for approval from male role models that led him to take up cigarette smoking when he was only about nine years old. He often warned me about the dangers of smoking and the difficulty of quitting. What with all the stresses of life, he never managed to quit until he was diagnosed with emphysema when I was nine years old.
His doctor told him that if he quit smoking right away, he might live a few more years; if he didn’t quit, he’d be dead in six months. Ralfather felt the choice was obvious. He wanted all the time he could get, to retire from his business (he had started his own real-estate agency), spend time with his family, and just enjoy life.
Over the next five years, he achieved those first two goals, but it’s tough to enjoy life as breathing becomes increasingly difficult! He had other health problems, too—macular degeneration and osteoporosis—but he enjoyed what he could and was grateful for the time he had. It was awful to see him gasping and coughing and struggling, but it sure did motivate me to say no to cigarettes! Ralfather was glad to get that lesson across and would be pleased to hear how his story has helped me explain addiction to my children.
By 1986, when I was thirteen, Ralfather was using supplemental oxygen 24 hours a day and rarely left the house. In the autumn, he caught a cold that put him through a dreadful struggle and weakened his immune system. That’s when his doctor warned him against visits with children, who are so often exposed to illnesses in school. Ralfather was willing to tell us to stay home for Thanksgiving, but he really wanted to see the grandkids open our Christmas presents. Hence the masks.
Some people in 2020-2021 have been acting like masks to reduce the transmission of germs are some kind of new, unproven idea. They aren’t! Even before the 1918 flu pandemic, it was common knowledge that a piece of material filtering the air that comes out of your lungs catches some of the germs you exhale, and it also catches some of the germs from the air around you so that you don’t inhale them. That’s why they’re called “surgical masks”: Surgeons wear them to reduce the germs they breathe into the patient’s incision. Back in 1986, even children were well aware of the risk-reducing properties of masks—obviously, if covering your sneeze or cough helps you avoid spreading germs, covering every breath helps even more, right? A seven-year-old child can see that! My daughter is seven now, and my cousin Mark was seven then, and it wasn’t a difficult concept to explain to either of them.
So we wore surgical masks on Christmas morning, and it seemed kind of weird, but in a fun way. My brother and cousins and I enjoyed pretending to be doctors…or gangsters.
That was our last Christmas with Ralfather, but it was not our last visit. He lived almost a full year more. I saw him for the last time on Thanksgiving weekend 1987, when I baked a lemon meringue pie because I wanted to learn how to make meringue; I didn’t realize that lemon meringue was Ralfather’s very favorite kind of pie. It came out well, and he was so pleased. I’m glad we had that extra time together. Despite all the suffering, he was thankful for his 77 years of life, for family, for pie.
Thirty-four years ago today, Ralfather’s lungs finally breathed their last gasps, and he died. He didn’t quite make it to another Christmas with his extended family. But if we’d been careless the previous Christmas, we might have lost him before New Year’s. An illness that our healthy bodies might fight off without symptoms could have killed him.
So if someone you love is old and frail, or they have a weakened immune system, or they haven’t been vaccinated against Covid-19 and flu, or they just don’t feel comfortable gathering indoors without masks . . . please wear your mask! Please share your love but not your germs! Please take good care of your favorite people and be thankful for every moment you have together! Maybe you could make their favorite pie.
And please remember that masks aren’t magic. Masks prevent Covid-19 transmission like condoms prevent pregnancy: They reduce the risk but not to zero. It’s still important to keep your distance from vulnerable people and have the best ventilation possible. And if your loved one doesn’t feel safe being indoors with you at all, don’t take that personally; recognize that “I insist on being with you even if you don’t feel safe” is not a gesture of love. Maybe you could do a no-contact drop-off of their favorite pie and then watch them enjoy it via video chat.
There’s always next year. But that’s what we said last year! Thinking back on Ralfather’s story, I realize that masks made it possible for us to be together on Christmas 1986, but even with that protection, he did not live to see Christmas 1987. Many families are deciding to get together this year–taking precautions but not canceling the gathering–because we just never know which Christmas will be our last, or because someone who seems unlikely to make it through another year really wants to be with family again. It is safer in 2021 than it was in 2020, especially if your whole family is vaccinated.
I learned from Ralfather that getting through difficult times and being responsible make us stronger and better people. I also learned that sometimes being together with people we love is worth some risk–but not all the risk available! Wearing a mask is such a simple way of making things a little safer.
Whether you get to see your relatives or not, I wish you a very happy and healthy holiday season!