SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – We call them “Madad,” my siblings and I: So inseparable, not to say indistinct, have my parents become during 66 years of marriage. When they call it's a twofer, dueling voices on separate extensions cheerfully greeting the new arrival on the line.
But they don't call often. Depression babies, I suspect they have never completely let go of the long-distance toll charge. So when I recently picked up a buzzing phone to see “Jack & Shirley O'Connor,” my stomach dropped. As I explained in a text to my sisters and brother:
“Disconcerting: Unexpected call from Madad.”
“Frightening: Unexpected call from Madad during pandemic.”
“Heart-stopping: Unexpected call from Madad during pandemic in which the first thing Dad says is, ‘John, I’ve got a problem.'”
Fortunately, the problem was my father's inability to link to the online Mass celebrated by my brother, the Rev. Dan O'Connor, pastor of a church in Alexandria, Louisiana. A few keystrokes later, I could hear through the phone my brother's familiar voice saying the opening prayer. Crisis averted.
Surrounded by a world of true suffering, life-risking heroism by men and women who don't think twice, and the most uncertain future many of us have ever faced, I am so fortunate. I have remained healthy. I have retained a paycheck, unlike an unfathomable number of others. I have friends on the phone and two goofy dogs at my feet.
My primary focus has been my parents, Jack and Shirley, in Freeport, Illinois, 115 miles (185 kilometers) northwest of Chicago. Both turned 90 late last year, my father a week after Ma. He has never tired of gossiping about the chance that Shirley would marry a younger man.
They are still in the home they bought in 1959. But both have endured knives that cut out cancer. Shirley uses a walker. Jack has a replaced heart valve and lung issues that would be far worse had he not tossed the cigarettes circa 1964 and started jogging before anyone knew what “aerobic" exercise was.
In other words: If the coronavirus caught them, they would not wrench free.
They get it. They listen patiently as my sisters, Sue and Terry, and my brother Dan commiserate and cajole.
There was Mass — daily for Jack, and no Sundays or holy days missed by Shirley. Fortunately, churches and synagogues and mosques caught on early, canceling in-person worship and making video stars of clerics the world over. (When I sent Dan a clip of an Italian priest turning on the video for Mass, and with it the funny filters of horns and sunglasses and mustaches, he responded, “That's why I have someone else turn on the camera.”)
Jack does the grocery shopping. The day that the Illinois Retail Merchants Association announced that state grocers had established “senior shopping” hours, I called my folks' store and learned the appointed hour is 6 to 7 a.m. daily. My father has complied and laughed when I told him, “It's a good thing it's not ‘Chubby Middle-Aged Man Shopping' hours, ‘cause ain’t no way I'm going at 6 a.m.!"
The one battle none of us offspring could win was the one over “perpetual adoration.” This is the Catholic practice in which the Body of Christ in the Eucharist, exposed on the church altar, must be attended around the clock. Jack rebuffed each of his children’s individual entreaties to give up his volunteer slots. I believe he thought: “My hours of prayer alone in the church, this is my contribution.” The church recently suspended adoration, too, because of the crisis.
Now, at home, he and Shirley have television, books, word puzzles and prayer. Perhaps the thing they do best — praying — is the thing the world now needs most.
Fortunately, God isn't picky about their doing it from home.
“ Virus Diary,” an occasional feature, will showcase the coronavirus saga through the eyes of Associated Press journalists around the world. Follow Illinois-based AP Political Writer John O'Connor on Twitter at http://twitter.com/APOConnor