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Re: JUST SAYING GOODBYE

A pandemic email correspondence and the search for grace

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Subject: Re: MY MINI-BOOK
From: Heather
To: Mom
Sent: Mon, Mar 2, 2020 10:01 AM

Hi there. The booklet arrived over the weekend. Haven't had much of a chance to read because of the virus situation. I'm not managing the response, only managing communications, but it's been pretty time-consuming. Anyway, I'm glad you got the books made and are happy with them. I'll let you know when I get a chance to read a few pages.

Hope all is well with you!
Take care,
Heather

Subject: Re: MY MINI-BOOK
From: Mom
To: Heather
Sent: Mon, Mar 2, 2020, 12:56 PM

Gotcha! It doesn't take long to read ... less than an hour.

I don't know what you mean by the "virus situation."

Subject: Re: MY MINI-BOOK
From: Heather
To: Mom
Sent: Mon, Mar 2, 2020, 1:45 PM

The global pandemic called Coronavirus?

ILLUSTRATION  BY JACQUI LANGELAND
  • Illustration by Jacqui Langeland

Sitting in her Eureka home early last month, Heather Muller points to this exchange, saying she and her mother were living divergent realities from the pandemic's earliest days. Humboldt County confirmed its first case of the virus Feb. 20, 2020 — coincidentally the first anniversary of Muller's father's death. With Muller having stepped in as the head public information officer for the county's response, the virus had since become a growing point of focus. As the county declared a local health emergency and issued a shelter-in-place order in the coming weeks, the threat of COVID would increasingly consume her days. Eventually, the county's Joint Information Center grew to include a call center and staff more than two dozen people, with Muller in charge of helping to manage the crucial functions of messaging and outreach.

Down in the greater Sacramento area, meanwhile, her mother still didn't know what the coronavirus was and just wanted feedback on a booklet she'd written about a missionary trip to the Ukraine 30 years earlier. An avid lover of yard sales, she wanted to share her recent finds, swap cookie recipes and relay the latest from her church's "music jams," which she attended regularly even though she did not play an instrument or sing anymore.

Of course, like everyone else, Muller's mom would soon find the virus and its impacts inescapable. Within weeks, it would come to dominate her life, too, isolating her, stripping her of social supports and, ultimately, infecting her.

Subject: KEEPING IN TOUCH
From: Mom
To: Heather
Sent: Mon, Mar 9, 2020, 9:03 PM

Hi Heather...

How are things going? I hope the Corona Virus hasn't had a negative impact on your job. It seems that everyone is in a panic about it. Hopefully it will all blow over in a couple of weeks. But, who knows ...?

Subject: Re: KEEPING IN TOUCH
From: Mom
To: Heather
Sent: Mon, Mar 16, 2020, 11:50 PM

... Tim [Muller's brother] told me you texted him and that you had been working ridiculous hours. Sorry about that ... It looks like the Coronavirus is here to stay for awhile. Personally, I'm not really concerned about it, but it looks like I'm the only one. The store shelves are empty ... schools are closing, etc. The [grandkids] will be out of school for four weeks, counting Easter vacation. 'Nuf of the "C" word ... That's all that is on TV. It's gotten to the boring/redundant stage.

Subject: Re: KEEPING IN TOUCH
From: Heather
To: Mom
Sent: Tue, Mar 17, 2020, 6:02 AM

Thanks for the note. ... Not to put too fine a point on it, but given your age and heart issues, were you to get exposed to the virus you would have between a one-in-five and one-in-six chance of dying. Fifteen percent mortality for you. I'm not suggesting you flip out or hoard toilet paper. That's just dumb. But some common-sense precautions are not a bad idea ...

Subject: Re: KEEPING IN TOUCH
From: Mom
To: Heather
Sent: Tue, Mar 17, 2020, 9:48 AM

... Thanks for the good advice ...

I'm trying to be cautious, but I am not "freaking out" about the Covid 19. I have to pick up a prescription today at Raley's and I will get a few things while I am there. Also tomorrow, I have a cleaning lady and partner coming ... and I confirmed that they are actually going to be here. The poor girl ... the owner of the business, said that all her customers are canceling out and she doesn't know how she will pay her bills. I feel bad for her.

Never thought I'd see the day, but the pastor sent around an email that all services at the church will be canceled until further notice. Just Sunday, he asked from the pulpit if anyone in the congregation was "paranoid" about the Coronavirus. Nobody raised their hands and the usual people were there. He said he felt that we should cooperate to help in efforts to quell the spread of the virus.

... So I guess that's what we're doing. ...

That's all ... thanks for the hint and the statistics.

For the better part of 22 months now, Muller has been looking for local people to tell their COVID-19 stories, believing local residents need to hear first-hand accounts of illness and loss directly from their friends and neighbors to make the pandemic feel real.

"Since the pandemic began, all of us in the Joint Information Center have been trying to find stories that humanize the experience. We've been looking for what we call 'good pandemic stories,' by which we mean awful pandemic stories — stories that demonstrate the seriousness of the virus, the impact it can have not just on the patient, but on friends and family, too," Muller says, adding those efforts largely failed. "People don't want to talk about it. They are embarrassed, angry. Everyone has pandemic fatigue, and vaccination status has become one of those things like religion and politics that aren't talked about in polite company."

What Muller had not really contemplated was the notion she might one day have her own COVID-19 story to tell, that her personal and professional lives could collide. And even after her mother died Oct. 30 in a Northern California hospital, isolated and unvaccinated, struggling to breathe with severe COVID-induced pneumonia, sharing her story publicly wasn't something Muller immediately considered.

But days after her mom's death, Muller was catching up on emails and saw the last one she'd received from her mom, sent just a few days before she collapsed in her bathroom Oct. 21 and was taken to the hospital. Muller described it as initially "disorienting," but says she read it again with fresh eyes and, before long, was re-reading all of their emails from throughout the pandemic. Due to a significant hearing impairment, Muller's mom communicated with her almost entirely via email — often reaching out under all-caps subject lines like JUST CHECKING IN or JUST SAYING HI — leaving a near-complete record of their pandemic correspondence.

Muller realized she'd found a story, though it wasn't the one she'd envisioned with her colleagues at the JIC. Yes, she says, she'd experienced the hollow pain of saying goodbye to a loved one over Facetime as a nurse documented her family's end-of-life decisions; she'd felt the frustration of trying in vain to reach the overwhelmed and overrun medical staff caring for her mother and she'd felt the desperation that comes with knowing a loved one is dying. But the story she'd found in their correspondence felt deeper, more nuanced, yet more universal.

"It's literally my job to get people the information they need to stay alive in the pandemic but, while talking to her about risk profiles and mortality statistics, she was telling me she was lonely," Muller says. "I didn't hear it. We weren't even speaking the same language."

Muller pauses. She recognizes the irony inherent in the story of someone in charge of messaging for a vaccination effort having been unable to convince her own mother to get her shots, but she says it is deeper than that. As a society, she says, we've stopped hearing one another. The emails, she says, are the story.

In the weeks after her mother's death, Muller shared all her pandemic email exchanges that reference the virus, vaccination, masks or health orders with the Journal on two basic conditions: that we change the names of anyone mentioned, including her mom, out of respect for the privacy of her mother's family and friends, and that we make clear she was speaking not as a county spokesperson but in her capacity as a private citizen, careful to limit calls, emails and texts about this story to her breaks, weekends and off hours.

After reviewing the emails and having several conversations with Muller, the Journal decided to publish them, editing them for length and clarity, with a focus on her mother's experience. But first, a reporter asks again, "Are you sure you want to do this?"

Yes, Muller replies.

"Honestly, I don't want to talk about it," she says. "I'm not a fan of sharing the details of my personal life but I think this story needs to be told. It's a good COVID story. I just wish it wasn't my COVID story."

Subject: NO NEED TO ANSWER THIS – FYI ONLY
From: Mom
To: Heather
Sent: Thu, Mar 19, 2020, 6:42 PM

Just keeping you up on a few of the happenings ... nothing big. ...

I canceled all the appointments I had for the next month or so. I'm afraid things will get very boring! ...

ILLUSTRATION BY JACQUI LANGELAND
  • Illustration by Jacqui Langeland

The weather was nice today. I decided to go outside and take a few walks around the parking lot. I did that, but then I decided to take my new basketball and shoot a few. Ha! I couldn't even launch that BB 2 feet! Guess my arms are weak, so my new plan of action is to use the 8-pound dumb bells I have and work on strengthening my arms. Gives me something to do in my isolation. I also plan to do a little writing, organize some of my pictures and clean out some obscure corners I haven't gotten to in years. Once I get past the above, I'll have to think of some other stuff. I think it's going to be a very long and unusual Spring.

That's all ... don't bother to answer unless you actually have something special to say. I'll keep pounding you with the latest events from around here.
Love,
Mom

Subject: JUST A SHORT LITTLE NOTE (HA!)
From: Mom
To: Heather
Sent: Wed, Apr 1, 2020, 10:02 PM

Hi Heather...

Just thinking of you ... and hoping you aren't "working yourself to death." I've never known for sure just what your position is in the Health Department, but it almost sounds like you are a "trouble shooter." What is it you do that makes you have to work so many hours?

All is the same here, basically. Everything canceled, no unnecessary trips, stay away from other people, wear a mask, don't breathe on anyone ... and don't let them breathe on you, don't watch TV unless you want more blah, blah, blah, etc.

I'm trying to get some things done while in prison. 😉...

Subject: YOU STILL THERE???
From: Mom
To: Heather
Sent: Wed, Apr 8, 2020, 10:09 AM

Tim, [his wife] Sarah and the boys have not been here for a couple of weeks. [They] both had colds, and I guess they don't want to expose me to anything. I really miss seeing them and the boys.

Subject: Re: YOU STILL THERE???
From: Mom
To: Heather
Sent: Thu, Apr 9, 2020, 8:36 PM

Guess I've never grasped it if you told me before. So if I understand it correctly, you are the head of public information. Right? You answer questions for Humboldt County residents, etc. Sounds like lots of work, so don't work yourself to death!

Anyhow, it's good that you have a job. So many people have lost theirs ... or they've been "put on hold" until further notice.

I'm doing OK ... I just don't like not having anyone to talk to. Carol [her neighbor and best friend of more than 50 years] has been my "link to the world" and I stop by and see her just about every day when I go down to the mailbox to get the mail. ...

I guess most people have isolated themselves, canceled all their appointments and headed off any workers they had coming to their homes. Basically, that's what I've done. Anyhow, both my handymen have called ... I'm sure because they are out of work. So Saturday, [one] is coming to do a lot of stuff for me like mowing, minor repairs, etc. He said he can stay all day if I have enough work for him to do. I do ... but I hope [the other] doesn't call for the same reason. Currently, I only have enough work for one person.

Financially, I am doing well. I don't have many needs ... and very few wants ...
That's all ... I don't want you to fall asleep while reading this. Write when you can ...
Love You!
Mom

Subject: TOUCHING BASES
From: Mom
To: Heather
Sent: Thu, Apr 30, 2020, 8:34 PM

Hi Kiddo ...
All is well here ... except life is pretty boring lately.

Carol and I try to go somewhere every few days ... but there's actually nowhere to go. We usually go through a fast food drive through, sit in the car behind the [public] Library, eat our burgers and just chat for a few minutes. We would get out at the library since there is a picnic table there. But there are also aggressive wild turkeys there so we usually don't get out of the car. Also, there's turkey poop all over.

I hope you are doing OK and are not being over-worked. It looks like this social distancing/aka "forced isolation" may go on for a long time. Actually, it's hard to know what the situation actually is since you hear so many different takes on the subject. Are you still having to put in the long hours? Does it look to you like there is any end in sight?...

Sitting in her Eureka home and scrolling through her mother's emails, Muller says she sees a clear picture that somehow didn't emerge in real time. Her mother was acutely lonely, still grappling with the death of her husband only 13 months before, when a COVID-19 shelter-in-place order severed her remaining support systems.

"I hadn't connected the dots on those, the loss of her husband of 58 years and the isolation of quarantine," Muller says. "There's just this subtext that she was painfully lonely and had been since my dad died. She referenced loneliness and not having people to talk to at least 50 times. And somehow, I didn't catch it."

Muller concedes there's evidence in the emails, too, that her mother seemingly wasn't always listening to her, either, asking some five or six times what exactly Muller does for a living, what keeps her so busy at work at a job she's held for 13 years. But what perhaps hits Muller hardest when reflecting on her pandemic correspondences with her mother is how myopically she focused on her mom's physical health, ignoring all of the other things that impact overall health.

"It was hard," she says of re-reading the emails. "She'd spent all this time telling me she was lonely, and what I said in return was that she was unsafe — unvaccinated, usually unmasked, routinely participating in super-spreader events, the whole nine. ... Yet, I didn't realize until after she died that I'd been talking to her from an exclusively medical standpoint and left out all the other things that we know contribute to health and wellness: education, nutrition, money, physical activity, psychological wellness and, maybe most important, all those relationships we have with family, friends, parishioners, co-workers, classmates and teammates."

In desperately looking to halt the virus' spread, health officials essentially sacrificed many of the things vital to keeping people healthy, shuttering schools and businesses and churches, leaving people isolated and alone and often unemployed.

"We deliberately disrupted all those relationships, all those other determinants of health," Muller says. "We did it on purpose, and for good reasons. We did all of that in the name of ending the pandemic and keeping people like my mother alive."

Did it work? It's hard to say, Muller concedes. The isolation initially kept her mother safe from the virus, but the loneliness it caused was also — at least partly — what drove her to attend the church "music jam" group where she is believed to have caught the virus.

"It may have been the thing that kept her alive and it may have been the thing that killed her," Muller says. "I don't know. It may have been both."

Subject: SOMETHING FOR YOU TO LAUGH ABOUT
From: Mom
To: Heather
Sent: Thu, May 7, 2020, 6:55 PM

Hi Heather...
Sure hope this "thing" will be over soon! I see that a big protest is arising as people are sick of having their lives turned around. Even though the TV said that some things were opening tomorrow, my local hairdresser opened this week ... so I went and got a haircut before they come and arrest her. Seriously, even though things are supposedly opening up now, it's not enough to make a real impact on how people feel at this point. You still can't go sit down in a restaurant or go to a movie ... etc., etc. 😞

Remember when I told you that I tried to make a basket (with a basketball) ... and couldn't? Guess you got a big kick out of that so I thought I'd tell you another one. Yesterday, I was cleaning on the patio and I came across a couple of jump ropes. I thought "Good. I'll go jump for a few minutes." Ha! I couldn't do it at all even though I tried several times. Guess I'll have to donate the jump ropes ...

Subject: TELLING YOU WHAT HAPPENED
From: Mom
To: Heather
Sent: Tue, May 26, 2020, 6:20 PM

... Next Sunday will be the first time we have had church in 2 months. I hear that a few of the people will not be coming back yet as they are afraid of catching the virus ... but we'll see.

Guess that's all ... DO come down to visit when you finally can.
Love,
Mom

Subject: Re: TELLING YOU WHAT HAPPENED
From: Heather
To: Mom
Sent: Tue, May 26, 2020, 6:20 PM

I wish I could come for a visit. Maybe in the Fall ...

Subject: Re: GUESS I CAN'T WRITE JUST A SHORT LETTER (I tried)
From: Heather
To: Mom
Sent: Fri, Aug 7, 2020, 4:56 PM

Tim texted last week and proposed a visit in the next month or so and I had to say no because of the virus. I'd really like to have you all up, but because of my job I can't violate our health officer's orders ... Plus everything is closed. No restaurants, no movie theaters, no anything. The restrooms at the beaches are locked up. There is nothing we could do except sit around the house breathing on each other, and that doesn't sound healthy or fun. Hopefully we'll get a vaccine soon and get on with our lives. ... When this is over, I hope you can come visit.

Anyway, I have weekends off again, which is nice. Say hi to everyone. Talk to you soon.

Subject: SLIDING MY CHAIRS AROUND AGAIN
From: Mom
To: Heather
Sent: Wed, Jan 13, 2021, 2:49 PM

... Everything is going fine with me. I have not been sick in any way ...

... Part of the reason I am not leaving the house much is because Carol came down with the Covid 19. She has been sick for a couple of weeks, so we are not going anywhere together as we were in the habit of doing before. I'm feeling kind of critical of how that all came about. Carol had 20 people (plus six dogs) over for Christmas ... and some of them (the people, not the dogs) came over either recovering from the virus or coming down with it. Of course, Carol is a sweet person who can't stand to tell anyone "no" ... so in my opinion, that is why she got the virus. I'm a little mad at her kids/grandkids/great-grandkids that they did not use good judgment and went to her house. I'm hoping they feel really guilty about it! Most of them Carol didn't actually invite ... but they came anyhow as it is a family "tradition." Not only did they expose Carol to the virus, but also [Carol's daughter] who ended up in the hospital with it. She just got home yesterday after spending five days hospitalized. They sent her home with an oxygen tank. The Covid ended up with her having pneumonia. I'm really "seething" about the whole situation, but I've decided to keep my mouth shut since I don't want to run down any of Carol's relatives.

Subject: Re: SLIDING MY CHAIRS AROUND AGAIN
From: Heather
To: Mom
Sent: Wed, Jan 27, 2021, 3:55 PM

Sorry it's taken me so long to respond. I keep thinking things are going to slow down at work, but so far that has not been the case. I'm still working 60 hours a week, which was fine for a few weeks but exhausting after a year. I appreciate your letters, even if I don't answer them right away.

Glad things are going well there. Are you still healthy? Is Carol fully recovered? I'd be pretty pissed at her family, too, for dragging their germs home for the holidays. Being careful is boring, but it's also necessary. Because I have an emergency services job, I got my first dose of the vaccine a couple weeks ago. I didn't think I would come up that fast. ... Have you gone in yet?

... Please stay in touch, even if you're better at that now than I am. Hello to everyone.
Love,
H

In the last days of her mother's life, Muller felt a growing sense of desperation. She'd felt blindsided Oct. 25 when the doctor reported her mother had severe pneumonia, though she couldn't explain why. She knew the statistics — her mother was now 85 and had congestive heart failure — making severe disease a very likely outcome. But this was her mother, not one of the other 750,000 anonymous people in the United States who have died of COVID-19, and she couldn't be there to hold her hand, to advocate for her care.

It was "impossible to get any information," she says, adding that the nurses on the COVID floor sounded "not just overworked but overwhelmed, overrun." This was a good hospital in the Sacramento area, Muller says, but "it was just mayhem." Finally, her brother was able to get a nurse on the phone to ask how their mother was doing.

"The nurse said he didn't know, really, but at the moment she was lying on her side, crying," Muller recalls. "I didn't see this. I wasn't even part of that conversation, but I can't get the image out of my mind. My mother — 85 years old, sick, deaf and alone — crying in her bed. That's still not something I can process."

In her mother's last days, Muller and family members discussed her care with her doctor by phone. They'd tried everything, he said, and there was nothing left to do. Muller's brother or sister-in-law, she's not sure which, broached the subject of Ivermectin, the anti-parasitic drug that has become a flashpoint in fringe debates about COVID care.

Some have placed hope in the drug — used to treat parasites in animals and approved in low doses by the Food and Drug Administration to treat worms, head lice and some skin conditions in humans — as a COVID-19 treatment, but limited clinical trials have brought mixed results. With potential risks and benefits unclear, the FDA has not authorized the drug for use on COVID patients.

The drug's potential, coupled with mountains of misinformation on the internet, has caused some — sadly and ironically, many of the same people who have bypassed vaccines in the belief they have not been studied thoroughly enough — to see it as some kind of COVID-19 elixir, which has led to people overdosing on over-the-counter veterinary varieties of the drug.

Muller knows all this well, as the person who helped oversee and shape messaging strategy for the Joint Information Center.

"I know my response to that is, 'It's unproven and unsafe,'" she says, adding that she also knows the lack of FDA approval prohibits hospitals from using it as a COVID treatment. "I know the rules."

But when the subject came up in conversations about her mother, Muller says she felt a visceral pull in the other direction.

"I was like, 'Might it help? Is there any possibility that could help her? If she's going to die anyway, why wouldn't you try?'" she recalls. "It's a stupid argument 99 percent of the time. It's only not a stupid argument when it's your mother who is dying."

She pauses.

"I would have tried anything in that moment to keep her alive," she continues. "I didn't care if it was approved."

The one thing that almost certainly would have helped protect her was vaccination, but Muller says she doesn't know if her mother died with regret.

"I don't know if she wished she'd been vaccinated," Muller says. "We weren't with her to find out. If you think COVID life is lonely, try COVID death. Your loved one's hands are held by strangers, if you're lucky, and the last few days of her life we were very lucky. Her nurses sang to her, prayed with her, held the bedside phone to her ear every time we called, even though we all knew by then she couldn't hear what we were saying. I will always be grateful for that."

Subject: Re: SLIDING MY CHAIRS AROUND AGAIN
From: Mom
To: Heather
Sent: Fri, Jan 29, 2021, 9:48 PM

... Carol has recovered, but she has some lingering "tiredness" and lack of energy. As for [her daughter], she has improved too ... but she does take her oxygen tank to work with her every day ... and is only working short hours.

I am doing well. Just kind of bored at times. Usually, Carol and I do a lot of running around, but she isn't up to it yet. Today, she went in for a "brain scan" ... and I'm not sure what that means. Carol does have a lot of physical problems ... The main thing I have wrong is congestive heart failure (which I've had for about 20 years.) However, it is kept under control with diuretics. The only other thing is the hearing loss. So at the ripe old age of 84, I guess I'm in pretty good health. ...

 You asked me about the vaccine. I know you probably think this is not a good idea, but I do not want to get vaccinated. I feel that there's too little information and history on the effects of the vaccine and I do not want to be a guinea-pig. I may regret my decision if I get the virus, but I'm not planning to get it. I've somewhat been exposed to it and so far, so good. I heard on TV (and some other places) that people with type O-Positive blood are not as susceptible to Covid-19 ... and I have that type. [Editor's note: While a study early in the pandemic did indicate this might be the case, more thorough subsequent studies found no link between blood type and the susceptibility to or severity of COVID-19 illness.] I checked with "Doctor Google" and they admitted that O+ people had less risk of getting it then other blood types. So ... I don't know ... I'll either get it or I won't. There are a whole bunch of sites locally where I could get [the vaccine] free if I wanted to because of my age. But I guess I choose not to. ...

I hope this whole thing will be over soon ... but I have my doubts. I think we will be hearing about Coronavirus for at least the next year.

Guess I've "blabbed on" long enough for now. Remember that you don't have to reply at great length ... but a line or two would be nice when you have time.
Love,
Mom

Subject: CHECKING IN
From: Mom
To: Heather
Sent: Sun, Feb 28, 2021, 7:51 PM

Hi Heather ...
Hoping everything is OK with you. I'm sure that you, like everyone else, is sick of this pandemic. ...

... Basically, I go just about anywhere I need to go. But before Covid-19, I tried to go somewhere every day ... shopping or to a restaurant or something. I've sort of lost my motivation however because I hate wearing the mask. I don't know how it is in your area, but down here, most of the restaurants are open ... but few people are eating out. So many times, they're almost empty. On the bright side however, things seem to be "loosening up" in the past couple of weeks. Carol and I try to go out to either breakfast or lunch about once a week. Also, we ... go to this thing they call "Music Jam" every Friday afternoon. It's about 12 people from church who get together at a house. We sing and play. Of course, I don't play anything but the radio 😄 but I go anyhow. People play the guitar, the banjo, the ukulele, the harmonica ... and one guy even plays the hurdy-gurdy. Of course, when it's over, we all have dessert. I usually consider my piece of pie to be my dinner!

Subject: Re:
From: Heather
To: Mom
Sent: Sun, Mar 7, 2021, 9:46 AM

Sorry I'm so slow to respond. I hope things are still going well for you. The only news around here is that I got a ping pong table which I promptly installed in the middle of the living room. ... I had three friends from work over Friday night and we played for four or five hours. All of us are vaccinated, and we still wore masks, so it didn't violate anyone's rules.

Speaking of COVID. ... Sounds like you've decided not to get vaccinated, which I don't think is a very good decision, health wise, especially since we have now reached the point where this is just another vaccine-preventable disease like measles and chicken pox and the flu and so many other things we don't hesitate to get vaccinated for. [Editor's note: while vaccination is being consistently proven to greatly reduce the risks of COVID-19 infection, it has become clear in the months since this email was written that COVID-19 has not been rendered a vaccine-preventable disease.] The issue with you is your medical risk profile, which is quite high. If you get COVID, as I'm sure you know, you have a high likelihood of death or serious illness.

Your risk is compounded by your decision to participate in the music group you told me about in your email. One thing virtually all scientists agree on is that singing, chanting and playing any kind of wind instruments is a "super-spreader" activity, one that blows infectious droplets far and wide. Add all these factors together — you are declining to get vaccinated, you have health concerns that put you at higher risk of complications and death, and you are participating in high-risk activities — and it doesn't look like a great set of choices. I would encourage you to get vaccinated, because then the other factors don't matter. You can get exposed and be fine. You can have a history of heart problems and be fine. You can essentially resume your normal life and be just fine. Vaccination is easy, painless and free. I do hope you'll consider it.

ILLUSTRATION BY JACQUI LANGELAND
  • Illustration by Jacqui Langeland


Subject: Re:
From: Mom
To: Heather
Sent: Sun, Mar 7, 2021, 11:36 PM

Hi Heather ...
The ping pong table looks terrific! I don't have one anymore, and even if I did, I don't have anyone to play with. I think I'll try to go along with Tim and Sarah when the virus is over and we can all get together again. Then I can challenge you to a match! ...

I'm sorry that you are stressed that I don't want to get the vaccine ... but I don't. My thinking is that its production was rushed through so fast, that to me, that makes it "experimental." Nobody knows what the effects will be a year or two down the road.

And yes, I realize that I am in the "high-risk" group, but that doesn't make me want to change my mind. Aside from Carol and [her husband] Jeff who both had Covid-19, no other friends of mine have had it. ...

As for the music group I go to, the youngest one in it is in her middle 60s. I guess Carol and I are are the oldest. There are about 12 of us. So far (aside from Carol and Jeff) nobody else in the group has had it. I do think it makes a big difference that we all live out in the country. People who live in cities very likely suffer from a lot more exposure than we do. I think that if I lived somewhere like in a city where I had to ride buses or take elevators, I would probably consider getting the vaccine.

Subject: Hello
From: Heather
To: Mom
Sent: Wed, Sep 22, 2021, 1:39 PM

Hey there. Not a lot going on here. Working. Dealing with what we all hope is the last of the big covid surges. It would be nice to get back to some kind of normalcy. Played ping pong for the first time in months last night. Things do seem to be settling down.

Love,
Heather

While Muller believes everything she told her mom about the vaccine — that it's safe and reduces the likelihood of infection, serious illness and death — was true, she also sees they never really had a true conversation. From the first time Muller asked her mother about vaccination — "Have you gone in yet?" — she sees, in retrospect, it was premised on an assumption, maybe even a judgment.

"You know when you're talking to somebody who doesn't understand you, you just say the same thing but louder?" Muller asks. "In hindsight, that was me. I just kept saying it louder. I wish I'd listened better. Her chief complaint was loneliness, not a lack of vaccine. But those things aren't opposed. Vaccination could have actually alleviated her loneliness, but it didn't cross my mind to talk about it in that way."

Looking back on nearly two years of emails, Muller is struck by how closely they parallel national debates about the virus, from the bits of COVID-19 misinformation and the push/pull of living in lockdown to questions about the safety of vaccines and the incredible toll the pandemic has taken in all directions. The experience, she says, changed her.

"It just seems like those of us who feel safe getting vaccinated, we can have empathy for those who don't," Muller says. "I think that's something we can do differently. Where we are now, we're just not engaging with people who we disagree with. We're not trying to have conversations with people.

"We have to do something that starts with listening and empathy," she continues. "We have to give each other some grace."

Subject: Just saying hi
From: Heather
To: Mom
Sent: Mon, Oct 18, 2021, 1:25 PM

Haven't heard from you in a while. Hope everything is going well. Please write when you have a minute.
Love,
Heather

Subject: Re: Just saying hi
From: Mom
To: Heather
Sent: Mon, Oct. 18, 2021, 6:55 PM

Hi Heather ...
Everything is going well ... thanks for caring.

I had such an incredibly busy weekend, I was exhausted and decided to not even get out of my nightgown today. I did get out of it long enough to take a shower and wash my hair.

... You asked if Tim's family has been vaccinated. No, but they had the virus about four months ago. I guess [someone] brought it home from work and they all got it. ... [and] the family just "toughed it out" and hunkered down for a week or so until they felt better. ...

So far, I have not gotten it and I'm "out and about" a lot. I have not been vaccinated, but I read somewhere that people with O+ blood don't get it as readily as others. I have O+ blood.

... Well now, see what happens when you send me a one-line email? You get back a 200-line email.
Love,
Mom

Subject: Re: Just saying hi
From: Heather
To: Mom
Sent: Thu, Oct 21, 2021, 9:19 AM

You sound busy. Things are okay here, except I still work a lot. One of the benefits of coming in early, though, is nice sunrises. Here's the one from this morning [pictured below]. That's the view from my office.

Heather's mother never read the last email her daughter sent, or saw the photo of the sunrise in it. She collapsed in her bathroom sometime the night before and was taken to the hospital, where she tested positive for COVID-19 and died nine days later, on the afternoon of Oct. 30.

PHOTO BY HEATHER MULLER
  • Photo by Heather Muller

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