Packing up and moving to a new state, or even a new country, was nothing new for the resident of Kirkland House, who had grown up after his father’s career in the Air Force around the world. But leaving campus in the face of a deadly virus to join her mother for major surgery was incredibly different. Still, though Elijah might have been worried, he tried not to show it. Her aim was to support her mother throughout the operation – to be “right there with her in case something happened”.
Yet when the time came, the role reversal was not easy.
“To see my mother, who has always been this very independent and very strong person in my life, in such a physically vulnerable and uncomfortable state, was difficult,” Elijah said. “I joke that I kind of helped heal her. I think she would have been fine without me, honestly… but just being there, I think, was very helpful, for my sake, and especially hers.
A few months earlier, Karen Suh, a vigorous 54-year-old, was living with her family on a military base in Misawa, in northern Honshu, Japan’s largest island, and teaching at her elementary school when she received the results. of a routine examination. mammography. Her doctors recommended she go to a breast center in San Diego for treatment. “My radiologist told me frankly, ‘I think it’s cancer,'” Karen said.
In February, tests in California confirmed her fears and soon Karen was managing worries about her diagnosis with her anxiety about the pandemic as death rates rose and hospitals began to accept only the sickest patients. “We had to do the biopsy, wait for the results, then try to schedule the surgery, and in that time everything just blew up,” she said. “I was told my surgeon really had to fight for me to have the surgery.”
She had arrived from Japan with her husband, who had stayed with her for the operation while her daughter, Hannah, cared for her two youngest sons in Misawa. Elijah remained in San Diego when his father, David, was called back to base 5,000 miles away. He helped his mum recover – driving her to follow-up appointments and taking care of her meals and medication – and completed her classes online. Within days, they began to hear of cases of critically ill patients filling intensive care units in California and across the country. Growing fears about the spread of the virus made it impossible for them to see family members who lived nearby. Increasingly isolated, they kept television trained on the news, eager for information about the origins of the virus and how to avoid infection. “Answers…that’s the only thing we wanted,” Elijah said.
But when mother and son reflect on the early days of the pandemic, they look beyond fear. The two took classes remotely while Karen recovered; she learned how to help children with dyslexia to read and he finished his classes. They spent their days as students and, once school was out, just enjoyed each other’s company. Karen remembers those few months as “very special”.
“Even though chaos was breaking out,” she said, “it was pretty peaceful with the two of us.”
Elie accepted. The time he and his mother spent together at a hotel on a base in San Diego, he said, gave them a chance to bond. They took long walks along the shore and shared dinners and deep conversations. “We took the opportunity to try to understand each other better,” Elijah said. “I think it’s hard for a parent to be more vulnerable with their children.”
Soon they focused their efforts on returning to their family. “We were worried about my mother’s weakened immune system,” Elijah said, “and I think we converted that worry into efforts to get back to Japan as soon as possible.”
Hannah Suh was caring for her two younger brothers and trying to reconcile worries about the deadly virus in the United States with the relative calm surrounding her in Misawa, which had so far remained largely infection-free. On a gap year before heading to UCLA, she looked forward to spending more time with her parents. Then, overnight, she became the head of the family, as COVID fears gradually took hold.
“I was the only one who left our house at the time, because I was the only one who could drive…I would go out if we needed to get groceries or something,” she said .
Hannah missed her parents and worried about her mother’s health, but caring for her two “exuberant” brothers, aged 12 and 15, helped keep her mind busy. “I think it certainly taught me a lot about accountability.”
Elijah recalls how impressed he was with his sister’s confidence.
“She was basically meeting the pandemic on her own, and she was responsible for my younger brothers. But she passed the test wonderfully.