GALLUP, N.M. -- Sliding off Interstate 40 about 100 miles west of Albuquerque presented another in a seemingly endless series of decisions during a 3,900-mile, 11-state journey. On one side of the east-west artery was a bustling truck stop. On the other, a decaying gas station that likely encountered its last mop during the Reagan administration.
No brainer. Choose the path less traveled or, in this case, bathroom less visited. The coronavirus pandemic was surging past American deaths in Vietnam in just more than two months, easily outpacing a ghastly conflict that stretched nearly two decades. The elderly continue to face higher risks.
In the car, my 82-year-old mother, Bea Winters, and 87-year-old stepfather, Ted Winters, remained patiently wedged between boxes and clothes hangers during a 10-plus-hour stretch from their snowbird enclave in dusty Apache Junction, Ariz., to Amarillo, Texas.
They grew up in the same neighborhood on the east side of Des Moines, Iowa -- our eventual destination with more forgiving summer weather and a broader family support system. My mother lived next door to Ted's grandmother with just the length of an alley separating them. After my father, Bruce, died of lung cancer, they reconnected and married. It will be 25 years in September.
Ted, a Korean War veteran, briefly went AWOL because he waited until my mom returned from vacation before reporting to his unit.
"He lost a stripe or something for it," she said. "He always told me it was worth it. We've known each other since I was in diapers."
Precious cargo, indeed -- especially in these uncertain, uncharted days. Every gas pump nozzle, a danger. Every hotel doorknob, a potential threat. Simple food packaging, suddenly menacing.
As coronavirus realities changed, so did our plans.
I purchased a flight from San Diego to Phoenix, where I would hop in their SUV to drive them to Iowa before flying back. As airports and airplanes emptied, however, it seemed unwise for me to navigate public places before jumping into a long, close-quarters drive with a pair of octogenarians. Plus, I'm a Type 2 diabetic on another drug that weakens my immune system. That amounts to a couple of strikes on my own coronavirus report card. So I started the trip with a drive to Apache Junction.
The overarching concern, though, was Ted. His pill sorters need sorters. He takes 11 a day at last count to go with four insulin shots, holding heart trouble, diabetes, potassium demons and other health bullies at bay. He uses a nebulizer and BiPAP machine. In 2003, he nearly died from an abdominal aneurysm.