“A Blessed Time”: Professor Becomes His Parents’ Caregiver During the Pandemic

Ernie Zulia and Father

Ernie Zulia is artistic director and chair of the Hollins University Theatre Department.

This would have been the second week of performances of our spring production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. We were in mid-rehearsals when the lights went out on our campus.

Curious Incident is a show full of wonder, and heart, and the entire cast had been basking in the deep satisfaction of a rich and exciting rehearsal process before this work we love was called to a halt. What to do? Continuing rehearsals in Zoomland was not practical. So out came the calendars and timelines, and come September, we are planning to pick up where we left off to open the show on October 22. So with determination, passion, and some good ole theatrical grit, we are embracing the old adage that the show must go on!

Although we couldn’t rehearse in Zoomland, we now find ourselves going to class in this strange and foreign place online. My favorite class is called “Purpose Passion and Possibilities: Personalizing the Art of Theatre Making.” It’s a practical philosophy class, and is based in some pretty powerful discussion. The first day we met in Zoomland, we spent a lot of time checking in with each other and sharing a lot of feelings about our strange new circumstances. One of the things that came up a lot was how weird it was to be back at home, locked in with parents after experiencing an independent adult life at Hollins. I could totally relate…but from a very different point of view.

At 5 a.m. the morning of March 14, two days after our last day of face-to-face classes, I was awakened by a call from Akron, Ohio. My 94-year-old Dad had been rushed to the hospital with a torn muscle, which triggered a pretty severe heart incident. My 91-year-old Mom was in lock-down at the retirement community they’d been living at for the past 14 months. Dad was alone in a hospital, and like the boogey man, the coronavirus was lurking under beds and behind doors and in closets.

After being so discombobulated by the shutdown of our campus, I suddenly felt blessed that I could grab my computer and office files and rush up to Ohio to be at my Dad’s bedside so he wouldn’t have to be alone in the hospital. Ninety-four-year-olds are easily confused and disoriented, so I was grateful to be able to hold my dad’s hand and help him feel safe. He’s a WWII veteran and always felt it was his job to make others feel safe. Tables do turn.

It’s now five weeks later, and like so many of my students, I’ve been living in quarantine with my parents. Dad needed 24-hour care, but the managers of the community were very skeptical about allowing a parade of caregivers to come through the doors and risk infecting the entire community. So even though family members are forbidden to visit, we struck a bargain: as long as I was willing to go into quarantine with them, I could move in and be their full-time caregiver.

So this is the fourth week without setting foot outside a three-room independent living apartment…and you know what, it’s been kinda wonderful. I teach and conduct theatre department business from my computer in the small den, and sleep on the pull-out sofa in the living room. But more importantly, I’ve been given the gift of some mighty precious time with two people I love. They’re not going to be around much longer (virus or no virus), so I consider these unexpected circumstances a real gift; precious time to hear poignant and funny stories of days gone by. But even better, I’ve been given the rare opportunity to care for them the way they once cared for me when I was a vulnerable and defenseless child. In many ways, the elderly are quite child-like, which allows them to be more open and free to share their hearts and souls, and the richness of lives well-lived. And I get to be there to check under the bed for monsters before we turn the lights out.

When this COVID craziness began, I never expected it to turn into such a blessed time, filled with so much love. I hope our entire Hollins family can find some semblance of a silver lining in this unprecedented time we are living through. As for me, being locked in with parents has turned into a true gift. Stay Gold everyone!