Separated by Plexiglass: Visiting My Grandparents

Elian Peltier, who is based in London, covered the coronavirus pandemic in Spain before returning to his home country, France. We asked him to tell us about a visit to his grandparents.

When France went into lockdown in March, my mother was relieved. Her mom and dad had moved to a nursing home a few weeks earlier, so despite the sudden travel restrictions that meant she and her sister could no longer drive the 80 miles south of Paris to visit, at least my grandparents would get the care they needed.

So began a long vigil of daily calls, weekly video chats and customized postcards created online.

When I told my grandfather about reporting in Spain, I omitted mention of the bodies taken out of apartment buildings in Barcelona and of health care workers in hazmat suits disinfecting nursing homes in isolated villages.

It felt better to update him on the uncertain fate of European soccer leagues and to reminisce about our penalty-kick practices in his garden in Beaugency, in central France, where I spent my summers as a child.

The coronavirus has killed about 14,000 residents of nursing homes in France — half the country’s death toll. We are lucky that, so far, none of those deaths occurred at my grandparents’ home, where the caregivers have been vigilant about social distancing.

As France began easing its lockdown last week, we were finally able to visit, or rather sit outside the home, as my grandparents sat inside, a few feet away. To allow us to hear each other, the staff opened the door, but placed a table with a plexiglass partition in the doorway.

We could see my grandparents only one at a time, since they are in different parts of the home that can no longer mix socially. My grandfather, a former stone mason, misses many things that we cannot yet deliver, like shorts, because of the home’s strict rules. But it is my grandmother’s company that he misses most.

My grandmother, once a wonderful cook known for her poulet basquaise and cherry cakes, has Alzheimer’s. When she struggled to recognize me, I broke the rules and took down my mask for a second. A nurse gently caressed her hair as we spoke. My mother and I were a little envious that the nurse could do what we could not.

For now, I plan to finally read my grandfather’s journals of his military service in Chad when he was around my age. He gave them to me at Christmas; I thought I had plenty of time to read them and talk to him about them. But the stroke he suffered in January, followed soon after by the virus outbreak, have created a new sense of urgency.

With a pandemic and the plexiglass barrier now physically dividing us, the desire to connect feels stronger than ever.

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