Patty O'Donnell and her son Aengus

A New York family in love and fear

Updated 5:26 PM ET, Mon March 23, 2020

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In a series of essays called The Distance, Thomas Lake is telling the stories of Americans living through the pandemic. This story is based on extensive phone interviews with the O'Donnell family. Email thomas.lake@cnn.com if you have a story to share.

(CNN)We begin in New York, a few months after the catastrophe. Not the virus of today, but the terrorist attack of 2001. A man walks into a bar near Ground Zero and sees a woman at the pool table, lining up a shot.

Down goes the 8-ball. She's running the table, holding off the Wall Street men. They slap down their quarters, waiting their turn, and she sinks them, one by one.
THE DISTANCE

Americans living apart and together in the age of pandemic

Patty is a classic New Yorker. Tough shell, soft heart. A woman who rescues injured birds. She's a waitress at Houlihan's in the Financial District, part of a small crew that came in to clean up and re-open the restaurant after the towers fell. Someone found part of a thumb on the rooftop. The air was filled with toxic dust.
Phil works 12 hours a day, seven days a week, fixing the lines for Verizon. He's dirty and exhausted, but he knows his way to the corner pocket.
He looks at Patty and lays down his quarters.
SCENE TWO
    Mount Sinai Hospital, Valentine's Day 2017.
    Patty and Phil have been married 13 years, but right now they're apart. She sleeps with one of his sweatshirts in the pull-out chair of their son's hospital room.
    Aengus is 10. In recent weeks, Patty has watched him get sicker and sicker. It began with a sinus infection, which led to antibiotics, which apparently caused a rare and severe side effect. Aengus turned yellow.
    Thomas Lake
    Now he needs surgery to save his life. Patty, queen of the pool table, has been worn down by repeated trauma. She crashed her motorcycle. She was hit by a police car while crossing the street. And now this. She holds it together, waits for him to fall asleep. Then she goes in the bathroom and cries.
    Elsewhere in the hospital, a surgeon cuts Phil open from navel to chest. He cuts Phil's liver in two, removing 60%. The liver is a strange and wonderful organ. It will regenerate. Phil will recover. Hospital workers rush part of his liver to its new recipient: a 10-year-old boy who needs a transplant. His son.
    Henceforth in the O'Donnell household, February 14 is known as Surgery Day. The day Phil saved Aengus's life.
    SCENE THREE
    Hell's Kitchen, Manhattan, St. Patrick's Day 2020.
      No parade, no green hair, no Irish soda bread. Life is canceled, but life goes on, except now you risk everything for a walk to the supermarket.
      Aengus will go. Gristedes is across the street. A 15-minute errand. He takes Patty's credit card.
      Patty has not left their basement apartment in five days. She was tested for coronavirus last Thursday and still doesn't know the result. Untold thousands of Americans are in the same predicament, or worse, with no test at all. She's been coughing, with an unusual headache and some difficulty breathing. All she can do is wonder and wait.
      What would Covid-19 do to the O'Donnells? Their 15-year-old daughter would probably be fine, but the rest of them could be in trouble. Patty had asthma as a child, and she breathed the dust after 9/11. Phil did too, and about a year ago he developed a persistent cough. Then there is Aengus, now 13, taking immunosuppressant drugs to stop his body from rejecting his slice of Phil's liver.
      Fifteen minutes. No big deal, except she's always afraid when he leaves her. Patty has depression, anxiety, nightmares, chronic injuries from the crashes. She's constantly trying to rescue something or someone, which is why they have so many pets. A dog, a cat, a hamster, two rabbits, and on and on. She found a woodpecker injured by a revolving door and delivered it for treatment at the Wild Bird Fund. Patty, savior of the wounded and broken, still figuring out how to save herself.
      Things are uneasy between her and Phil, who is at work right now, splicing cables for Verizon. He thinks this whole virus thing is exaggerated. Truth is, he likes the quiet streets. Nobody honking. He says it's like an early Saturday morning in the middle of the afternoon.
      Aengus walks outside, breathes the fresh air. His mother's words follow him. Don't touch your face. He likes Xbox and Japanese graphic novels. He does not mind that the eighth-grade prom was canceled, because it sounded boring.
      In Gristedes, the shelves are more empty than usual. All the meat is gone. But they still have ice, and lemon lime seltzer, and strawberry Nesquik. He brings his purchases to the front and signs his mother's name.
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      Inside the apartment, Patty waits. The news on television seems to get worse and worse. She was late for work the morning of 9/11, and maybe it saved her life. She remembers a sandwich: cheese, lettuce, tomato, the usual order of one customer at Houlihan's, a vegetarian woman who never came back. Patty can still see the faces of the regular customers who just disappeared. Now she listens for the outer gate, the clanging lever that tells her someone is coming home.
        "Call me," she used to tell Aengus and his sister every morning, back when school was still a thing. Sometimes the inside is scarier than the outside. She is prone to panic attacks, as are many of us these days.
          We are still early in this crisis, still unsure of what and whom we will lose. Which person have you already seen for the last time? Call someone now and tell them you love them. Patty O'Donnell waits, and waits. Here is Aengus, with the groceries, opening the door.