CHICAGO — My Republican Pentecostal parents love me, according to multiple sources. But they can’t understand how their only son turned into an anti-establishment, politically independent smarty pants.
“How did you get this way?” my church-elder Mom asks from time to time.
Dad, who is retired and cleans a doctor’s office part time, usually shrugs and rolls his eyes.
When I called to check on them as the stock market tumbled, Gov. Pritzker shut down schools and the White Sox season home opener got postponed thanks to concerns over the new coronavirus, I skipped the pleasantries.
“Ma, are you guys staying in the house?” I asked. “Is Dad wearing rubber gloves when he’s cleaning the doctor’s office?”
“Oh, Jeeze!” Mom said. “Don’t get all worked up. I’m not going to get sick.”
“You guys are old,” I told her, “and the CDC says, you’re high risk, especially Dad.”
“I leave it in the Lord’s hands,” Mom said. “I went to church last night and prayed for people.”
“You didn’t touch them, did you?” I asked.
“Of course, I did,” she said.
“Look, Mom, pretend it’s a Catholic high school dance in the ’60s. Leave room for the Holy Spirit,” I said. “What about Dad and the rubber gloves?”
“Hold on. Michael,” Mom yelled, “are you wearing rubber gloves when you clean the doctor’s office?”
“No,” my father, a man of few words, said over speaker phone.
When I ticked off a list of government-ordered precautions for people their age in Illinois — bans on senior citizen lunches and closed polling places at old-folks homes, among other things — Mom told me not to worry. All the fussing about COVID-19, she said, is probably just another overreaction by the godless, liberal, commie news media.
“That Pritzker, I think he just wants to be president,” she said.
Dad mocked me with “facts” from the liberal cable news that he probably heard on conservative talk radio.
“Nobody’s safe,” Dad jabbed. “Only 80 percent of Americans are going to survive according to MSNBC. Oh, no!” he said, laughing.
Mom asked if I was going to wear a hazmat suit to the kids’ birthday party on the calendar this weekend. “If you do, send me a picture,” she said, cackling. “I’ll put it on my Facebook.”
When it comes to presidential politics and liberal use of hand sanitizer during a pandemic most dangerous to people in their 70s, we are a family divided.
My folks are stubborn — and it’s hereditary. So, I pulled out all the stops. “I just don’t want you to … DIE,” I told them. They laughed. Hard. For a minute or so.
“I guess that means our liberal journalist son loves us,” Mom said. “Are you going to come over for dinner?”
That’s my mother’s No. 2 most effective change-the-subject query, right after ‘I made cookies. Do you want to come over?”
This time, I didn’t bite.
I called Dr. Katherine Tynus, former president of the Illinois State Medical Society, to get some advice on how to talk to stubborn old people who won’t listen.
“That’s a tough one. I have an elderly parent. So, I’ve had this conversation as well. My approach was to say it’s better safe than sorry,” she said. “Are you willing to risk your life? What if you’re wrong? What does it hurt to take extra precautions?”
Obviously, Dr. Tynus has never met my parents. I had to break it to her that they are “never wrong.”
“Do you think they would respond to looking at data? Comparing what’s happening here to what happened in Italy,” she said. “Maybe they’d be open to going over the CDC website with you.”
She’s talking about general (and I’ll add specific) common sense advice such as:
Dr. Tynus must have sensed my doubt. “Or are they the kind of people that don’t trust any governmental institutions?” she asked.
Unless that’s a genetic trait that skips a generation, I had to inherit that from them, I said.
Dr. Tynus suggested tugging their elderly heart strings — the ol’ “I’m worried. I love you. And I don’t want you to DIE,” line that my folks already had laughed at.
If nothing else works, Dr. Tynus said, try a more motivational tactic.
“Tell them the new coronavirus is like a freight train, slow and moving straight for us, and that you couldn’t live with yourself if you allow them to do things that put themselves in harm’s way,” she said. “It might just kill you.”
For clarification, I asked, “So, manipulate ’em with guilt?”
“Exactly,” Dr. Tynus said. “You gotta do what you gotta do, man.”
Later, Mom texted a picture of fresh cookies and a message: “I bet I can get my Sonnyboy to visit me during this coronavirus pandemic!!”
So, I headed over with rubber gloves, hand sanitizer and a well-rehearsed guilt trip.
To be a good son, you’ve gotta follow doctor’s orders.
Mark Konkol, recipient of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting and Emmy-nominated producer, was a producer, writer and narrator for the “Chicagoland” docu-series on CNN. He was a consulting producer on the Showtime documentary, “16 Shots.”
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