Picking Meat From Tiny Bones: Coping with Coronavirus, Isolation and Aging Parents

View from Puerto Seco Beach, the bauxite plant in the distance.

Fish is what my mother craves after the day’s radiation treatment, and from the passenger seat, she directs me to a roadside shop on the outer edge of Discovery Bay where fishermen sometimes sell the day’s catch—parrot, snapper and goat fish tied together in small bundles.

The shop is near a bauxite company port and red dirt from the company’s production plant coats everything—the port, the outsides of the facility’s domes, the stretch of the North Coast Highway that runs between the port and the domes.

The fisherman who comes up to us points to the water behind him, the white, frothy waves of the Caribbean Sea pounding the shore. “Sea too rough,” he says. “Nobody going out there.”

“Now, in the midst of a pandemic, the gradual shuttering of borders, mandatory 14-day quarantines, I think of that moment, my mother beside me in the passenger seat,” writes Hemans.

He directs us to Stumpy—another fisherman with a place farther down the road, on the free beach or fishermen’s beach next to Puerto Seco Beach. 

Now, in the midst of a pandemic, the gradual shuttering of borders, mandatory 14-day quarantines, I think of that moment, my mother beside me in the passenger seat as we wind past an old fort—a relic of another time—small guest houses and a church that overlooks the harbor, and through the small commercial section of Discovery Bay.

The fisherman’s beach—a collection of small restaurants and bars—butts up against a gated enclave of villas. Here, opposite the beach, the dirt is closer to gray, more chalky and sandy: a contrast to the deep-red dirt where the first fisherman stood.

We walk across the sand, past the thatched roof buildings, following the fingers that point us toward Stumpy’s shop.

Stumpy is standing deep in the kitchen around a stove. It is mostly dark inside; squares of light filter through high windows. The kitchen smells like a garden of crushed herbs and garlic.

Stumpy also points to the sea. He has no fresh fish to sell, and not enough, he says, to keep his seafood restaurant and bar business going for long. 

We order prepared fish instead—one escoveitched parrot fish and bammy for me, one brown-stewed snapper with fried green plantain for my mother—and wait on stools under the thatch roof. We watch the line of wet sand, the debris in the cloudy water, the stones that the powerful waves move.

A few yards out from shore, a boat pitches from side to side, and Stumpy says an American couple with a dog lives on it, coming onshore for food and essentials, picking up anchor from time to time and heading off to Ocho Rios or some other seaside town. But the waves are too rough even for the couple and they, too, have stayed put in Discovery Bay rather than venturing anywhere by boat.

I walk up to the water’s edge, hopping back each time the waves come in. But I don’t move quickly enough and the water soaks my sandals and dusts my feet with sand. For the moment, I feel carefree, like a girl again, hopping away from the rolling waves, looking for shells when the water pulls back.

Except, I’m not carefree: I’m there as my mother’s caretaker and nurse and chauffeur, a multitude of roles rolled up together. 

That moment on the beach feels like a lifetime ago. Two years later, everything has shifted.

2018—the year my parents turned 79—their world crumbled, their good health bobbing away like flotsam on rough seas. That trip was the first of four I would make home to Jamaica that year—two of them emergency trips with a day or two of planning.

The front of Hemans’s parent’s home in Jamaica.

Both my parents are somewhat stable now, but in that category of people at more risk from the 2019-2020 strain of coronavirus.

Back then on that trip I thought about the dual lives of immigrants, our lives and roles in two countries, and the long-standing question for which I didn’t then have an answer: Who takes care of the elderly when all the children leave?

Now the question is a bit different. Facing quarantines and the very real possibility of carrying a novel virus along with me, it’s no longer a question of if or when I will go to see to my parents, but why? Why risk exposing them and a street full of elderly adults like themselves to something they probably won’t survive?

Living some 1,400 miles away, I—and my sisters—are contained in separate worlds from our parents, fearful of bringing to them a virus to which they haven’t been exposed, fearful of being so far away that we would be of little use in an emergency.

The view from the front verandah of Hemans’s parent’s home in Jamaica.

These days, I think back to that moment on the beach, the raging sea behind us, my mother and I perched on seaside barstools beneath a thatch roof picking meat from tiny bones, our backs to the angry sea kicking up frothy waves.

Back then in 2018, facing one health crisis after another, I thought of the rough sea as a metaphor of our lives.

“That moment on the beach feels like a lifetime ago. Two years later, everything has shifted.”

Now I hold on to the metaphor of a different sea: The water rages and the strong fish glide through it; the weaker fish seek shelter, but they survive.  

The coronavirus pandemic and the response by federal, state and local authorities is fast-moving.

During this time, Ms. is keeping a focus on aspects of the crisis—especially as it impacts women and their families—often not reported by mainstream media.

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Jamaican-born Donna Hemans is the author of the novel River Woman, winner of the 2003-4 Towson University Prize for Literature. Tea by the Sea—for which she won the Lignum Vitae Una Marson Award for Adult Literature—is her second novel and will be published on June 9th by Red Hen Press. Her short fiction has appeared in Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Caribbean Writer, Crab Orchard Review, Witness, and the anthology Stories from Blue Latitudes: Caribbean Women Writers at Home and Abroad, among others. She received her undergraduate degree from Fordham University and an MFA from American University. She lives in Maryland. For more information visit donnahemans.com.