At Home Boston: Dropped Connection and Other Essays

Boston Book Festival has launched a community writing project to capture this moment in history. We asked residents to send us stories of their experiences during the pandemic, from the acts of kindness by neighbors to the challenges in our biggest hospitals. We wanted to hear it all from all corners of the city. The following is the first selection of stories selected to be featured in the Boston Globe, our media partner in this project. Submissions will be accepted through June 30, 2020.


Anna Harris recently graduated from Boston University and is a Development Associate Intern at the Boston Public Library Fund.
My husband and I were on the road to divorce when the pandemic hit. I spent my nights on the couch. He took the bed. Our cat, always in between, couldn’t make up his mind, either.
Lately, I’ve noticed just how much people need people. You’d be surprised how much, and even more surprised by the ability and the strength people have to adapt—through difficulty, stress, uncertainty.
My husband and I share a bed now every night. Part of me is terrified that I’m stuck, like some sort of capsule holed up inside the 500 square feet of our Allston apartment. At the same time, I feel freer than I have in quite a while.
Last night, my husband cooked lasagna. I took out the trash. There’s something simple about living at home together, being there for each other. Before, I think we both lived on our own.
Though our space is crammed, our budget low, and our experiences, at times, are trying, right now, I feel luckier than I have in a long time. I’m noticing the beauty in everything around me, and I think we are going to make it.
Faye Rapoport DesPres is a writer who lives in Cambridge.

The Stranger

I’ll never forget her calm voice as she explained that my husband had been in a bicycle accident. A stranger who had stopped to help, she must have known it could risk her life. She passed my husband’s phone to a police officer, who told me the ambulance was heading to Mass. General, “the closest hospital with a trauma unit accepting patients.” When she took the phone back, the stranger told me my husband was conscious, but not walking. I asked for her name.

No visitors were allowed at the ER. It took hours to learn the extent of his injuries: seven cracks in his ribs, torn ligaments in his shoulder, but no damage to his head, neck, or back. He’d tucked and rolled flying over the handlebars after a pickup truck took a right turn in front of him. He was wearing a good helmet.
Because of potential exposure, my husband recovered while quarantined in one room of our house. Four weeks later, I was laid off. We’ll be fine. My husband can walk.

I found her online; I wanted to thank her. She said knowing my husband was OK was the only thanks she needed.

Gretchen Ayoub is a single parent and educator living in West Roxbury.

My alarm rings at 5:30 a.m., in keeping with my efforts to maintain a regular schedule. I sip strong black coffee in the oversized Grand Canyon mug that my son gave me years ago.

He died last summer of a sudden heart attack at the age of 33, three months before his wedding. There were zero warnings. He was so healthy. I start each day trying to capture some of his endless kindness, encouragement, and optimism. I want to bottle his spirit and open the cap when isolation overcomes me.

How different it would have been if he had died this year. I tear up for all who lost loved ones and could not say goodbye, could not have visitors and hugs. The hugs I would have missed the most.

The grief tsunami still washes over me most days, but I also remember the love that enveloped me and my daughter; the many family and friends who cried with us. I remember the walks and coffee with friends who kept reaching out when I retreated. I mourn each day, but am grateful that he did not die alone. And that I did not grieve alone.

Amy Sales is a social psychologist and lover of puzzles and lives in Jamaica Plain.

Comfort and Love in a Single Word

As I’m running out to do last-minute errands before the lockdown, my daughter calls from Texas.
“What’s up?” I ask.
“Just checking in on you.”
“Why? You worried about me?”
“Well, you’re in the high risk category, you live alone, you are my mother, and I love you. And, yes, I need to know that you’re okay.” At that moment, I realized how the pandemic has pushed my generation through a premature reversal of parent-child roles. And while I didn’t want to add to my daughter’s coronavirus fears, my independent streak did not want a daily check-in call.

A conundrum to be sure, but here is our inventive solution. Each day I do the Spelling Bee, a highly addictive, seven-letter anagram challenge on the NY Times app. The big prize is finding the pangram, a word that uses all seven letters. Each day I text my daughter the pangram as a sign that I’m still okay.

My days roll by in these sheltered times, each one marked by its pangram: parkland, bewitch, artfully, genotype, adjunct, compound, outgrown, implicitly. A daily text with a single word may seem nonsensical, but for us it says everything we need to know.

Brent Whelan is a retired teacher living in Allston

Dropped Connection

I met Tyrell in December, in the big echo-y corridor of a Boston high school. His teacher introduced us, telling me he was a “sweet” kid who was struggling with his writing. I felt the sweetness right away.

Then came the struggle. His first assignment was to write a review about a rapper. I felt his powerful admiration, not for the music or poetry, but for the aura of success, the designer accessories, the fame. This all came out in warm monosyllables. I asked follow-up questions, and as he searched for words, I would say, ”That’s good. Write that down.” Once, our work abruptly stopped as he told me about his mother’s death when he was nine. He went silent for a long minute. When I asked, he said, “No, it’s all right.” We went on.
As our last session ended I said, “I’ll see you in March.” When March came, I had a persistent Covid-like dry cough, and by the time it resolved, schools were closed. I wrote to Tyrell’s teacher, asking if I could still work with him online, but her reply was tinged with sadness. He had slipped away from her, from school altogether, in the transition.




Linda K. Wertheimer, who teaches writing at Grub Street in Boston, is the author of Faith Ed, Teaching about Religion in an Age of Intolerance.
I wanted a peace I thought we could still find. It was late March during the early weeks of the pandemic, and the parking lot was packed at Concord’s Great Meadows Wildlife Refuge.
“Maybe we shouldn’t stay,” my husband said.
But Great Meadows was a sanctuary where my family of three could just be. I envisioned past trips when we stood at the wetlands’ edge, waiting, hoping to spot a heron or beaver.
“Let’s stay,” I said.
Going on a nature walk that day quickly became terrifying, as if we were Pac-Man dodging ghosts. With no state mask order yet, keeping distance from others was our only protection. Our 12-year-old son Simon ducked his face into his coat as we walked. We dodged passersby by stepping into bramble and lingered only for moments in viewing areas, fearing the breath of strangers. We saw a beaver dam, but no beavers.
Back home, my son looked worn. “We’re going to take care of each other, ok?” I said, hugging him. He grinned, offering a tween coping strategy. “I make you pancakes,” he said, referring to the breakfast he made today. “You make me everything else.” Home for now can be our sanctuary.

Tell us your story about these unprecedented times in less than 200 words. Read more about BBF’s At Home Boston community writing project, in partnership with the Boston Globe.

Follow Boston Book Festiva’s At Home Boston project on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Share these stories using the hashtag #athomeboston.

Read more At Home Boston stories:

At Home Boston: Putting my son to bed over FaceTime.

At Home Boston: First stories featured in Boston Globe

Share this post:

At Home Boston: First stories featured in Boston Globe


Boston Book Festival has launched a community writing project to capture this moment in history. We asked residents to send us stories of their experiences during the pandemic, from the acts of kindness by neighbors to the challenges in our biggest hospitals. We wanted to hear it all from all corners of the city. The following is the first selection of stories selected to be featured in the Boston Globe, our media partner in this project. Submissions will be accepted through June 30, 2020.


By Jane deLima Thomas, who is a palliative care doctor at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

My father had a massive stroke on April 13th. My mother called me and said, “If you want to see him, you should come now.” Without thinking about COVID or my mother’s fragile immune system, I leaped into the car and drove to their home. I looked down at the man who had raised me and I scanned his face and hands, committing them to memory. I told him I loved him and I believe he mumbled that he loved me, too.

I am a palliative care doctor, and during the pandemic I’ve had to call families and tell them they couldn’t come to the hospital to see their dying loved ones. I have withstood their anger, tears, and begging, knowing it was safest for everyone – patients, staff, and families themselves – if they stayed away. I did my best to be compassionate, but it wasn’t until I felt the primal need to see my father one last time that I truly understood the terrible loss families experience when they are denied the same. And now I feel the heaviness of it deep in my chest every time I reach for the phone to make another call.



By Shahrin Islam, who is an AmeriCorps member serving as a Case Manager with Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program.

The last hour of a Ramadan fast goes by the slowest. I always find myself watching the clock more closely in this last hour but today, I am extra vigilant. My 12-hour shift at a facility for people experiencing homelessness who have tested positive for COVID19, will start at 7:00 PM.

At 6:50 PM, I enter the donning station, ready to gear up in personal protective equipment (PPE). I hesitate. And I feel an overwhelming sense of guilt. Shortly, I must take off this PPE to break my fast when the sun sets. Using a set of PPE for only 30 minutes seems wasteful.

We usually take a break half way through our shift to conserve our limited supply of PPE. The other choice is to break my fast early. Again, I feel an overwhelming sense of guilt. But I swallow my guilt along with a swig of water and finish donning my PPE by 6:59 PM.

Before I go in, I pray that my fast, though incomplete, is still valid. I pray for a cure, a vaccine, the government to make decisions with the safety and health of people in mind and for all of this to be over.



By Kate H Schlesinger, 

Katie’s video wasn’t working on Zoom, so I couldn’t see her face for our last class. Juliana didn’t make it to class at all. I had taught them in 10th, 11th, and 12th grades, watching them grow as thinkers, writers, and people, and this was the end. I never imagined that my students would become floating heads on a screen for brief weekly sessions rather than the living, breathing teenagers who burst into my classroom for class or help with an essay or because their friends were there or just because. I never imagined seeing students – athletes, artists, historians, mathematicians, noisy, thoughtful, quirky, determined, anxious, dancing, laughing, flirting, falling, thriving – flattened to two dimensions.

I never imagined that in our last history class students would only be faces in boxes as they analyzed documents, focusing on screens or books, never quite looking me in the eye. I never imagined that, not wanting to try to be inspirational to a screen, I would cut short my goodbye speech and let them go, my finger hovering over the “end” button as they said goodbye and left, knowing that without awards ceremonies or graduation, I may never see their faces again.



By Amrapali Maitra, a resident physician in Internal Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an anthropologist.

I often revisit the scene in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things where Ammu and Velutha meet at the riverbank.  The Big Things are overwhelming—the caste differences that forbid their love—so they focus on Small Things.  An insect has built a home out of rubbish and leaves.  They tend to minutiae like life depends on it.

The pandemic is a study in Small Things. On a walk, I hear a blue jay’s liquid screech. Enjoy fuchsia eruptions of rhododendrons in the Arboretum. Inhale ash from my neighbor’s backyard, conjuring nights of s’mores and songs. Spy a family of squirrels relocate to the rain gutter

COVID has transformed my identity as a doctor. In March, I cared for cancer patients. But while pregnant, every moment in the hospital became a negotiation between duty to others and obligation to the life inside me. So, I transitioned to virtual care.

Sitting at my dining table, I begin each phonecall, “This is Dr. Maitra!  How are you coping?” The words are chalky in my mouth. I swallow the guilt. Sheltering in place, I’m no hero. Then I feel my daughter’s forceful kicks and realize, I’m exactly where I need to be.



By Daina Wynot, a quintessential millennial who occasionally pretends she can write.

My grandmother called me over to her apartment complex to pick up a leftover meatball sub. She didn’t want it to go to waste and wasn’t taking no for an answer — I don’t think any grandmas will accept a “no” from their grandkids, especially when it comes to overfeeding them.

I donned the mask I made of leftover fabric from my attempt at crafting dog bandanas and set out to retrieve the package.

Grandma was standing outside when I arrived — folks who don’t live there aren’t allowed in — and I approached her with my phone facing outward. My 7-month-old nephew, her great-grandson, was on the screen, babbling away with a bottle in his mouth.

“Can he see me?” she asked, absolutely thrilled to learn that he could. “Oh, no wonder he’s shouting so much! Look at me, a crazy lady in a mask.”

After ending the call I was informed I would be taking her to get “one of those things” as soon as stores reopen.

“I can’t take my money with me,” Grandma said, and using it to buy a magic machine that lets her see her great-grandkids whenever she wants is a pretty good deal.


By Deborah Vatcher is a retired physician and oboist.

When was the sky ever so saturated, so clear, so blue? Absent that smoky haze? These cerulean depths—a Côte d’Azur overhead—invite a daring swim in a sky of pure color, as the Cooper’s Hawk dives for prey; and standing outside now, watching him, I feel giddy, caught in the undertow of these waves of clarity.

When was it ever a two-hour walk to the turtle pond and back? Before this pernicious twist of coronavirus slipped into circulation, it was a thirty-minute outing with DixieDudeDog at most. These days, I just never know. Between pauses to stare at the sky, mute, and in awe, I meet the neighbors, all home now, out in their yards, with tools and trimmers—busy with projects long-planned, and now, at last, well underway. Bill and his kids are planting a garden, and we spend some time talking about all that. And when I’m nearly back home, two women stop me, ask directions, and seem in no rush to move on. I’ll visit the egg farm on Hancock Street later this afternoon, walking there, of course, and pet the gray barn cat; and when was this cat ever so friendly, before?



By Jennifer Serafyn, a lawyer who lives in Dorchester with her husband, two sons, and their dog, Barkley.

It’s mid-March and our dog doesn’t realize that we’re all home in the middle of the day on a Wednesday. A school day. A work day. She doesn’t mind that when we go for our usual walk in Dorchester Park, we see no one. Not the guy who also has a beagle or the lady who doles out treats from her pocket.

It’s Easter and our dog doesn’t understand that no one is coming over for dinner. She doesn’t know about being over 70 and having lung disease. Instead, our dog jumps onto my lap as we Zoom with family to celebrate virtually. Safely.

It’s mid-May and our dog doesn’t notice that the bike path along the Neponset River is more crowded than usual. She wags her tail and sniffs the grass as runners, cyclists, rollerbladers, and walkers pass by. She doesn’t care that most of them are wearing masks.

Soon it will be June. My sons will turn 9 and 11. School will end. Our dog will continue to meander through the days, unaware. That’s all we can be sure of.


By Chris Kelly, a public relations consultant and walker of Buddy.

My son and I were walking our dog when we saw someone walking toward us on the same side of the street. The person was wearing a long coat, a baseball hat, and over the bottom half of their face, a bandanna.  “Let’s cross,” I said, steering us to the other side of the empty street.

As we passed, the person called out. “Hi! Windy day, huh?”

“Yes!” I agreed as we walked past.  A block further, my brain connected the voice and the covered-up form with our neighbor. Not only had we crossed the street to avoid her, but we’d barely acknowledged her greeting.

Often, we walk our dog another route, past a home built in the 1600s. It’s been there through wars and assassinations, a Great Depression, 9/11, hurricanes and blizzards.  So many different events with one thing in common: people gathering to support each other through them.

But now, we can’t gather, and “social distancing” means that when we see someone approaching, we cross the street or trespass someone’s yard or dart into traffic; anything to avoid contact. Today, hurriedly moving away is a way to take care of one another.


Tell us your story about these unprecedented times in less than 200 words. Read more about BBF’s At Home Boston community writing project, in partnership with the Boston Globe.

Follow Boston Book Festiva’s At Home Boston project on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Share these stories using the hashtag #athomeboston.

Read more At Home Boston stories: At Home Boston: Putting my son to bed over FaceTime.

Share this post:

At Home Boston: Putting my son to bed over FaceTime

By Megan O’Connor, a physician assistant in a Boston hospital and now a long-distance mom

It’s 7:30 p.m. and I’m leaving work. The phone rings. Bedtime is a little later these days so that we can have dinner together.

“Mumumumumum!” It’s my one year old, who is now living two hours from me at my mother’s house, along with my wife, so I don’t infect them. Over FaceTime, I watch as he learns to eat with a spoon. He feeds me through the video and then slobbers a goodnight kiss on the screen.

It’s been an exhausting day and I’m longing for my pillow. Each day holds a different struggle. Today, I had Zoom meetings with family members who can’t see their loved ones and want updates from a face rather than a voice. Over the phone, I attempt to coach a young man on making crucial medical decisions as well as how to cope as a child who is losing his mother.

Before I curl under the blanket, the phone buzzes with a text from my partner: our sonogram’s fuzzy outline provides solace. I press on with renewed energy to take on one more day.

Photo: FaceTime dinner dates between mother and son.

Tell us your story about these unprecedented times. We are accepting non-fiction essays of less than 200 words. Read more about BBF’s At Home Boston community writing project, in partnership with the Boston Globe.

Share this story using the hashtag #athomeboston.

Share this post: