The author, stoking the bonfire of old legal files (Photo: Josephine Woodruff)
The author, stoking the bonfire of old legal files

Adventures in Lockdown with Seven Full-Size Roommates

My dad is struggling with cancer in North Carolina, and COVID-19 cruelly cut him off from his family. But in Maine, where I live, the pandemic has forced 'Brady Bunch' togetherness that's been challenging, strangely fun, and full of lessons worth carrying forward.

My father and I were sitting at a small indoor table, eating roasted Cornish game hens while we looked out at well-kept grounds below us. The meal was a good step forward—it was the first time he’d been out of his room to eat for at least a week. He was smiling and laughing at my dumb jokes when a man approached us and, somewhat haltingly, introduced himself as Gavin Locklear, administrator for the Carol Woods Retirement Community in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

“I apologize about this, but we’ve had to introduce a new policy regarding visitors,” he said. “Only staff and essential workers are allowed to visit building four for the time being. The policy went into effect this morning.”

“You mean family can’t visit?” I asked. “I understand why you’re saying this, but this is pretty awful. Do I have to leave right now?”

“I know, and I’m sorry. Please feel free to finish your meal, of course. No rush. And if there’s any way in which I can help, let me know. Here’s my card.”

My father, Hodding Carter III, had followed only some of the conversation; after I explained what Locklear had said, he worked hard to repeat the information back to me, which seemed strange, since he was someone who’d made a career out of speaking to audiences.

No, that’s not quite right. His life was speaking to audiences—speaking and being witty, charming, and detailed. A former newspaperman and publisher, he’d served as Jimmy Carter’s assistant secretary of state for public affairs, and during the Iran hostage crisis, he’d kept the nation informed with appearances on the nightly news for nearly a year. After Carter’s presidency, he won four Emmys as a network television journalist and host, and he became a popular lecturer at several universities. At the family dinner table in Alexandria, Virginia, he expected to have political discussions and invariably did all the talking. He was never at a loss for words. Until now.

A few months back, Dad found out he has lung cancer. It is currently Stage IV. To make matters worse, something had rapidly affected his cognitive abilities. On bad days, putting more than two or three sentences together had become a forced, trying exercise.

I’d planned to travel from my home in Camden, Maine, to Dad’s house in Chapel Hill to visit and help where needed, but a few days before I arrived, he’d fallen while coming out of the shower and broken his hip. After a short stint in a hospital, he transferred to Carol Woods for rehab, so instead of helping at home, I’d be visiting him there. Luckily, he had reserved a place years before and would be getting much needed around-the-clock attention.

My dad and I had always been close but not close, and by that I mean we hugged hello and said we loved each other, but there was a limit. He never let me all the way in, and I was usually second to whatever else was in the room. But during times of crisis, he’d always been there for me, and it had felt good, right even, to be doing the same.

Now the coronavirus was fucking it all up. Dad would be stuck trying to rehab in a nursing home without visits from a single friend or family member.

I hate remembering the look on his face when we hugged goodbye. He understood what was going on. He pursed his lips tightly and nodded slowly when I departed. He was putting on a brave face. No one wants to see their dad do that.

Hodding Carter III in Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Hodding Carter III in Chapel Hill, North Carolina (Photo: W. Hodding Carter)

“We need to get everyone home, Hodding,” my wife, Lisa Lattes, told me over the phone. It was March 5, and our 17-year-old son, Angus, a junior in high school, was already there. Our daughter Anabel, 24, was also at home, preparing to move to Brooklyn with her twin sister, Eliza, who was driving cross-country from Pasadena, California, with her boyfriend, Max Renaud. They’d been headed to Chapel Hill to say a quick hello to Dad. Instead, once visitors were verboten, they briefly went to Max’s grandparents’ house on Long Island. Lisa convinced them to come to Maine, partly because we have plenty of room. We live on 2.25 acres, and we have dozens of wooded acres behind us. Our house is a two-story ranch with a basement, totaling around 3,000 square feet.

I flew home on March 6. The next day, I drove 90 minutes southwest to Bates College, in Lewiston, to fetch my 19-year-old niece, Josephine Woodruff, who’d been told to leave campus. She’s a city girl from California, and I expected an all-day packing session, but she was ready to go. That left our daughter Helen, 22, a senior at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. Her school was shutting down as well, and, yearning for a little sunshine, she decided to visit a friend and her parents in Naples, Florida. A few days later, she called and said, “Everyone in Florida is still going out to eat, and no one is wearing gloves or a mask. I want to come home.” She flew in on March 19.

Suddenly there were eight people living in a single house, with few places to go except for grocery stores, hardware stores, and Walmart. In those early days, most of the restaurants in our area were still open, but of course that didn’t last, and our habitat range narrowed even more. On the plus side, we live 400 yards from a state-park trailhead, a mile from a lake, and two and a half miles from the Atlantic. We had an oasis of choices compared to people living in cities.

Lisa went shopping big-time in the beginning, not hoarding—although we all accused her of it—but gathering food sensibly, given how many adults we had in one spot. I cooked elaborate meals and worried about my dad. I talked with my sisters, and none of us were sure what to do, so I handled the situation the best way I knew how: I drank, both bourbon and gin. I drank while I cooked. I drank when I woke up in the middle of the night from nightmares about boating down Class VI rapids. I drank because I wasn’t writing anything. I wasn’t writing anything because I was drinking too much. 

About two weeks into this new life, my sister Catherine called. “Dad’s doctors have decided they’re not going to do any more immunotherapy treatments,” she said, which meant they were giving up. “He’s not really getting anywhere with the physical or occupational therapy.”

“How do they get to decide this?” I asked. Neither of us had an answer.

I knew that drinking through such problems was not the right choice, but I kept drinking anyway. I also became obsessed with making the perfect fried-chicken sandwich, and I made so many that Lisa ordered me to take my frying outside. For a while, I’ve been toying with the idea of opening a food truck called Bwana Kuku’s Chicken Emporium. Bwana Kuku, which means “Mr. Chicken” in Swahili, is a nickname I gave myself when I tried to convince the Peace Corps to let me switch from being a teacher in Kenya to being an egg-farm outreach volunteer.

Combining that type of eating with the drinking, I quickly gained 20 pounds, and my blood pressure skyrocketed. So what? I kept doing it.

Helen (left) and Anabel Carter sewing masks (Photo: W. Hodding Carter)
Attempting to build a snow-day igloo (Photo: W. Hodding Carter)

Fortunately, we found many healthier ways to cope with our extra time at home. Our house and property are and always have been a never-ending project, and Lisa made a list of 20 or so things that needed all-day fixing. We implemented a system of rotating dishwashing partners, and all eight of us spent an entire day cleaning the house from top to bottom. Embarrassingly gross.

We did the same thing in the yard, even though it was the start of mud season. Then we had to do the yard again because we got hit by a heavy snowstorm on April 9 and 10, which broke branches and downed trees, knocking out our power for just shy of 48 hours. Luckily, our neighbors owned a whole-house generator and refilled our five-gallon jugs several times a day. We had to have the water for gravity flushing, because there’s a whole lot of that going on with eight people in the house. This happened during Passover, and because of everything going wrong in the world and at home, the joke became, “Bring on the frogs!”

My wife practices family law, and one afternoon we burned several years’ worth of her legal files, resulting in a fire that kept going until midnight. Lisa, my daughters, and Josephine sewed dozens of masks for us, other family members, friends, and friends of friends. We set up a gym in our walk-out basement, complete with two used rowing machines, a workout bench that I finally assembled after giving it to Helen five years ago, an assortment of dumbbells, and a heavy punching bag that Max bought.

On the night I found out my dad’s treatment was being stopped, I did a lot of punching without gloves, and my hands needed a week to heal. I came upstairs sobbing and bleeding. Helen hugged me and said, “It’s OK, Dad. It’s OK.”

During times of crisis, he’d always been there for me, and it had felt good, right even, to be doing the same. Now the coronavirus was fucking it all up.

Back in 2000, I tried out eBay for the first time and ended up “winning,” for $2,500, a creamy white 1966 Dodge Dart named Lulabelle. Good news: it was a California car, so the body was in great shape. Bad news: it was in California. Lisa flew out and drove it home, and Lulabelle became a member of the family that all my kids grew up with and cherished.

Over the years, however, the car fell deeper into disrepair. By 2017, the floor pan on the driver’s side was rusted so badly that you could pull a Fred Flintstone while driving her.

One week we decided to make the garage my workspace, and we put Lulabelle out front to sell. A wheel had locked up, and after an hour of attempting to push her out, we’d managed only two feet. So we dragged her down our 200-foot driveway using Angus’s 2002 Tundra. The wheel never unfroze, so it was like pulling a 2,000-pound slab. A new neighbor bought her the next day, after she was covered by the snowstorm.

Lulabelle (Photo: W. Hodding Carter)
From left: Max building a computer; Hodding framing a room (Photo: W. Hodding Carter; Josephine Woodruff)

Angus didn’t tackle as many projects around the house as I hoped, but he was doing remote schooling, which let him off the hook a bit. What he preferred was spring skiing at Camden Snow Bowl, our closed local hill. He and a friend or two would do a socially distanced uphill trudge in hiking boots, skis strapped to their backs, and come down slopes that were a mix of snow and mud. He returned home tired and happy and caked with grime. He also bleached his hair, then dyed it blue, and let Josephine stick and poke a narwhal tattoo onto his left instep.

Anabel, the older twin, kept us on task. One morning she texted from work to remind me to fix the stove-vent cover on the back of the house, a project I had started and stopped two weeks earlier. She and Eliza got hired by a local landscaper. It was good, hard, safe work—but not as hard as I’d hoped, since Anabel still had time to harass me.

Eliza did needlepoint and knitting in her downtime. Helen was remotely taking one of her block periods at Colorado College and was overloaded with work. Josephine took remote classes from Bates, which seemed pretty difficult, given that one was drawing and the other video production. Max started building his own computer.

Besides going on hikes, playing tennis, throwing axes, and shooting arrows, our favorite activity was heading off to the grocery store. Most of our meals were communal, with a lot of variety—homemade ramen, Ethiopian injera, or seafood poke bowls with a dozen toppings.

This is not the spring any of us on earth were looking forward to, but at my house I’ve loved the family time—the ridiculously tasty meals, the group projects, and even the arguments.

We also became a fermentation factory. A friend gave us some of her sourdough starter, and we baked two loaves a day. (Snark all you want about sourdough, but it’s great and I became obsessed.) I also fermented two pounds of mushrooms. I used the earthy juice in just about everything—without telling anyone—and I dried and ground whole mushrooms into a pungent powder that I sprinkled on eggs, risotto, and Max’s coffee (when he wasn’t looking). Helen fermented pineapples into tepache, which was perfect in a beer or with seltzer. And we had jars and jars of kimchi.

Max, Anabel, and I (with everyone else pitching in) converted an upstairs alcove into a private room for Josephine, which required framing, insulating, and Sheetrocking a wall, then slapping on the mud.

God, I hate working with drywall. If I hadn’t tricked Anabel and Helen into thinking they’d be much better than I am at spreading the joint compound, we definitely would not be finished yet. I got my payback, however, and had to do most of the sanding. But the girls painted it while I was writing this.

A few weeks back, we bought bidet wands—handheld sprayers—to cut down on our toilet-paper usage. I took my time installing them, worried that they’d look ungainly running from the sink to the toilet, and we’ve only been using them for a week. “We” is a bit of a stretch. Max tried it once and announced, “I don’t like that at all! It burned my bum.” Angus may or may not be using it, but at 17, he doesn’t like talking about such things with me.

From left: Helen, Josephine, and Max; Anabel cutting her dad’s hair
From left: Helen, Josephine, and Max; Anabel cutting her dad’s hair (Photo: W. Hodding Carter; Josephine Woodruff)

The day before yesterday, I went running right after taking care of my business, using the method described above. I eventually reversed course on my initial reaction to self-quarantining and my father’s illness, going from overdrinking and bad eating to running a lot and eating right. The run wasn’t a long one, or at a speed I’m particularly proud of, but for a while, I was really glad I’d done it. Until my ass began to burn and I felt like I had diaper rash. Without going into great detail, I can advise that it’s not a good idea to carelessly rush the drying process—using a small strip of toilet paper—before heading out.

We sent homemade cards for my dad’s 85th birthday, on April 7, and though we called him a number of times, we couldn’t reach him. My sisters and stepfamily got through, though, and apparently he was doing well. Catherine, who has the power of attorney, worked tirelessly for a few days and found a way to get him back to his home, where he’s been receiving around-the-clock care. We can’t afford this kind of help forever, and I’m hoping that my relatives and I can take turns caring for him.

This is not the spring any of us on earth were looking forward to, but at my house I’ve loved the family time—the ridiculously tasty meals, the group projects, and even the arguments. Lisa keeps saying, “I never expected us all to be together like this under one roof after the girls went off to college.” We get to be a whole family once again. We have our bad days—especially when a certain someone slips, drinks too much, and snipes at anyone under the roof, but even he is improving. We’ve stayed healthy and alive, and thus far, so has my dad.

My professional outlook remains the same as always. I’ll keep heading out on adventures and writing from home. Lisa may have to attend court remotely for some time, and doing home visits for child-welfare cases won’t be happening until there’s a vaccine. My girls, and Max and Josephine, are probably “stuck” here far longer than they currently anticipate. They’re resilient, though. They’ll work in Maine for now, and we’ll eat together every night. It’s an unexpected gift—an upside to the horrors of today and the tight times to come. And with the easing of stay-at-home guidelines, I’ll get to see my dad again, something I wasn’t so sure about a month ago.

Lead Photo: Josephine Woodruff

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