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Better Off? Or Just Better?


It’s the night before November 3–voting day. I live in Oregon, where we’ve been voting by mail for years, so my ballot has been safe in the bosom of whoever holds onto votes until they get counted.

The choice of who to vote for is not complicated this time around for any of us. I live in a “red” part of a “blue” state. There have been Trump rallies in my town. A significant portion of my family support Trump. I’ve been reading essays and articles about how all of us are equally to blame for our shattered family relationships, and how if we would just learn to see beyond political divisions we could all, in the words of Rodney King, “just get along.”

But here’s the thing–this campaign is not about politics for many of us. Authors Tim Reid, Gabriella Borter, Michael Martina quote professor of psychology and neural science at New York University John J. Bavel in their article “‘You are no longer my mother’: How the election is dividing American families.” “This ‘political sectarianism’ has become not only tribal, but moral.”

For many of us, this election has become a litmus test. For me, it’s forced me to ask myself a question. I read a question on a Gallup poll a few months ago: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” I thought about that, sitting in my house, isolated to flatten the curve. I thought about the loss of one of my primary sources of income to the depredations of the virus. It was hard to say I was better off–but then again, I’ve always flirted with bankruptcy.

It just seemed like the wrong question to me. How did it happen that finances became the sole criteria of how one was doing in life? What about love? What about raising happy kids? What about doing a good and worthwhile job that simply didn’t pay as well as, oh say a political consulting job? What about having time to develop as a person? What about having time and energy to give back? In short, what about all those good, worthy, and fulfilling things that we do when we can step off the wage slave treadmill for a few minutes? What about looking who I have become in the last four years?

I realized that the question, for me, isn’t, “Am I better off?” but, “Am I better?” And that’s where this becomes a simple calculation for me. Eight years ago I missed Barack Obama’s inauguration. I missed it because I had listened to him speak during the campaign. He spoke about how we are better together, how together we can change things, how there is still hope that our better angels will prevail–but that it would take all of us, working together.

And so when a predatory lending company called me and insisted I go across the street and tell my little old neighbor lady that she needed to call them about a debt I didn’t just hang up and ignore the situation. I went across the street. I talked to my ninety-year-old neighbor lady and learned that she had been trying for months to convince the company that the debt was not hers. The calls had gotten so bad that this lady, would couldn’t walk to a car, had stopped answering her telephone.

I went back to my house. I called the Better Business Bureau. I called the state Attorney General’s office. And then I called the company. It took hours. I talked my way up the organization ladder to the vice president for customer relations. And at last–at last–I found the person who could correct the record and set my neighbor lady free to answer her phone again, and to go out into the neighborhood without the knowledge that all of her neighbors had been informed that she was a cheat.

I did that because Candidate Obama had reminded me that I could be Better. I could make a difference. Yes, I missed the inauguration, but I felt–and still feel–pretty amazing about that. I missed the inauguration, but I stepped into my neighbor lady’s corner and started swinging, and together, we prevailed.

I’m not perfect, but because of the Obama candidacy I am Better. And now I ask myself the same question about the Trump candidacy. This is his second term, so I am very clear on what he inspires his followers to do. So are you. I think we’d both agree that if we are inspired by Trump we might be many things, but we won’t be better neighbors, better husbands, better wives, better parents, better children, better parents…Better.

This election is about more than politics. It’s about who we each aspire to be. I don’t just want to be better off. I want to be Better. Joe Biden wasn’t my first choice, or my second. But here’s the thing, there is room in his world for the decent, the honorable, the generous. There is room to be Better. And that’s how I’m voting.

Lost and Found and Lost


Urban Prayer
Brooklyn, April 16, 2020 (Photo by Walter Wlodarczyk)

Lorraine Ash 
May 8, 2020  

The long hand of COVID-19 snatched Barbara from our family. Barbara, one life of 8,952 lost, according to the latest death chart. Barbara, who I just found after untangling reams of genealogical records and crossing a desert of family estrangement. Barbara, who I was never supposed to meet.  

In 2015 I called her husband, Gene, my cousin, and introduced myself. We decided to meet some weeks later at an Atlanta Bread on a highway. Barbara came to support him that day, standing by his side, pretty as a picture with short blonde hair and a red outfit. She extended her hand.  

We all sat in a booth where she listened to us trade more than a century of stories and pictures. We filled in blanks for each other. I had a huge one. Barbara, mother of four, had met the grandmother I never knew. She understood the wound and scrambled for a connection. 

“I have her roasting pan at home,” she told me, her easy smile lighting up her face. “I use it every Thanksgiving. After all, she was Gene’s aunt. Sometimes she came over to the house for picnics.” 

After decades of no contact, she produced the only tangible thing left to bridge three generations—a roasting pan. In the moment her acuity and sensitivity delighted me. Not everyone would have been as thoughtful or as willing. 

“You must come to the house,” she said. “We’ll have lunch.”  

So a few weeks later I ventured to their house on a lake. At age fifty-six, for the first time, I set foot in a home from that side of the family. Just walking over the threshold felt magical and right. We sat in a room like an art gallery, eating a delicious gluten-free meal she’d lovingly prepared as Gene and I talked on. After a time, we moved past the ancestors and into our own lives—who we were, where we’d been, what we’d done. Just like a family does. 

Even at eighty, Barbara, a painter, still worked in an art gallery. She loved her art. It was everywhere in their home. She loved her home. She loved her husband, her children, her grandchildren and, very clearly, her life. She had love to spare. 

Just as she was to end a successful treatment program in a rehab facility, the virus came. Having no mercy for the weak, it killed her quickly. We’d had no past. It took our future. The news of her death jolted me. The jolt affirmed the connection, so I was glad to feel it.   

Like a black wave, death had taken unreconciled family members for decades. No one was ever notified. No one cared to notify. Many times, news of a death would have been like news of the death of a stranger, anyway. 
Like all the memorial services, Barbara’s will be sometime in the future. Whenever it is, I will be there to mark her passing, to say goodbye, to say, “I knew her.” 

I started my quest to find my long-gone grandmother, who had abandoned her own children. Barbara had given me a piece of that long-lost past. But the truth is, she gave me more than my grandmother ever would have. She gave me a piece of herself. She stood in that terrible void and imbued it with her grace. And no virus can kill that kind of humanity. 

Lorraine Ash, MA, is a New Jersey-based book editor, author, and literary coach.

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Dr. Ferreras in his hometown of Lumban, Philippines giving a holiday meal, December 2017 (Courtesy of Nico Ferreras, MD)

Nico Ferreras, MD 

My father, Jessie Ariel Ferreras, MD, worked a long weekend March 20-23, 2020. A family physician in Waldwick, New Jersey, he was very proud to be an everyday doctor who specialized in everything. The four-day stretch was no different as he tested many patients for COVID-19.  

That Monday, upon his return from work, he didn’t feel well. His own COVID-19 test had come back positive. Yet he sat at his home desk on March 24, and every day thereafter, with a long list of patients’ names. Following each was a “+” or “-.” One by one, he called to give them their results and instructions. That’s the way he’d been with his patients for twenty-five years—devoted.  

“If there’s no improvement or if you have any concerns, don’t hesitate to call the office,” he always said. 

On April 2, supposedly his tenth day with COVID symptoms, he had a fever but said he was fine, not short of breath. He had dinner and went to bed. So it was a shock when the next day, April 3, his health took a turn for the worst. He passed away at home in the arms of his loving wife and my mother, Madonna, a nurse. He was only sixty-two. 

His passing marked the end of a short yet wonderful life. The eldest of six, my father grew up in Lumban, a small provincial town in Laguna, Philippines. From the start, he dreamt of becoming a doctor and serving those around him. Knowing the path wouldn’t be easy, he worked tirelessly to make his dream a reality for himself and his family, friends, and future patients.  

He studied medicine at the University of Santo Tomas Faculty of Medicine and Surgery (UST FMS). After graduating, he pursued medical training in the United States and completed his residency in family medicine at JFK Medical Center in Edison, New Jersey. He found a second home at work where he managed patients from children to the elderly and cases from the common cold to chest pain.  

His clinical skills, ranging from suturing lacerations to ear irrigations and Pap smears, were matched only by his kindness and compassion. Everyone he came into contact with loved him. One of my father’s colleagues called him a “trusted friend and the backbone of the office.” Nurses admired his dedication. He often called patients on his free time, as he did the week before he died. He gave them lab results and updates; he knew they were waiting. He refilled prescriptions; he knew they needed their medications.  
To patients, he was more than an approachable compassionate doctor who took his time to address their concerns. He was a friend, a shoulder to lean on, an extended member of the family. 

And yet he was more than a family physician. He was a family man, happily married for thirty-two years. Even with a busy schedule, he found time to go to sporting events with me and my brother, Ryan, and to see Broadway shows with our mother. As a family, we traveled the world. He encouraged my brother and me to enjoy our lives and pursue careers we’d enjoy. Ryan, an avid hip-hop dancer, works as a software engineer. Like my father, I’m a doctor in family medicine. 

I will never forget my beautiful upbringing, just as my father never forgot where he came from. In 2008 he and his siblings started a yearly family tradition: they donate a holiday meal to three hundred fifty families in Lumban so no one goes hungry during the Christmas season. He visited as often as he could and was very fond of family get-togethers and class reunions.  

After his passing, my mother, brother, and I learned of hundreds of people who loved and cared about my dad. His medical school classmates created a Facebook tribute page and posted memories and pictures of him. On April 12, Easter Sunday, his coworkers and friends formed a drive-by procession in front of our house. They got out of their cars and, one by one, left pictures, flowers, cards, and candles in honor of Dr. Ferreras.  

Beloved patients have sent cards and letters recounting memorable experiences. One wrote about her lack of follow-up from a specialist.  

“Your father persisted,” she said. “He did not give up calling me till he got a response. He told me I had pneumonia.” 

Another told the story of how Dr. Ferreras had helped in every aspect of his life for more than twenty years.  

My dad’s passing was made more memorable when people donated on his behalf. The money went to COVID-19 response efforts, including PPEs. He would have liked that. 

Though COVID-19 took his life at the early age of sixty-two, he had checked off all the boxes for a meaningful life. He’d found his true calling, married his one true love, and seen his sons become men. He healed the sick, traveled the world, and made the lives around his better. He lives on through the lives he touched, so he goes down in history as a hero.  

And I do my best to follow in his footsteps as the next “Dr. Ferreras,” though, for now, hearing people address me that way always reminds me of him.  

Nico Ferreras, 30, graduated Boston College and, like his father, earned his medical degree at UST FMS. He is currently a first-year resident in family medicine at Meadville Medical Center, Pennsylvania.

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Into His Arms – Or Not


Sharing the Love
This #WeWillHugAgain yard sign, created by a Bethlehem, Pennsylvania printing service,
appears throughout the New York Metro Area, May 2020 (Photo by Lorraine Ash)

Jean Sheff
May 12, 2020

I hear him as he slides the key into my front door lock. The sound of metal on metal makes my insides lurch, but I swivel my desk chair to face the door. Michael and I have navigated the twenty-five minutes between our homes for four years with a boldness we no longer possess. 

When the COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders went into effect, we were each in our own homes.  

“Jean, with your autoimmune issues, I’m the worst thing for you,” he said. “I couldn’t bear it if you got sick.”  

That wasn’t what I wanted to hear. Though I’d been working from home, I’d lost my job because of the virus, just as millions of others had. I was looking at painfully empty days. Yet, he was right. Michael works in the medical field and he’d been seeing patients until our world shuttered closed. Yes, quarantining for two weeks was judicious. 

We called one another two or three times a day. We relied on each other to ease the endless hours. Things were grim. New cautions were issued daily. The rules changed by the hour. If you dared to go outside, you had best suit up like an astronaut walking on the moon. We got skittish and held off getting together for another week, then another. People we knew were getting sick. His aunt and uncle, who lived in a local senior center, were whisked off to a hospital. Five days later they were both dead. With funerals banned, we couldn’t gather to find comfort. Everyone cried at home alone.   

Before we knew it, another several weeks passed. We kept flip-flopping on when to break the quarantine. Where was my bravery? I felt shallow. One night I invited him to dinner for the following day. He called early the next morning. His throat was sore, he said, and his eyes were watering. We cancelled. Paranoia had found a home. A cough felt fatal. I vacillated between feeling ridiculous and not cautious enough. The separation was getting painful. We consulted doctors, friends, and family. No one could reassure us. No one knows what safe is anymore. To get together, we’d have to just take our chances. 

So here we are. He’s arriving for dinner, and I’m jumpy. He creaks the door open, as if he’s afraid, too. I stand. We look at each other. We try to smile. He extends his hand, offering me a dozen ruby roses cradled in cellophane. I want this scene to be different. It should evoke the iconic 1945 Eisenstaedt photo of an impassioned sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square at the end of World War II. Or if not that, then why not the scene in countless films and a legion of novels—two amorous people huddled tightly together as the bombs drop around them? 

But in this time of COVID-19, touching is dangerous. I try to will the dread away. Yet fear is insidious. It creeps into every chink in the foundation of my soul. I step forward and take the roses, then open my arms to him. We hug. It feels like there’s a saguaro cactus wedged between our chests. It hurts. I turn my head into his shoulder and grab him tighter. For the rest of the evening we’re careful with each other. After dinner we watch some television and relax enough to hold hands. He rises to leave and we hug again, but we don’t kiss.  

Being deprived of touch feels cruel. In so many ways it sustains me. I miss human contact, from a dear one’s hug to a friendly handshake to a lover’s embrace. With masks shielding us from one another, I even miss seeing the smiles of people I don’t know. But this is the new human condition.  

Later, I get into bed and cocoon myself in the covers. I’m lonelier now than at any time during the seven weeks we spent apart. I turn over, wondering how we’ll come together again. Still, we’re just two. How will everyone in this country, in this world, ever come together again?   

I challenge myself: if I weren’t thinking so much about this, what would I be feeling? I can’t go there. I shut down. An anthem enshrines this pandemic—“We’re in This Together.” Maybe that’s because, as in birth and death, the truth is, we’re in this alone.  

Jean Sheff holds a BFA from Adelphi University. She is an award-winning, New York-based writer and editor. Jean is devoted to her daughter, Juliana, and enjoys teaching Pilates.

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