Since the coronavirus pandemic hit New York, Dr. Roberto Vargas has been working long hours, running labs that do COVID-19 testing in Rochester.
To minimize his family's risk of exposure, Roberto has been isolating himself from his wife, Susan, and their four kids since March.
For two weeks, Roberto stayed at a hotel near Rochester Regional Hospital, where he works as the director of microbiology. Then, he moved to the basement of his home.
In a remote StoryCorps conversation this month, Roberto, Susan and their eldest child, 10-year-old Xavier, say they've been much more at peace since he started staying in the basement.
"When I would go to the hotel room after a long day and it was just me there, and it was very quiet; that was when I missed you all the most," Roberto said.
As the coronavirus crisis worsened, Xavier says his dad's absence compounded his grief.
"It got very worrying once I knew the virus was going to be, like, a big thing, and with you gone it was way harder," he said. "I just missed you."
Before Roberto moved into the basement, he'd visit occasionally from a distance.
One day, when he brought groceries to his family, they talked on the phone while looking at each other on opposite sides of their front door's glass window.
The separation took an emotional toll on Roberto.
"I remember one of the hardest nights, I think you were just exhausted, you just had your head on the window and were crying," Susan recalled to her husband.
"But eventually, you started sleeping in the basement. And I would not let the kids go past the top of the basement stairs."
Even though he couldn't be physically close to his dad, Xavier told him, "I just felt better that you could be, like, a part of us. It's still very hard, but it's just nice to see you, Dad."
Roberto thanked his son for being so helpful to his mom.
Susan remembered a particularly special night she had with Roberto — "the best night I had yet," she said.
Roberto's co-worker fixed an assortment of dishes for his family. As he sat in a rocking chair at the bottom of the stairs, Roberto was able to eat with his wife, who sat on the top of the stairs.
"It was the first time we had been able to connect in so long and, as crazy as it sounds, it's the best date I've ever had with you in my life," Susan said.
Without her support, Roberto told Susan, he wouldn't be able to do his work.
"You have to be absolutely everything to our four beautiful kids," he said. "I've never loved you more, and I know it hasn't been easy."
Susan told her husband that she's always admired him, "but you've done things these past couple months that seem impossible."
"What you're doing is a lot harder than what I'm doing, a lot harder," Roberto told her.
"Dad, I just want to say 'thank you' for helping get rid of this virus," Xavier said.
Roberto told his son it's a team effort. "And that team includes you," he said.
"But what carries me through is this family."
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jud Esty-Kendall with Camila Kerwin.
StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:
It is Friday, and it's time for StoryCorps. And today, we'll hear from a doctor in Rochester, N.Y., who works in a lab running COVID-19 tests. Roberto Vargas is worried about exposing his family to the virus. And so he's isolated himself from his wife and from his four kids. He lived in a hotel for a while, and now he's in his basement. And that's where Roberto recorded this remote StoryCorps interview with his wife, Susan, and their 10-year-old son, Xavier.
ROBERTO VARGAS: When I would go to the hotel room after a long day and it was just me there and it was very quiet, that was when I missed you all the most.
XAVIER: It got very worrying once I knew the virus was going to be, like, a big thing. And with you gone, it was way harder. I just missed you.
SUSAN: I remember you had dropped groceries off and put them on the front porch. And that's when we started talking through the window next to our front door. You would talk on your cellphone, and the kids and I would sit behind the window. And I remember one of the hardest nights - I think you were just exhausted. You just had your head on the window and were crying. But eventually, you started sleeping in the basement. And I would not let the kids go past the top of the basement stairs.
XAVIER: We had to stay far away. But I just felt better that you could be, like, a part of us. It's still very hard, but it's nice to see you, Dad.
VARGAS: You have been so helpful to Mom. So thank you, OK?
SUSAN: I remember once you came into the basement, the best night I had yet - you know, your coworker had made all these different dishes for us. You sat at the bottom of the stairs in a rocking chair. And I was at the top.
VARGAS: I remember that, yes. I remember the food. It smelled so good.
SUSAN: It was the first time we had been able to connect in so long. And as crazy as it sounds, it's the best date I've ever had with you in my life.
VARGAS: Without you, I wouldn't have been able to do what I've been able to do at work. You have to be absolutely everything to our four beautiful kids. I've never loved you more. And I know it hasn't been easy.
XAVIER: Can you guys try not to cry? It makes me sad when you cry.
SUSAN: Sorry, honey. These are tears of happiness. Roberto, I admire you so much. I always admired you, but you've done things these past couple months that seem impossible.
VARGAS: What you're doing is a lot harder than what I'm doing, a lot harder.
XAVIER: Dad, I just want to say thank you for helping get rid of this virus.
VARGAS: That's a team effort. And that team includes you. But what carries me through is this family.
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GREENE: That's Dr. Roberto Vargas talking with his wife, Susan, and their eldest son, Xavier. They've recorded their interview using StoryCorps Connect. To participate, you can go to npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.