My mother achieved the milestone of 89 years on this planet on a spring day while the world struggled at the early peak of the COVID-19 lockdown. Surely for the first time in 88 birthdays, she marked the occasion without a hug, a kiss, or even a fond pat from anyone related to her by blood.
The nation had watched, in collective grief, as the virus raged through other group residences for elders, ending long lives and breaking hearts in thousands of families. So, we nodded in understanding when management of her assisted-living residence imposed the new restrictions, no one in or out but staff, no family visits. We get it, we said, it’s critical for safety, no choice in the matter, thank goodness they are doing the right thing to protect them all from this mysterious potential killer. At the time of her birthday (and indeed, at this writing), the restrictions had succeeded in protecting her and her “neighbors,” with no evidence of the dreaded COVID-19 among residents or staff. For weeks and weeks and weeks on end, her local family has seen her only through the window, and I only on video.
While grateful for these safeguards, we were still, like millions of other families of elders, plunged so far and wide off course. In our close-knit family, relationships are a tightly woven and colorfully complex weaving of emotional and physical connections. My parents wove physical affection, for us and for each other, into the family tapestry, where it remains an enduring thread of their legacy. We tend to hug all comers, whether by introduction, welcome, or simple affection. We may pat or stroke a cheek or forearm for consolation, and occasionally prod a nearby shoulder for playful agitation or to deliver an important point. I like to rub the top of my brother’s head, back and forth, in lifelong appreciation for his thick, wiry, close-cropped mop; before he grew to his full height, taller by half a foot or more than this older sister, I used to say I could turn him upside down and scrub pots with his bristly noggin.
Missing physical contact with Mom makes us members of a discordant chorus that does not correct its tune as the weeks of separation roll on. We are still singing, we show up for rehearsals and work on our parts, but our director is behind a transparent barrier, and even our best efforts feel completely off-key.
It was tempting to make the three-hour drive for my mother’s birthday just for the window visit, but the Governor of her state was understandably discouraging inbound travelers. I sensed that my mother, one of the most practical humans I know, would have talked me out of it if asked. So, I joined my brother, sister, and their spouses for a birthday salute outside her window in the only way we could fathom, these days—on FaceTime. My brother agreed to make the electronic connection at the appointed time.
The tiny phone camera secured a bittersweet view from 200 miles away. First, my sister-in-law proudly displayed for the Birthday Girl through the window the photos sent by the grandchildren. Next, I watched my sister trying to transmit her birthday wishes through the glass. With an energetic combination of shouting and hand signals, her expression radiating the sincerity of her effort, she called, “You look beautiful! Happy Birthday!” then repeated it, crossing her arms to pat her own shoulders, signaling a hug that she transmitted by pointing at our mother. Sensing Mom had not heard her, she called to the kind staff member nearby on the side of the glass, “Will you tell her we said she looks beautiful?” Fat tears, the pandemic facial accent that long ago superseded eye makeup, burst forward thickly, and I did not bother to wipe them away.
I called to my brother, with a childlike urgency: Can she see me? He did his level best, holding the screen with my face on it closer to the glass. “Mom, look! It’s Eve on the phone!”, he shouted. I couldn’t tell if she understood, but my brother told me afterward that when he pushed the phone up close to the window, she reached out and tried to touch it from the other side of the transparent barrier. My heart splintered for the hundredth time at the unprecedented pain of such isolation. When you are 89, and so many issues exact their toll, what remains to light your days but your family?
A couple of weeks later, I perched in a lawn chair at a social distance from my daughter and her two children, ages 7 and 9. We sat in their back yard in a circle around a firepit, roasting marshmallows for s’mores. This was huge. They live 20 minutes away, but these days, there could have been a continent between us. Since the shelter-in-place order, I had seen them from a social distance one other time since the community had shut down almost three months before. Now, with warm weather and some signs of progress, we agreed it was safe to try an outside visit. It had been nearly 90 lonely days without a hug for, or from, these small planets who spin so magically at the center of my heart’s orbit.
I asked my daughter what instructions she had given them about social distancing, trusting to follow her lead. I think they get it, she said, and I could see they knew to maintain space, as they scrambled through their usual efforts to command my attention by talking over the top of each other. Granddaughter Sis, who at seven is always intent on demonstrating new levels of competence, served the ingredients around the fire. She leaned forward from as far away as she could manage to offer a package from which I could pluck my own wrapped chocolate.
Older brother Buddy, who at 9 has emerged as a lover of good jokes, had a couple to share. (What do you call uncooked broccoli? Rawcoli! bah, boom, bah.) Emboldened by a captive audience, he didn’t seem to notice the distance between us. But Sis was unusually quiet. I looked over to see her watching me, squirming uncertainly in her lawn chair, cheeks a tad flushed from the fire and summer heat, her watchful gaze telegraphing a question she did not pose. In other times, I would have extended my arms, pulled her to me, pushed her hair out of her eyes, pecked a little kiss on that forehead, and asked, “What’s up?”
This time, of course, I couldn’t, shouldn’t, didn’t. Keeping my arms still, unmoving on the flat wooden chair arms, six feet but millions of miles away, felt for a micro-second like someone else grabbed the steering wheel when I thought I was driving. In a flash the road is striped with a reflection of fear, destination unknown, only Faith riding along, but Faith is pretty dang confused. I locked eyes with Sis, beaming all I could summon in her direction, mouthing slowly and silently, “I LOVE YOU.” She held my eyes while still squirming, first one way, then another, wiggling her dusty bare toes, a charged energy cell ready to power up something, anything. She cocked her head, smiled shyly, and mouthed back silently, “I love you, too.”
A few minutes later, I said my goodbyes, no farewell hugs, of course, and made my way to the car. What will the children remember about this time, I wondered as I beeped open the car door? What might a seven-year-old truly understand about this strange enemy that we can’t see? What happens when love may only be expressed, for a time, only in words, across the lawn, or through a window? Will those words, however well-chosen, be enough, carved in memory by the deeds that make them true? That is my prayer.