Saturday, May 21, 2022
HomeHealthWhat We Lose Speaking By Textual content in a Pandemic

What We Lose Speaking By Textual content in a Pandemic


***

When the virus reaches my mother’s nursing home, they wake her at midnight to test her. She is negative, and we bring her home, but relief is fleeting. The next afternoon she falls ill. I have been reading Covid diaries on the internet and recognize its signature — the dry cough that emerges out of nowhere, the low-grade fever that suddenly spikes. An ambulance takes her to the E.R., where she texts me a fevered slurry of words: tirrezxctired.

When she tests positive that night, I feel my body turn to lead, as if it might fall through the floor. No: as if the floor no longer exists.

***

There is no helplessness exactly like watching your mother struggle for breath over a video call, knowing that you cannot approach the scene of her distress.

The phone can’t satisfy the longing for touch and physical proximity. It’s not a surrogate for presence. Trying to keep vigil through a screen only reminds me that I am not there. I am siloed in my living room four hours away from my parents, who are away from each other.

My father falls ill with Covid five days after my mother’s diagnosis. I want to drive down to stay with him, but I’m afraid that if I get sick I won’t be able to help anyone. One day on the phone my father is so breathless that he cannot finish a phrase. I send him to the same hospital as my mother, who has no idea he is there. When a nurse asks for my father’s D.N.R. request, I think: I will be orphaned soon.

***

Six days into my mother’s illness, she refuses audio and video calls. They make it too hard for her to breathe, and I sense that she doesn’t want me to see her this way. Instead, she contacts me through the most impersonal medium, the one she so disliked.

The text messages she sends me feel alien, staccato in their efficiency:

Please take the dog.

How is dad?

This is hard.

We all use texting to connect while also holding people at arm’s length. Before the pandemic, my mother made it clear that my text messages did not deliver the intimacy she craved. When days went by without a phone call from me, my mom sent blank emails with short phrases in the subject line to call me out for my silence, and my avoidant emotional style:

alien abduction?

into thin air?

***

My mother is in an oxygen mask; my mother is in an oxygen tent; my mother is drowning.

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