If I seem a little less present or vocal online it’s because I, personally, am going through a difficult time in the midst of difficult times for all of us. Although I don’t find pandemic precautions all that onerous on a normal day-to-day basis, they have impacted and complicated my ability to deal with both physical and psychological things this year. My mother died on Easter Sunday. She had been hospitalized with pneumonia in January, then went to a succession of rehab or assisted living facilities to get her back on her feet so she could go home. She nearly died when she was in the hospital. We got the “come now if you want to see her alive” call that every family dreads, but of course that was impossible since it was the middle of the night and I was nearly two hundred miles away. I didn’t sleep that night, waiting for the final phone call. To everyone’s astonishment she was up and perky early the next morning when we arrived in ICU. She made rapid progress, headed from the hospital to rehab, and we thought--though she still had some difficulty breathing--that she was headed for a complete recovery. I kept the trail hot between home and hometown and struggled to continue working on the book and meeting my Patreon goals. Then COVID-19 reached my hometown and all hospitals and care facilities went into lockdown. She was in an assisted living place, doing well, and on track to eventually go home when I last saw her. She was in a better mood than she had been. In general she was extremely unhappy with her situation; she wanted to go home and absolutely hated being dependent on people for anything. She sometimes took it out on the nurses and sometimes on me. We texted when I wasn’t there, but periodically she’d get pissed off and sulk. I couldn’t tell if her sudden silences were because she was mad or because she had had a setback. She did have setbacks, sudden respiratory problems, which were probably a result of her congestive heart failure which honestly wasn’t yet a problem for her until she was hospitalized. She just got weaker and weaker, but she always rallied and got on her feet, albeit with more difficulty each time she had a respiratory episode. After lockdown we couldn’t go see her so I was dependent on text and phone calls to her or her nurses.
Then all that stopped. They moved her from assisted living to another rehab place. It wasn’t entirely clear why. I thought that possibly, because of the pandemic, the facility was trying to clear patients out so their death numbers wouldn’t look as bad. But officially it was because she needed more care than they were able to give. Which was puzzling because it seemed to me she was getting better and they had given us no indications she had had a bad episode, only that she needed oxygen, which was to be expected. The new place, the place she died, had a different policy than the hospital, the rehab place, or the assisted living place. Their policy wasn’t just a physical lockdown, but to cut off family from communication as much as possible. This was the hell my mother, my stepsister, and myself descended into.
We didn’t know what was going on, they wouldn’t answer our questions, Mom stopped responding to texts and phone calls. I didn’t know if she was pissed off and sulking or if she had taken a turn for the worse. When I finally got a hold of a nurse I was told that she was fine, doing OK, but had had a tiny setback. When one nurse finally took pity on me she got the phone to Mom and it was heartbreakingly clear that my mother had had a stroke, possibly a severe one. I just kept telling her I loved her. That was the last contact I had with either my mother or the nurses. They had been under the impression that my stepsister and I were the same person even though you really couldn’t imagine two people who sounded more different. The day I talked to her it happened that my stepsister called just minutes after that so they found out that there were two of us, and made the arbitrary decision that her only child---me---could not contact the facility at all. They made my stepsister (my mother remarried late in life) the sole contact, told her she could only call once a day (during which they always said Mom was fine and wouldn’t answer any of her questions), and chewed her out for giving me the phone number and pass code to authorize getting information. Prior to this I had the number and passcode to call to get information from nurses about Mom. I had filled out the paperwork at the hospital and it transferred with her wherever she went, and I was allowed to share this with my stepsister who lives there in town so she could call. But everything went topsy turvy when she was transferred to this last place. She didn’t have a medical power of attorney, so the decision as to who would be allowed to contact them was a completely arbitrary one. It didn’t matter that I was her only child.
It was agony for me. I couldn’t go there, I couldn’t call, I couldn’t talk to her...and they told me not to text her anymore either. I’d been sending her pictures. I kept sending them. She needed me and I couldn’t be there. She knew and understood about the pandemic, but I don’t think she ever grasped how bad it was. She sometimes acted as if I were just using this as an excuse not to visit her. Which hurt. Everything hurt from the last week in January when she nearly died until she did die. We got the call from my step sister just before midnight Easter Sunday. God only knows what kind of care my mother got in her last days from staff who treated her family, both me and my stepsister, like crap because you can be rude and brutal to someone if you’re not face-to-face.
Then we descended into the hell of funeral arrangements in the midst of a pandemic lockdown. It was a graveside-only service with me, my husband, my stepsister and her husband, and the pastor of her church. All of us standing well apart, wearing masks or bandanas, in the graveyard where my father and grandmother were buried. We wanted to hug but we couldn’t. The pain was excruciating. In the weeks after that my stepsister and I cleaned out the house, alternately, though we did see each other a couple of times, briefly, masked. Due to unusual terms of Mom’s second husband’s will the house needed to be emptied asap after her death. Mom was usually an extremely well-organized person, but it had slipped in later years. Organization really didn’t matter because of the sheer amount of papers and filing cabinets, not to mention the personal items which were painful just to look at. And now they’re mine. Some things we could glance through and throw away: we really don’t need paperwork for something she bought a half century ago and no longer had. But other things neither of us wanted had to be sold or thrown out. Some things I just packed into boxes because I was melting down and couldn’t sort through it or decide on it, so I’ve got boxes of stuff piled up here at my house, ticking like bombs. A very special type of time-bomb, a bomb full of past times.
Six weeks after my mother’s death I was finally able to sleep through the night. Since she was hospitalized in January I’d either had insomnia or was waking up throughout the night, sometimes jolting up in a screaming panic. The anxiety attacks have stopped and now I only usually wake up once about 3 am, if at all. I have reached the point where I finally feel well-rested, but I still have days in which I’m crushed by grief and depression. The hell our family was put through in the weeks prior to her death make me wonder if I’ll ever truly have a sense of peace or closure.
Although the lockdown didn’t really affect my day-to-day life in terms of living and working at home, it affected my ability to see my mother in her last days, to talk to her, to even know how she was doing. It meant that there was no public funeral attended by her many, many friends, no consoling, no storytelling over food (a great southern tradition), no visitation, none of the rituals that honor the dead, and none of the healing that comes with shared grief. I have not found the lockdown particularly hard; I have found my mother’s hospitalization and death hard. I think that lockdown has made dealing with this grief more difficult. I think I’d be doing better if I was able to see my friends IRL. Though I work at home anyway, on weekends we’d socialize with friends and family, meet for meals, beer, board games. I’d meet up with people for events or for common activities like a bioblitz, work in a community garden, or hosting movie nights. Because I’m in a high risk group and local numbers have continued to rise (we’re in the midst of a sharp spike as I write this) I can’t afford to be careless about contact, no matter how much I may need it psychologically. I’m zooming with friends and family occasionally, but no one’s very keen to go to the effort needed to set up board gaming via Zoom. I joined Steam because I’ve got friends on it and it has board games as well as video games, but having stocked my library with both types of games I haven’t been able to entice any friends to join me for online social gaming. I'm wondering if the reason I'm having a hard time connecting and getting through this is because grief and isolation is, right now, a global condition.
A darkness has descended; between the pandemic and the violence on the streets (I’m writing this in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder) people are screaming for the light, but no one seems to know how to actually lighten the burden of their neighbors--or friends. I know I’m not the only one dealing with grief and loss, or the logistics of the aftermath of a family member dying during pandemic lockdown. Millions of people are going through this right now. There seem to be only a few types of messages on social media: “violence and racism against black people---and all people of color---must stop”, and “the pandemic is a political hoax”, and “I just want lockdown and all this pandemic stuff to stop because I want to get my normal life back”. (Note that the first and last of these are the exact opposite of each other: people of color are not saying “I want things to go back to the way they’ve always been”.) The one thing all these ideas have in common is a frustrated discontent, in some cases an angry discontent. The result of the first idea is that government/institution entities from the president on down to local law enforcement have doubled down on the violence in the streets: we now have more rather than less. I’m afraid that in writing about that I’d have to use language that my mother, rest her soul, would not like. (Eventually I probably will, but not in this post.) The result of the second and third ideas which are about the pandemic is that more people are throwing caution to the wind (virus to the wind, too) and going on with or back to their normal lifestyle which means sitting shoulder to shoulder with dozens of people in packed restaurants, partying, not wearing masks, and definitely not social distancing---which means that the virus numbers are now rising rapidly again. This means that it’s even less safe for me to go out: it’s more difficult to keep the recommended distance from people if others are totally heedless of the distance requirement. Even walking in parks is sometimes difficult because people will walk in the middle of an eight foot wide path, and not move away for other people, so if I want distance I’ve got to wade knee high in poison ivy or more harmless grasses (though I’m taking my chances with snakes who also like tall grass).
The anger I mentioned in the above paragraph: that’s me, too. I’m angry that people are uncaring about their fellow human beings. Whether it’s racially motivated violence or a selfish disregard for protocols based on science because lockdown and health precautions are “not fun”, I’m both furious and disgusted by so very many of my fellow human beings. You know, we could’ve extinguished the virus in America. If every person in the US had just stayed home for two weeks. A two week staycation. That’s all. But because everyone didn’t, either because they’re stupid, or they want to use the virus as a political weapon, or because they’re egocentric and selfish, we still have the virus in this country. It’s still killing lots of people and still disrupting millions of lives, and tanking the economy. So, all you people out there that are annoyed because the pandemic isn’t fun and is messing up your tidy little life, hurting your income, and hurting the economy, take a good hard look at how you’ve conducted your life during the pandemic, because the problem may very well be you. If all of you had supported the precautions and followed the lockdown protocols instead of bitching about it, ignoring it, or half-assing it, then you would not have to still be dealing with pandemic restrictions.
By the way, I think it’s not coincidental that there’s been an uptick in violence against people of color. The racism and violence that’s baked into the system is always there, has always been there, but when a society feels like it’s under pressure, threatened, is in economic turmoil or trouble, then that's when violence and racism gets worse. When people are put under pressure their true selves come out. They start looking for scapegoats, anyone they can exercise power over, because they feel powerless, and that they don’t have control of their lives. Not content with small acts of racism, they go large. Mind you, some people’s true selves are very good: they rise to the occasion, they become better people than they ever realized they were. In a nation that’s already polarized, the pressures the pandemic has put upon society, individual lives, and the economy, has amplified that polarization. All the people out there saying that they just want to get back to their normal lives? I’m not sure that’s possible---and given the racism inherent in our society, do we really want that as part of the status quo? Why can’t we build a new, better normal? Why go back when we can go forward?
Time carries us forward whether or not we want it to. It doesn't matter whether the wave you're riding is grief or anger, there really is no “going back”, only the illusion of a return to life before the pandemic. And we’re never going to return to life before racism, because it’s always been there. What we all should be saying is that we want everything to be okay, we want a good life for ourselves, our friends, our families, our neighbors, our world. We want a life where we don’t have to worry about dying from a plague --- or worry that we could be a silent carrier of plague death to the people around us. We want to feel safe. That’s what it all comes down to. Everyone wants to feel safe, whether you’re “birding while black” or attending a social event with lots of people. Safety is something a lot of people take for granted. Not people of color. It’s not a given for them. (It’s not a given for women, either.) The pandemic has stripped away that feeling of safety for a lot of people who had previously always felt safe in their own lives and activities. This is a good time to examine your assumptions about your life and examine your interactions (or lack of engagement) with the people you normally surround yourself with: friends, family, coworkers. Be diligent about protecting the health and safety of those people you see in real life. Be pro-health and anti-racist.
It is a time not to take anything or anyone for granted. Millions and millions of people are grieving, or recovering from a life-threatening illness all over the world right now. Here in America, the violence on the streets has caused additional deaths and injuries, resulting in more grief, more traumatized family and friends. Humanity is in danger of losing its humanity. Do not do anything either by action or lack of action to add to the pain and suffering of people you see, speak to, or otherwise interact with. Don’t judge: you haven’t walked in someone else’s shoes, and in some cases, you really can’t. If someone says they are oppressed or hurting, depressed or grieving, or need to stay in lockdown, believe them and support them. Do everything you can to reduce the pain and suffering in the world. Be there for the grieving, the distressed, and the oppressed. If there is one thing we’ve learned from the pandemic it’s that we need each other.
Thank you to all who have been there for me and supported me through this difficult time, especially my real life friends and family, my Patreon supporters, and my writer’s group. You are the best.