By Angelina Jahn
I wake up to a text from my sister informing me that she will be mailing a letter to our mom this coming weekend. She’s letting me know in case I would like to write one to send out along with hers.
I sit down with my black ink pen and a piece of paper that I ripped out of a school notebook, chronicling any noteworthy event from the past couple of weeks. I pepper in a few jokes in an effort to make my mom smile, ending some sentences with haha. I inform her about how my brother in law is teaching me how to drive, and jokingly add how thankful I am to be taught by someone with so much patience. As I’m writing, I cringe at the idea of my moms’ nurse reading my “hahas” aloud. I wish there was a way to convey a written joke better than ending it with “haha”.
Five years ago, when I was 16, my mom suffered a stroke that left her almost completely paralyzed. Ever since, she has been a resident in an assisted living facility. While she is able to speak, her words are nearly unintelligible. Seeing her for the first time after her stroke was shocking. My mom was a loud, vibrant woman. She never went out without “putting on her face.” Her go to shoes were cowboy boots, and she cut every t-shirt she owned into a v-neck. She loves rock and roll, and would always have incense burning on her ACDC incense holder. While she’s no longer capable of expressing herself the way that she used to, sometimes she’ll roll her eyes at us while smiling, or playfully groan when my sister suggests that she eat her vegetables, and her personality shines through in these moments.
Prior to the pandemic, I would go with my sister and her husband about once a week to visit her. Her assisted living facility is only a 10 minute drive from my house, so it was easy to visit often. We’d tell her about our weeks, read books aloud to her, and rifle through old family photos.
Over the past year, I have only heard her voice once. Due to the fact that it’s incredibly difficult to understand her, and difficult for her to hear us even while in the same room, we’ve only had one phone call since the pandemic hit last March. It was on June 6th, her birthday. A day I’ve never struggled to remember, considering written out, it’s 06/06/66.
On the phone, I told her “Happy birthday! I love you. I hope I get to see you really soon.” Nine months later, I’m ending my letter the same way “I love you. I hope I get to see you really soon.” During the call, she just responded I love you, over and over. That’s the one phrase I’ve never had any trouble understanding from her.
In a world so connected, despite the limitations the pandemic has placed on us, we’ve adapted well. We Facetime our friends, we attend class via Zoom. Streaming sites have made it possible to virtually watch movies with friends, restaurants have built outdoor shacks to keep diners socially distanced. But my mom, she can’t adapt. The only possible, safe communication is our written letters.
When scrolling through social media, odds are I’ll see at least one person complaining about the COVID restrictions. They’ll upload posts saying how it’s no worse than the common flu, that we can’t “live in fear.” But I am, I’m afraid.
I’m afraid of my mom, alone in her room, with only the company of the nurses who take care of her.
I’m afraid of the idea that one of these nurses has the “can’t live in fear” mentality.
I’m afraid of the idea of my mom’s body having to try to fight off COVID, when it’s already had to fight so much.
“I love you. I hope I get to see you really soon.” I sign my name and fold up my letter.