In March 2020, my mother, then aged 83 entered an assisted living facility. Three days later, the lockdown of all assisted living places in California started. It’s been almost a year, and, in that time, I have not hugged her once. Full confession, I touched her hand as I passed her a paper cup of tepid tea under the plexiglass barrier – once.
We’ve developed a rhythm in this time of separation. She calls frequently – up to 6 times a day. On average it’s 4 times a day. And she calls my sister-in-law just as often. My brother has managed to scare her off, so he’s exempt. Maybe she calls him once a day or a couple of times a week. And more likely than not, he’ll ignore it. The phone system in the facility has been flaky. So flaky that they replaced their vendor. And so flaky, that if I don’t hear from her for a couple of days that I call the front office to find out what the current phone wiring situation is.
When she went into the facility, she was not the steadiest on her feet. Now she clings onto her carer’s arm as they escort her to her chair behind the plexiglass. When I leave, I call someone over and they escort her back down the hall and onto a small lift up to her room on the second floor.
The result is that she is more and more confined to her room – and to her bed. There she has abandoned her old habits. She no longer listens to books and magazines that arrive from the blind services. Her addiction to Jeopardy (7 pm every night) has waned. For a long time, she struggled to come to grips with the TV remote. Her blindness meant that managing the remote was an uphill battle. Now she can find the History Channel and news.
The upshot of her confinement is that when she needs information, she calls me. I have become Google for her.
“Honey, what day is it?” “What day of the week is it?”
“Dolly, what does ‘caisson’ mean?” Yes, she really calls me Dolly. Frequently enough so that my husband uses that term when he tries to mimic our conversations. This is worrying… And I had to look up caisson, too.
“Did we ever get a report about the tree in the back yard?” She’s worried about a tree in the back yard of her house with a slight lean to it.
And yesterday: “Did you print the report about the tree” Her fear is that the Pacific Grove arborist will delete the report about the tree and swear that it was never sent. I don’t know where to start with that one. I am not printing anything if I can avoid it because I’ll lose the paper! I can find an email no matter where I am in the world. And my brother has the email, too. We’re covered. That discussion took 10 minutes.
“Who is the president?”
“Should I take the vaccine?”
I have finally worked out that she doesn’t want Google, she wants conversation.
The other day I took a different tack. I reminded her of all the big vacations that we took. Important vacations when I was in my mid-teens, one in my early 20s and finally late 20’s. Italy, Mexico and Egypt. Each time, they were to rescue me in some way. And they were all memorable: rich in sights, people, experiences. And personally important. They were each life pivots that helped me take a deep breath and move to the next stage of my life. She loved the reminder of happier days. And then, she stopped calling that evening.
Now when my brother complains about the calls, I tell him to have a real conversation with her. Remind her of good times. Remind her of the world outside of her blinds and walls. She can savor the memories … until the next time she has a question. “Dolly, what….”