Damian Rogers is the author of An Alphabet for Joanna: A Portrait of My Mother in 26 Fragments, which was published this week.
I last saw my mother more than a week ago, over FaceTime. I clicked the green accept-call icon and my mother appeared inside the onscreen window. On the wall behind her was the kind of bland botanical print you might find hung in any neutral institutional or commercial space, like a doctor’s office, or a mid-level-hotel hallway. A row of red flowers in a gold-painted wood frame. They reminded me of poppies, though the leaves were not like poppy leaves. The leaves were like long undulating green tongues waving prettily behind my mother’s head. I’ve spent considerable time studying these flowers over the past six months.
“I’m sorry I didn’t call last week,” a voice off camera said. “Tuesday was just chaos and your mom was sleeping on Thursday.”
“It’s okay, Deanna,” I said. “I’m just glad to see her now.”
I’ve never met Deanna in person, but we have seen each other almost every week over the past six months, since she started setting up these calls. She’s the activities co-ordinator at the nursing home in the Buffalo suburbs where my mother lives. The nursing home is about a two-hour drive from my house in Toronto. My husband and I were grateful to be able to move my mother from a failing facility to this safe, clean one three years ago. We were especially happy that it was so close to the border. Of course, we never imagined that the border would ever be closed.
My mother and I were both born and raised in the Detroit suburbs, but neither one of us has lived there since the nineties. After living in Florida for years, my mother moved to the Buffalo area 10 years ago to be closer to me, her only child. She dreamed about a life in upstate New York in which I’d have a baby and she’d be able to babysit on the weekends. As it turned out, she was diagnosed with dementia six months after buying a little house near the Niagara River. Though I did have a baby, she never got the chance to babysit.
Deanna has red curly hair. I’m not sure what colour her eyes are – I want to say green, but I’ve only seen her through the screen, and she’s always wearing a mask, and sometimes a mask and a visor. She also does her best to stay off camera on our calls, to help make it feel as if my mother and I are enjoying a private chat. Though they aren’t chats in any traditional sense, they are more the opportunity for a kind of communion. Some days, my mother peers at me with curiosity and smiles back at me. Some days, her head drops down like a weight onto her chest, or she gets up and starts to walk away. In these moments, Deanna coaches my mother by nudging her gently, by pointing to my face and asking, “Who is that?” I take off my glasses and smile. “I love you, Mom,” I say again and again. My mother often turns to Deanna with a questioning look. “She’s talking to you!” Deanna tells her. “I love you, Jo-Jo,” I say, using the name I called her when I was a toddler. It’s a simple ritual, soothing to repeat.
I’ve noticed that Deanna started calling my mother Jo-Jo after the first time she heard me call her that, which is a comfort. No one ever called my mother Jo-Jo but me, and I only called her that until I was old enough to manage all three syllables of her full first name – Joanna – but Jo-Jo is what I like to call her now. When we last spoke, my son, Levi, floated into the room. “I’m talking to Grandma Jo-Jo,” I told him. “Do you want to say hi?”
“Hi,” he said. Levi is 7. His grandmother doesn’t know who he is. She no longer knows who I am, either, at least not through these screens. I know if I could be with her in person, I could reach her in a more satisfying way. “I wish I could give you a hug,” I said to the screen, and Deanna put her arms around my mother for me and my mother leaned into her, smiling and muttering something unintelligible in an intimate tone. I could tell that Deanna couldn’t make out what she was saying either, though she responded warmly. When I’m with my mother, I ride her attempts at speech in a similar way. “Jibber-jabber” a nurse there called my mother’s attempts at speech, when she called to let me know that my mother was running a low fever but had tested negative on a COVID-19 test. “Word salad” an ER doctor called it three years ago, when a 20-minute seizure had landed my mother in the hospital for a few days.
Another resident who I couldn’t see approached, asking Deanna and my mother something about babies in an urgent tone. “Don’t worry about the babies,” Deanna reassured the woman patiently. “We’ve got someone looking after them.”
No one in the locked dementia unit has been able to see their loved ones in person since the facility went into quarantine in mid-March. Every time a staff member or resident has tested positive, I’ve received a phone call with a prerecorded message from the administrator with an update – “in an effort to maintain transparent communication,” her voice repeats each time. Another ritual. From late spring to midsummer the calls came almost daily. One resident, five staff members, two residents, one staff member, four residents, three staff members. I lost count and gave up keeping a tally.
When I last spoke to Deanna and my mother, New York State guidelines required that a nursing home needed to reach 28 days in a row without any new positive cases in residents or staff before family members could visit. It felt like it had been a while since the last call from the facility notifying me about a new confirmed case, and I mentioned this hopefully to Deanna. She paused before answering.
“Well, except a staff member tested positive today. We went 16 days without anyone testing positive,” Deanna said.
“It wasn’t on our unit,” she added quickly. “We are still all okay here.”
A few days later, I received a recorded message from the facility administrator sharing the good news that the guidelines had loosened up, and that the facility now only needed to reach 14 days without any positive cases before they could welcome families back. But even if my mother was living on her own, crossing the border to see her wouldn’t be a simple process and would necessitate, at the minimum, that I quarantine away from my husband and son for two weeks after I returned. And in the same call that the administrator announced a potentially shortened timeline before visits might resume, she confirmed another staff member had tested positive that morning. The clock keeps resetting.
As I wait for the next opportunity to see my mother, in person or over a screen, I keep thinking of those red flowers in the painting behind her, the image of my mother’s face more difficult to keep clear in my mind. It’s impossible for me to hold my mother’s gaze through the computer, even when her attention is fixed in my direction. I concentrate on beaming myself through the small dot of the camera, even as I want to look down to try and read her expression. “I’ll come visit as soon as I can, Mom,” I said two weeks ago to the dot above the screen, and in the corner of my eye I saw her turn slowly away from me and toward the dining room. I know there are so many people, all over the world, who are making do like this, straining to stay connected to loved ones in our all of our particular isolations. I don’t know when I’ll be able to see my mother again, or, even more painfully, if I’ll ever be able to hold her, squeeze her hand, kiss her cheek, even once more. There’s no way to know. All we can do is wait.
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