The world as we know it has changed. Masks are the norm, contact is not. Businesses are closing, restaurants are empty, and school children have partitions in between them to prevent them from interacting.
My world as I know it has also changed.
My mom passed away last month, in the midst of a global pandemic.
While the world was watching ICU admissions and ventilator usage, my mom was in a different part of the hospital, one with less visibility but the same level of isolation.
She’d been in the hospital for two days, only 15 minutes away from my home. She wasn’t contagious and posed no risk to those around her. She was in tremendous amounts of pain and carrying a mental illness . . . and she was completely alone.
Despite carrying no risk of illness to others, despite being in a wing of the hospital far removed from where COVID patients were being treated, and despite having her only daughter mere minutes away, I was not permitted to visit. All patients were allowed only one visitor per day, and since my stepdad had come in with her through the emergency room she’d met her quota.
On the day she was supposed to be discharged, I instead received a phone call from her nurse. My mother’s condition had rapidly deteriorated and she was being transported to ICU. I spoke at length with the charge nurse and the doctor overseeing her care in the ICU, but since my stepdad had visited that morning to prepare for her discharge, no more visitors could be allowed.
I sat on my bed frozen. I knew she was doing badly, and I knew I couldn’t do anything about it.
Fears began flashing through my mind, and I could find nothing to comfort me. I didn’t know what was happening, didn’t know if she was looking for me, didn’t know if I’d see her again.
Not long after I received another call from the ICU, letting me know that she was in such dire condition that they were making an exception to allow me in and say goodbye. My husband raced me up to the hospital, just a few miles from our home, but as we turned into the parking lot I got yet another call—she was gone.
I walked into the hospital entrance in shock. I knew there was no rush now, but I couldn’t get there fast enough. There was a COVID screening to clear through before I could walk into the lobby. I was breathing hard and jagged with emotion, which was causing my face mask to suck against my face and my glasses to fog up. I couldn’t see where to look when the nurse held a thermometer out for my forehead. I couldn’t hear clearly when they asked me questions about travel, potential exposure, symptoms. I tried telling the nurses that I was there to see someone who had already died so I couldn’t pose a risk to her, but my throat was too tight to clearly make sounds. My hand shook violently as they tried to put an orange band on my wrist to show that I’d passed the screening.
Someone asked who I was there to see, and I said my mom’s name out loud. The first time I’d say it knowing that she wasn’t there anymore. The first time I’d say it referring to someone who was now past-tense, who wouldn’t see me walking into her room.
A name I’d said my entire life, but would now never say the same way again.
Whatever emotions overwhelm at the news of losing a parent, I was having to experience while standing in line, six feet away from the nearest person, unable to be held, unable to breathe deeply without a mask on my face. My cries were muffled so no one knew to be gentle. My tears were hidden behind foggy glasses, so I was filed along like all the other people who were there for routine visits. I looked like someone visiting a friend’s new baby or a patient heading to an appointment, not an only child who had just lost her mother and been too late to say goodbye.
Once I had my orange band I was escorted to the CV-ICU. Again I felt the urgency to get there, to be by her side, to see with my eyes what my heart was feeling. I knew I was already too late. I repeated to myself with each step closer that she was gone, that this was real, that when I reached the end of this walk she wouldn’t be smiling to see me. I couldn’t walk fast enough, but I also couldn’t walk well. I stumbled and shuffled, had no idea where I was going, made no note of which turns I’d taken.
When I finally reached the doors on the other side of her, I had to stop and wash my hands.
My mother was dead on the other side, the only person who held every memory of my childhood.
She was gone and I had missed it and there was no way I could infect her with anything, but I had to stop and wash my hands while a nurse supervised to make sure it lasted 30 seconds. My hands were still shaking badly, I don’t know how efficiently I washed them, but I knew that after those 30 seconds I would go through the doors and face the reality that my brain was working furiously to reject.
It took a few weeks to plan her funeral. We met with a funeral director who spoke fuzzy words through a mask and sat 6-feet away from us, pushing literature across the table and unable to offer condolences or personal care. Our family is spread throughout the country, and with restrictions on both travel and the size of gatherings, it took a lot of planning to find a time and a place that could accommodate everyone.
We filed in, mourners in black, with slumped shoulders and tear-stained face masks. There was no comfort in seeing familiar faces. There were no earnest and caring looks. Just a sea of masks, all spaced 6-feet apart. We all desperately needed to embrace one another but most were too afraid to. We had to find a balance between honoring my mother’s memory and respecting each other’s boundaries, but by doing both we did neither very well.
Afterward, we couldn’t host a customary meal at home, spending time with loved ones who had traveled from afar and finding comfort in one another’s grief. We all just scattered. We got into cars, took masks off, and went home.
I can’t imagine that losing a parent is ever not surreal, but losing one in the midst of a pandemic kept me so far removed from everything I needed that it still doesn’t feel real.
I know that the nurses were trying to protect others. I know it was the responsible thing to do to wear masks and socially distance. I’m not mad at anyone for the policies that kept me from her, from others. Pausing to have my temperature taken didn’t change the outcome and sitting across the room from friends and family didn’t keep us from remembering my mom.
But none of those things made it any easier.
I lost my mom in the midst of a global pandemic, and so lost any kind of support systems I may have relied upon. My mom is gone, but at least my hands were clean.