“I have an idea,” my mother said. “What if you don’t ask me if I’ve been out today and I don’t tell you?”
“No, that’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works,” I yelled, exasperated, into the phone.
Only, I didn’t exactly yell, and I hoped she didn’t notice. It was more of a whisper because I could barely breathe.
Two days before, I had been diagnosed with covid-19, and each breath was a gift. My doctor told me to isolate from my family and take Tylenol. If it gets worse, go to the emergency room. I live in Upstate New York, the closest hospital 40 minutes away. I did not want to take that ride.
I locked myself in my bedroom, assuming it would be a long time before I saw my husband and son again, thinking back to make sure I hadn’t unknowingly exposed anybody. I hadn’t left the house for over two weeks, except for one trip to the local supermarket, where I had shopped and kept my distance. I washed my groceries, my hands and my clothing upon return.
Still, it wasn’t enough.
Now, sequestered in my bedroom, I thought about my mother, who was alone in her small Brooklyn apartment. New York City had been hit hard, but many of her friends were still going out, walking in the park or taking rides to see their kids from a safe distance. Knowing firsthand the havoc this virus could wreak, I begged her to stay in, but I couldn’t go as far as to tell her I was sick with covid-19.
Her anxiety had shifted into high gear, no one there to calm her frazzled nerves or provide comfort, yet she couldn’t come to terms with the fact that the best way to protect herself was not to go outside. She worried about loved ones more than she worried about herself. Telling her I was sick would only make her worst fears come true and compel her to find a way to take care of me and my family.
Each afternoon, consumed by muscle pain I could only liken to the back labor I had experienced giving birth years ago, I would pace in my bedroom preparing to call her and fake normalcy. When breathing became even more difficult and I thought I might have to go to the hospital, I packed a bag and left it by my bedroom door, wrote a document I titled “Last Wishes,” and called my brother. He agreed that it would be our secret and that he would tell my mother only if I worsened.
In the days that followed, I saw others on social media who had been diagnosed with the virus being showered with support, and I envied them for the outpouring of love they received. I didn’t want to burden my friends by telling them, and I couldn’t risk word getting back to my mother. I knew they would drop off food, call, text, go shopping for us while we were in isolation, but I couldn’t be responsible for them leaving the safety of their own homes. I needed to keep myself quiet, not field too many questions, not worry about other people worrying about me while I was worrying about every single breath I took. In other words, not telling anyone became a way to manage my own anxiety. I realized my mother was trying to do the same — protect me from worrying about her by not telling me she was going out.
I lived in a haze of pain and fever, and every day I rallied just long enough to call my mother. I would do a series of deep breathing exercises, a combination of yoga three-part breaths and simple qigong to prepare my weakened lungs for our conversation.
When my mother asked to FaceTime or wanted me to put my son on the phone, I’d make an excuse. She would tell me about her day and her friends and her endless quest to get food delivery, doing most of the talking, all while I walked back and forth holding my hips and focusing on deep inhalations.
Inevitably we would circle back to the same discussion. She wanted to go for a walk, she was cooped up. She promised to wear a mask and gloves. She needed to do laundry in her building. I understood, more than she knew. My own sheets needed attending to, and I hadn’t felt sunshine in what felt like decades. I told her to ask herself each time she opened the door to her apartment if what she was about to do was worth death. I explained that if she got sick, no one would be allowed to visit her in the hospital, knowing that the same fate was true for me, and the way things stood, I was much more likely to end up there.
New York City’s cases were skyrocketing, and the thought of her walking down her building’s hallway or riding in an elevator spiked my anxiety so much that I questioned the source of the tightening in my chest. After our calls, I’d plunge myself into a hot bath of Epsom salts trying to keep my lungs working.
Finally, on Day 10, I turned a corner, and so did my mother. She became resigned to being in isolation as much as I had. She didn’t know it, but she and I were experiencing the same loneliness, the same fear, just like so many others. I could relate to her in a new way: We were both vulnerable and unable to see or touch another human.
I could now spend a few hours sitting at my small desk. I could open the window and talk to my son while he played soccer in the yard, noticing that he had grown almost an inch. By Passover, I was better, save for the bone-deep exhaustion.
Before our family Zoom Seder, concerned I might not make it through, I dabbed on concealer to hide the dark circles under my eyes and pinched my sallow skin, being sure to use extra blush. I dressed in bright colors. I finally saw my mother’s face, and she saw mine, and it was the first time we had laughed together in a long while.
Like everyone else, my mother and I continue to navigate the crazy logistics, anxiety and uncertainty facing us all. And while there has been no cosmic shift in our relationship, there is a new understanding.