My mom turned 93 last week. No celebration of any kind was possible. My mother doesn’t own a cell phone or a computer so there is no Zoom, FaceTime or opportunity to celebrate virtually. The good news is that my mother doesn’t live in a nursing home or assisted living facility and will probably not die from the coronavirus. The bad news is that she lives alone, almost completely isolated, in her ground floor walk-up in the East 60s (her adamant choice). These days walking to Gristedes or the pharmacy half a block away is often Mission Impossible for her.
To make matters worse, my mom is broke and severely hard of hearing. She lives alone in a world of silence with defective hearing aids that conked out BEFORE the Covid19 shut-down. She hears voices and sounds but can’t make out the words. Conversations are extremely frustrating for her, for me and for her grandchildren. Her mind is still fully intact—a curse AND a blessing. Mostly my mother complains about her poor health, her loneliness and her financial difficulties—many of them self-imposed. Despite my efforts at persuasion over the years, my mother refused to buy a computer, an ipad, or a cell phone. Twice I helped her get free cell phones and she never used them, so her number was reassigned to someone else.
My mother is an only child and so am I – unfortunately for both of us – because we are not close. However, we are stuck with each other, as Samantha likes to say in her more playful moments. Under normal circumstances (remember those?) my husband and I would have taken my mom out to a nice restaurant for her birthday. Somehow we would soldier through an expensive meal, listening to her health complaints and trying to hold a conversation. Half the time she would pretend to hear us, and respond as if we had been discussing something entirely different. We always worried that she would become nasty toward the end of her apple martini, and sometimes the barbs went flying. But she always appreciated the special birthday meal as her due.
Guilt and obligation compel me to try and do something nice for my mother on her birthday, and most years I succeed. But this year presented an insurmountable challenge. Her tiny, overheated tenement apartment does not allow social distancing. Forget about six feet of space, or even three feet. There isn’t even a single chair for anyone to sit down. She eats dinner sitting on her bed, from the groceries I buy her in combination with Dorot, a kosher food delivery service for indigent elderly people.
For 2020, I decided to take a practical approach and be the good-daughter-delivery-girl in my suit of armor: hoodie, jacket, gloves, N95 mask. On her birthday, my mom felt too weak to go to the grocery store, but she was low on toilet paper, out of orange juice, Cheerios and yogurt. She also needed plastic gloves.
I stopped in Morton Williams and picked up her wish list. I also added a wedge of chocolate cake with yellow flowers. At my husband’s suggestion, we also picked up a bottle of vodka and a box of plastic gloves at the corner drugstore because she was too weak to walk even that short distance.
Toting the groceries, vodka, plastic gloves, leftover chicken soup and two paperbacks, I hefted the three bags onto her kitchen counter. My mom hugged me from inside her winter coat, Covid19 mask and leather gloves. I didn’t have the heart to pull away from her embrace. She hasn’t enjoyed any human contact for days, and never receives more than two phone calls a day—one from me and one from her 77-year old friend.
Before the coronavirus, my mom was a big reader and went to the library because she couldn’t afford to buy any books. Now that the library is closed and she’s probably too frail to walk there, I am her only source of reading material. She is often critical of my literary taste and doesn’t always enjoy my book selections. Jokingly, I remind her that beggars can’t be choosers and she does manage to laugh at herself on rare occasions.
My mother’s world is so small—even BEFORE the coronavirus shutdown—that I wonder how and why she struggles through her arthritis, atrial fibrillation and breathing difficulties. All she does is eat, sleep, and watch Shark Tank or cooking programs. Always she talks about her friend Rita as though she deserves sainthood for her devotion and how close she is to her family. By comparison, I am the cold-hearted, distant daughter who is always too busy for her.
I try not to argue or take the bait on this birthday. We manage to “celebrate” her 93rd with as much kindness on both sides and without any recriminations. With every passing year, I realize that each birthday could be her last. Next year—if there is one–I sincerely hope we can celebrate her 94th birthday at a restaurant where we can sing “Happy Birthday” in person. Any birthday—even one with arguments and resentment—is better than being completely isolated and alone.
After a “forbidden” hug goodbye, we blow air kisses through our masks from six feet away. Given the coronavirus, we both tried our best to give and receive graciously. Hopefully, we can do better next year if we have the chance.