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What We Lose Communicating Through Text in a Pandemic

When my mother got Covid in April 2020, I learned what we lose over text.

My mother wasn’t a texter. When she first bought an iPhone in 2019, her texts came out garbled, with baffling spaces between words. She told me repeatedly that the format eluded her. Could I please call her instead, for God’s sake!

In the years leading up to the pandemic, she called me often, sometimes daily. My parents were in Westchester, and I am upstate, in Ithaca. She didn’t want to lose touch. If I sent her to voice mail, she left a message, asking after my chronic tooth pain or my son’s soccer games, wondering how my book was progressing, reporting her own ups and downs with health. She was still working full time as a psychotherapist but struggled with ailments common to later life.

I called her back intermittently, often responding with text messages instead, which she viewed as rejections — so terse and noncommittal, so different from the long, meandering conversations she craved.

But when my mother was hospitalized in April 2020 with Covid, texting became a lifeline, a strange digital umbilicus connecting us across a nontraversable space. This was the way for so many of us, losing our loved ones at a distance. There was no in-person conversation, no holding her hand.

***

March 2020: I sit on a beach in Miami, where my husband and I speak as if we are on the eve of war. I build sand mermaids with my 6-year-old son while reading dispatches from Italy, the new epicenter of the pandemic, on my phone. The churches there are filling with coffins. I find a scientific article that suggests that 1 out of 10 people over 70 will die of this new virus.

From my sinking place in the sand I text my mother in New York: Please don’t leave the house, I implore her. If you leave the house you will die!

Two weeks later, my father calls to say that my mother has fractured her hip. She is in the hospital undergoing surgery to repair it. My father sounds wrung out. “I could hear her screaming,” he says. My mother is 77 and recovering from lung cancer treatment. She is already vulnerable, and a broken hip sounds the alarm on so many frequencies: the risk of health complications, the vulnerability to Covid, the adjacency to death.

After the surgery, the doctors insist that she will need round-the-clock attention, plus physical and occupational therapy. She is transferred to a nursing home five minutes from my parents’ house. She will have to be alone — no outside visitors — but at least she’ll be safe. My mother tells me over FaceTime that the facility won’t let her wash her hands. She keeps a tiny bottle of hand sanitizer under her pillow as if it were contraband and speaks in hushed tones about the muffled coughs she hears through the walls.

The nursing home representative assures me that they have no cases of Covid and are taking all necessary precautions, but I am awash in unease.

***

When the virus reaches my mother’s nursing home, they wake her at midnight to test her. She is negative, and we bring her home, but relief is fleeting. The next afternoon she falls ill. I have been reading Covid diaries on the internet and recognize its signature — the dry cough that emerges out of nowhere, the low-grade fever that suddenly spikes. An ambulance takes her to the E.R., where she texts me a fevered slurry of words: tirrezxctired.

When she tests positive that night, I feel my body turn to lead, as if it might fall through the floor. No: as if the floor no longer exists.

***

There is no helplessness exactly like watching your mother struggle for breath over a video call, knowing that you cannot approach the scene of her distress.

The phone can’t satisfy the longing for touch and physical proximity. It’s not a surrogate for presence. Trying to keep vigil through a screen only reminds me that I am not there. I am siloed in my living room four hours away from my parents, who are away from each other.

My father falls ill with Covid five days after my mother’s diagnosis. I want to drive down to stay with him, but I’m afraid that if I get sick I won’t be able to help anyone. One day on the phone my father is so breathless that he cannot finish a phrase. I send him to the same hospital as my mother, who has no idea he is there. When a nurse asks for my father’s D.N.R. request, I think: I will be orphaned soon.

***

Six days into my mother’s illness, she refuses audio and video calls. They make it too hard for her to breathe, and I sense that she doesn’t want me to see her this way. Instead, she contacts me through the most impersonal medium, the one she so disliked.

The text messages she sends me feel alien, staccato in their efficiency:

Please take the dog.

How is dad?

This is hard.

We all use texting to connect while also holding people at arm’s length. Before the pandemic, my mother made it clear that my text messages did not deliver the intimacy she craved. When days went by without a phone call from me, my mom sent blank emails with short phrases in the subject line to call me out for my silence, and my avoidant emotional style:

alien abduction?

into thin air?

***

My mother is in an oxygen mask; my mother is in an oxygen tent; my mother is drowning.

She has bilateral pneumonia and acute respiratory distress. The doctors explain her inflammation to me as a “cytokine storm” that is ravaging her body.

Her decline is steep, only 17 days between diagnosis and death. Looking back at our messages over those 17 days, I am struck by a reversal: I am the one reaching out to her, with long, frequent texts that attempt to draw out time.

I want to be with you, holding your hand.

I know that there’s hope, I’m praying so hard.

Mom, I miss you. Are you there?

My mother’s responses, on the other hand, contract. Our final exchanges are like an aperture closing, the last window through which I can view her.

I know, she writes at one point, so hard.

***

My dad is discharged to struggle at home, and I nurse him through an iPad, keeping his face near mine as we sleep so I can listen to his breathing. When my mother dies, I don’t tell him at first, fearing he will follow. But as the days pass, his breath deepens, and the fevers that gripped his body begin to recede, and I say the words. He has been expecting them, but still his face breaks in a way I hadn’t known a face could.

I save my mother’s final texts, but they hold nothing of her voice: the scratchy Jewish Bronx accent, the warmth, the descent of her tone when she knew our call had to end, so full of longing and love: Ok, darling … talk to you soon.

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