Yesterday afternoon’s walk in Prospect Park, done for the purpose of getting fresh air and cleaning out the mental cobwebs, took me past the bandshell, the site of the many free Celebrate Brooklyn concerts I’ve enjoyed over more than two decades. I found myself for some reason thinking about a concert maybe five years ago, maybe eight, when Dr. John played his New Orleans R&B to a packed crowd. That night, I thought how great it was to get the chance to see one more legend of world music on that stage. It’s one of the reasons I live in New York. You don’t have to travel because almost everything finds its way here.
But within a minute of that remembrance, this thought also occurred to me: That was the first and last time I will ever see Dr. John. You see, he died last year, and unless his ghost finds its way north, we will never hear him play live piano again. (It wouldn’t really surprise me if New Orleanians were periodically treated to sounds of his music from beyond the tomb, but that’s another story.)
This is a thought I’ve been having again and again in the last couple of weeks, since the Coronavirus has kept me physically away from school and social life and friends and family. It’s the sense that some things, and some people, are gone from us for good.
My friend Sal, with whom I haven’t spoken in probably 10 months, is no longer around to take my call (or to make pizza for his family or take a sip from his nightly Jack and Coca Cola). Our mutual friend Gene called to tell me he died of Covid-19 about a week ago. And I had meant to call him to check up on him. It would have been too late, though, because even if I’d done it when I’d first thought about it, he’d have been unable to answer.
The last time I got to see my mom was at the end of the first week in March. After that, the nursing home wisely stopped allowing visits from outsiders. The people in her facility are so vulnerable, and there’s no way the place could be safe if I and others like me kept bringing in our germs.
At first, I was okay with the visiting restriction. Truthfully, I was a little relieved. I was tired and wanted a week off from devoting an entire Sunday to a visit. Hebrew Home started facilitating FaceTime chats between residents and their families to help them maintain communication, but I didn’t jump at the chance to do it because I doubted it would mean much to my mom and because I frankly was too caught up with trying to adapt all my lessons for online learning. I also didn’t really believe, on some subconscious level and despite evidence to the contrary, that this state of affairs would go on for very long.
After a week went by, I decided to give remote FaceTime visits a try, and so I made a request for a late afternoon time that wouldn’t interfere with my teaching. I looked forward to it, then I sat ready for it, and finally I waited as the time passed without it ever happening. Things had gotten so crazy at the Hebrew Home, with all the extra work of trying to keep a vulnerable population safe from a pandemic, that my request fell through the cracks. And by this point, they had limited their virtual visit times to specific days for each unit. I resigned myself to signing up again for the following week.
But then on Friday, while I was teaching on my computer, a FaceTime call came in on my cell phone. It was the Hebrew Home. I turned my class over to my co-teacher and swiped to let the call come in, and there sat my mom, her face blurry and her voice hard to hear. The connection was poor, and there was a lot of background noise. But when the aide showed her my face, she looked up and pointed. She said, “Mama,” I think, and then she started to cry. In some ways, I thought she looked beautiful. I mean I couldn’t really see her, but she still looked beautiful.
There wasn’t much time, and there wasn’t much to say, especially because I couldn’t hear her, but I told her I loved her and I missed her. And that I would see her soon.
On Saturday I got word that someone on her unit tested positive for the virus, putting the entire unit on quarantine. Everyone must stay in their rooms, they said. When I requested another FaceTime visit, I was told the quarantine made that impossible. I guess the strain of caring for old and demented people trapped in their rooms is already too much to manage.
I don’t know how long the quarantine will last and how long it will be before I can see her blurry face on the screen again. I don’t know how long it will be before visitors will be welcomed back to the Hebrew Home. I don’t know how much my mom will change and how much she will forget and whether, when we see each other again, she will call me Mama or Beth or any other name, or no name at all.
It’s hard to imagine that our world won’t change in big ways when we get out on the other side of this pandemic. But maybe that’s the wrong way of looking at it. Maybe there is no other side, no way to really emerge from it. Maybe its specter will stay with us, making us scared to gather and to breathe the same air, to lean in, to touch each other. Maybe those Celebrate Brooklyn concerts at the Prospect Park bandshell won’t happen any time soon. Maybe everything will be virtual, at least for a while, and possibly for a long while.
In so many ways, this will be okay. We will be okay. But for the very old, who might not survive to see normal again, the stakes will be higher. And for those of us hoping for a few more minutes with a mother who can still manage a glimpse of recognition, it will matter a lot.