Victoria drove me to the Hebrew Home yesterday for what they call a drive-in visit. Nursing homes in New York don’t let you visit in person, not since early March, not since the city started to shut down. A couple of weeks after my last real visit, schools closed for in-person learning. And around the same time, restaurants and retail outlets and offices, and practically every place else, closed. The world, it seems, closed, even if that’s not actually true.
This is our second drive-in visit. The first was at the beginning of the summer, around the time the Hebrew Home started to offer this creative way for people to see their loved ones in more or less the same physical space. They have this glassed-in lobby area, or a little vestibule between two sets of glass doors, where they bring the resident. You stay in your car, maybe 10 or 15 feet away, and you both have speakers, the kind you get at a drive-in theater. You get fifteen minutes to talk to each other, and then you drive away.
And as we drove away, I wept. It’s nearly impossible to talk to my mother anymore. She barely knows where she is or what is happening around her, and I can hardly understand most of what she says. She mumbles, she says things that don’t make sense to me, that seem to have a place only in her own mind, and she utters words that I’ve never heard before. And getting this all through a set of speakers makes it even harder to hear and to comprehend.
And for at least part of the time, she looks off into the distance, not at me, pointing at things that might be there, might not be there. It’s hard to tell.
There were moments, though, when she looked at me, and she smiled with what I recognized as love and happiness over seeing me. I don’t know if I’m right, if what she really saw was me, or if I was someone else in her mind. But I’ve seen that look so many times over the years — when I came home for weekends while in college, or when I visited her after moving away, or even, sometimes, when I was still in high school and she would greet me in the kitchen in the morning. It was a look of love and light and appreciation for a child who means the world to you.
Because I did mean the world to her. I think I only realize that now.
At one point during our visit, she looked over and pointed to me. She said, “It’s Bill!” That’s my father’s name, and her brother’s. I don’t know which one she meant. I couldn’t understand what she said after. And then her gaze shifted away, and she was looking off into the distance, mumbling.
I don’t know if the drive-in visit is better than the FaceTime call we have almost every Monday morning. We stare at each other through a screen. I have the same problems being able to understand her. And sometimes she falls asleep with me staring at her. Sometimes I literally can’t hear a word she says because the connection is bad or she is mumbling or there’s just too much background noise.
But it’s not just me having trouble figuring out what she is saying. I can only imagine how much worse it must be on her end. She doesn’t know what’s going on or who this talking head on a screen is. Just as she probably can’t figure out during our drive-in visit why we can’t be together in the same room.
There were two sentences (actual sentences!) that I heard her say yesterday.
“Well, let’s go!” And, “This is confusing.”
It is all so confusing, but not just confusing. It’s confounding. It’s beyond anything I can put my head around. I’ve been visiting my mom at the Hebrew Home for almost seven years. She might say, if she could, that these have been the hardest years of her life. So that’s why it seems so strange that as Victoria and I drove away, I felt like I was grieving those years, grieving the moments when I could sit next to her and hold her hand. When we listened to the concerts together. Or just sat on her unit. Or when we would lie together on her bed with her head on my shoulder. We would talk, or sing together, but that happened less and less. More often, as time went on, she would just fall into a deep sleep, her head on my shoulder, her quiet breathing all that I could hear.
We’ve both lost a lot in this last decade. But losing the chance to hug my mom, to hold her hand, even to sit next to her, feels like too much.