My mother has no patience for freckles these days.
The last time I saw her, at her memory-care facility in Sydney, we were holding hands when she noticed a brown spot on my right wrist. She licked her index finger — How many hundreds of times had I seen this when I was a kid? — and went to work on it.
“Mum, it’s not going to come off.”
“Shhh!” Short and sharp. It was no use arguing when she shushed you like that. She rubbed away, then paused to assess her work.
“See? It’s better.”
“It is,” I lied.
She didn’t fully recognize me that February day, but it didn’t matter. She was healthy, apart from the disease that has been dissolving her for years, and, in that moment at least, content. That’s as good as it gets these days. She was fixing me. My mother was still in there.
Now an ocean separates us, and I wonder if I’ll ever get to hold her hand again. I always feel that way, since we live on opposite sides of the planet. But a global pandemic has suddenly put even more distance between us, and given us way too much company: millions of men and women, cut off from their mothers in locked-down nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
How do you do Mother’s Day when you can’t be in the same room with the woman you’re celebrating?
You find ways to make her feel loved without hugs and hand-holding. You leave flowers and candy with her caregivers to make her feel special. You hope she doesn’t know what she’s missing. You Facetime for a few minutes, try to divine how she’s holding up. You stand outside her nursing home, hoping for a proper look, or even a conversation.
You once thought of her window only in terms of the light it would bring into her room. Now it brings your devotion in there too and, ideally, reassurance for both of you.
Jim Siteman hopes his mother understands, on some level, why he’s been sitting on the bench outside her room every few days for a couple of months now.
“She just stares at me,” he said. “I can’t tell if she recognizes me at all.” Siteman’s mother, Anna, 98, lives at the Daggett-Crandall-Newcomb Home in Norton and has dementia that leaves her unable to communicate. Before her facility closed to guests in March, she always laughed when he walked in, as if she knew him. Siteman would share pictures of his new grandson, or of his brother’s grandchildren, rub her back, check in on her health. The visits were therapeutic for him too, especially because his mother’s caregivers are so kind.
Siteman is grateful he at least still gets to see his mother, given that COVID-19 has taken even that from so many sons and daughters. But she is declining, and he worries he will lose her before he sees that laugh again.
“The fact that she could pass without me being able to give her a hug or a final kiss would be profoundly sad,” said Siteman.
That’s a familiar fear.
“Here I am 2 miles down the road and I feel like I’m never going to see her again,” said Christalia Volaitis, whose mother, Sultana, 91, lives in an assisted living facility in Somerville. Mother’s Day is usually a big deal for her family, with flowers and wine, and lunch somewhere nice. Her mother lives on the third floor, so the window visit can be a challenge.
“Two weeks ago I couldn’t get her on the phone so I drove over and threw pebbles at her window, but it didn’t work,” Volaitis said. “I didn’t get to glimpse her, and drove back home feeling quite at loose ends. I picture her there and how small and frail she is, and I just want to reach out.”
But she’s grateful too, that she still gets to tell her mother she loves her.
Jani Maselli has done the window thing, too, but there are logistical hurdles. She lives in Houston, and her mother, Norma, lives in a facility in North Adams. So far, the 88-year-old is in pretty good spirits, cracking jokes about being in jail, though activities have been shut down, leaving her feeling bored. In mid-March, on a trip to bring her son home from college in Maine, Maselli drove to North Adams and “snuck around the back of the nursing home” to see her mother.
“I miss her more now, because I can’t see her,” Maselli said. “It’s more painful than I imagined.” Every day, she sends a postcard made from an old family photograph or, since she and her mother both like to knit, a snapshot of something she’s working on.
Seeing our parents in real life is always about more than telling them how we feel: It’s indispensable to their care. Families take some of the load off overburdened carers. And you can see things in person that Facetime doesn’t show: how clean they are or how confused, whether they’ve lost weight, or seem more frail.
“I can hug her and see how brittle she is, or not,” said Lisa Louden, whose mother, Dory, 84, lives in a memory care facility at Kaplan Estates, in Peabody. “My mother loves the human touch, she loves massages and having her hands rubbed. When I sit next to her, I see how blue her eyes really are. You don’t get that on Facetime.”
Usually, Louden, her sister, and their families would take flowers and food to Dory’s facility to celebrate Mother’s Day. Though Louden worries her mother is more confused than ever without visits and her usual activities, she’s grateful Dory doesn’t know it’s a holiday — or that she’s isolated by a terrifying pandemic.
“She’s convinced she’s in Ohio, where she grew up, staying with relatives,” Louden said. “Enjoy your visit to Ohio, mom, they love you there!”
For those whose mothers are enjoying imagined visits to their childhood homes right now, and for all who are cut off from the women who nurtured them, this Mother’s Day is a uniquely challenging one. But that hard fact is tempered by gratitude, that it might still be possible for us to hold them again when this mess is over.
Please, let it be soon. I have so many more freckles in need of attention.