She would laugh that we were so worried. I can hear her voice in my mind saying, if she understood, “What? About moi? Ridiculous.” She would probably be upset that we even sent her to the hospital in the first place. She is more of a stick-it-out-on-your-own, “I’m not sick, I just don’t feel well,” kind of person.
March 28 to June 5, 2020. That was the duration of my mom’s journey with COVID-19. She went to the hospital with gastrointestinal symptoms. We expected her to get fluids, be monitored for a little while in the emergency room, and then be sent home. Instead they tested her for the then recently arrived COVID-19, which I shrugged off as ER hypervigilance (leave no test un-run!). If only I could be there, I thought, I could explain to them what she can’t, that she always has a little cough and the sniffles. It’s nothing to worry about.
Her positive test result stunned us and resulted in her prompt admission to the hospital, where she tumbled into the black hole of a blossoming public health crisis and a rapidly filling hospital. She used to tell me not to set my expectations too high because then you just invite disappointment. When I heard “COVID positive,” my expectations were grounded pretty firmly in reality.
She endured 2 separate hospitalizations (I wrote about the first one in a HuffPost essay – ironically, it was published the day she was sent back with secondary complications). She ended up spending 3 weeks total in the hospital. She didn’t eat or walk for weeks; had pneumonia (mild, mercifully) and then a pulmonary embolism and thrush. She was poked and prodded every which way and was generally miserable and confused. We eventually made the decision to discharge her from the hospital on hospice with the goal of getting her to a situation where she was comfortable and surrounded by people who loved her (even if I couldn’t be one of them because, COVID, which is pretty much the answer to any question of this dystopian existence anymore). We hoped that with one-on-one attention in a familiar setting someone could get her to eat. And we were prepared, if not, for her to leave this world in peace and comfort.
It was a long, long road full of Boost protein shakes and brownies for breakfast (for her, and, some days, to be honest, for me, too, because, well, I had to find comfort where I could). It was days of phone calls with doctors and nurses and hospice workers and chaplains and family and funeral homes. It was a nurse praying with her as she lay quietly in her bed, telling her we loved her even though we couldn’t be there. It was short Facetimes with my mom and the aides working with her, the Sound of Music or My Fair Lady playing on her CD player in the background. It was texted images of her sitting in a wheelchair getting her nails done or painting during a group activity. It was videos of her shuffle-dancing around the dining room, supported by an aide, honoring the woman she was and infusing joy where they could into her life. It was reports about her learning how to walk again, first with people supporting her on both sides, then, slowly, a few steps on her own. It took about 6 weeks for the odds of her making it through this illness to shift in her favor. She doesn’t remember any of it, which may have been her saving grace. Because she has Alzheimer’s, she lives in this exact moment, and then this one, and then the next, with no reference to the past or the future.
Through, and despite, it all, she exuded her characteristic grit and indefatigable spirit. She gave my brothers and I fatigued smiles through the Facetime screen, her inner spark sometimes igniting in her eyes through the otherwise wan expression on her face. More recently we have received videos of her humming a tune and dancing down the hall to the beat of her literal own drummer. Her laughter echoes like the first birds of spring after a long winter, issuing robustly and sweetly through the air, quickening the rhythm of my heart and flooding my soul with warmth. I only just realized as I listened more intentionally to her laugh, absorbing more fully this sound that so recently I thought I would never hear again, that her laugh echoes the sound of my own.
I guess it wasn’t her time. I guess she still has more to do here on this Earth, more to teach. I don’t know what else to say about how close we walked to the line, and then how she suddenly walked it back. She would say, “What did you expect? Of course I lived. Maybe don’t take life so seriously. Maybe don’t count me out just because the prognosis looks bad (really bad). Now tell me about you. How are you?”
I find myself speechless at times in her presence, my mind bending as I try to reconcile what happened to her and to our family during those months and the vast loss of life during this COVID outbreak, with her physically sitting there still with me, smiling, laughing, and full of LIFE. We sit outside on the patio at her care home admiring the trees and sky, listening to the river, singing or just sitting quietly. She still appreciates beauty in the world: a clear blue sky, a gentle warm breeze. She will close her eyes and tilt her chin upward, breath deeply, and smile broadly, completely at peace, 100% her authentic, younger self, the mom I remember. Post-COVID, she is back to walking unassisted, dance parties, eating, singing, giving back rubs, smiling, and laughing – lots of laughing. She doesn’t have much to say, and doesn’t understand much of what I tell her, but she knows I am someone special to her. She lights up like it’s a surprise party every time an aide walks her outside and she sees me standing there. On some biological level we are still connected, even if she can’t remember my name. She would like to give me a hug, reaches for me, but we sit and tap our toes together instead, a small physical connection that doesn’t potentially jeopardize either of us. COVID kisses. It’s the best we can do for now.
I recognize that I am one of the lucky ones. My mom returned to me from the brink, and she returned bubbling with happiness and love to share. She still has so much to teach, not only to me, but to all of us: about enjoying the simple things in life, like a warm breeze and a blue sky; about what it means to be fueled by love, to be guided by an inner joie de vivre; about dancing and laughing through life, no matter what; about resilience and grit and never, ever counting someone out or giving up, no matter the odds; about how deeply the love between a mother and her child runs, and how it’s still recognizable when all else is lost.
When it comes time to say goodbye, whenever that may be, I hope I will be able to be there and to hold her hand. In the meantime, I am counting my blessings and following her lead: taking a deep breath; embracing unbridled joy; seeking daily, small moments of happiness; loving my family and friends hard; smiling and laughing often; feeling grateful for every day I still have mom on this Earth; and living as close as I can to this very moment, and then the next one and then the next, moment to moment to moment. Even now. Especially now.
My mom survived COVID-19 and has lived gracefully with Alzheimer’s for over 7 years. She still exudes love and compassion for others. She still smiles and laughs. She is still the life of the party. She continues to be an example to us all about a life well-lived, no matter what. She would say, “This too shall pass.” And it will.
Mask up. We got this.