My cell phone is ringing for the tenth time today, maybe the twentieth, the fiftieth. My mother is calling again.
“What the hell’s happening out there?” she yells into her landline telephone from the kitchen of her Manhattan Upper West Side apartment.
I envision spit flying from her mouth with each word as she bends over her yellow 1960s metal kitchen table, the odor of stale cigarettes and dry steam heat permeating the room. Her one-bedroom apartment is likely more cluttered than it was a month ago when I last visited. Old mail piled on the dining room table, bills mixed in with circulars, clothes scattered on her bedroom floor for me to launder when I can make it down to the city again.
“The world’s going fucking nuts. No one will answer the door in this whole goddamned building. I ring and knock, and ring and knock, and nothing.” The flick of her lighter comes over the phone, the inhalation of breath, and then her cough. Her smoker’s cough.
I’m in my fourth week of working remotely from my home in Portland, Maine. My twelve-year-old pug snores from her dog bed on the floor beside my desk. My grey cat is stretched out in the sun on a chair next to the bookcase. My son is safe in his bedroom upstairs. The sweetness of cinnamon and brown sugar from the banana bread we baked together last night wafts from the crumbs on a plate beside my computer. The snow from an unusual April storm is melting on the lawn. The robins have returned from their winter hideaway. My window is cracked to hear their voices.
“I keep going down to the lobby and asking what’s going on and George on the door keeps telling me to go back upstairs,” my mother says.
My stomach curls. I imagine her bursting from the building’s brass-paneled elevator, her days-old unwashed hair in matted silver clumps, a cigarette dangling from her mouth as she attempts to grab George’s arm to get him to listen. I visualize him recoiling and saying, “No, no, you mustn’t,” as he tries to shake from her grasp, his large brown eyes shining with fright and uncertainty. I will get a call from the building’s management. They will tell me what a danger she is, getting up into people’s faces. She refuses to social distance, they’ll tell me, we don’t know what to do.
My imaginary retort accelerates to a scream. “She doesn’t mean any harm! She forgets! She’s lonely!” and then I force the thoughts to dissipate. I need to stay focused for her, for me.
I breathe into my cellphone. “You’ve got to stay inside.” I repeat the same words I’ve said to her on every call for the past month. I try to emphasize the word “inside” and make my voice as smooth and comforting as possible.
“But I can’t,” she says, which means “I won’t.” “No one will answer their goddamned door either. Sara in Apartment 4C keeps asking me if I’m ok, but she wouldn’t open the door.”
My mother takes another puff. “Of course, I’m ok. Why the hell wouldn’t I be ok?”
My toes clench inside my slippers as I urge myself to be patient.
“It’s the whole floor, below and above too.” She pauses, then adds, “Maybe nobody’s even there anymore.”
My mind jumps to the images I’ve seen from New York on TV: emergency medical workers bundled in gowns and masks, pulling bodies wrapped in white bags onto stretchers, wheels creaking from so much use. I picture an entire family, an entire floor, gone, but I know that’s not the case in her building, at least yet.
The clink of glassware emanates over the phone, then the pouring of liquid. Her noon vodka. She pauses for a sip and sets down the glass.
“I need smokes,” she says.
I know where this is going. It’s the same argument we had yesterday and the day before and the day before that, even though she has plenty of cigarettes. At least one of us has to remain calm. “But you have food, right?” I say, although she hardly remembers to eat anymore.
“I’ve got a good supply of vodka and wine,” she says with assurance.
“What about food?” I repeat.
“I’ve got that too.” Her voice is not as certain as with the vodka and wine, though. I make a mental note to call her neighborhood grocery for delivery to add to her stock: frozen lasagnas and pre-made chicken breasts that I will have to remind her to put into the microwave, bagged salad that will rot in her refrigerator’s vegetable bin, glistening fruits that she will not touch.
“But I’m low on smokes,” she insists.
I want to tell her to go into the bedroom, relax, read a book or do a crossword puzzle like she used to when her mind was sharp. I realize it’s time to go through the explanation again.
“We’re in a pandemic, New York’s on lockdown,” I say. “You can’t go out.”
“Pandemic, schmandemic,” she replies.
I close my eyes. We go through this every day, several times a day: my explanation, her downplay, my worry that she’s alone, 83 years old, forgetful and stubborn.
“If you don’t believe how bad it is, turn on the news,” I say.
“I hate the news.”
My chest tightens with familiar anxiety. The words slip out before I can prevent them. “The virus kills, especially the elderly.”
“I’m not elderly,” she snaps, and then her voice ascends with indignation. “I’m strong as a horse.” She clears her phlegm-filled throat and then coughs away from the phone. She will need a ventilator if she gets the virus.
“You’re vulnerable,” I say.
I close my eyes again. An ambulance wails from the street four stories below my mother’s kitchen window and then the sound fades. I imagine the vehicle racing up the avenue with another almost-dead patient, trying to get to an emergency room before it’s too late—an emergency room jammed with people on stretchers, struggling to breathe, and frantic staff in protective gowns and face shields attempting to make sense of the chaos. I want to say, “That could be you, next,” but I don’t.
“I’ve got to get my smokes,” my mother says.
I have no doubt that the many cartons I’ve had delivered over the past several days are still lying on her kitchen floor in bags, untouched among the dust on her lime-green linoleum faux tiles.
“I’ll order them again from the smoke shop,” I say. “They’ll have them delivered to you later today.”
“But I want them now,” she insists.
She shakes her pack of Virginia Slims Lights at the mouthpiece of her telephone. I imagine her peering inside the cardboard box, squinting through the glaucoma she forgets to treat with doctor-prescribed drops.
“Got only five,” she says.
“What about what I had delivered yesterday?”
She slaps her tongue against the roof of her mouth with a “tsk” sound. “That’s my emergency supply.”
When we hang up, I know she will go downstairs in the torn magenta parka she refuses to part with. No gloves or mask, she will shuffle past George as she traverses the marble lobby. She will ease herself down three steps to the street with the help of a brass handrail on the side. The cold metal will sting her palm, but it will make her feel alive and part of the world.
She will walk toward Broadway and marvel at the lack of traffic for a Tuesday afternoon. She will pass a closed Italian restaurant on the corner, a boarded-up shoe store and the shuttered furniture showroom with the sign in its window saying, “Stay strong, NYC! We will get through this together!” that she told me about when the lockdown began.
She will push the door open of the bodega where she always bought her cigarettes up until a month ago, and then cough with her hand to her mouth from the air temperature difference inside. The employee behind the counter will peer over the bandana that covers his nose and mouth and recognize her.
Through the clear plastic curtain that separates him from the store’s customers, he will ask how she’s been. She will be delighted that he acknowledges her instead of ignoring her or telling her to go away. She will note the fine weather and the hopefulness that spring brings, and the employee will look at her with alarm and tell her to be careful out there. The virus spreads so easily. People don’t even know they have it and can transmit it without realizing.
My mother will touch her cheek and say, “Yes, isn’t it awful?” just to make conversation. They will nod in unison and their eyes will meet, creating connection. Maybe some part of my mother will recall a news headline about the virus, but its significance won’t linger. She will peruse the array of cookies, chips, and bread on the shelves just because they’re there, but she will not be tempted to buy them.
Her purpose is singular. She will rub a finger below her nose, dripping because of her allergy to spring buds, and with the same hand, she will remove money from her purse and slide it under the plastic curtain in exchange for two cigarette packs. With gloved fingers, the employee will gingerly pick up the bills by their tips and deposit them into the cash register.
“Don’t go out. Please don’t,” I say.
She will trudge back to her building, with her right hand stuffed into her pocket, caressing her purchase. As she climbs the three steps to the entrance way, she will wonder why George looks on from afar instead of hurrying to help her like he used to. Shaking her head in disgust, she will project her voice. “Fine. I can do it all by myself!”
She will count loudly as she goes up the steps. “One, two, three. See, I did it!” He will watch her with trepidation and pity.
She will touch the building mailbox, the elevator button, the keys in her purse, and forget to wash her hands when she comes in, the invisible new specks of virus glowing on her fingers and palms. She will take a cigarette out of one of the packs she just bought and think about calling me to report that she ventured out when I asked her not to.
Ice cubes rattle at the bottom of her glass. “You think I’m an incapable old fart, don’t you?” she says.
Her voice is coated with alcohol now. I can almost smell her medicine-breath over the phone. For once, I wish the joke on the internet was true—drink enough and you’ll be immune, haha! Alcohol kills germs!
“You’re not an old fart,” I say.
I get up to refill my coffee mug in the kitchen. Silence floods the other end of the line. I begin to think the call has dropped until I hear another siren in the background get louder, then fade. My mother speaks finally, her voice soft and low. “I’m tired,” she says.
My eyebrows raise as I return to my desk chair.
“Tired from what?” I ask.
She means the virus, although she can’t articulate it, and everything it has taken from her.
My arm aches from holding my cellphone to my ear with so many calls from her today. I lean into the armrest. I don’t tell her that I’m also tired, tired of worrying that she will die alone, without me, with only a stranger in a protective suit and an N95 facemask to comfort her.
“Of course, you’re tired,” I say. “We’re all tired.”
“When will this be over?” she says. I know she’s asking when things will return to normal.
I hesitate. Do I tell her that in her case, it might be never? That the top priority when this crisis is over is to look into an assisted living facility? That she might not have the capacity to live on her own for much longer?
“The virus will tell us when,” I say, but I realize I’m being too abstract, so I add, “Soon, maybe.”
She swallows. “Talking to you is good,” she says.
I wish I could tell her that talking to her was good as well, that she’s not a burden, that I don’t resent her for refusing to move to a less congested, closer, safer place back when she could. That I don’t begrudge her for continuing to smoke and drink with full knowledge that they were destroying her brain.
“I wish you were here,” she says. Her tone is genuine.
Unexpected grief tightens my throat. I want to tell her how precious she is. That I remember sitting on her lap as she read me A Bear Called Paddington and The House at Pooh Corner and how I nestled my forehead into her neck just to get closer. That I remember going to the museum with her on Sundays and listening as she told me all about dinosaur bones, her hand wrapped around mine. That I remember our adventures in Central Park hunting for four-leaf clovers in the grass and the joy we felt when we found tiny flowers instead. That it crushes me to realize she’s not the same person I grew up with.
A pause and then she speaks again. “What should I do?”
“Break into those cartons on the floor.” I hold my breath after the words come out.
“I guess that’s what they’re there for, right?”
I exhale. “Yes.”
My toes relax from their clenched position. My head is pounding from the release of tension in my neck and shoulders. I assure her that when we get off the phone, I will call the smoke shop, the grocery store, and the liquor vendor to make sure they deliver all that she wants.
“You won’t go out, right?” I say, just to make sure.
“Not now. Maybe tomorrow, but not now.”
The truth in her voice cuts through the alcohol and compromised memory. A part of her has heard me, at least for today, for right now. Relief and exhaustion tingle my limbs. I promise to call later to see how she’s doing.
Footsteps approach the upstairs landing when I hang up the phone. My son’s online school has paused for lunch. The chicken sandwiches I have prepared for us are waiting in the fridge. He is hungry, and I am too.
The dog tags behind me to the kitchen. The cat gets up and follows as well. A sense of peace and gratitude comes over me. My mother is safe, at least for now.