I. Time Passes
In April, I stop measuring time by school days, work meetings, weekends, and social events. I start measuring it by the length of the disease, the progress of symptoms.
My mother and father have COVID-19 and are five days apart in their course. My mother is hospitalized, which means that every day my mother’s condition deteriorates—her respiratory distress intensifies, her inflammatory markers worsen—my father has the potential to get better, to get past the acute phase of the disease.
This is my calendar now, a vicious double bind, in which my father’s survival accompanies my mother’s decline. It feels like a Sophie’s choice, but I have no choice in the matter, nor are there any choices. I know from reading COVID diaries that getting past the second week is crucial for survival. Week two is when the virus crawls into your lungs, establishes dominance, compresses your chest like a vise, mimics the sensation of drowning, sends you to the ER. My father goes to the ER twice during this week and once the following; one day he is coughing up phlegm and panting so hard that he can’t finish a sentence. We panic and send him to the hospital on the same day my mother transitions to palliative care. They are taken to the same hospital by the same EMS workers, but my dad can’t see my mom and she has no idea that he’s there. When the hospital asks for my father’s DNR request, it occurs to me that I may lose both parents in the same week.
All of this unfolds for me at a distance, which is another measure of time. I am four hours away from my parents, with only an iPhone for a lifeline. I wrestle with going to see them in Westchester, but I have a six-year-old son and a husband with diabetes, and I’m afraid that if I get sick I won’t be able to help anyone. The distance compounds the horror: I am apart from my parents and they are apart from each other, in silos of suffering.
The disease is also my clock, with its own perverse rhythm. I wake at 6am and lie in bed crying, waiting for my father to call me, wondering if my mother has died or if my father has taken a turn. When my father calls, I hold my breath as he takes his blood pressure, oxygen, and temperature. We discuss his vitamin and medication protocol (gleaned from the internet) and catalogue the new and lingering symptoms—the fevers, the coughing, the panting, the phlegm, the low blood pressure, the night sweats, the back pain, the diarrhea, the bloody stools, the brain fog, the fatigue, the anguish that my mother is suffering alone.
Midmorning is spent talking with insurance companies, nursing services, and doctors’ offices, begging them to take my father on as a patient, in place of a family doctor who never calls because he is working fifteen-hour shifts on a hospital COVID floor.
Sometime in the morning I leave the first of several messages with a woman named Mary at the nursing station, who assures me that a nurse or doctor will get back to me about my mother. Whenever a nurse calls back the reports are repetitive and bleak: My mom is very anxious and when her oxygen hood is removed for medication and feeding her numbers plummet to devastating lows and it takes a while to recover.
I send text messages into the void; occasionally there is a response, like “this is hell” or “very hard.” At first, I withhold from my mother that my father has COVID, and when I decide to tell her she writes back with a single devastating reply: “because of me.” At night, I read COVID diaries and Facebook posts of survivors, trying to understand the mercurial nature of the disease and its confusing array of symptoms. I research Remdesivir trials, oxygen hoods, the effects of Hydroxychloroquine on heart function, the signs of blood clots. I send pleas for advice to COVID Facebook groups, hoping to fill the gap of unreachable doctors.
I am haunted by my memories of the past, when choices still felt like choices about the future. A broken hip in March, a surgery right after, a transfer to a rehab facility where we are assured there are no COVID cases. My mother is put on the COVID quarantine floor in case she has been exposed, a lethal paradox as I now see it, a sacrifice. Within a week there are whispers of confirmed cases, and the speculations coalesce into certainty. A negative COVID test follows, and then the relief: my father brings her home. But the next day her fever spikes to 103.5 and she is rushed to the ER, where she tests positive for the virus. Each day she declines. We beg for daily briefings and receive only bad news. The Hydroxychloroquine, the rheumatoid arthritis drugs, the convalescent plasma: nothing changes the outcome. The details feel arbitrary and impersonal relative to the life.
I spent forty years getting to know my mother only to lose her in 17 days. She dies on May 5th, but I withhold the news from my father for a full day because May 5th is also the day he begins to improve, and he seems happy to be alive. I feel relief for my dad and despair for my mom, and the relief produces its own seismic guilt.
II. Death in Brackets
My mother was a contradiction: both the quietest and loudest person I knew, a brash outspoken Jewish woman from the Bronx who suffered no phoniness, and a woman of her generation who lived mostly in the shadows. Nights were when she came alive, when less was demanded of her and when the people she cared for were asleep—there was a kind of reclaiming of self.
The pain of reminiscence makes me want to condense my mother’s death into a Woolfian sentence, to put her ending in brackets, as Woolf does to Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse. To the Lighthouse is an elegy for the mother Woolf lost, a novel she wrote to lay her mother’s ghost to rest. Julia Stephen died of heart complications brought on by influenza in 1895, when Woolf was only 13; she died suddenly and in the middle of the night.
I am a scholar of literary modernism and have been studying Virginia Woolf for years. To the Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway used to feel safely distant, like beautifully wrought historical artifacts; now they feel eerily proximate, like guides to grieving your loved ones in a pandemic. When my family goes to sleep, I reread them ravenously and wake up with them in my bed.
In To The Lighthouse, we spend 125 pages getting to know Mrs. Ramsay—the matriarch and center of the novel—only to lose her in a single sentence: “[Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty]. The brackets suggest the empty arms of Mr. Ramsay; they punctuate death with their embrace. Death enters suddenly and shatters the familial bonds that Woolf has been examining in meticulous detail. Putting Mrs. Ramsay’s death in brackets, in a subordinate clause, seems cruel and ironic, tinged with aggression and the desire to shock; but the absence of detail and explanation makes me think of the arbitrariness and impersonality of death relative to the life. I understand now the deliberateness of this structure—a phenomenology of loss represented on the page.
The velocity of my mother’s death and my distance from it all feel like a death in brackets. There is no touch, no contact, no final conversations, no holding the hand of the dying. Like Woolf says, we think of mothers as “invisible presences,” existing everywhere and nowhere simultaneously. Yet their deaths leave such an absence, or as the poet Victoria Chang puts it, “a hole in the ground the size of violence.”
If this seems like a detour around my mother, a defensive intellectualization, it is because it is. Reading and interpretation are how I deal with overbearing emotion, and they are also the way I am working through this grief and making it mine.
III. Singular Grief
“Sadness is plural, but grief is singular,” writes Victoria Chang. How to square the collective grief of COVID with the solitary grief of a mother’s death and a father’s illness? This grief upon grief upon grief. How to feel connection with others in this time of collective grief when grief is so impossibly isolating? Under COVID you bear the weight of grief alone—which seems already like grief’s bitter signature.
Mrs Dalloway is about personal grief and collective grief, and the way they converge. That is because Mrs Dalloway is not just post-war, it is post-pandemic: Clarissa Dalloway is a survivor of World War One—a war so incomprehensible in scale it was called The Great War — and also of a global pandemic that killed three times as many people as the Great War did.
On page two an observer offers a fleeting impression of Clarissa: she had “a touch of the bird about her, of the jay, blue-green, light, vivacious, though she was over fifty, and grown very white since her illness.” The following passage shifts to Clarissa’s internal perspective as we observe her rapture and suspense at the vibrancy of London: “For having lived in Westminster—how many years now? Over twenty, one feels even in the midst of the traffic…an indescribable pause; a suspense (but that might be her heart, affected, they said, by influenza) before Big Ben strikes.” Even in these retiring presences, we glimpse the lingering effects of influenza on the heart of Clarissa, who is also the heart of the novel. Influenza here is parenthetical — like the death of Mrs. Ramsay. It is a major event signaled in a minor aside.
Mrs Dalloway is devoted to pandemic in ways I never noticed before. Clarissa is described as “a nun withdrawing,” sleeping alone since her illness—“Narrower and narrower would be her bed”—a mirror image of our time if ever there was one. The line not only suggests physical quarantine, but emotional and sexual isolation, and the rearrangement of relationships. The fear of being with others, of transmission to others, the stigma of illness, the guilt of survival, are all part of this post-pandemic world.
I had never understood Clarissa; understood the detachment and despair of a comfortable woman who had never been to war; grasped how a wealthy socialite planning a party was so full of metaphysical angst. “She sliced like a knife through everything; at the same time was outside looking on. She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.” This passage, which shows Clarissa observing the omnibuses at Piccadilly, seemed to me a classic moment of modernist alienation.
I read this passage differently now. Clarissa has been transformed not only by war but by her own illness and proximity to death. War and pandemic have altered her perception, have identified the dangers in everyday living.
Set five years after the influenza epidemic of 1918, Mrs Dalloway offers flashes of a post-pandemic future when it is both exhilarating and terrifying to be alive, when every interaction feels thrilling but potentially deadly. The bustle of the city feels exciting and ominous: a car engine misfiring sounds like a gun; a skywriting airplane resembles a German bomber—this is the lived geography of trauma. As a survivor and witness, Clarissa recognizes the risks of loving, of living with others, of entering communal space.
Woolf was well acquainted with influenza, having come down with it repeatedly between 1916 and 1925 and confined to her bed for long stretches of time. Influenza affected her heart as it did her mother’s. In her 1926 essay “On Being Ill,” Woolf wonders about its curious absence in literature: “Novels, one would have thought, would be devoted to influenza.”
And Woolf captures the paradox of the pandemic: that we are most alone when we are most in need of others.
IV. Telling Time
When a neighbor who lives two houses away asks me how I am and if I am continuing to teach my college students online, I reveal that my mother died of coronavirus last week and that I have been nursing my father remotely through a particularly awful case of the disease. This is a lot to foist on a neighbor with whom I have had only a passing conversation. We have discussed her dog and my job at the college before, but I don’t know her dog’s name and she doesn’t know what I teach. The fact that I am sharing these details with her across a wide street makes the encounter even more unseemly. I try to shift the conversation by telling her (a dog lover) that I will be inheriting my mother’s ten-year-old chow, one of many things I’m not prepared for. She tells me with a sympathetic smile that dogs are good for your health and that she hopes my month improves.
Three weeks earlier, I had mentioned to this same neighbor that I was anxious about going to the supermarket, and she rolled her eyes and smiled at the whole social distancing phenomenon, like it was some ridiculously deluded experiment.
Near the end of April, when my mom is still on life support in the ICU and it seems like things are going poorly, I wander through our sparsely populated neighborhood in Ithaca, NY, which appears even more ghostly under quarantine. The university students have fled town and families and older residents remain—tending to gardens, taking tentative walks, peaking out of windows. I don’t wear a mask on walks near my house, but I give passersby absurd latitude, moving across the street when I see them. One day an older white woman in her sixties with sandy hair barrels toward me, with no awareness of our proximity. I swerve into the street to let her pass and she turns toward me and shouts:
“You don’t need to walk in the street for god’s sake. I don’t have the virus. You don’t have the virus. We can just be people!”
The unexpectedness of the outburst makes me tear up on the spot. “Actually, I’m just trying to protect us both,” I manage to say.
“Well, I don’t have it,” she repeats, even more stridently. “I just want us to behave like human beings.”
Much like the episode with my neighbor, I disclose everything in one concentrated blow.
“My mother is dying from COVID,” I blurt out.
She freezes and sputters an apology. In both encounters I am shocked by my candor. It is so unlike me to divulge this much personal detail to someone I barely know. Do I want to prove to these women the existence of the thing that they seem to deny? Do I want to annihilate them with the brutality of my story—these women who have mocked social distancing and made me bear its seriousness alone? Do I want these two women of my mother’s age to know that they could die too, as mercilessly as my mom? I can’t tell if I’m trying to forge fragile connections or eviscerate the thin film of insulation that keeps them from accepting their own vulnerability.
My husband who is a therapist reminds me that we are all at different stages of grief; those who haven’t grieved yet will grieve soon. I can’t tell if this is comforting or just horrible—the ubiquity of it all.
It is now six weeks since my mother’s death and I have settled into my isolation; I am even grateful for it. The pandemic has allowed me to grieve by myself, while making my solitude feel like a socially responsible act.
Time is different. I take walks around the neighborhood with Charli, my mother’s ten-year-old chow, who accepts me as a surrogate. Sometimes I catch myself mimicking my mother’s voice, (“What a good girl you are”), to make things feel more normal for her. When I do this, Charli cocks her head to the side, as if listening on a different frequency. Maybe she recognizes the affinity in our voices and gets confused; maybe she senses my inauthenticity. I’d like to think I am soothing her with the sounds of a mother. For certain, I am trying to sooth myself.
Jennifer Spitzer is Associate Professor of English at Ithaca College. She sends the biggest thanks to Jacob White, Shirley Wong, Joselin Linder, Jen Tennant, Chris Holmes, Kate Kallal, Eleanor Henderson, Elaine Freedgood, Megan Melnyk, and Laura Fisher for reading this and offering feedback