Mom is tougher than we thought

We underestimated Mom. Maybe I shouldn’t speak for my siblings, but I don’t think any of the four of us expected her to be so resilient in the face of the one-two punch of being widowed and locked down by the coronavirus.

Mom, 92, lost her husband of nearly 72 years just before Christmas. They had moved into an assisted living residence only four months before. On top of grief, she had to contend with adjusting to new surroundings and a less independent and less private lifestyle.

Just three days before Dad died unexpectedly, Mom had told me that she prayed that she would go first. In their old age, they were never apart. He was her caregiver, sorting her medication into the pill box, driving her to medical appointments, and hovering at her elbow to waylay falls. I silently agreed with Mom: Dad would be better able to cope alone.

Now I’m not so sure.

After Dad was gone, Mom teared up when talking about him but didn’t give in to self-pity by huddling in her apartment from morning until night. She went to the community rooms for all three meals a day, live performances, crafts activities, and a daily rosary. Every conversation I had with a sibling included one or the other of us commenting, “Mom’s doing better than I expected.”

Then the coronavirus hit. The first measures Mom’s residence took to protect its elderly residents were closing the dining room and canceling group activities. Meals were delivered to apartments.

My brother Rick, who lives nearby, thought that he would be able to continue to visit Mom, but just as he arrived two weeks ago, the entrance doors were locked.

We held on to one ray of hope when the activities director said that praying the rosary would continue in a common room because only Mom and a couple of others attended, allowing them to sit far apart. Last Monday, the director announced that it was the last day for the rosary. Corporate headquarters dictated that residents should not be with one another, even six feet apart.

So now Mom is in solitary confinement, as are residents of senior communities around the country. We understand — people their age are the most vulnerable to the virus — but worry about the toll isolation will take.

Once again, however, we’ve been impressed that Mom has rolled with the punches. Her biggest complaint is that breakfast is delivered late. She’s cheerful on the telephone, her only means of social contact. The advice about keeping in touch with secluded loved ones via FaceTime or Skype and the like is off base for families with nonagenarians, who are least likely to use the internet. Like four out of five people her age, Mom doesn’t have a cellphone or a computer.

My sister Nancy offered her hunch about why Mom is coping well: “Mom follows rules.” I’ve often thought to myself, “That’s not always good,” when Mom boasted that doctors compliment her for following their orders. Now I’m glad she’s not rebellious.

I used to chide her for worrying about us, and now the roles are reversed. Worried that she feels lonely, I asked a couple of relatives to telephone her. Worried that she feels guilty about missing church, I found a Catholic TV station with a daily mass and rosary. Worried that she feels bored, I remind her of the activity books on her bottom bookshelf. I ask whether she’s been using the coloring books I luckily brought on my last visit. She finally said to me in exasperation, “Marianne, I can’t do everything you want me to do. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be okay.”

That strong spirit could change if one of us contracts the virus and she can’t see her sick child or grandchild. For the time being, Mom’s fortitude has blunted my worry.

I don’t want to minimize the very real danger of isolation for our oldest citizens. A stiff upper lip isn’t going to cut it for everyone. But even very elderly people can be surprising. I don’t know whether Mom has changed or I didn’t give her enough credit for toughness before.

If my 92-year-old, recently widowed mother can get through this crisis alone, I want to hope that most of her generation can as well.



• Friends checking in and checking up. I even heard from a friend in the UK with whom I typically exchange only Christmas messages.

• Zoom, the video conferencing service that allowed me to video chat with my siblings and their families, and my book group to meet virtually.

• My South Loop neighbors who are putting on a lightshow and singalong from their windows and balconies every evening at 8.

• Geoffrey Baer’s tours of Chicago, available on the WTTW website. They give Chicagoans ideas of places to explore once we’re released from hibernation.

• Sunday evening’s start of Call the Midwife’s new season on PBS, keeping up our spirits with its perfect blend of seriousness and uplift.



“This is not about your ratings, Mr. President! This is not a reality TV show. For countless Americans this is our reality.”

— Valerie Jarrett, former adviser to former President Barack Obama, about Trump’s boasting about the ratings of his coronavirus briefings

Leave a comment