Stillness was not part of the plan.
The plan, to the extent that one existed, went something like this: I was on a mission to save my mother, who at the time was withering away all alone on the third story of a Victorian apartment building in San Francisco.
Her physical health had been in decline, but her mental health was what worried me the most. So much time spent alone, isolated, with only her ghosts and bottles of Hennessy to keep her company. In May, her calls had begun to become more frequent, more desperate. They were monologues of regret. I should’ve bought a house, she’d say, with an unmistakable lisp that always lets me know when she has been drinking. On especially bad days, she would call and berate me for being so far away. I would never do to my mother what you…
In two weeks’ time, I did what no sane New Yorker would ever do: I broke the lease on my rent-stabilized one-bedroom apartment, and I bought a car. The stretch of Crown Heights between Schenectady and Utica Avenues became ground zero for a biblical flood of my belongings. Clothes, bedding, shoes went to men’s and women’s shelters. Books, magazines, pamphlets went to park benches and the fronts of stoops. I was on a mission. To do what? I didn’t know yet.
I pictured myself back in the Bay Area, surrounded by family members who’d put aside their decades-long feuds to come together in Covid-safe normalcy. I thought that the ruptures between my mother and me could be paved over with proximity. I’d forgive her for her not-so-subtle guilt-tripping and periodic slide into narcissism, and she’d make peace with having a divorced lesbian daughter who preferred life a continent away. I’d have my own apartment, but we’d order a delicious Christmas dinner and do something hopelessly normal, like watch A Christmas Story on TV. I’d have proof that my sacrifice, the great burden of inconvenience for which I’d given up everything and driven across the country, was worth it. People all around me were making similar, life-altering decisions. Certainly, there was a reason for it all.
Here’s what I did instead: I tried to force-feed my own brand of healing onto my mother. I did so pompously, outrageously, endlessly. Every phone call was a check-in about progress: Did she make that doctor’s appointment? Would she be okay with me calling her doctor? Maybe she should drink more water. Every visit was a chance for me to say what was wrong and offer, unprompted, ideas for making it my definition of right. I was the prototype of the know-it-all millennial, badgering my mother as if I were the parent, pushing her closer to a casket than any virus ever could.
I’m back in New York City now. My mother and I both agree, on some level, that it’s for the best. The Christmas thing is definitely not going to happen. I’m in a new apartment with new roommates and a car that’s already earned me two parking tickets and a speeding violation in rural Illinois that I can’t figure out how to pay online. I am deeply in debt from the summer’s excursions, and as I write this, I’m still trying to figure out how to get a studio apartment’s worth of brand new furniture shipped from San Francisco to Brooklyn at a rate that’s less than my monthly salary.
My mother and I are both physically healthy, no better or worse than we were in June. We talk several times a week, and though they’re superficial conversations about the weather or the election, I’ve found them to be small joys. My mother still drinks too much and tells me that she doesn’t. I still offer unsolicited advice, sometimes based on dumb inspirational quotes I’ve favorited on Instagram. And you know what? That’s okay. Because the summer taught me this: Sometimes the world is falling apart and all you want is your mom, and you better take what you can get while she’s still around. And sometimes you can make big, costly decisions during global pandemics just to feel a little bit more alive.
Sometimes I wish I could go back to that gridlocked road outside of Salt Lake City and warn myself of what was to come, of the tens of thousands of dollars that I did not have but somehow spent, of the arguments my mother and I would have, of the sheer hubris in thinking I knew better than a woman who’s lived twice my age. I would take a moment to think about the fact that two hastily arranged cross-country moves in four months is, in fact, batshit crazy and definitely not a good look on my credit score.
And then I would do it all over again.
Scenes From a Pandemic is a collaboration between The Nation and Kopkind, a living memorial to radical journalist Andrew Kopkind, who from 1982–94 was the magazine’s chief political writer and analyst. This series of dispatches from Kopkind’s far-flung network of participants, advisers, guests, and friends is edited by Nation contributor and Kopkind program director JoAnn Wypijewski, and appears weekly on thenation.com and kopkind.org.