The pandemic, everyone could see the pandemic was coming. In February 2020, I debated whether or not I should fly to Florida to visit my mother. At the time there were some news reports about the illness. A cruise ship was quarantined due to COVID-19; was it safe to travel? Someone advised me to go ahead with my travel plans. Whoever that was, thank you. March 2020 was the last time I saw my mother in person. She died in July of that year.
Mom was on top of things when it came to her end-of-life arrangements. Almost 20 years ago, she gave me a red folder with various medical power-of-attorney forms. "It has to be you," she said. "My brother is too soft-hearted to have to make a decision like that." So I took the red folder home with me and kept it safe; from time to time I had to consult it as she aged and her health declined. When I went fumbling through it right after she died, I found the note she originally left with the documents.
When I returned from Florida, I felt a heaviness pressing me down. My institution extended spring break for a week — we needed to move our classes online. I sat at my desk doing nothing for hours. Somehow I managed to make the alterations needed to teach the rest of the semester online. At some point Mom made it clear to me that she wanted a good obituary. Good picture, but not one from when she was in her 20s. She fell, they took her to the hospital where she stayed for a week. I began composing her obituary in my head.
She was in an assisted living facility, and they went into lockdown a couple of weeks after my visit. I think she was stuck in her room all the time, even for meals. My brother tried to visit her through her first floor room window, he made signs and held them up to her. She got confused, demanded to know why they wouldn't let him in. They made him stop the outside visits.
I had to switch gears quickly; I would go from talking to the funeral director to interviewing an adjunct for the fall semester (I'm tenure-track WPA at my institution). It also fell to me to coordinate an online memorial service. Writing and administrative and class prep and the details of death and loss blended and blurred. I felt responsible for everything. No one really writes alone — my spouse and I collaborated on the memorial video and he made sure my family knew how to access the Google Meeting site. I was surprised to see my nephew Michael there; the son of my brother-in-law, I started introducing him to my side of the family — and drew a blank on his name. So that's nice, I have one of those painfully embarrassing memories to go along with the grief. I managed to make it through to the end of the service before bursting into tears.
I wish I could write something profound about the traditional memorial writing I did for my mother — her eulogy, her obituary; I wish I could say that I drew comfort from her online memorial service and video. I suppose there was comfort in knowing that my family deeply appreciated the service — we profoundly missed being together in person to commemorate her. The pandemic has shut down so many of our traditional mourning rites, so we must be grateful for the ways technology lets us honor the dead in new ways.
— Karen Kaiser Lee
Karen Kaiser Lee has a PhD in Rhetoric and Composition and is an instructor for the Department of English at Northern Illinois University where she teaches undergraduate- and graduate-level courses in composition and rhetoric. Twitter - @KKaiserLee