Monica Smith knows the acute pain of not being able to see or touch someone she loved during their final moments. Monica is based in the United States but has children living across the world. When the pandemic started, she tells me via video call from New Jersey, Monica was still in Australia visiting family. ‘I came home at the end of 2019 because my mother had been in care since 2010 and my stepfather was in his late 90s. [Before the pandemic] I would come home a couple of times a year to spend time with them,’ Monica says. The 2019–2020 trip was a much sadder one than usual. Her stepfather died at the start of the new year, a few months before the pandemic took hold. Monica’s husband had already returned home, and she decided to stay in Australia for a few more months in the hope that things would get better. She moved in with her son and daughter-in-law for company but once it became clear that things weren’t going to improve for a while, she opted to return to the United States. Before she left, Monica went to visit her mother, who was living in an aged care facility in Geelong. ‘I did get to see Mum before I left. My brother and I went in and they had screens up and we got tested and Mum was behind the glass screen. She had no idea what was going on.’ That was the last time Monica saw her mother. Back in America, a few months later, she was called by the nursing home to be present online as her mother passed. In ordinary circumstances, Monica would have flown back to Australia for the funeral. That wasn’t an option.
Monica hopes to retire in Australia one day with her husband but with children and grandchildren flung to the far corners of the world, settling anywhere for long seems complex and lonely. When Monica’s mother died, it was a goodbye made on a screen. So was her video conference funeral. To me, it’s unspeakably harrowing. I can only imagine how odd and how deep the grief must have been, saying goodbye to someone so many kilometres away and then simply having to get on with the business of living through a pandemic. What space is there for grief like that and how do we possibly live with it? But Monica is stoic. She says that she was still ‘in the room when she died’ because of technology. ‘It was as good as it could possibly be and it was always a natural progression,’ she tells me. This seems an awfully brave and generous way for someone to describe the experience of watching their mother die over Zoom. What other choice does she have but to deal with this brutal reality though? How we all contend with these things will affect the way we cope and live and love each other as we move on from the pandemic. Let us hope Zoom is contained only to meetings, not moments of love and grief, in future.
This is an extract from Work. Love. Body. edited by Helen McCabe and Jamila Rizvi.