Family

“Did I Just Kill My Mom?”

Martha, 89, visited her daughter Suzanne at the start of lockdown. Then Suzanne got COVID.

An illustration of a crying older woman with a cane wearing a face mask waving goodbye to her daughter in an airport.
Natalie Matthews-Ramo

Martha, 89, lives in Anderson, Indiana, and her daughter Suzanne, 51, lives in Paradise Valley, Arizona. Martha raised her five children, including Suzanne, on her own after she and her husband divorced. Suzanne and her husband have four kids, ages 13, 15, 17, and 18. She is currently a stay-at-home mom, and Martha volunteers for a nonprofit organization that helps the poor. Martha lived with Suzanne for eight months at the start of the pandemic, and while she was there, Suzanne contracted COVID-19.

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This is part of “I Miss You. I’m Worried About You. Get Out of My House.,” a series of conversations between parents and their children about how their relationship has changed since the beginning of lockdown.

Martha: I went out to visit you—my middle daughter—last February.

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Suzanne: You were going to stay for six weeks. My husband, Zaher, is a cardiologist, and I remember he said, “If what they’re saying is true, the virus is probably going to spread.” But it didn’t even occur to us to cancel our plans to have you fly out here.

Martha: I ended up being with you for eight months.

Suzanne: In March, when you’d been here for almost a month, I was on the phone talking to one of my good friends. I can remember it clear as day. I was talking, and when I inhaled, I felt this burn. By that night, just walking down the hall in our house, it felt weird. That was back before anyone was wearing masks. Zaher looked right at me and said, “You need to stay up in our room.” I said to him, “My mom may need my help with things.” He’s like, “She’s 88. We can’t take chances.” Meanwhile, he was still going in and out of the hospital.

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Martha: I really got worried. Not because of me and my age and all, though they were saying people my age were dying with it. But I was worried about your children and I was just so worried for you. A mother never wants to see her child go before her. And that was something that went through my mind. “Oh God, what if she gets worse?”

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Suzanne: I was upstairs thinking, “Holy shit, I could possibly die. I could give it to my family. God forbid, oh my God, if I give this to my mom. I’ll never forgive myself.” I progressively got worse. We luckily had a pulse oximeter at home. But I was getting more and more nervous. Zaher was like, “There’s no way in hell I’m taking you into an ER right now with the pandemic.” I got tested, and it was positive. At that point, they told me, “You need to assign only one person to go in and out of your mother’s room. You need to make sure your mother is masked at all times.” We didn’t see each other for weeks. The kids were making sure you had your water, your meals, if you needed some sort of cream or lotion put on your feet. We got a TV tray so that we could serve you meals in your room.

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Martha: Like living in a hotel. I had my own quarters, and people waiting on me.

Suzanne: You had to bathe yourself in your sink, since you need a second person to help you get in and out of the tub.

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Martha: I kept praying, and you got better. I’ve lost two of my closest friends to this pandemic. That’s the hardest. People I’ve known my whole life, gone now. My one friend died while I was away.

Suzanne: That was heartbreaking for me because I wasn’t able to hug you. You were losing your best friends from life and nobody could go and just hold you and let you cry and just hold your head. You spent your 89th birthday in your room.

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Martha: I did get lonesome. I remember one time my grandson said, “Grandma, I’m going to come in and eat with you.” So he brought his plate and just came in and sat in the room with me. Other times, I could hear everyone in the other part of the house and wondered what they were doing. You’d always know when they were watching a basketball game, because there was so much cheering and everything going on.

Suzanne: I was still sick when the school shut down and the kids began their home schooling. I wasn’t symptom-free until almost June. I still have PTSD. Any time I catch any bit of a cough or I feel something, I’m like, oh God. Once I was able to finally see you, I became your aide.

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Martha: Yup, you did. I was so thrilled when I finally was able to see you. You kept taking my temperature every morning.

Suzanne: Every other day I’d give you a sponge bath.

Martha: You gave me a facial. You dolled me all up and curled my hair. Well, the other day I changed my picture on Facebook and I got over 137 responses to that picture, to how beautiful I looked. And I said, “It’s all thanks to my daughter.”

Suzanne: But you did get homesick. Before the pandemic, in spite of not being able to drive or having to use a cane or a walker, you were more active than I was. You were going to your book club. You had your choir. You were the vice president of a charity organization. You had a great network of friends. I’ve always known you as somebody who just had this really super full life. We didn’t know you were going to be here for eight months. I remember Zaher said, “Your mom’s probably going to live with us until this pandemic’s over.” I think that stressed you out.

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Martha: I thought, “Oh Lord, I can’t imagine being gone this long. Will I ever get home?” I was missing seeing my other kids, too, who live in Indiana. I had a new great-grandbaby I’d never seen.

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Suzanne: Eventually, you were starting to exhibit obvious depression. Zaher goes, “I’m not telling this to hurt you. But let’s think about a plan to get her home.” Because he was worried about you just declining.

Martha: We even tried to think of different ways of going home other than me flying. Well, when you get old, you have to go to the bathroom all the time. So we knew that driving me home wouldn’t do any good.

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Suzanne: I was finding out I had my limitations. It was getting hard for me, physically, helping care for you, caring for the kids, trying to care for the dogs. And I was still recovering. Zaher was getting worried about the wear and tear on me, too. I was trying to be stoic. Finally we booked you a flight.

Martha: When I left in October, I was still wearing my mask.

Suzanne: Me too. I would take mine off in the shower.

Martha: You didn’t hug me till I was right at the airplane.

Suzanne: I did. I burst into tears.

Martha: God love you, you got me a first-class seat.

Suzanne: I had been watching on the news, the airports were like ghost towns. But when we got there it was jampacked.

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Martha: It was just wall-to-wall people.

Suzanne: I mean, I wanted to die. I got in the car with Zaher to go home and just burst into tears. I said, “Did I just kill my mom?”

Martha: It was difficult coming home because then I was all alone. My life’s very different now. I do have a Visiting Angel aide who comes in five days a week and does my housework, and fixes my meals, and helps me with bathing and things of that nature. So at least I am able to see somebody, to talk to somebody. But I really haven’t been out of the house except for doctor appointments since October. As old as I am, I’ve gotten very active on Facebook, especially since the pandemic.

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Suzanne: You became, like, the queen of Facebook. Your book club, your choir, going to church, going out with your retiree group for the lunch bunch meetings—Facebook took that over. That became your portal to the world. I did get you those large print word search books. Remember? And the crossword puzzle books.

Martha: I can’t go to Mass anymore, but I have some dear friends who bring me communion.

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Suzanne: To be honest, I still think you would have been better off here. But you’re an adult. You have your full faculties. You’re smart. You know your life. I still have guilt. I sometimes wish you had stayed put here.

Martha: You did an excellent job of taking care of me. It was a very humbling experience. And I’m very fortunate—I’ve already gotten both of my vaccine shots.

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Suzanne: It’s a really profound experience to take care of your own parent on such an intimate level. It’s just a very full-circle moment. It meant a lot to me.

Martha: I wish you lived closer so I could see you more often. But I just have to be content with talking to you on the phone. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to go back out to see you again. So you’re going to have to come and see me.

Read the other entries in “I Miss You. I’m Worried About You. Get Out of My House.

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