In the wake of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, The Argus will feature personal essays on how life has change in strange, scary, or surprising ways. If you have a hot take, a serious reflection, a funny anecdote, or anything in between, please email email@example.com.
My mom always has the answers. It’s why I ask her dumb questions, like “Is this really a light or a white?” when I do my laundry, and “Will I die if I take three Tylenol instead of two?” I’m not completely convinced she doesn’t have an inventory of every item we’ve ever owned or a running calendar of every event in my family’s life. She always knows where everything is and when everything is. Most importantly, she always knows what to say, whether it’s the silliest, smallest question, or a scary, life-changing one.
My mom doesn’t just answer the questions I have or my younger sister has or my dad has; she’s in Patient Experience at our nearby hospital. Before the pandemic, her friends and family joked that she had a job they’d never want. She takes complaints from patients and their spouses, relatives, and visitors all day about hospital procedures and staff. She listens to everyone that calls her and works to navigate and solve their interpersonal issues.
Now that she’s working from home, I hear her on the phone downstairs, at her desk with a little cheetah print notebook, answering questions all day.
“Wash your hands,” she tells someone. “We do have beds right now, but as you know, cases are increasing every day,” she tells another. “I understand you’re worried. We all are.”
She’s been taking calls outside, doing laps around our neighborhood like every white suburban mom on TikTok is. But instead of enjoying social distance walks with her friends, she’s on call, fielding questions not just from spouses and relatives of patients, but anyone looking for COVID-19 help. We went out together the other day, and she dialed the office number to see if there were any messages. There was one from a woman asking if the hospital had beds. Her husband wasn’t sick; she didn’t know where he could go get medical help if he did become sick,. They lived 40 minutes away from her hospital.
“I’m getting calls like this all the time,” my mom told me when I asked why the woman didn’t call her local hospital. “People are scared.”
She couldn’t make out the woman’s number on the voicemail, but we listened again and again until we finally got it. She wrote it down and called the woman back immediately. I made fun of how she talked; her voice changes when she’s working. Usually it’s quick and lighthearted, like she’s saying the punch line of a joke even when she’s not. On the phone for work, her voice is slow and precise. She isn’t overly nice, but she’s calming. It’s how she answers my questions when I’m stressed or overwhelmed or lost.
She’s used to getting complaints or hearing worried voices on the other end of the line. But as the hospital fights the virus, she’s fielding more calls than ever. This includes calls usually directed to the emergency line: concerns about virus symptoms, testing, and treatment.
She’ll hang up a work call then strut into the kitchen to play with our new puppy or grab a snack like it’s nothing. But sometimes she’s rushing to the phone and speaking to someone in hushed tones, like comforting them is a secret she doesn’t want us all to hear.
When you have three anxious family members in the house, your job as a Patient Experience Coordinator never truly ends. We might not be asking about hospital bed capacity, but my dad, sister, and I are peppering her with questions about getting groceries safely and social distancing measures and whether she thinks her hospital will be overwhelmed soon. When she came with me to pack up my stuff from Wesleyan, probably the last time we’d be on campus together for a while, I asked her when she thought it’d all be over. She didn’t say anything for a while.
“I don’t know.”
My mom’s always had the answer to everything. If she didn’t know it right away, she’d help me find it. She might make fun of me when it’s something small. If it’s something I really did know but didn’t think about, but she guides me to the answer anyway. Some may say this is coddling. Maybe it is. But it’s also the way she shows her love; she helps people.
My mom doesn’t have the answers, and neither do the experts. Nothing seems certain.
“Mom, where are my feminism socks?” “Mom, do I need to put on sunscreen if I’m sitting in the sun for my Zoom meeting?” “Mom, how long do I put the brussels sprouts in the oven?”
So, for now, we’re sticking to the little things. We ask questions we can answer, because it gives us some control in a time when everything else feels uncontrollable.
Zoë Kaplan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @_zoekaplan.