On Zoom, seals and my mother
stay home and stay safe.
When I was thirteen, my mother’s work sent her to Norway for two months. Or maybe it was three. At the same time, my father was working in Germany, leaving my brother and I under the care of my aunt.
All I remember now, ten years later, is how little my mom and I spoke during that time; the way I would close my flip phone, immediately lock myself in the bathroom and cry after each call.
I didn’t understand why she — probably the most affectionate person I have ever known — wouldn’t want to speak to me every day, or even go beyond the usual questions regarding what I ate that day or how school was going. But I understand now.
Last week, as part of the daily exercise allowed by the government, I cycled over to my friend’s flat on the other side of town to wave and chat for a couple of minutes.
Don’t worry — proper distancing was in place as we shouted fragments of conversation starters at each other while she leaned out of her kitchen window on the second floor. We haven’t seen each other in months. She was right there, in flesh, but the space between us was insurmountable. I had a frog in my throat the whole time.
It’s not news that it’s far more difficult to be emotionally vulnerable with someone who is not there physically, but the whole encounter felt like we were separated by an ocean instead of a couple of floors. Physical distancing is inextricable from the mental one.
On the way home I was wondering how any of us are going to keep this up while we adapt to the new normal. I almost regretted going in the first place.
I’ve been studying media for a while now, listening to theorists and lecturers talk about the medium that the digital age has provided this generation with, the one that allows us to reach out to each other whenever we want.
However, if this wasn’t clear before, lockdown reminded us that things like Zoom calls cannot fully penetrate physical space, which is crucial as it allows us to share our emotional weight with others.
It has now gotten to a point where I avoid these pseudo-social gatherings on Zoom or FaceTime in favour of a TV show I’ve seen ten times over. In fact, I would rather read the news for hours than have a ten-minute call with a friend.
Or my parents. It’s not even the actual conversations I am avoiding, it’s what comes after: knowing there is nothing I can do to change the circumstances, pacing around my flat while I search for something to do with my hands to distract my mind from itself.
One day, about a month after she left for Norway, my mother called out of the blue (we would usually plan the calls a little in advance just to make sure we didn’t miss each other).
She proceeded to excitedly tell me about seals.
Seals! She’s never seen one in real life before and now they were right outside her window. It was the most extraordinary thing, dozens of them lying around the rocky beach, some playing. She got so excited she didn’t take a single picture or video; instead, she immediately called me. For the first time in weeks, I felt close to her.
These are the type of emotional connections that we are all missing out on. The ones that take us by surprise and we get so ecstatic about that we forget all about the space separating us.
There’s very little to share when you’re repeating your everyday routine of getting out of bed, with the weight of the world already awake and lying on top of you. Most mornings I can’t breathe. Most mornings it’s reading about the traumatic experiences of carers and frontline workers across the world that remind me everything is real.
And that nothing will or should be the same after this.
Ten years later I understand why my mother didn’t call every day, why she never asked how I feel, why our calls lasted two minutes max.
There’s no way she could have handled her thirteen-year-old daughter saying she misses her mom. I couldn’t even handle a friend telling me she misses me while we were both (technically) right there.
But we will soon be able to breathe again. And when we do, I’ll gladly cycle by a friend’s house or do a Zoom quiz, knowing I won’t have to emotionally recover for the next few days.
Until then, stay home and stay safe.
Originally published on medium.