What it is like to be entirely alone during the Covid-19 pandemic
No, everything is not OK; three months into my mother’s hospitalization
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
When the Covid-19 lockdowns hit North America and Canada a year ago this weekend, it did not affect me much. Living in Montreal, Quebec, except for the difficulty in buying groceries and essentials such as paper towels and soaps, the social aspects had nothing to do with my life. I was never a very social person; I did not go out partying, concerts, or sporting events. I am a writer; it’s an introvert’s life. I prefer buying a movie or music over the expense and crowds. As someone with dietary restrictions, I am allergic to gluten, restaurants are more difficult to navigate, and I do not deem them essential to my existence. It was scary watching as people, especially the elderly and most vulnerable being the pandemic’s sacrificial lambs. I was most worried about keeping the virus away from my home and my elderly mother.
What was worse than the pandemic hitting was my landlord, an elderly rabbi no less. He invaded our lives, as I wrote about previously. He took a small leak in a bathroom, made it into a case, called the police and firefighters, and looked for $6000 compensation. Why because I was looking to protect my mother from the outside Covid world. He made war on us, took away the only help we had because he was also an employee at his synagogue. No longer would we have the help picking up groceries or household chores such as bringing down the garbage from our second-floor walk-up home.
The aggravation took a toll on my mother, who has long suffered a heart condition and has been blind for nearly two years. She was no longer her active self, fearing the landlord would take away her home for what was a small leak. We lived with far worst inconveniences in the years we lived in the house. Then she fell, became more sedentary, and injured herself. Even when my mother went to the hospital, the landlord decided he would choose and called the police because my mother screamed. She could not even decide to go to her regular hospital, The Jewish General Hospital. Instead, the ambulance took her far from home to an all-French hospital where it has been almost impossible to communicate and navigate.
Then the world of Covid-19 hit us and me terribly. We never had any family or close friends. My father died when I was sixteen; he was only 54 years old. This week on St. Patrick’s Day twenty-five years ago, he went to the hospital, and he never came home again. He was diagnosed with bone cancer and died on June 1, barely two and half months later. It was always just us me, my mother and father, and our pet dog of the time, as we said against the world. My father had one cousin who always looked down on him. Most of my mother’s family were in Philadelphia and, through the years, drifted away. Neither was the Montreal Jewish community welcoming to us; we were not the wealthy donors or could afford the membership and attend the modern Orthodox synagogue each week. We could not keep up as they say.
Although there was some rallying after my father died, those things never last long. Because these people are never close, they go on to the next project. Even the rabbi, who promised my father on his death bed to watch out for us, drifted away. My father’s cousin reappeared in our lives, but I understand why my father was not close to her. Sitting in our home a half-hour after my father was buried, she told me my father killed her father-in-law… why because he canceled an insurance policy with his company because it was double the going rate for the house. Oh, the compassion, telling that to a sixteen-year-old, who just saw her father buried, knowing he will never be there at her high school graduation, see her go to university and graduate, and go through all of life’s big moments.
After my father died, it was just me and my mother; best friends, we joked we were like the Gilmore Girls way before the show aired. Life goes on, as I learned, but the people do not come with you. People only stay around as long as you behave and act on their terms, whether you can or not. If you cannot, there is no reasoning to the other party; you are just cut off. I do not even do what I want to do, how I comply with others' wants and wishes? I am in the same situation now that my mother in the hospital. This week it will be three months she is there, and I finally understand what it is like to be all alone during the pandemic.
The past three months my mother has been in hospital have been in one word, hell. It has been a constant war with the hospital. The French hospital is not a place for a Jewish Anglophone; antisemitism has been a problem. In that time, I fought each moment to speak with my mother, to have a say over her treatment. Nurses coldly told me I could not talk to my mother. I was told I was only allowed three calls a day, although each time someone entered my mother’s room, they disconnected her phone.
Since my mother is blind, she could not see to place the receiver back or redial without help. They would not help her. I spent a month and a half fighting with the medical staff to stop giving my mother Dilaudid, an opioid painkiller. My mother had all the terrible side effects, the delirium, the constant drowsiness and sleepiness, and the psychological effects. On the phone, my mother would scream at me, barely knowing who I was, telling me to leave her alone and then hang up on me. I was left in tears, I knew it was the drug, but still, it hurt so much.
My mother went in, and they discovered she had an infection from a wound relating to her fall. She had a heart attack from the aggravation the day she went to the hospital. The emergency room doctor frankly and coldly told me my mother might not make it. Two weeks later, she contracted Covid-19 from the hospital staff. They moved her on my birthday; it took them twelve hours to tell me that they moved her in the evening after they cut off the phone from us for the night. It took another two hours after I called in the morning to find out they did move her to the Covid floor.
I spent the next ten days in fear, fear that my mother would die, and fear that I would be all alone in the world. The hospital did not make it any better. The staff would not let me talk to my mother, saying there is a three-call rule. At 9 pm, on the second night, I was literally crying and begging that they would reconnect me to my mother. They didn’t care; they repeatedly told me they would not let me speak to my mother and hung down on me. To wait for twelve hours to call again when someone has Covid is a lifetime, especially when the elderly, sick, and frail. Then, one nurse had the nerve to tell me at 9 am on the third day of my mother’s Covid diagnosis that I could not call her for a full day. During the pandemic, we have been calling hospital staff, nurses, and doctors angels. I say selfish devils is more like it. Most enjoy the praise of working in health care rather than helping the patients or the families; if not, they would not be so cruel.
My mother survived Covid, but the hospital stay has been full of abuse, mistreatment, and trickery. The doctors prescribed my mother medication without telling her, even ones she refused. The nurses were hiding the pills they were giving her in apple sauce and food and lying about what they were giving her. The orderlies beat my mother up when they were supposed to be helping her, which happens quite often. It is the type of abuse you hear about in news stories and are appalled it is happening. When I tried to get the local media to report what my mother was going through, they never wanted to. Still, lesser stories from listeners and viewers make the airwaves.
For the past month, the doctors are using an X-ray from the time my mother was in the emergency two months before claiming it might be bone cancer. Even though I repeatedly asked at the start if my mother had cancer and they emphatically said no. The doctors wavered depending on who was on duty. Among those that implied my mother might have cancer, they have been cruel and uncaring when they talked with me, not understanding that if my mother died, my whole world would die. They justified not telling us, claiming my mother would have refused treatment because she does not want to take the tests now.
However, doctors’ responsibility was to tell the patient and family everything to allow them to make a decision. It was as if they were waiting for her to die, not to have to treat her or make up sicknesses for expensive tests. The doctors and medical team have been a constant contradiction. Almost every day, they think of something new, whether a new ailment, test, or surgery, to even wanting my mother to go to a rehabilitation center. There has been no consistency but constant upheaval and heartache with no consideration for my mother and me.
Throughout the pandemic, we have heard all this hype and the slogans “we are in this together, never alone, alone together,” and “we are in this together, never alone.” Canadian celebrities, including Justin Bieber, sung “Lean on Me” in a charitable single at the height of the first lockdown. I have personally discovered, for the most part, these are meaningless sentences meant to look good, but the reality is different. When my mother first went to the hospital, and I could not go with her as I always had, the feeling of being alone was overwhelming, so much so that police social workers were worried about me.
In Montreal, Federation CJA mounted an extensive fundraising campaign to support the community financially and mentally through the pandemic, with helplines and huge slogans. But with my mother in the hospital, I was told by one gatekeeper that if I needed any emotional support, I would not get it from them. I should go to the local CLSC, a government-run clinic system in Quebec. Can you imagine how one feels like when your community, where you were born, grew up your whole life, went through the Jewish day schools only to be told you do not belong enough to get the support everyone else has a right to.
Unfortunately, they are not the only ones that made me feel more alone at one of the most difficult, if not most challenging, times of my life. At the start, I called in pain for help, for anybody to be there for me, from my social network on Facebook to the online Facebook group Montreal Helping Montrealers. I am not well myself. The gluten allergy is Celiac Disease; three years ago, I had been hospitalized and paralyzed. I later discovered it was because of the gluten allergy I nearly died. I am still not strong; I do not drive, my reflexes never good enough, to begin with, and living on a second floor is hell. I have no one to help me with any heavy lifting or work in the house. I have nightmares bringing down the garbage or when Amazon leaves a package of essentials I bought outside my door because I tripped more times than imaginable on those steep stairs. I do not know anyone personally as alone as me. Everyone I know has someone, parents, siblings, spouse, in-laws, children, close friends, me, no one. No one understands that.
Among my peers I knew from school, they gathered around at the start like I was a shiny new toy or project. Still, I again learned if you cannot be what others want and do what they wish to, even in your most trying time, and they cancel you from their lives.
There was a friend I had since Cegep, junior college, who had been helping me and my mother; she was there for me for three days until I said I was too sick to go to the door. She sent her son to bring me a meal. I was in physical pain and on the phone speaking to the doctor and nurses about my mother. I was in the middle of talking to a psychologist recommended by the police social workers because of everything I was going through and thought she was coming later in the afternoon after her work. I am sorry, the call first etiquette applies, especially with the craziness I was living with those early few days.
Instead of understanding my situation, she decided to fight with me. At the same time, her husband screamed profanities because her rabbi told her she should not bother with me because I was not a synagogue member. She had already been hinting I do not have anything to do with my mother in the hospital. I can do everything myself, including walking to the grocery store to buy my own food. She ended up unfriending me on Facebook; I have not heard from her since. She always ranted and raved about how nice and helpful she is to others. If she really would have been, she never would have dumped me as a friend at such a time.
There is another former friend, and I knew her since we were five. I asked her for help with a ride. She said she could not drive me because of Covid. All I did was point out her son’s bar mitzvah bake sale was the same risk, and I offered $50 towards his project in exchange for the ride. The other friend so influenced her; she decided that was enough to unfriend me on Facebook. However, every time she moves, she expects everyone on her list to worship her.
There was the big shot community Modern Orthodox rabbi, who had already caused me disagreement with someone in my life years ago. He decided to ignore my mother when she called earlier before going to the hospital and had everyone from the synagogue not speak to me. Why supposedly? I did not want to accept a handout early in the pandemic; I called him too early after my mother went to the hospital. I was not good or religious enough because I was not a member of the synagogue. Is that really how a rabbi behaves to anyone in a community? Should someone, who behaves like deserve to be called rabbi? To add to everything, he badmouthed me to others and is the real reason I now lost three friends.
There was the ultra-Orthodox rabbi, who someone recommended was so nice and understanding. He turned out to be a misogynist who took advantage of me after my mother went to the hospital. He literally molested me and broke my ribs, touching, hugging, and suffocating me; I could not even move. For two weeks, I was in excruciating pain on top of suffering the psychological tolls of my mother’s hospitalization. Then I did not hear from him for weeks.
There was the big shot at a Federation CJA; she helped me once after I literally begged her because I had no way to get me groceries early on but refused me the psycho-social support given to anyone during the pandemic, never mind my emergency. But she spent all the time before and even now as a gatekeeper blocking me from getting a job within the Jewish community, which is all I am trained to do. As she once said, I will never get out of my situation, not with people like her blocking me from my profession.
I am a librarian, but I am primarily a writer; I spent my life writing about American and Jewish history, mostly not getting paid. I wanted to continue my graduate work, but money cut me short; I had a 3.97 GPA, but I could not keep paying tuition. For years, McGill University’s huge loan kept me from getting my transcripts to apply for anything else. I have had success in views and influence and have been quoted in some prominent publications. However, without a doctorate, one can never be taken seriously for academic writing. It was my and my mother’s dream for me to go for one; I intended to apply this admission cycle. It was my dream, my goal, and now it too is shattered. Practically, I need a teaching degree; I had been accepted twice from McGill for their program. Federation CJA pays tuition for their workers to obtain graduate degrees in Jewish communal studies, but why help anyone else dedicated to Jewish life and continuity, and who does not belong to their exclusive club?
There was the landlord, who had no problem ruining my mother’s life before she went to the hospital over a toilet leak. Afterward, he would not fix anything I asked him to in the house, including the blocked sink in my mother’s bathroom. He decided to slink off to Florida and not tell me for weeks.
There were the guys I met through online dating that I thought were friends, who wanted to help me during this difficult time. One was almost as old as my mother. He decided to stop talking to me on the phone because I spent too much time speaking to my mother and asking for advice about her hospitalization on Facebook. That is why to abandon someone, yet; he spent all his time complaining about how others treated him unfairly. But when someone has not spoken to their sisters for years, it is a red flag.
There is another guy, who I, twice before, stopped talking to; I guess I had been right. I thought he was a good friend, but he told me he has expectations in relationships and needs. I was not talking and video chatting with him enough. Why again, I was speaking to my mother on the phone. He always complained women did not treat him fairly because of his weight and his mental health problems. I was friendly and non-judgmental to him; I thought he was a friend who I could call in need. He made up he was so in awe of me, including me in his future and all the lines about my beauty. Instead, he made a dramatic breakup for a non-existent relationship. He has not even asked me I was OK for weeks after I told him my mother might have cancer. I can say women do not treat him like they do because of his appearance, only how he treats others. Some men are creeps; let him enjoy being alone and the loneliness he complained so much about. My mother was right; men do not like mothers.
There was the former mentor, who knows me for more than half my life. Who knows how alone I am. He says I wronged him, the #MeToo movement would say the reverse; still, I have apologized profusely because I needed someone, and he always used to be there. After my father died he as close as an adopted father figure to me. I called him the night my mother went to the hospital, all he could tell me was it was inappropriate to call. He spends a lot of time acting superior because of his Judaism affiliation and claiming nobody in the community is alone. However, his actions with me when he knows all my secrets and how truly alone I am. Even though he lost his mother in the past year, he will not talk to me. His behavior towards me is not exactly Jew of the year material; I believe in practicing what one preaches.
There was the psychologist the CLSC appointed me; I speak to him because I am afraid not to. Has he helped me, no? Every bit of advice I ask him, he does not know. I have practical problems; I need real-world help. After years of going for a doctorate in clinical psychology, I believe he should at least know what one could say to get someone else to accept an apology. No, the psychologist has the same philosophy as Ariana Grande; thank you, next, I could have just listened to her album. That is the easy answer, not the helpful one.
There was my father’s cousin, who is still being as mean as ever. I called her when my mother went to the hospital; she found a way to blame my mother and me. She told me what can she do; she is in her eighties, well, her daughter is not, and neither are her grandsons; they could have been a help to me. I know them since they were small children, but nothing.
There was my mother’s friend, the one she knew since kindergarten. My grandmother gave her my mother’s old clothes as a child; her family was that in need. Now she never even called me back to ask how my mother was doing when I told her she had Covid.
Then there were most of my peers from elementary and high school who called or messaged me once or twice on Facebook the first week or two; my mother was in the hospital and now does not. They live in their picture-perfect world they created like a full-on Monet; “It’s like a painting, see. From far away it’s okay, but up close it’s a big ol’ mess,” perfect from afar messy up close because no one has perfect lives only on social media. My generation knows Clueless and should get it. They think time marches on, and everything is all right, but it is not. Where are they all? I still need them.
I will give credit to some people who have been there, but it’s limited. A friend from elementary and high school has been a rock; he is a psychiatrist and can understand what I am going through. Another friend from high school has helped all-the-way through with the problems with my landlord. Another I knew from high school really helped me at the start; she cooked me meals and was there when I needed help. I met a new friend on Facebook; she is always there to message and gives me advice on hospital relations. A relatively new friend who has helped me shop for groceries when I need them and those to send to my mother at the hospital.
The two social workers at the hospital have been the best people there; they have been the only ones that intervened and advocated for my mother. There are a few nurses and staff that have been nice to my mother and understanding. Primarily, there has been the New York Congregation that I joined as a non-resident member, whose rabbi I called when I thought my mother would die that first week. They are all so welcoming; I do not think I could survive without being involved in their new virtual community. All year their live-streamed services had been a source of comfort, and now they are more than ever.
Still, everything is worst; I am in limbo about my mother’s health; I spend all my time 24/7 on the phone with her, in between fighting for her to the nurses. I have barely worked or even breathed the past three months. I have been praised for my sacrifice, but I know it might be just as much for me as it is for her. As long as I have her on the phone, she is still at home in a way. Last week when the doctors insisted on cancer and a biopsy, I broke down crying, scared at how alone I am and how totally alone I would be without my mother. I thought my mother was sleeping, but she heard me and was scared for me. That’s what happens when you are alone, and no one cares.
The hospital social worker told me the one truth we do not hear much, “people are naturally selfish,” and they are. When it’s good for them, they help when it’s convenient for them, when it makes them look and feel good. I often wonder where are those people in the stories you hear about in the news, where they rally around and help in every way possible, and the celebrities and strangers that lend a hand and make sure everything will be OK and all one’s dreams can still come true. As the social worker said, she wishes she had someone to call at midnight when she needs a friend, and she does not have it. That is exactly what I need the most; without any person, I can count, no matter what, I am truly alone.
Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS, is a journalist, librarian, and historian. She is the author of Silver Boom! The Rise and Decline of Leadville, Colorado as the United States Silver Capital, 1860–1896. She has a BA in History and Art History, and a Masters in Library and Information Studies both from McGill University has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program, her thesis was entitled, “Unconditional Loyalty to the Cause: Southern Whiteness, Jewish Women, and Antisemitism, 1860–1913.”
Ms. Goodman contributed the overviews and chronologies to the “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789–2008,” edited by Gil Troy, Arthur M. Schlesinger, and Fred L. Israel (2012). She is the former Features Editor at the History News Network and reporter at Examiner.com, where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. Her scholarly articles can be found on Academia.edu. She has over a dozen years of experience in education and political journalism.
(Disclaimer: I have not used any names, if anybody thinks they were ambiguously mentioned, it is because they recognize their actions; however, no one else would.)