As I held my phone uncomfortably in front of my face, I looked at my grandmother sitting on her porch on the other side of the planet. She was wearing a hat and the colors of her flowered blouse seemed pale under the sun. Her sumptuous sunglasses covered her eyes. And the smile I have memorized during the million times we have skyped felt fake. It was Mother’s Day, and my mother was spending hers in Bonn with my stepfather, far away from my grandmother, who lives in Quito (Ecuador).
My grandmother asked me how I was doing. And I must have looked awful because an hour after our conversation, she was writing with my mother full of worry about my mental health. She remembered a more cheerful person behind her phone screen, but instead of voicing her concerns during our conversation, she complimented my new haircut. It has been hard keeping the communication open these days. Even harder to keep it honest. The technologies that were supposed to keep our relationships alive are failing us. As I caught a glimpse of my grandfather, aunt, uncle, and cousin who joined our skype session on that sunny day, I yearned for their presence and the closeness we used to share.
There were too many things left unsaid
Since Covid-19 was declared a global pandemic, the family has been growing apart. In the beginning, we tried to make the best of it. My brother and I attended several skype and zoom sessions during those first months and organized meetings with the rest of the extended family to support each other, at least morally. However, the disparity of our realities kept growing. There were too many things left unsaid.
The economic situation in both countries worsened, but we never talked about it. If someone lost their job or was struggling financially, I did not find out. Until now, I do not know what hardships my family in Ecuador is going through. It is not only because speaking about finances is such a taboo topic in our family, but also because I have been too afraid to ask. Those first months I was too busy keeping myself afloat, so I could not muster the strength to be as engaged in my family’s life as I would have liked.
This feeling resonated with my social network. Especially friends and co-workers with family members living abroad could relate to my feelings of despair. A growing sense of dis-attachment was born out of the need to keep one’s sanity and strength so one could keep functioning in the here and now. Especially the connection I have always had with my mother’s family kept eroding as the months passed.
Our conversations began focusing heavily on the virus
We discussed what we knew, speculated, and thought about it. It did not take long until those conversations turned dark and conflictive. For reasons I have never bothered to understand, my uncle wandered over to the side of corona-non-believers, and he has not come back since. I should have asked more questions; I knew he was struggling at work. Instead, we fought about the information we found on the internet and whether they would get vaccinated or not. The hardest part was watching how this uncle we used to admire and love kept on turning into a person I did no longer recognize.
As we talked on that Mother’s Day, they all felt so far away. My uncle, who was also wearing sunglasses, greeted me with his usual „que fue?“ (what is up?) and for a second everything was good again. The sound of his voice brought back so many good memories. My bubble burst as he hurried to pass the phone over to my aunt, without waiting to hear me answer insincerely, „I am fine.“ At that moment, I wondered if our relationship would ever be the way it used to be and if we would ever have conversations about something else but the opinions that keep us apart.
It was time to say goodbye
Once the phone had done the obligatory lap around everyone present at the gathering, my grandmother came to say a last goodbye. „My love, we have to go because the food is ready, your uncle made Paella! I am so glad he is here. We are having a wonderful day!“ As much as I wanted to believe her, I could see the dark clouds gathering in the sky behind my grandma. I wondered what was happening with my grandparents, whether my grandfather still had his health insurance, or whether my aunt was still working.
How would my cousin finance her first semester at university? Instead of a short-lived illusion of that happy skype moment, I yearned for more time. Hours and hours to listen to their troubles, the pain, and the uncomfortable truths we never talk about. But it was time to say goodbye. I waved into the camera, smiling with regret.
I have to trust that there is love on the other side of the conversation
When I look back at the feelings that overwhelmed me after that conversation, I realize that any support I could give could only arrive if all parties involved would be willing to be vulnerable and share their worries and struggles. In order to have conversations that go beyond superficial politeness, I also have to find the time and put in the effort. Honesty requires me to be open about how I am doing instead of opting for telling what I think my family wants to hear.
I have to trust that there is love on the other side of the conversation – people who care about me. Maybe they are willing to put their vulnerability on the line and are just having difficulties doing so. As of today, I do not only hope for a vaccine to end the pandemic. I hope for a path back to my family and for us to be closer again. Whether in person or through skype.
This text was written with the support of Anna Hollandt as part of the Schreibtandem project.
This article was also published in German.