Yesterday I got an email from my mom, subject line: “Sad.” The first line was, “I should never, ever, ever try to do this kind of project on a computer.”
Here’s the thing about Annie: she’s the most ebullient and stalwartly cheerful person in my life. Of course, she’s my mother, so we’ve had our moments, and she’s as deeply flawed as any of us. But Mom wears her optimism like a neon yellow pinny in a touch football game. When she gets angry, she rages around exactly as somebody in a Broadway musical would storm around on the stage. She is so rarely morose that her email about trying (and failing) to set up an online account for something or other alarmed me. I called her and her wife answered the phone: “Thank God you called, she is refusing to eat the tilapia with romesco sauce I made for her dinner.”
My stepmom carried the phone up to the room where Annie had taken to her bed.
“Jessie’s on the phone — you should talk to her,” she said.
I didn’t hear the other end of the conversation but it seems Mom hid her head under the covers and made some muffled grunts and head-shakes under there to indicate that she didn’t want to talk to me.
“Well!” huffed my stepmother, who is 81 and five years older than my mom. She was at the end of her rope. “I’ll leave the phone here so you can talk to Jessie when you’ve remembered how old you are.”
I did talk to mom later — I called three times before she picked up. Within five minutes she was laughing and joking. I set up the account she needed from my computer and by the time it was all over, she seemed normal.
I have written here before about The Hologram — that smokey, spinning, iridescent vessel we project in front of our faces, to entertain and beguile and make the world run more smoothly for us and to convince others that there’s nothing to see here, folks! Some people might call this hologram “personality,” but whatever you call the part of yourself you show to the world, its beauty hinges on the fact that, no matter how your hologram runs its little Wizard of Oz routine, you can do whatever you want behind its curtain. No matter how tangible and sturdy your hologram appears, no matter how authentic you strive to make it, at least part of it is that ole razzle dazzle. But in order to accomplish what this 21st century life requires of you — the dentist appointments, the online accounts and their passwords, the desperate, impossible longings — you require a hologram to get it done.
I’ve always considered my mom’s hologram to be the Titanic of holograms — unsinkable in all but the roughest, most iceberg-encumbered waters. Mom and I have been through some unpleasant shit together, and though I’ve seen her hologram flicker a bit, I’ve never even heard of it blacking out the way it did yesterday —and over something that is, on the surface, so small. Her wife told me that in the 20 years of watching Annie create online accounts and do taxes and fill out Social Security paperwork, she had never seen it either.
My therapist keeps telling me that we’re all grieving right now — that I should try to have patience, to expect shifts that seem cataclysmic, but are just part of Life doing its job. We’re all grieving together — whether it’s the luxury of hugging loved ones or sitting in a restaurant, or maybe you have lost a job or reliable childcare or people you love or just the ignorance of your complicity in deeply unfair social systems. We’re all struggling. I don’t know specifically what Mom’s internal struggles are, but they’re as real as mine. Seeing her with that hologram down, though — it spooked me.
How do we do this, then? And by “this,” I mean proceed, given that the wiring behind this strong, glimmering, indisputable mirage of personality is at least partially exposed in all of us.
I guess it probably depends on what it means to proceed. Is it trying every day to win at something? Is it living life in the easiest, most frictionless way? Not everybody’s going to make it through this deadly pandemic, this meteoric culture war, this election year. But if you’re like me or my mom, you probably will. But what will be lost at the end of it, when the end of it finally comes?
Maybe it’s something we didn’t really need anyway.