Skoog: All I could do was contemplate illness. Then the outbreak hit.

by Caroline Skoog

My mom delivered the news of her diagnosis via text two weeks before Christmas 2019. Breast cancer in both breasts. At that point, the severity of her case was uncertain, and her treatment plan wasn’t settled until mid-January due to limited appointment scheduling around the holidays. I was emotional, to put it mildly, but fortunately I’d be home, in Virginia, in a few days for winter break.

She underwent a double mastectomy on the first day of spring semester and had a second, unexpected surgery hours later to stop her internal bleeding. These updates trickled into my voicemail as my family navigated the unpredictable circumstances from thousands of miles away. 

My mom started chemotherapy in February, and my brain has since downgraded from broadband speed to dial-up. Everything from going to class to cooking dinner felt like paddling through syrup. Despite thoroughly researching the treatment process, emotionally preparing myself to be away during this time and speaking with my family on a regular basis, the looming state of my mom’s health still permeated all of my thoughts. If I wasn’t thinking explicitly about her, I was mulling over human fragility and mortality.

So I pulled back from everything a bit. I stopped writing columns for the Daily, dropped an elective and leaned on the University’s resources to keep myself from capsizing. Retreating from my day-to-day routine allowed me to reflect without feeling guilty about falling behind or underperforming in school and work. 

A few weeks into my personal pause, the world paused too. COVID-19 has presented how remarkably fragile our bodies and networks are on a silver platter. We’re united in anxiety. Many of us are worried about our parents, grandparents and immunocompromised loved ones. In a way, all our moms are sick. 

I last saw my mom March 11 — before the paradigm shift. Suddenly my mom is battling more than cancer, and every headline gives me a stomach ache. The New York Times published an article this week titled “Patient Has Virus and Serious Cancer. Should Doctors Withhold Ventilator?” 

Given that traveling poses an increased risk, I don’t know the next time I’ll see her. Illness warps distance in such a way that renders the most advanced communication technology meaningless. And as most of the structures we use to coordinate our lives are in serious troubleshoot mode, self-regulating poses its own private uphill battle. 

I really wanted to present my experience of being away from an immunocompromised loved one at this time and tie it together with some meaningful ribbon, but that’s just it: I can’t find the ribbon. At least, not right now. I feel like I’m negotiating between guilt and having no control over the matter.