Dad, a retired physician, is a stoic. Once, on a skiing trip, I saw him sew up a gash in his own leg without using anything to numb the pain. I’ve rarely seen him show much emotion, and when my sisters and I were little he wouldn’t tolerate our tears, either. He was a poor, Depression-era farm child whose elders thought that hugging and comforting him would make him soft, even after his father died when he was 11. As a little kid, he had to man up. It’s fair to say his feelings have been on lockdown his entire life.
For the first few weeks of March 2020, when his complex shut out the virus-spreading outside world, Dad made the best of it, reading piles of books and phoning friends. By April he sounded less chipper. “I feel like I’m in jail,” he said, and the comparison was apt: His only human contact, once a day, occurred when someone knocked on his door to deliver lukewarm meals. I worried that isolation might affect his mental health, accelerating the confusion and cognitive limitations that come with very old age. He was particularly gloomy when he found out a group of his friends were getting together via Zoom and he didn’t know how to join in.
“What the hell is Zooming?” he asked.
My dad’s still sharp; he has a textbook memory for medical questions, even if that textbook was last updated in the ’90s. But he dislikes new technology, and neither his flip phone nor his ancient beige box of a computer had a camera. My husband and I bought a cheap laptop, loaded it with his email account, photos, Zoom and a password written in indelible ink on the keyboard, and mailed it off. After many tries, voilà! There he was on Zoom, with his crooked nose from the time a horse kicked him, and the familiar warm brown eyes. I hadn’t been sure I would see that face again, and I teared up.
“That’s all there is to it?” Dad asked. My sisters and their kids dialed in, and Dad held a smile so long I thought his computer had frozen.
We Zoom at least weekly. I discovered that Dad, who can get antsy after a few minutes when he sees us in person, is calmer on video, less distracted and fidgety. He doesn’t have to worry about entertaining us, as he does when we fly halfway across country to visit, or feel bad about getting tired when we’ve come all the way to Denver from San Francisco. Because our visit is scheduled and timed, he also doesn’t fret that we will disrupt his smooth daily routine. He can just relax. While many of us who work from home complain of constant Zoom fatigue, we take for granted how technology has helped us communicate during this pandemic. In some cases, surprisingly, it has allowed us more intimacy.
Zooming has cracked open a window into my father’s heart. When we ask him questions about his past, he responds with more detail and more emotion. He told us about the fun he had as a child going snake hunting with a .22, and the time he dammed a creek near the one-room schoolhouse he attended in rural Ohio so he could swim. He reminisced about what it was like for a farm boy to tour the Mediterranean in the Navy and about the wilderness horseback trips he took with our late mom.
While we could have looked at photos together before the pandemic, we rarely did. Now, using “share screen,” we gaze at the snapshots Dad took while he was working as a fishing guide on Yellowstone Lake, and as a relief doctor for the Havasupai people who live near the Grand Canyon. The photos release memories. They take him to the wild places he used to explore on foot. One night I lingered on photos of Mom, his fellow adventurer for 60 years of marriage, gone for nearly 10 years now. “I miss her every day,” he said — something we knew, but he rarely expressed.
I shared a photo of my sister Jan, who died four years ago. She appears as a pig-tailed blond toddler, bouncing on a trampoline with a fierce expression on her face. “That’s my favorite picture of Janny,” Dad said. “She was just so full of joy and energy.” Something he never told her during her lifetime.
Over one video call, we looked at photos a cousin had sent, including one of a mysterious tombstone. “That was my younger brother, who died as a baby,” Dad told us. This was the first I’d heard that he had a baby brother who died. I asked him why he hadn’t shared that before.
“We never talked about it because there was nothing you could do about it.” He considered that. “I suppose these days there would be a big reaction.” He recalled that his grandfather had died around the same time. “It made me sad, but I couldn’t understand why I was sad,” he said. He shook his head, clearing the mist.
What I thought would be a stopgap type of communication to help Dad during the pandemic has changed the way we relate to each other. His new skill with video calls will help us stay close even after the pandemic, since I live 1,000 miles away and one of my sisters is a two-hour drive distant.
A few weeks ago, over Zoom, Dad was able to see his great-granddaughter for the first time. He was delighted to learn that my nephew and his wife have named her after my mother, Virginia. “I just can’t wait to hug her,” he says. His mood has lifted. He laughs as little Ginny burbles and coos. He does something else that’s new for him. Before he signs off, he tells us he loves us.