In the lonely glow of her computer, Lorrie Moore’s protagonist FaceTimes her father, who is quarantined in a hospital after contracting the COVID-19 virus following hip surgery. She explains to him the circumstances of the pandemic and names the celebrities and political personages who have tested positive for the virus. Befuddled by hydroxychloroquine, her father passes in and out of hallucination and lucid conversation but jokes when he can despite the side-effects of the “bullshit malaria drugs.” The counterpoint to her sadness for her father is revulsion for the “ghastly” new rituals and habits of indefinite quarantine—the performative antics of Zoom concerts, YouTube binges, bizarre insurance commercials, Bible readings, and social distancing. She is appalled, too, by “well-to-do white families in large suburban homes” that claim “the pandemic for themselves,” families that sanitize grocery bags and order from Amazon and Grubhub. Intermingled with the numbing ennui of quarantine is disgust for the consumerism that thoughtlessly implicates human life, the front-line workers who make these convenient services possible. The protagonist and her sisters coax the hospital staff to comfort their father, play his requested Brahms symphony (any one of the four will do), and give him lemonade, but the “visored hazmatted nurses dressed like beekeepers” are overwhelmed and appear unapproachable, even threatening.

These FaceTime calls become increasingly bewildering to the father. The protagonist’s sister invites her to join a disjointed three-way FaceTime, but the call is interrupted by one of the father’s hydroxychloroquine-induced hallucinations. With “a howl of anguish” and “grimace with agony and sorrow,” he utters German expressions recalled from his war days. The protagonist realizes that her father is “imagining he was a prisoner of war; that was what it must have felt to him—the cruel isolation, the medicine, the lights, the strange machines all around him.” Like the ebbing signal of a satellite in some faraway orbit, contact with her father grows tenuous. For the next FaceTime call, a nurse says her father is asleep. The following day, she waits again for a scheduled FaceTime chat. She phones the hospital to inquire about her father’s missed call but is put on hold, then disconnected. Later, at midnight, the hospital calls to inform her that her father has died.


Moore’s story describes the unsettling circumstances of socially distanced bedside visitation and communication with sick loved ones during the COVID-19 pandemic. That bedside visits in hospitals are rendered impossible due to quarantine protocols and the risk of infection leads Moore to ask, what is lost when visitation and communication are reduced to mere virtual interactions (FaceTime calls and Zoom meetings)? How does our sense-making of illness change when suffering is not experienced as a proximate and physical presence but as a projection on a screen? Bedside visitations can be meaningful haptic experiences. We might feel compelled to reach out, touch, and hold the hand of a loved one—to be pulled into the orbit of their suffering, even if we cannot understand it. When hospital visits become remote aural and visual experiences, the capacity of non-verbal communication (i.e., the touch) can no longer bring the singular comfort it provides. To some degree, Moore’s story unsettles medical worker hagiography popularized by national news and social media. Nurses, for example, are characterized as faceless beekeepers (much can be said of this larger apiary-hospital parallel), “their voices the high, chipper kind that children and the elderly are supposed to prefer.” The protagonist and her sister even order a pizza for the hospital staff, a kind of offering for more attentive care. At the end of one FaceTime call, the nurse gives a cheery “Goodnight,” but the protagonist muses that she is only “performing the role of saintly nurse,” that “her loving-kindness would vanish as soon as the iPad went dark, and her demeanor would reveal an eagerness to be rid of this covid-ic old guy with his bedsore and immobile hip, his catheter and oxygen tubing.” Perhaps Moore's character is not casting doubt on the nursing staff at all. It is more likely the case that this cynicism is somewhat inescapable when one’s suffering and grief are circumscribed to virtual space, when one’s sense of ephemerality is heightened because human connectedness is experienced only as long as technology sustains it. The glow of computer and smartphone screens, the cool solicitude of hospital staff, the isolation of quarantine—these are the severe contours of Moore’s COVID-19 world.


Published in The New Yorker


Condé Nast

Place Published

New York


September 21, 2020