I don’t know how to care for people through screens. Or at least, not well.
How do you conjure up a smile that tells the person you are talking to that you care about them? What do you do when you miss the warmth, the physical sensation of being near someone? Are you just not loving someone hard enough if a video or phone call isn’t enough?
I’ve struggled with these questions long before the isolation of the pandemic. Growing up, I was used to most of my family living across an ocean. But the fact that I was used to it didn’t stop me from feeling jealous whenever a friend had grandparents nearby — especially after my late great-grandmother, who was one of my closest friends, leaves my house to go back to own home in Moscow.
There are few, formal ways to say a final goodbye in Russian. We have до свидания, which is closer to “until our next meeting,” and “пока,” our way of saying “in a little while.” Neither feels quite right for my great-grandmother. She moves out of our home when I am nearing the end of elementary school, and then we learn to talk through screens — her daughter, my grandmother, acting as the not-so-tech-savvy middle person. My grandmother visits us every year while I am growing up, but her mother is too old to travel again. So, without being able to sit near each other, without crocheting and cooking and Russian soap operas between us, we get to know each other again through Skype.
After she leaves, on weekends, I try to wake up before noon to catch her before she falls asleep on her end of the world. But I have to admit, I often just forget to. I sleep in, or see friends, or play computer games — and feel guilty when my parents remind me to log on.
It takes my grandmother years to get WiFi, and her internet connection is weak. We call, freeze, hang up, call again, and freeze. When the internet connection holds up, we spend a lot of time sitting quietly — a quiet she doesn’t mind, that I do. “Я просто люблю смотреть на тебя,” she tells me. I just like to look at you.
I just like to look at her, and my friends, too. But I live for small moments caught off guard: snowflakes in my friends eyelashes in college during our first Boston storm, a friend’s face framed by a sweatshirt pulled tight over his ears in the early-morning cold, the focus that falls over someone’s face as they quickly respond to a text message or email. This is the spontaneity you miss when your interactions fall entirely within Zooms or FaceTimes.
“Unlike other [social] media, Skype requires much personal attention and focus for users, as people may worry about how they look. … There is a ‘grammar of Skype’ and decisions about when, whom, how and what to show, and topic management are required by those involved… A Skype call is rarely an isolated act, but part of a polymediated series of communications in which the ground is prepared for the act of being seen and seeing, often through a text message, Skype message or Facebook communication to arrange a call.”
I don’t think I’m alone in saying this is a huge reason why the past year has felt so exhausting. Yes, before the pandemic, we still needed to take the time to make plans with friends and family. We FaceTimed with those far away, and sent each other photos, and spoke on the phone. But one year into the pandemic, and I still find it eerie how similar seeing a close friend has to be to a work call. I’m still missing all of the voices I used to hear and take for granted, the events I’d show up to with a homemade cake or cookies, a serving platter that said, Look, here’s how much I care about you! The moments when a friend and I would see something ridiculously funny on the street or in a restaurant or at a party and spend minutes laughing, without saying a word. And I’m finding myself looking back longingly at the days when the weight of keeping up a relationship via video chat was reserved only for my family, and not my friends, too.
After I got my first vaccine shot, I began making plans again — and feeling the excitement that comes from knowing you’ll see someone soon. Even though the pandemic is still far from over and the stresses of life have yet to disappear, I’m heartened by the idea of a soon — of an “in a little while” that feels grounded in reality rather than in an abstract “someday.” And I hope you are, too.
As always, thank you for reading.