“Don’t worry about me,” my mother says when I bring her some groceries. “I have a Ph.D. in loneliness.”

We choreograph our movements so as to keep our distance. I take care not to touch anything she might touch, much less touch her. As the severity and scale of the coronavirus pandemic have become clear in recent weeks, she has had no physical human contact whatsoever. This could go on for months.

My mom puts the groceries away and we sit down to talk on her patio, keeping our chairs far apart. She didn’t think much of my previous column, in which I argued that we need to balance the public-health risks of pandemic against the risks of a global depression.

“I don’t remember your degree being in medicine or epidemiology,” she observes.

I try to cheer my mom with optimistic forecasts from more authoritative sources. Michael Levitt, a Nobel laureate in chemistry at Stanford University, accurately predicted the declining rate of increasing coronavirus cases in China based on available data, and now predicts that the pandemic will end sooner than most people expect. “We’ll see,” she says. Another Stanford professor, John P.A. Ioannidis, has suggested the ultimate case-fatality rate from COVID-19 might be around 0.3%, much lower than most estimates.

“Have you seen what’s happening in Italy?” she replies. The fatality rate there appears to be just north of 10% — as of Friday, 9,134 dead out of 86,498 confirmed cases. My mother was born in Milan (or, as she would correct me, Mi-LA-no), and she takes her native city’s suffering especially to heart. When I point out that one likely reason why Italy has been so hard hit is that it is much more densely populated than the U.S. and has one of the world’s oldest populations, she asks tartly, “And how is that supposed to comfort me?”

I think of my mom as a stoical pessimist. She considers herself a highly experienced realist. She knows that calamities happen in the lives of people as well as nations — and that they happen far more quickly, unexpectedly and irreversibly than most members of my generation have either known or been led to expect.

She has been widowed twice, first at 26 and again at 71. Her mother fled Moscow and the Bolsheviks shortly after the October Revolution of 1917 and Berlin and the Nazis sometime after the Reichstag fire of 1933. She remembers the Allied bombings of Milano, which obliterated much of the city. She remembers the poverty after the war, and the time she sneaked into a vineyard to liberate some grapes. She remembers the prejudice, when a grocer told her mother to “go back to where you came from.”

When I see her, she recalls a memory from around the time she was 3, when a young nun abruptly pulled her under her habit. By then the Nazis had effectively taken control of northern Italy. “She must have smelled that I was Jewish,” she surmises, without knowing for sure what had induced the nun to hide her. “Well, not smelled. Sensed. Maybe that’s why I’ve always been fond of the Catholic Church.”

The conversation returns to the coronavirus pandemic. “You’re not taking this seriously enough,” she says. “I do take it seriously,” I reply. “I just don’t think we should panic.” She gives me the kind of look I used to get over some doubtful assurance that I’d done all of my homework.

It doesn’t help my case that Donald Trump, who talks about not letting the cure be worse than the disease, is sounding a lot like my column from last week. My mom will sometimes concede that the president possesses a kind of reptilian political genius. Otherwise, she sees him as embodying everything that’s gone wrong in the United States since she arrived as a refugee in 1950: the triumph of coarseness; the nonstop dishonesty; the dangerous indifference to basic concepts of right and wrong. (She detested Bill Clinton for similar reasons, but not like she detests this guy.)

My mom may fear the coronavirus, but I suspect she isn’t entirely averse to the idea of a sudden sharp downturn, even if it hits her financially too. For years she’s said that America could benefit from what she calls “a nonfatal catastrophe.” She doesn’t mean this callously or altogether seriously. She just thinks America needs some blunt but bloodless lesson to help us distinguish between the things that matter and those that don’t — the sort of lesson she’d had long before I came around.

So I sit on my mom’s patio and listen. Not out of filial deference or compassion, but because deep down I know there’s usually more wisdom in my mother’s instincts and perceptions than there are in my clever (or not-so-clever) concatenations of facts, concepts and hypotheticals. And while I can’t hug her, I can at least try to honor her by paying close attention — as we should all of our elderly loved ones, now so vulnerable, never more precious.