cw: death, COVID, ableism, grief, vomit, fire, medical, panic attack
It was a Sunday one year ago when my dad called me. We aren’t especially close so I thought it was just his occasional check in with me, which to be fair had become a bit more frequent with the pandemic. He was doing that thing where I could sense that he’s stressed but trying to sound calm. He told me my abuela (my mom’s mom, his former mother in law but more of a mom to him than his own) had just been taken to the hospital from the nursing home she lived at. The pandemic had affected people around me for months at that point, the connections getting closer to me all the time—it was finally here, it had gotten to my family.
“Is it COVID?” I asked.
“They don’t know.” He paused. “But I think so, a few other people in her wing have tested postitive.”
“Can I talk to her?” I hadn’t talked to her since a brief Mothers Day call and I suddenly felt the guilt heavy on my heart.
“She’s on a ventilator,” he said. I didn’t need to ask my other question which was about whether the other infected people had recovered.
I got off the phone and told Ian what was going on and just really stewed in it a bit. I slept badly over the next few days and five days later, on Friday, I was in the middle of a pilates class when my phone rang. I figured I’d check it after class but then it rang again immediately after and I saw it was my dad so I answered.
“She’s gone,” he said, not trying to sound together this time. “The COVID test came back positive.”
“She’s gone?” I felt the tears in my eyes, in my throat.
“They let us see her through the glass before the end.” I could hear him swallow his sob. “I wish I hadn’t, it was horrible. I don’t want to remember her like that, I’m so glad you didn’t see her.”
I agreed and nodded even though he couldn’t see me. I think we said I love yous and hung up. I was still sitting on my mat, class was still going on; my teacher’s voice swam towards me. In the automatic way you do things in grief, I calmly turned towards my laptop and typed a private message to the teacher and the friend I was taking the class with to let them know I had to leave because I had just found out my abuela had died. I closed Zoom and my laptop and broke down. I wasn’t sure if I was having a panic attack but I could feel my grief spreading from the pit of my stomach to every other point in my body. I laid in child’s pose which tends to calm me down when I’m upset but I just found myself overcome, crying so hard that I thought I would die. For a split second, I did want to die because I didn’t want to feel this shock, this pain anymore. Somehow I didn’t though—somehow I got up and walked to my bedroom.
Ian was taking a nap during my class and I had a moment where I felt bad for waking him up but I knew he wouldn’t have wanted me to wait. I touched his leg at the foot of our bed and he jolted up. I felt so bad for startling him.
“My abuela died.”
I broke down in an even deeper sob as I crawled into his arms. He held me for what felt like hours but I know wasn’t that long. He followed me into the bathroom as I threw up in the toilet and held my hair back. He sat with me as Ativan dissolved under my tongue and I let our boss know what had happened, that we would both be taking our allotted week of bereavement leave. I posted about what happened so I didn’t have to let a bunch of separate friends know. Ian fielded our concerned family’s and friends’ messages. He helped peel off the compression leggings and sporta bra I was still wearing and put on pajamas. He gave me an indica edible, ordered us dinner, held me, built a little cocoon around me as I rode the shock out.
My grandparents had paid for their funerals and burial decades before they actually died so all of this went into effect for my abuela. My dad and stepmom were the only ones allowed to attend because of COVID restrictions. I couldn’t go because of my high risk health status, I couldn’t risk it when we weren’t even sure how my body would react to the virus. In a not completely thought through move, my dad texted me photos of the service including a photo of my abuela in her open casket. She was wearing a mask because of COVID infection risks to others and it’s surreal. I think about how much she would have hated this, knowing her fear of being suffocated or drowned. I thanked my dad even though I wasn’t entirely sure what I was thankful for. Now and then, I would look at the photos to feel like I was there, to try and feel the thing that happens to you at funerals where you absorb the finality of the loss—the body is just that: a body. Not the person you love.
I watched Midsommar last week and was struck by how exactly it captured grief in both COVID and non-COVID contexts. I’m almost 35 and my immediate family except for my dad is gone. I’ve been doing grief early and a lot. I have known it was coming and I have been taken aback by the shock of a loss. No matter the situation, there’s a mark that everyone who has suffered this kind of irreversible loss carries; we can almost see it flicker in recognition in a person’s eyes when they also speak the shorthand of this kind of grief. Watching Dani (Florence Pugh) break down hit a familiar spot for me in the grieving experiences I’ve had in general but watching the people around her become exhausted and impatient by her grief has new meaning in the time of COVID.
Toronto was somewhat open last summer when my abuela died which meant people I knew were taking advantage of this after a winter and spring lockdown. Cases were down but beginning to creep up so it made sense to enjoy being outside when you could. Bars and restaurants were open too though and the same people who a few months before were urging others to stay home were suddenly out partying. I saw friends all over social media acting like there wasn’t a pandemic and it felt like my brain was melting. I thought about how some unknown carrier brought the virus into my abuela’s nursing home and ended up killing her and 15 other residents. I thought about how I never got to say goodbye or even just that I loved her. I watched people I knew at bars and doing drugs in the middle of a pandemic and I felt a rage I had never experienced before—my tears were white hot.
I wanted to scream at people but I also felt so aware of my tenuous connections to others during this time. Everyone was at a distance and but I felt it doubly so being immunosuppressed. I watched people I knew hanging out in the world and I was terrified to make someone mad or upset, to lose even one link to others. I’m not proud of this. I hate that my fear of confrontation, my fear of being forgotten by others because of the limitations of my chronic illness, made me not tell people in my life that what they were doing hurt me, that I felt it was careless and selfish. I knew we were all just trying to survive a pandemic but some people, many people, were also trying to navigate being higher risk to a virus with no vaccine or cure while also dealing with an incomplete grief about what and who we have lost as a result of COVID.
I see now that I was trying to downplay my illness and grief, I was trying to be ok enough for the people in my life. Some of them didn’t need or ask that from me but others did in subtle and later explicit ways. I’m Dani at a party trying to make small talk with her boyfriend’s friends who have obvious disdain for the fact that she’s messy and complicated, that she’s not a cypher of a woman to project their fantasies onto, that she’s getting in the way of their fun. I’m Dani in more than one bathroom, in a beautiful secluded part of Swedish countryside, sobbing in a panic because she is still deep in the undercurrent of grief with nothing to hold onto, aware deep in her gut that the people she’s with think of her as a burden.
Cases rose as vaccines began to be rolled out but not quick enough. Here in Ontario, we hit record ICU numbers and a startling number of deaths. The province locked down again for months in ways that protected some but not all people. I lost two important friendships during the pandemic. After the first one ended, I threw myself into another with someone who was the flipside of my now former friend. She was grateful and effusive and warm in the ways my former friend never was. Ian and I welcomed her into our home and our bubble, the one person we saw during months of lockdown and who we cared about very much. She and I weren’t as close last summer and she was one of the people I felt sad to see out in the city having a very different pandemic experience than most people I knew were having. I never brought it up because I thought it was a blip, a mistake, that she understood better now after becoming close to me and knowing the risks for me, the loss I’d experienced. I should have brought it up; I should have set a boundary. I should have picked me over another person.
Ian and I got vaccinated and soon the people around us, including our friend, were getting vaccinated as well. As we scheduled and got our second doses, things here began to open up and suddenly everyone seemed to be in a rush to get back to the world. My friend said she understood I wasn’t ready yet, that there were still risks for me, but soon became defensive whenever anyone suggested that the pandemic isn’t over. She felt her happiness was being “policed”. She criticized people who felt the way I also felt: that nothing is over, that there has been so much loss and not even a moment of processing it as we’ve all just been trying to cope and survive for 18 months. When I told her that her views hurt me and made me feel like she didn’t care about what people like me were going through, she was angry and turned it around on me.
“There’s always something terrible happening in the world and if you thought about that all the time, you’d be miserable,” she texted me.
I was overwhelmed and heartbroken but I loved her very much and so I apologized for upsetting her and smoothed things over. Of course I wanted her to be happy but I wondered why there was no room or even just consideration of what I was going through, what many other people were going through? I heard Dani’s voice in my head when we patched things up: “you didn’t apologize, you said ‘sorry’ which sounds more like ‘too bad’“.
I was on tenterhooks with her for a few more weeks, trying not to bring up my concerns as she planned travel for this summer. I avoided her social media so as not to see any more takes about the pandemic that might upset me. Ironically, this led to our final disagreement as I had missed something she had posted about which upset her. I apologized and felt horrible but I was also hurt that she assumed the worst about me, that I had somehow harmed her intentionally as opposed to just having made a mistake. I ignored my people pleasing instinct and told her how I felt only to be met with more defensiveness and just outright disregard for my own hurt. I stopped responding when she started saying things that were the opposite of what had been said—something she could have confirmed by scrolling up a few inches to our earlier conversation. I couldn’t engage at that point. I couldn’t be willfully misunderstood when I was trying to be so careful and measured.
I wish I could say that this is what ended our friendship but the fact is that it came down to the pandemic once again. In the week after our last interaction, she really ramped up her comments on social media about people’s concerns about the pandemic, culminating in a thread where she laughed at people concerned about vaccinated people choosing to travel this summer and wearing masks outside, that the flu was “just as bad!”. This was what broke me and I knew I couldn’t have a relationship with someone who thought this way about rightfully concerned people; even if she didn’t get sick, she could very well infect a more vulnerable person. I am Dani not choosing another person for once, not worrying whether I’m a burden—watching as a friendship that meant so much to me burns. I didn’t set fire to it but I’m also not going to get burned trying to save it. No relationship means more to me than my life.
The pandemic isn’t over—I think many of us know this deep down even as we feel a measure of safety from being vaccinated. The fact is we aren’t going back to the same world we used to live in and the hope is that we aren’t going back to whatever’s out there as the same people. We have lived through something, we have lost things even if just time and space. More likely you’ve lost people to COVID, directly or indirectly; from the literal virus or just the revelation that people you know don’t care about others if it somehow restricts what they want to do. There have been good things that have happened for us individually during the pandemic but to pretend that everything is ok because you’ve been vaccinated isn’t just foolish—it’s extremely dark.
Tomorrow it’ll be a year since my abuela died alone in her hospital bed, struggling against the ventilator with fear in her eyes and tears streaming down her face. I will never get over that no one could be there with her, that I couldn’t be there with her. There have been weeks in the last year where I’d forget what happened and wonder if I should give her a call only to have the grief hit me anew. A few days ago, my dad sent me a video a family friend of ours found on her phone of my abuela playing the piano at her nursing home. She was classically trained and later taught others; she played so beautifully. I was startled by the video, by her playing, by her moving and laughing right in my hands on my phone. All at once I felt struck by the knowledge that I was never going to see her again; but this found object was a blessing, a gift, a reminder. Her life is worth remembering and grieving fully—every single life lost is. This pandemic has robbed us not just of all of those lives but the opportunity to do so. We have barely survived and we have barely begun to grieve.
I’m not Dani. I’m smiling, not out of revenge or from a false cult-like security, but from the realization that even now there is a lot of life to live at whatever pace you’re comfortable with. That there are people who won’t make you feel like a burden for what you’re feeling, that you don’t have to sacrifice your own peace of mind to make other people feel ok about their choices. I went to a patio for the first time the day after I saw that video of my abuela joyfully playing the piano, alive forever in me. I think of her constant words to me now more than ever after this most recent loss: mejor estar sola que mal acompañada—it’s better to be alone than badly accompanied.