My Grandmother Didn’t Die of Covid-19, but It Robbed My Family of the Chance to Say Goodbye


My grandmother on her marriage ceremony day in 1950. {Photograph} courtesy of the Scharfen household.

A day after Covid-19 despatched my workplace to do business from home, my mom known as. My grandfather—94 and residing in a Sterling retirement group with my 93-year-old grandmother—had requested a priest to come back give Omi her final rites. Alzheimer’s had progressed to the purpose that my grandmother no lengthy­er spoke or left her mattress. She largely slept and had stopped swallowing meals. My grandfather, Papa, had determined in opposition to a feeding tube, and it was probably she wouldn’t reside for much longer. 

When my mother known as, I used to be sitting on the sofa in my condo half listening, the window open. My mom has an uncommon method of crying—it sneaks up on you. She’s quiet for a number of seconds previous comfy, then she begins. Should you’re on the telephone together with her, at first you suppose she’s gasping at one thing exceptional. 

Due to the virus, I doubted I’d be capable of go to Omi one final time. However possibly, I reasoned, I might get into the retirement group and sit with Papa in one of many armchairs that used to crowd the lounge of my mom’s childhood house. Possibly they’d even let me sneak onto the patch of grass exterior Omi’s window, place my hand in opposition to the glass, and lean in towards the sleeping, curled seashell of her physique tucked neatly right into a blanket by another person’s palms.  

I drove out to Sterling from DC with my boyfriend, Tripp. It was a grey day, the roads practically empty. We’d been watching the information all weekend, and I might really feel the pixels from the TV display settling deep under the bones of my face, my limbs heavy like a illness. 

We pulled as much as the retirement group, the black gates closed and nearly comically foreboding. A scene from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Manufacturing unit sprang to thoughts, the one which scared me as a child: No person ever goes in, no person ever comes out. We instructed the guard why we have been there and gave him my grandfather’s identify. After a short telephone name, he shook his head: No guests allowed. Well being precautions. 

I leaned throughout Tripp towards the window, the seatbelt working down my chest, proper the place they’d reduce me if I had open-heart surgical procedure. “However my grandmother goes to die,” I stated. The guard and I stared at one another for a second. I felt Tripp stiffen beside me. Nobody had stated “die” but. It had been alluded to in telephone calls with my mother and father, conversations with my brother. Up until then, she’d solely been passing away, had a number of extra days, was hanging on. However to die—nicely, that’s what was going to occur, proper? In that constructing behind a row of countless fence, and we might by no means see her once more. 

The guard raised his shoulders, embarrassed for each of us. There was nothing he might do.

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My grandmother with one among my cousins. {Photograph} courtesy of the Scharfen household.

We stopped in a Meals Lion parking zone so I might name Papa and let him know we couldn’t are available. Stoic and rational—ever a Marine—he stated he understood. 

Within the grocery retailer, the balloons by the floral part hung dumbly from the ceiling—actually, who’d purchase balloons now? The traces have been getting lengthy, folks stocking up on beans, bathroom paper, frozen meals. An outdated man approached the self-checkout with a container of croissants. I imagined him driving house with the plastic clamshell on the passenger seat, heating up a croissant, and making use of a slab of butter throughout the highest. How it might fill his mouth, heat and crisp and vaguely candy, how he may even eat a second one, the crumbs making a sample on his shirt. For a second, every thing appeared pointless. 

Within the cleansing aisle, the cabinets have been naked. No Lysol, no Clorox wipes, no bleach. I stood in entrance of the indicators boasting now-useless offers (riddle: what’s a deal if there’s nothing to purchase?), my telephone to my ear, and that’s the place I lastly started to cry. Within the cleansing aisle of a Meals Lion as buyers awkwardly navigated round me as if I have been one thing harmful. I cried for Omi, who was nearly useless; for Papa, sitting by himself in a constructing surrounded by a fence; for my mom, who was about to lose her mom. Crying as a result of I used to be scared, as a result of all I needed was to have the ability to clear my house, to really feel protected, and even that couldn’t occur. 


Omi beloved to knot silk scarves round her shoulders. She beloved US historical past and will inform you the dates of each warfare and presidential administration. She labored for senators John Warner and William Scott of Virginia and will offer you instructions to anyplace in DC. One among her toes curled over the opposite, and when she took her slippers off, my brother and I stared as if at an exploding constructing. When she was visiting us whereas I used to be in center college, she despatched me upstairs to alter as a result of she stated I used to be too younger to put on black.

She died the morning of March 16 in her small assisted-living room. Apart from Papa and the caretaker he paid for, the pictures of me and different household, the pharmacy flowers and playing cards, nobody was there. It defies logic that my grandparents’ years collectively—assembly as youngsters in San Francisco; touring round Europe throughout Papa’s deployments; exchanging letters by means of the Korean and Vietnam wars; elevating 5 good; attention-grabbing children in Washington; a lifetime of journey and coloration—would finish with the 2 of them in a sanitized, fluorescent-lit room. A heartbreak acute in precision.

Equally devastating is to think about my grandfather alone for the primary time in additional than 70 years. He’s at all times scared me a bit, together with his navy rigor, his encyclopedic data of politics and historical past—most of my household has spent years craving to impress him. Now all I can consider is him padding between his tiny kitchen and front room, his slippers indenting the carpet as the sunshine turns purple exterior, a forgotten cup of tea chilly beside his chair. To know he’s grieving, confused, lonely, and there’s nothing we are able to do. We will name, inform him about our lives, articles he ought to learn, reveals he ought to watch. However that’s not likely sufficient, is it? 

Then there’s the anger. On the circumstances surrounding my grandmother’s demise, at a President who didn’t take this virus significantly sufficient, on the lack of preparation for such a disaster. Most of all, that tons of, maybe 1000’s, of households have skilled or will expertise this similar cycle of occasions.

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My grandfather and my grandmother at a celebration. {Photograph} courtesy of the Scharfen household.

After Omi died, I drove right down to my mother and father’ home in North Carolina to work remotely. It felt safer to get out of the town, however I might additionally sense the deep loneliness in my mother’s voice at any time when I known as. 

Every morning, I get up and sit at my childhood desk, activate my laptop computer, drink my espresso, and attempt to faux every thing is regular. Exterior is a tree my mother and father planted once they constructed our home. It’s most likely about 20 years outdated, its limbs simply beginning to attain above the roof. At some point, I watched a fowl land there, its tiny physique barely sagging the limb. It had simply rained, and fats droplets fell because the fowl shook its feathers. For a second, it gave the impression to be peering in, questioning what somebody was doing on this room that usually sat empty and closed. Then, similar to that, it took off. 

I questioned if Omi might need seen the same view exterior her window, the final she would ever absorb. A small fowl, perched in stillness, seeming to contemplate her in a single tiny gaze earlier than flying away. Possibly the pane of glass between her and the remainder of the world disappeared then, the leaves so shut they appeared nearly imaginary, nearly a mistake. Possibly for a second, the day appeared made only for her.

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Affiliate Editor

Mimi Montgomery joined Washingtonian in 2018. She beforehand was the editorial assistant at Walter Journal in Raleigh, North Carolina, and her work has appeared in Exterior Journal, Washington Metropolis Paper, DCist, and PoPVille. Initially from North Carolina, she now lives in Adams Morgan.



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