“Truth is stranger than fiction“…this phrase keeps popping into my head lately as we collectively do what we can to confront and navigate our way through this pandemic, trying every day to keep safe and not become one of its sad statistics. The world has been dealt an eyeopening set of circumstances that, while having been pondered endlessly by epidemiologists, keeping them up nights wondering how something like this can be prevented and/or contained, humanity somehow was not able to avoid it. Now as a result of such an occurrence, the sad consequence of so much suffering and needless death is left for the survivors to bear. How will we be able to cope with the aftermath and how will we find closure when our ability to mourn and commiserate has been changed so drastically? Nothing is normal anymore, not even the way in which we say goodbye to a loved one who has moved on from this tormented earthly realm.
Death, the unavoidable great equalizer of men has become an even heavier burden for many to carry considering how COVID-19 has affected the ordinary way that we see death, confront it and cope with it. This pandemic has tainted the nobel last act of death with a ominous specter, leaving many with heavy guilt ridden hearts. We are suddenly left to factor this uncontrollable variable into our equation of grief and make as much sense of it as possible. Not only has the everyday “normal” been drastically affected by “social distancing“, constant sanitizing and cautious interaction, but so has our process of grieving the passing of a loved one, whether it be because of COVID-19 or not. Our natural tendency to be there whenever possible, at the side of a loved one when their time comes has been cruelly taken away by an invisible, microscopic virus that could care less whether or not anyone has closure. A virus that preys on the weakest among us and destroys countless hopes and dreams along with the bodies of its victims. An unwanted scourge that has become the cause of so much heartache, so much agony and incomprehensible pain. We, the surviving collateral damage will have to come to terms with such stark and bleak truth…
This truth has been in the public eye thanks to the constant media coverage and the anxiety around it has grown in everyones bowels with every passing day. Its progression was evidenced by all and its eerie approach was the stuff of nightmares, but even with so much coverage and foresight, this usurper of normalcy invaded our collective experience and forced an unimaginable “pause“. This pause, which is the unfortunate necessity if we are to keep safe and curb the spread of the COVID-19 is in some way a horrible tasting medicine that has unwanted side effects of its own. Not only will we have to deal with the economic repercussions, but also the latent emotional and psychological after shocks that will surely surface as the time passes. To be quite honest, this writing is my attempt to deal with my own pandemic related event. An event that under normal circumstances would have been one of those pang filled sad memories hiding in the recesses of my mind, only occasionally being coaxed out from hiding by some nostalgia. Now however, the whole event has simmered in an unpleasant stock that is COVID-19 and what ought to have been a solemn and sad memory, the passing of my father, has taken on the tragic taste of this pandemic. I understand that I am not alone in this time of acute suffering, and I know that working out all of the emotional and psychological issues will be a very slippery slope indeed.
In my case, my father was in his late eighties living in Puerto Rico, being careful to avoid being exposed to the virus and living his life at the very slow pace that one lives when reaching that age. Caring for his wife of just about the same age, both seeing so many days pass from their front porch, they did what they could to take care of themselves in order to see the next day. He sounded tired that last time I spoke to him, during my car ride into work, and I thought the same thing I think as I spoke to him…he’ll feel better in a little bit and he’ll find a way to trudge along as the hours pass. That conversation dances around in my head as I struggle to retain the topics discussed and the sound of his voice. This will be an impossible thing to forget and I’m sure I will struggle to remember it clearly as the days pass. Then came March 15th, the Ides of March…the day he had a severe stroke and the day so much changed in my world. I received word from my sister on the 16th and began to hope with every ounce I had in me, trying so much to remain tranquil, positive and accepting while what was happening happened. It was on the 18th that the gravity of it all struck me and a raging torrent of emotion burst from within me, revealing the difficulty of being distant and just how fragile we really are. My vigil of hope and miraculous recovery lasted only 13 days. On March 28th, my father died, in a hospital room with only the staff there to see him take his last breath.
I at times find myself wondering what his last moments must have been like. How was he able to release the grip, let go of the life he had lived for so many years? I go over in my head…”why” did this have to happen this way? Why did COVID-19 get in the way of my being there for my dad…why is it so? When these questions do arise, I simply remind myself of the one extraordinary occurrence that happened on the 28th, the one thing that brings me to the beginning of the road that leads to peace. That day wasn’t that different from the ones before it. I woke filled with angst, waiting for some kind of good news to head my way about his getting better. The day meandered along as did I, wandering the house looking for something to do. I clearly remember being in my office with one of my daughters when I decided to frame a photo of me and my father. A favorite of mine that I had printed out for him as a gift on a previous trip. It was one of those little projects that I had been putting off considering the situation…seeing the photo easily got me emotional. Nevertheless, something urged me to start it and work on it until it was done. As I finished it, I looked at the image, looked at the smiling face of my “viejo” so happy that I was there with him taking a selfie. I spoke a few soft words, “hi papi, como estas?“, then shed a tear. I was not long after that that my sister calls and tells me that he died, at about the same time that I was framing the photo. The coincidence didn’t strike me until after my whirlwind of emotions, tears and grief. He shared one last moment with me, despite the distance and the circumstances, I was allowed a tender moment together with his essence…and was able to say goodbye.
It has been said by many and in many different ways…“Everything is changeable, everything appears and disappears; there is no blissful peace until one passes beyond the agony of life and death.” – The Buddha, “Todo tiene su final” – Hector Lavoe…Death is the one appointment that we all must keep. In this time of so much death, suffering and hyper uncertainty, those who continue to live will feel the pain of loss for those who die. How will we choose to live is the question, how will we be able to help others who have either lost someone to COVID-19 or have simply lost the ability to mourn and grieve because of COVID-19? This will be one of the many challenges that awaits us in the future yet to come. The answer will be different for many, but one wholly unique aspect that we posses is the ability to remember the good times, share the stories and recall the faces and voices of our loved ones; and in remembering those times, we should celebrate the life that was shared and the years that were lived, and perhaps in that way, we can lay to rest the our heavy sadness, gnawing discomfort and the pains of our lament.