Illustration by Jane Fleischman
It’s taken me months to write this story. At first I came to the conclusion that it didn’t matter, that my feelings were obsolete. But then it happened again, and, as of March 19 at 9:04 a.m., it happened once more.
I’m confident enough to say I’ve overcome quite a lot during the 17 years of my life. I thought I had felt every type of pain that one could possibly feel in the universe, but the coronavirus proved otherwise. COVID took not one, but three people away from me in the past 12 months, each person being closer to me than the one before. Nonetheless, I knew these people, and I loved them all. I still do.
Hopefully, if I tell my story, you can find some healing or even just a sense of relief that you´re not alone, if you can relate. Know that it’s okay to heal. It’s okay to not be okay.
To preserve privacy for the people whose stories I’ll be sharing, I won’t be using their real names.
March 2020…the New York chaos
Our family had a close family friend, Chloe. I don’t even like using the term “family friend” because she was family, nothing less. Chloe had a niece, Linda, whom she adored. I met Linda a few times (before the pandemic) and she was so beautiful, had an amazing personality and was so young. I must have been seven when she gave me this bracelet with half an angel wing on it. She told me to keep it safe, and that it meant a lot to her.
The little diamonds on it were real and I couldn’t comprehend why she´d given me such a thing. I wore the bracelet everyday, always thinking about what she said. In March of 2020 I found out she died fighting for her life connected to a respirator in a New York City hospital bed, alone.
April 16, 2020 at 1:00 a.m.….New York is still in chaos.
Not even a whole month later, I found out that my grandmother had died. She had been in a nursing home for years. My family and I would often travel to New York to see her. Her body was so stiff and pale, but if you looked closely enough, you could see the world in her eyes. She could barely say a word, but she had everything you needed to know, right there, in her eyes.
Everytime we went to see her, my mom and her siblings would feed her, talk to her, while I cowered away in the corner, too afraid to say anything. What do you say to your grandmother who you’ve haven’t had a full conversation with in years?
I figured as long as she knew I was there, that’s all that mattered. Until she was gone. I felt more anger than sadness with her death. I was angry at myself for being a coward and never telling her how much I loved her. For never telling her my dreams, my life and the person I’d become.
Anger is a funny thing. It evolves and adapts as if it were a mammal in the wild. One second your anger shifts at whatever your mind can comprehend and the next it becomes more focused, as if it were a person. Looking back I can’t believe how mad I was. I was mad she didn’t fight for me in the way that I had expected her to. I was mad at the world and its total chaos.
We couldn’t find her
Do you remember when I mentioned Chloe? My family friend? Well I’ve known Chloe since forever. Even though she was a mere stranger to me 12 years ago, she grew to be a best friend and sister for my mom. And a grandmother for me.
Like Linda and my actual grandmother, she lived in New York. Over the past year, my mom called her a lot. Then, around early February of this year, we called Chloe and she didn’t answer. We didn’t think much of it, until a week later when we realized that we still hadn’t heard from her.
My aunt eventually told us that Chloe had been hospitalized, but she didn’t know at which hospital. This led to over an hour of searching. My mom and I frantically called every hospital in New York trying to find her. I must have repeated her full name a hundred times to a dozen nurses hoping that she would be somewhere safe. When the nurse told me the words I was longing to hear, I was finally able to breathe.
She’s ok. The world isn’t out to get you.
After we found her, my mom and I took turns calling her non-stop. We found out that she had the coronavirus, and with her heart problem her life almost took a wrong turn, but she was currently stable and that was all that mattered. I still remember hearing the respirator in the background.
Beep beep chushhh beep beep.
Chloe’s voice sounded hoarse, but the doctors said that she was recovering. Everyday she spoke to us a little more and a little more. It came to a point where a month later she was talking as if nothing happened. Everytime we spoke I told her all about my new hobbies, any new books I read, and how school was going; basically anything about my life.
I had no reason to worry so I was fine. She said that she would be in rehab for two weeks to help her blood flow and then she would be back home, just like it used to be.
We couldn’t find her, again
Chloe was officially being moved to rehab. She told us to call her on her cell instead of the hospital room number and that she was fine. We cheered her on when she said that she walked for the first time in a month after being hospitalized, and that she was going home in a few days!
After that we didn’t talk for a little while. My mom tried to call her cell a few times, but no response. We realized that we had no idea where she was getting rehab and so we were back to calling a bunch of different hospitals, starting with the one where she had been a patient.
Nurse: ¨Well honey it says she was discharged a few days ago…¨
My heart starts beating loudly
Me: ¨Ummm okay, do you know where they transferred her?¨
Nurse: ¨Nope, we don’t have that record. I wouldn’t know where she went. How about you hold on a second?¨
Where could she be? Is she home? Did she call me and I didn’t answer? COME ON LADY, COME BACK TO THE DAMN PHONE!
Nurse: ¨Yeah so we don’t know where she was transferred to, but you can try (name of hospital).¨
Me: ¨Ok that’s great….thank you.¨
Obviously, I called the rehab center. Anxiety rose for a split second but I still felt fine. This happened before and we found her, so there’s nothing to worry about. Right?
After several minutes on the phone and only eight minutes until fifth period started, I gave up and told my mom to try.
My mom gave up on calling them, too, since they wouldn’t confirm whether or not she was a patient at the rehab center, and she ended up calling Chloe´s sister. Class started and I was ready to do whatever we were doing that day. I heard my mom’s footsteps as she walked into the living room with Chloe’s sister on the phone. The muffled talking, the footsteps getting louder.
¨What do you mean?¨
Mom got louder but she was still muffled. I left class for a second to see what was going on. I walked into the living room to see my mom melted in tears, repeating the same words over and over again.
¨No it can’t be true¨.
I didn’t even have to ask. I already knew. Chloe was gone.
I was in complete shock. I had never felt anything like it before. It was like I wanted to cry but my body was shutting down, trying to fight off the grief as if it were a disease. I went back into my room and sat next to my computer, realizing I was still in class. 9:04 a.m..
It had been about four minutes since class started when I heard my name being called. My teacher had asked me a question and thankfully I managed to spill out some type of response. My forehead felt like it was on fire, and next thing I knew, I left class. I got out of my chair, and cried.
The pain was unreal. How did this happen again? Why? Were the last two deaths not enough?
I loved Chloe so much. I don’t think I can even describe in words how much she meant to me. She was a grandmother when my own grandparents failed to fulfill that role. Everytime I would hear my peers talk about their grandparents as if they were the best people on the planet, I couldn’t relate. Mine chose to be absent in my life. Two of them were physically gone, and the other two loved other things in life more than me. But Chloe didn’t. Every holiday, every birthday, she was there. She filled in that gap, that hole in my heart. A complete stranger did that. The only person who performed the role of a grandmother in my life was now gone.
My head spun like crazy. I couldn’t understand how someone who was only four days away from coming home, someone who was in the final stages of recovery from covid, just perished?
I must have been crying for an hour straight on the floor.
Then around 10:30 a.m., I tried coming back to class. I told myself to suck it up and that it was fine. So I came back. All my peers were laughing about topics pertaining to April Fools. I tried to participate and remain my cool, but I couldn’t do it.
It was such a strange day. I wanted everyone to know how I was feeling but at the same time be alone with my grief. A year of pain and worry all pouring out at once. So much guilt and regret.
Why didn’t I call her more often? I knew she lived alone. Why didn’t I text her? Every single time that I said I would call her but I forgot because I was busy, why didn’t I just CALL HER? Why didn’t I tell her that I loved her? I should have been there more often. I should have been. This is what you deserve.
The rest of that weekend was horrible. I slept in bed the rest of that Friday and I tortured myself by listening to her favorite song on repeat and looking frantically, like a maniac, for a picture of her, any picture. I wanted to remember every detail on her face, how alone she must have been in that hospital room. Did she suffer?
I read every text we had ever sent each other over and over again, like a knife plunging in my heart at every angle. Life was so unfair. It felt like the world was testing me, trying to make me break, giving me more than I could handle. She had so many plans, so many dreams, left unfinished. She planned stuff for my upcoming graduation in June and we spoke about my future. She loved hearing everything I had to say, and always did.
Now that they’re gone
As I’m writing this, it’s been a couple of weeks since Chloe died and nearly a year since Linda and my grandmother’s passing.
During spring break I took time to breathe and grieve. I told myself it was going to be okay, and this time I actually believed it. I know it seems crazy, but I truly believe that this pandemic is a blessing in disguise. As hard as it’s been for me and countless others, I’ve learned so much and grown as a person more than I ever thought possible.
I learned that it’s okay to embrace sadness, and it’s okay to be alone. I learned that no matter what’s happening in your life, you should always be thankful, because someone out there will always have it worse than you. I learned that strangers can grow to be even more loving than your flesh and blood, eventually everything will fall into place, and that for someone whose only 5´2, I’m tougher than I look. Chloe taught me all of that.
Don’t get me wrong- I’m still healing. As much as I wish I could turn off the constant thoughts of guilt, regret and sadness, I’m forced to live with a button over which I have no control. Sometimes it turns on and sometimes it doesn’t. But if one thing was true of all these people, it’s that they all had dreams. Dreams of adventure and fulfilment. Hopefully one day I can travel the world, seeing everything they couldn’t see. But I also know they would have wanted me to take a step forward, because I’ll eventually be okay. And you will be too, I promise.