Was It Selfish To See My Grandmother Before She Died?

I wasn’t planning on spending the holidays with my family, but when I heard my grandmother was dying, I had to make a decision.

My grandmother spent most of the last year learning about the pandemic over and over again, expressing shock and disbelief — and then forgetting it existed.

“Why won’t you visit me?” she asked me every time we spoke on the phone.

“Because of the pandemic, I’m not allowed to fly anywhere,” I would respond.

“Whose rule is that? The federal government or the state?” she asked me without fail.

I told her it was for her own safety, that she, being in her late nineties and having a history of lung cancer, was particularly vulnerable. Especially as fires overtook Northern California, where she lived, shrouding her house’s panoramic view of San Francisco in a crimson haze and keeping her from her daily miles-long walks.

“Oh wow, it’s that bad is it?” she would say, sometimes forgetting the pandemic within the same conversation.

My grandmother had dementia for years, but it was inconsistent. She remembered how to take care of herself, who every member of her family was when they called, the important facts about our lives, and the best gossip. But she forgot the things less fun to remember: finances, current events, deadly global pandemics.

Instead, she spent her days wondering why she was so alone, why her family wasn’t visiting like they normally did, and why the caretaker helping her was wearing a mask and a transparent plastic visor.

“Is it a new sort of fashion statement?” she asked me once in the drawling transatlantic accent she adopted sometime in the 1940s and never dropped.

The week before Thanksgiving, and a week after her 97th birthday, I finally got to see my grandmother in person. Her lungs had been filling with fluid for weeks and the cancer had returned. Her doctors finally told us that we were welcome to come see her.

Her lungs were going to kill her before the coronavirus potentially could.

With the holiday season now upon us, the US has begun to see another COVID-19 spike that, in many states, is outdoing the reported numbers of infections and deaths we saw at the beginning of the spring. New lockdowns are sweeping the country in waves. Public health officials (and your friends on Instagram) pleaded with urgency that people not spend the holidays with anyone outside their household, a plea that was disregarded by millions of Americans who traveled for Thanksgiving and had dinner indoors. In November alone, more than 4.1 million cases were detected and more than 25,500 people died from the virus.

This year, the families of more than 270,000 Americans who have died from COVID-19 will be celebrating the holidays without them, feeling their loss even more acutely. Hundreds of thousands of others who have had to make the choice of whether or not to travel to say goodbye to dying loved ones will be feeling that loss as well.

When my mom told me my grandmother was dying and asked if I wanted to visit her, my immediate reaction was yes. I had been toying all summer with the prospect of flying from New York to Berkeley, California, to see her, flouting advice from doctors, knowing that I didn’t have much time left with her and that this year was wasting a lot of it.

But quickly, the knowledge of everything that was happening made me feel guilty. I have been very careful throughout this year, cognizant that my actions right now are not about me but about the strangers they could affect. I wouldn’t have time to quarantine or take a test before getting on the plane and seeing my parents. Traveling was unwise, I knew, and even selfish. I had to make the same choice people all over the country are making right now: stay in lockdown, or be with the comfort of your family?

My mom had to go no matter what. She was in charge of my grandmother’s medical decisions, and she had a whole house to pack up and sell after she died, my grandmother’s helpers to pay severance to, and other endless practical concerns. I should go as support, I told myself. What I realized was that if I didn’t see my grandmother before she died, I would always feel like I did something incredibly selfish, like I put my comfort over my grandmother’s in her final days. Even if I knew that wasn’t actually the case, I wouldn’t be able to overcome that nagging guilt.

My mother bought us all tickets from Newark, New Jersey, to San Francisco for the next morning. We pressed our KN95 masks into our faces, drank water through straws under our masks, kept a distance from anyone who looked like they weren’t taking the pandemic seriously enough, and headed to the Bay Area.

Almost every year of my life, I’d spent Christmas at my grandmother’s house, nestled in the steepest part of the Berkeley hills.

The house felt like something out of a fairy tale to me, a castle hidden at the top of a winding road, an inconspicuous cave full of treasure. It is made of dark brown wood and built vertically into the steep hillside, the floors stacking up on one another like massive steps. Despite being in a populated area, deer and other wildlife frequently wander onto the decks and up the small garden paths surrounding the house. One time, my grandma told me, a family of foxes made a home next to her kitchen. She didn’t mind, she said, they became her friends.

My grandparents were collectors, or less generously, pack rats. My grandfather’s career as an anthropologist meant he and my grandmother traveled a lot, and everywhere they went they picked up treasures. Every Christmas when we were younger, my grandparents would take my older brother and I on an expedition through the house, showing us a new secret. My grandfather, who died in 2010, would push aside a desk chair to reveal a giant taxidermied crane in a glass box, or open a cabinet to reveal stacks of tiny drawers, each filled with small treasures; a sterling silver monocle, a carved wooden fish from Japan, old shiny medals that looked to me like pirates’ doubloons. He’d open a cupboard and reveal giant throwing knives, machetes, and centuries-old dueling pistols. Our parents loved that part.

My grandmother, on the other hand, collected jewelry. When I was younger she wouldn’t tell me where her treasures were hidden, but would lock herself in her study, yelling at me not to come in, and emerge with the most beautiful piece of jewelry I had ever seen; an enamel snake choker that slithered around her neck, a locket containing a tiny scene of a Antoinette–style dinner party. As I grew older — or really, as she grew older — she started sharing her secret hiding places with me. After a few glasses of wine she would beckon me with a twinkle in her eye and pull a book off a shelf, opening it to reveal she had hollowed it out and filled it with jewels.

On Christmas morning, after my brother and I jumped on the floor above the bedroom where our parents were sleeping to unceremoniously wake them up, we would sometimes find some of the less fragile of those treasures wrapped in colorful tissue paper and ribbons and put under the tree, our names written on them in swirling cursive.

When my mother and I arrived in Berkeley, the painful bureaucracy of this global tragedy kicked into gear.

The hospital said they were only allowing one person in for visits. Not one at a time — one total, the whole time my grandmother was a patient there. My mother has a sister who was flying in from Connecticut — were they supposed to decide which of them got to see their mother on her deathbed? Did I take this selfish risk for nothing?

But the doctors weren’t sure how long it would take for my grandmother to die, hours or weeks, and it seemed they might let my grandmother go home, to die in a morphine haze, surrounded by her things, by the nature and view she loved. But they also might not.

I tried to book a COVID test as soon as we landed so I could stop wearing my mask around my parents and hug my mom in the way she needed. But tests were getting harder to access everywhere with the coming holidays, and nowhere I looked up had appointments for weeks.

While the house is big and airy enough for us to keep our distance in it, it was strange to be there without my grandmother. I kept expecting her to come plodding in from her study, where she had taken to sleeping in her later years so she wouldn’t have to climb the small, steep spiral staircase to her bedroom. I kept almost hearing her voice asking me who I was seeing nowadays, whether I was liking my job.

Instead, I sat alone in her cold, slate-floored kitchen as my mom drove to the hospital, spending hours pressing “refresh” on a screen attempting to book a rapid COVID-19 test.

By my second morning in Berkeley, the doctors had called to say that my grandmother had taken a turn for the worse. They had decided to make an exception to their one-visitor rule so I could come say goodbye. They put my name on the list at the hospital door, like I was going to some sort of exclusive nightclub. They even carded me.

In the hospital, I gave my mom a break for a couple of hours and took her place next to my grandmother, shrunken in her hospital bed. She hadn’t opened her eyes all day, the nurses said, but after my mom left she finally did. She looked like she didn’t quite recognize me. I took off my mask momentarily and her small, lashless blue eyes softened. She grabbed hold of my hand and squeezed it surprisingly hard, saying, “Thank you, thank you,” over and over again. Then she went back to sleep.

I had last seen my grandmother a year ago, with the whole family celebrating Christmas at her house. My brother has a 5-year-old son now, and we were showing him all the treasures, giving him the same experiences in that house we had loved so much as kids.

My grandmother has always been fiercely independent and completely intolerant of being babied, condescended to, or pitied, a trait my mother and I both inherited. But this made it hard to take care of her in her old age, to point out to her that her memory might be slipping. This last visit, my grandmother’s dementia was in a particularly bad state, especially after having too much of her favorite chardonnay.

One time, as I was sitting with my nephew on my lap, she turned to me and said, “Is this your son?” And after a stunned silence she added, “I’m sorry, I don’t know who you are.”

I decided that that Christmas visit would be a good time to tell her that I date women. After dinner one night, I went to see her in her study.

“Oh, Ema!” She responded with excitement, reaching her hands upward in a dramatic gesture of celebration. “That’s wonderful, I’m so happy for you.”

She proceeded to tell me that she had always thought about being a lesbian, though she’d never acted on it. When she was writing book reviews for a magazine in San Francisco in the early 1980s — a part of her life I hadn’t known about — all of her friends were lesbians, she said.

She said they all wore these beautiful tailored black silk suits and white cravats that she “lusted after” and sipped martinis at covert lesbian bars after work, discussing art and literature. They were “powerful, those queers” she told me, drawing out the word into three syllables, “and much more fun than anyone else I knew.” She became particularly close with one woman, she told me, and they would frequently have drinks and attend parties together.

“Ema, was that absolutely horrible of me?” She asked very seriously, grabbing my arm and looking into my eyes. “Did I lead her on? Was that cruel?” (My grandfather had affairs throughout their marriage, but from what we know she never strayed.) I told her I didn’t think it was horrible, though things were different back then, I couldn’t be sure. It wasn’t for me to say.

“I’ve always felt terribly about that,” she said, sinking back into her habitual spot on her sofa bed, resting her hands on the book she was reading. “Anyhow,” she said, waving away the memory like it was a fly. “I love you very much. You’re going to have a very exciting life.”

My grandmother died overnight, hours after my aunt arrived to say goodbye.

In the days after my grandmother’s death, the days leading up to Thanksgiving, my parents and I stayed on a different floor of the house from my aunt and uncle, always wearing masks while in the same room, leaving the windows wide open, and trying as hard as we could to keep our distance. My aunt and my mother hadn’t seen each other in about a decade, despite both living on the East Coast. Until now.

“I wish we could all just hug each other,” my aunt kept saying. But we were stuck 6 feet apart, only able to show our emotions over our masks, with our eyes.

Instead, we got to work. We spent days searching the house from top to bottom, turning out every drawer, pocket, piece of crumpled tissue, trying to find anything precious we shouldn’t throw away. We pulled up secret safes under floorboards and opened up books that might contain a mischievous hint: Treasure Island, The Midas Touch.

In the last few years of my grandmother’s life, some of the many things in her house started disappearing: paintings, jewelry, even some of my grandfather’s guns. She slept much of the day and left the lights in the house off (and sometimes the doors unlocked), making it seem like no one was home. Plus she was mostly deaf and wouldn’t be able to hear people rifling around.

One time when I was visiting, I woke up to heavy footsteps running across the roof above me. Another time, I went to the kitchen to get water and swear I saw someone on the porch, disappearing into the shadows.

Her house was still full of heaps of things, however, so much more than we had thought. At first it was fun, little beautiful things bringing back memories, but soon it became exhausting. There was so much junk: every Christmas card they received in 1993, 10 of the same pair of black lounge pants, about 20 pairs of scissors. Room by room, category by category, we laid it all out, trying to decide what to do with it: keep, sell, donate, toss.

Ritual is one of the chief things this pandemic has taken from us. For so many, the holidays are about returning to our childhood home, showing our kids or partners what our lives were like before they were around, gathering with those who still are, reliving memories through tradition. Even if you haven’t experienced a death in the family, the loss of these reunions is still hard. So hard that many people continue to put their lives, and the lives of their family members, at risk to still have a version of it.

A part of my family was lucky, or foolish, enough to be able to be in the same place at all during this time, though the situation didn’t lend much time for reminiscing. My brother couldn’t make it to join us. Because New York had shut down schools due to coronavirus spikes, he was stuck being a parent-teacher-babysitter-entertainer-IT guy for his 5-year-old. We continued the holiday tradition of hunting for my grandparents’ treasure without him.

After I left, my mother and my aunt had an unceremonious burial of my grandmother’s ashes. They hugged, finally, and cried.

But for me, going through my grandparents’ possessions was the ritual. And doing this for the last time was the closest thing to a funeral I would have. ●

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