Last One

My sister fell dead from a massive cerebral hemorrhage on December 25, 2020. She was revived only to die again when the ventilator was removed the following day, at her children’s request. She was 61 years old. My mother died in 2014 at age 84, my half-brother at age 49 in 1999, and my father, at age 54, in the spring of 1974. Many friends and extended family had also passed on over the years. My maternal and paternal grandmothers lived to be 83 and 106, respectively. My grandfathers died before I was born. I am the last one standing in my immediate family. I have hope for a long life.

“Everyone can master a grief but he who has it.” – Wm. Shakespeare

The pandemic is taking its toll by increasing the loneliness factor, denying many of us who live alone the company of others. I admit to looking forward to grocery trips and passing other people while walking the mini dogs, weather permitting. Simply being in proximity to other humans is of some odd, indescribable benefit to my mood. Perhaps it just reminds me that I am human, and I am, in fact, still alive.

Because of the pandemic, I did not travel to my hometown upon my sister’s death, as I was likely not to be allowed to see her while she was still sustained by the ventilator and, even if I were, I would have to risk being crammed on an airplane and face untold other possible exposures to COVID-19. She would not know that I was there. Since it was her choice to be cremated, I would also not be able to see her after death because she would have to be embalmed for anyone except the funeral home staff to see her – state law. My sister died on December 26 and was transported that day to the funeral home. In the unlikely event that questions might arise regarding the cause or manner of death, they had to wait for the death certificate to be signed before cremating her. The hospitalist at first refused, saying that the coroner needed to sign it. She died of natural causes in the hospital, so this was clearly not the case. Imagine if every person who died of natural causes had to visit the coroner’s office! Meanwhile, my sister was held for about 10 days waiting for that signature. If we had elected to embalm and bury her, they could have proceeded immediately. In any event, my wonderful funeral director stayed on top of it until it was resolved.

I was bereft. I do not know exactly why it upset me so to think of my sister lingering in that cold space. Intellectually, I know that she did not suffer because of it. Yet, I suffered because I knew that, not being embalmed, she was decomposing despite the cold. It seemed so disrespectful to leave her in that state, so undignified. I also know that many people are suffering similar fates because of COVID-19, being placed in refrigerator trucks piled high with others who have died from this horrible pandemic and have no family to claim them, or because their family is delayed in doing so. Just the thought of it is gut-wrenching.

This is our new reality. Doctors too busy to sign death certificates. Morgues overflowing with those who have been ravaged by COVID-19. Over a year into this pandemic and we still know so little, especially given the mutations that the virus continues to undergo, as all viruses do. I have resigned myself to mask-wearing indefinitely, and I do not mind it. It is a small thing that I can do for myself and others. I once did not wear glasses and now I do. It’s just one of those things along our personal and collective evolutionary path. If we could find a way to let scientists freely do what they do best without them having to convince a bunch of financiers that their project is a good thing, I think we would see a lot more innovations across all fields, but especially in microbiology and healthcare. As long as everything is about profit, creativity and the resulting advances will remain stifled. But I digress.

It is never easy to grieve and I am prone to avoiding the pain, so I am easily distracted. Worrying about the pandemic keeps me from looking too closely at my own pain, I suppose. Grief seems even more difficult now that the hits just keep coming. Grieving for millions is soul-shattering. How do you grieve for one family member under such circumstances? How do you sort it out? Perhaps it is not necessary to sort it out. Maybe it is better just to feel the feelings, let the waves of grief ebb and flow. I have learned that they do indeed come and go and have never once overwhelmed me entirely. Yet, I worry that I will lose myself to the grief if I leave the spigot open. This is what new grief feels like – overwhelming.

“Count each day as a separate life.” – Seneca

I choose to view my sister’s death as a reminder that we are not guaranteed another day or another hour in this life, let alone another year or another decade. We must live right now – it is the only time we have for certain. This sage advice has been echoed through the ages by philosophers, priests, and all manner of sages. When I was young, I worried that it was not the right time to pursue things, and let many opportunities pass me by; in my waning middle years, I have learned that there will never be a good time, so you just have to do it. Start. Take a step forward. As I move forward, I will take Seneca’s advice, counting each day as a separate life in honor of my sister and all my loved ones who live on in my heart and mind.

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