A Plague, a Coup, and a Death

When the hardest thing to do is nothing

My stepmother died yesterday morning. It wasn’t Covid, which is a thing we must say now. She was 94 years old, frail and ill, sequestered in a nursing home not far from Washington, D.C. Due to the plague, no one has really seen her since March, except in brief chaotic Zoom calls and weekly “window visits” for my father. He would sit, bundled against the cold, for 20 minutes while she wrestled with a phone and a nurse on the other side of the glass. Then, he’d return to his lonely quarantine existence, sad and beset with guilt.

She lived a long life. She had a feisty spirit, a curious mind, and an artist’s eye. She could be mean and manipulative, burning everyone who tried to get close. She was a bitter mother to her daughters, my step-sisters, intermittently estranged from all of them. Perpetually unhappy, she spent a lifetime seeking the cure, dragging my gentle, compliant father on her feverish quest. She never found what she sought, the thing to calm the storms that raged within.

She was a contradiction, too. A kind and loving grandmother, an indulgent animal lover. She took great joy in art and music, taught herself craft and built a home with care. The occasional gesture belied the mean spirit, the raging storms: Once, when I was a harried working student and short on rent, she pulled a hundred dollar bill from the silver drawer and handed it to me. She told me that she knew my father suffered under her reign of terror, and that she was sorry for it.

He did. He still does, though her reign is over.

He sits alone, at his home not far from the nation’s capitol. I see him in my mind’s eye, head in hand, hunched under the heavy weight of guilt. Guilt that she had to die alone. Guilt that he never found the thing to quell her storms. A guilt that she designed and demanded, throughout their half century together. He signs documents in a mask and listens to the buzz of helicopters, as a coup boils over in his backyard.

And I sit here, in New York, unable to comfort him. My directive is to, essentially, do nothing. No travel in a plague. Don’t come near the coup. We have digitally managed his affairs, we arrange grocery delivery. I send him stacks of books, and speak with him every day. But I can’t be with him. I can’t cry or laugh with him, cook for him, tend his broken heart with my hands. We can’t mourn together. We can’t process the complex grief over a difficult life, shake out the bugs and burrs of memory, assure one another that we did our best. Drink to it, sleep on it, and look at it in the morning with fresh eyes. Together.

Now, we just wait. In a world gone quite mad, we sit in our static bubbles and wait. We wait for ashes and death certificates, whatever closure can be had in a vacuum. We wait for the National Guard and an imperiled inauguration. We wait for vaccines, and a flattening of the curve. We wait for reason and hope for better.

In the midst of a plague, and a coup, and a death in the family, my job now is to do … nothing. It might be the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

Write it down.

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