I’d seen my dad cry before, but not like this. He’s sentimental and tends to get a little weepy at major life events: funerals, weddings, the birth of my now 15-month-old nephew. I even remember him tearing up at The Lord of the Rings.
This time was different. It was April 1, and I was having dinner with my parents at their kitchen table, when he dissolved into tears — real, wrenching sobs. His father was dying. At 91, Dick Kirkland had developed liver cancer, and he didn’t want to stick around anymore. He’d refused to eat solid food for nearly two weeks, insisting he’d lived a happy life and no longer felt the need to continue doing so.
My dad, in the chaotic first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, wanted to get a rental car and drive down to the North Carolina retirement home where grandpa lived to say goodbye. My brothers and I thought this was an absurd idea. But I also understood, because all I wanted to do in that moment at the dinner table was make my dad feel better — to take care of him.
It was the first of many occasions during this strange year when I have sensed the dynamic morphing between my parents and me, the balance between caretaker and caregiver begin to tip. My husband, Daniel, and I lived with my parents from March to late May, the longest stretch I’d spent with them since I moved back home after graduating from college. We spent most of our waking hours in the same rooms.
I noticed so many little things: Mami and dad went to sleep earlier, and complained more about various aches and pains — things I know I can look forward to as I age. They were more set in their habits, like my dad’s ritual meditation on the porch with a cup of coffee first thing in the morning. They bickered the way only partners of 38 years can. And they had the boomer tendency to not view COVID-19 as a threat to their personal health. In those early days, Daniel and I had to repeatedly remind them that they were considered high risk for the virus, that they had to remember to take masks when they went out, and that my dad did not actually need to stop by the post office most afternoons. They behaved like teenagers, sneaking out without our permission; we sometimes saw evidence of a furtive trip made when we weren’t paying attention, like a take-out coffee cup in the trash.
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Our normal family dynamic usually reasserts itself when we all get together — I’m the baby of three siblings, and treated like it. But it didn’t work this way during our sustained period of togetherness. We talked about our jobs and the news. My dad developed the maddening habit of updating us on the COVID-19 death and case count during dinner every night. I sat with my mom in the evening and mapped out ingredients for the week's meals that Daniel and I then purchased during fraught trips to the grocery store on their behalf. Accustomed to my mom doing all the cooking, my parents were surprised to learn that I could make meatballs, stews, salad dressings. We did jigsaw puzzles and drank too much wine at night, trying to distract ourselves from the horrors that awaited us whenever we looked at a screen.
But the truest shift in our relationship stemmed from them losing their own parents. Abuela — Josefa Gonzalez — was the first to go. When the outbreak reached the U.S., my mom was at abuela’s bedside in Miami, where she and my aunt had spent over a month caring for her as she dealt with complications from colon cancer. Mami sat with her mother for hours-long stretches in her room at the Epworth Village Retirement Community, watching her breathe. But by mid-March, the scale of the crisis had become clear. Businesses closed and countries shut borders. Retirement homes emerged as hotspots for the virus. I called my mom in tears, begging her to come back home, haunted by the idea that she'd catch COVID-19 and be hospitalized in Florida, alone. But she didn’t want to leave her own mother in a hospital room, alone. We told her she had to side with the living — an impossible Sophie’s choice. Finally, one Saturday morning, abuela’s breathing stopped. Mami got on one of the last flights back to New York.
Grandpa’s death happened even more slowly. He’d already weathered a punctured lung, skin cancer, and colon cancer, and his body just kept holding on. My final conversation with him was over FaceTime on my dad’s iPhone during a busy workday. “Reverse the prayers,” he said, weak and tired but still cracking jokes. “Have a nice life.”
The prolonged limbo of his father’s health wore on my dad. He took long walks alone, once returning well after dark because he’d taken a wrong turn and gotten lost. All of his pent-up stress and sadness spilled over at the kitchen table over dinner that night, as he said, through tears, “I just want to be there for him.” My mom and I started crying too and both stood up from the table to put our arms around him. Four days later, grandpa was gone.
These were hard days. Among rising case counts and news of the world shutting down, a scroll through Twitter often showed photos of other grandparents, aunts, nephews, mothers and more who had been killed by this deadly strain of a common virus. We were all painfully isolated, mourning across state lines.
But inside our house, Daniel and I had my parents. We were gifted these hours with them, and all of the conversations we never would have had otherwise. Rather than the rushed, abbreviated update on life shared over a restaurant meal or a drink, we found ourselves with nothing but time. We took long walks in the woods looking for the first flowers; stayed up until 1 a.m. on a Tuesday to finish rewatching Young Frankenstein, just because.
Months have passed since then, and the pandemic still rages on, far worse than ever, consuming 275,000 American lives to date. People are losing jobs and homes and going hungry, due largely to federal and state officials who have failed to act and peddled scientific misinformation. The early, foggy time of the pandemic feels worlds ago. But one mainstay through this year has been the social media messages that cry out for family: “I wish my sister still lived in the same city. I wish my dad could meet his grandson. I wish I could hug my mom.” I feel so lucky that I got to spend part of this nightmare with these two humans who have given me a kind of love I hardly understand. In the spring, when one of those social medial messages popped up on my timeline, I’d go into the room where my mom and dad were working or tidying up or reading and be overwhelmingly grateful to find them there.
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