Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! it is an ever-fixèd mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken…
— William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116
Grief is complicated. It is not linear, beginning at the moment of death and ending at a specific point in the future. Grief moves backward in time and tinges the unalterable with regret; yet it also jumps decades into the future and becomes a distant, though painful memory, as if reminding you of its diminishing power. Sometimes it sneaks up on you and assaults you wearing the dark robes of anger, pain and accusation, only to leave your spirit weak rendering you unable to speak, merely babble whatever words you were able to find in the fog of sadness.
My paternal grandmother, Amalia del Carmen, passed away on May 21 from complications related to COVID-19. She was 88 years old. Her demise was sudden and caught all of us off guard. She was elderly and had a mild case of diabetes, but was in relatively good health when compared to other folks her age. Her mind was also sound until the end and she preserved both her memory and her strong-willed personality. She still cooked and cleaned for herself as well as my grandfather and cousin E., who lived with her. She was so independent that she even took the bus everywhere, navigating the complex grid of streets in Los Angeles with the ease of someone long accustomed to living in the city.
All this changed when my aunt and cousin W. rushed to her apartment on May 3. For three days my grandmother had been complaining of fatigue and of growing arthritic pain. My tía, listening to her elderly mother list her ailments, grew concerned but did not suspect that my grandmother had contracted the coronavirus. Save for the fatigue, the telltale symptoms (dry cough, fever, etc.) of COVID-19 were not present.
The way my aunt tells it, she grew so concerned that she knew she had to cross the city and bear the L.A. traffic to check in on her mother. I had a feeling, she told me later, that if I didn’t go we’d lose her forever. My cousin W. and my tía climbed the stone steps up to the paint-splattered landing, the same place where in ages gone by we used to play when we were kids and where we’d sulk when we were teenagers antsy to go home.
My aunt knocked on the dusty screen door. No one answered. She knocked again, and then W. knocked harder. The rusted screen must have bent under the weight of his constant hammering. Still, only a terrifying silence.
I knew something was wrong.
My cousin rushed down the stairs and knocked on the building manager’s door. After what explaining the situation as best he could, the ancient Filipino man ambled up the stone stairs and fumbled in his pockets for the keys. He tried one, then another.
He wasn’t moving fast enough. My heart was racing. I just knew something was wrong.
The manager unlocked the door and stepped back to let my aunt and cousin inside.
The smell of rotting fruit and of the overflowing, festering garbage can immediately invaded my aunt’s nostrils. It would also prove to be the first warning sign that something was seriously wrong with my grandmother, who had always prided herself on clean home and impeccable personal presentation.
My cousin and aunt pinched their noses as they walked in, only to unplug them in disbelief at seeing my grandfather (who’s in his late 70s) and cousin E. (who’s in his mid-30s) lying on the couch, seemingly oblivious to their knocking. The television was turned off and a fine layer of dust coated the dresser where it rested. It hadn’t been turned on for what looked like weeks. Dishes were piled high in the sink, streaked with food that had long become hard.
At first, it seemed that a spell had been cast over everyone in that home. But they were both so lethargic, so alarming was their slow responsiveness that my aunt immediately knew something was seriously wrong with everyone. And then, of course, shaking her head and the bad thoughts that came with it, she fought back a stab of fear at realizing that my grandmother was nowhere to be seen.
Where’s my mother?
E. pointed to the bedroom. My grandfather nodded and closed his eyes. (My cousin E. is a diagnosed schizophrenic and struggles with addiction; my grandfather doesn’t say much about anything. We still don’t know why they didn’t get up to answer the door, nor do we know how sick they really were.)
My aunt crossed the tiny living room and entered the sole bedroom. She gasped at what she saw. My grandmother, who had always prided herself on her appearance and who wore makeup and dyed her hair until her final days, was sprawled out on the bed, her hair disheveled and with a single arm threaded through her blouse sleeve. Her breathing was labored and once my aunt roused her from her sleep, she was confused and couldn’t speak clearly.
My cousin W. and aunt lifted my frail grandmother from her bed and slowly led her out of the room. We were never allowed into her bedroom when we were children, but I recall a few details when I’d sneak in as a child or when, as an adult, I’d catch a glimpse of her room. The Bible sitting heavy on her wooden dresser. The myriad of unpaired earrings, the mail stacked neatly in separate piles for utilities, pensions, letters and trinkets from El Salvador. The miracle of the impeccably clean floor and the blanched ceiling. The smell of my grandmother’s eye-stinging perfume and talcum powder always hung heavy in the room. That afternoon when they found her clinging to life, was it similar to what I recall in my mind’s eye? Or was it a haphazard scattering of her belongings?
They walked into the living room, supporting my grandmother between them. My cousin W. said that he’d be back to check on them later that once my grandmother was back from the hospital. They’d hoped, like we all hoped, that the doctors would send her home after a quick check up. They walked out into the bright sunshine, paced their way slowly across the landing, and helped my grandma down the stone stairs for what would be the last time.
My grandmother died around 2:00 p.m. Pacific Standard Time, which is 11:00 p.m. in Barcelona. That same night, after I got off the phone with different relatives to offer my condolences and videochatted with my father to console him as best I could, I went to bed. I tossed and turned for nearly an hour and after realizing I was unable to concentrate on a book or even newspaper article, I finally sat in the darkness, thinking.
Listening to my husband breathing evenly next to me, I thought of a passage from a Lucia Berlin story that I’d read recently:
I see death as a person…sometimes many people, saying hello.“Emergency Room Notebook, 1977”
The narrator is an emergency room nurse who describes her relationship with various people who passed away during her shifts. It’s not until the end of the story that you understand what “many people, saying hello” means: death stops being an abstract idea and manifests itself in the form of people that you know. And, inevitably, one day it will also wear the likeness of the one writing these words, and the ones reading this now as well.
That night, my thoughts were as dark as the night that seemed to be holding its breath just outside my window. I’ve lived enough and I’ve read enough to accept the inevitably of death and the impermanence which governs the entire universe. I’ve written about this extensively, especially with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. And while I may be well-versed in the theory of death, the depths of grief are, for me, unknown territory.
I’m no stranger to death. I sat in the darkness, thinking of the family members that I’d lost over the years. Death led each of them into the twilight and left all of us, especially my mother, struggling in the grips of grief.
My grandpa Adán, my mom’s dad, had a noble spirit and an ardent faith that illuminated his way through difficult times, including a brutal civil war in El Salvador. His wife, my grandma Ángela, was always by his side, praying and cooking and helping the family earn a living by selling leather goods in the local marketplace. I still have a wallet that my grandpa made for me by hand more than 20 years ago. Theirs was a love that I strive to emulate in my own marriage and the strength of their character and the grace with which they lived inspires me to be a better person. My grandpa passed in 2008 after a long illness and my grandmother, inconsolable after his death, died in 2019 of natural causes. They lived full lives governed by God and their love for their families, and I was fortunate to see their example, even if we didn’t get to spend much time together because of the distance between us.
My Tía Ana, my mother’s sister, who lived in Los Angeles and who loved me like her own son, was a more difficult death to process. She was in her early sixties when she began to suffer from early onset dementia. I still don’t know exactly what happened, but she will live forever in the eye of my earliest memories. She loved me dearly, like her own child, and behind her fiery temperament there was a tender soul who recognized my interests in books early on. It was, after all, my Tía A. who first bought me reading material of all kinds (astronomy textbooks, romance novels, old tabloids, mystery books) at yard sales and feed my young imagination. For this, and for her maternal gestures, I will remember her forever.
I was in my mid-twenties when my grandfather Adán passed away and was in my mid-thirties when my grandmother Ángela and Tía Ana died. I mourned them in their own way and still feel their absence when I reflect on how I became the person I am today. I still get teary-eyed looking at old family pictures, ones where my aunt is playing with me at a park when I was a child or my grandparents embracing me at LAX just before they got on a plane back to El Salvador.
While I felt their deaths profoundly, I was most worried about my mother: in a decade, she’d lost her father, mother and sister–half of the family she grew up with. I could not (cannot) fathom the pits of despair that my mother sank into and though I was sad that my family members had departed, I was more worried about comforting my mother in her hour of greatest need. Because what, if anything, is a greater trauma to the living than seeing your loved ones disappear into the shades?
And now, Death, greeting us from the other side, etches another name to its gray, grim list.
We didn’t always have a smooth relationship. When I still lived in Los Angeles, I would visit my grandmother Amalia between classes since UCLA was about a 20-minute drive from her apartment. Sometimes I’d be upset with her for two weeks and wouldn’t make much effort until, pressed by guilt, I’d pick up the phone again or pay her a visit. I would always be the one to apologize and would always be the one to take the first step because my grandmother had a good heart but was also proud and would not admit to her wrongdoing easily. This never mattered to me, though: I was always conscious that my time with her was limited and that instead of bristling at her conservative points of view, I should respect her and simply let bygones be bygones. Because at the end of the day, I still loved her dearly.
And so, we’d talk and talk about everything under the sun, a tradition that continued over the phone after I moved to San Francisco for grad school and, eventually, to Barcelona to start a new life. In fact, I remember arguing with my grandmother Amalia more than once over everything from biblical interpretations to politics to abortion rights to immigration. We’d both get heated and my grandmother would invariably default to her favorite logical weapon: things, whether good or bad, happened because of God’s will.
But every argument would end the same way: I’d embrace her, kiss her soft cheek and tell her how much I loved talking to her. Every debate or discussion ended that way, except what would prove to be the final one shortly before my brother’s wedding in November 2017, less than three years before her death.
It all started because my cousin E., perhaps in one of his drug-induced hallucinations or suffering from a severe schizophrenic episode, said something about me that was not only untrue and homophobic, but also extremely hurtful. So painful that I can’t repeat it here. Let’s just say that his black lie involves an uncomfortable topic to bring up in any context, especially when you’re talking about members of your own family.
In sum, E.’s lie about me got back to my immediate family, who defended my honor and name since I was sleeping soundly half a world away when all of this broke out. Family members–aunts, cousins, grandchildren, my mother, my grandma–got involved who probably shouldn’t have gotten involved. What’s worse, despite my cousin’s psychiatric malady and his serious addiction to drugs and alcohol, some members of my extended family also claimed to believe E.’s lie about me, including my grandmother, making things escalate even more. The fire had been set and quickly became an inferno. Insults were hurled, angry tears were shed, feuds and phantoms decades old were resurrected. There were threats of boycotting my brother’s wedding that was to take place in less than two weeks.
I learned about everything the next morning when, sleepy eyed, I checked my phone to see dozens of text messages and missed calls. I immediately panicked, thinking someone had died. But when I called my mother, she tearfully told me what had happened, with my siblings filling in the details after. The result was as painful as E.’s lie itself: my aunts and uncles and cousins decided that they would not come to my brother’s wedding. And my grandmother Amalia, who could be proud and hard-headed in her own way, also decided not to attend the wedding, something which hurt him deeply. I mean, who wouldn’t want their elderly grandma to be there on the happiest day of their lives?
In the end, true to our shared history, some on my father’s side of the family (a couple of aunts and my grandmother) unfairly laid blame for the whole debacle at my mother’s feet. In truth, there has always existed friction between my mother and my father’s side of the family. When my siblings and I were growing up, certain family members, including my grandmother, would try to turn us against her, reminding us of our mother’s supposed sins and they constantly criticized the way she raised us.
You’re so fat because your mother never taught you how to eat properly.
Your sister’s hair has so many split ends because your mother doesn’t comb it right.
Those cavities? Your mother has got to teach you how to brush your teeth.
They snubbed her more than once, talked ill of her parents, my grandparents, and generally addressed her with a sense of condescension which still stings me to this day. As children, we did not understand this vitriol. But because we knew our mother, saw her sacrifices first-hand and bore witness to the strength of her character, these attacks only served to make us love our mother even more. We must have instinctively known that these were lies intended to breed resentment, and we responded with love because we knew that our mother’s soul and heart were pure.
It would not be an unfair statement to say that my mother has been constantly mistreated and misunderstood by some of my father’s family through their nearly 40-year marriage. I still do not know why my mother and my father’s sisters have never fully got on. Whether this is because of my mother’s humble background (though my father grew up just as poor) or because her parents were more indigenous looking (discrimination of this sort is rampant in Latin America), I cannot say. Then again, it may be just a simple case of not liking someone because of the person they are. People don’t like each other for the stupidest reasons sometimes.
I, personally, chalk it up to envy: my mother has always been the embodiment of unconditional love and has never failed us; not once. She raised children who until recently were only ones to graduate from college. I am still the only one with an advanced degree. Our moral compasses are strong and we learned how to support each other through thick and thin. We are all married and have homes of our own. My mother has never flinched when it came to giving us her support, even if it meant it would be at the cost of her own sacrifice. And she did, after all, play the defining role in my life which would turn me into a writer. If there’s one thing that guides me through life, it is my necessity to write down the stories that she told me in one way or another. It will be the gift I continue giving her year after year, story after story, for the rest of her life and for as long as I can fill my lungs with breath.
Whatever their reasoning, this constant criticism and attacks were a painful thing to experience when you are a child. Who wants to hear their own mother being disrespected? When we were kids, we didn’t respond to their poison; when we were adults, we stood up for our mother, and politely changed the conversation to avoid any tension. My siblings and I moved in union to protect her from their attacks and defended her fiercely at every turn. Because we know the truth of my mother’s “pilgrim’s soul,” to quote Yeats: a dedication to her children and love for us all that I cannot begin to fathom. She inherited the same noble spirit and humility that her parents held, the same light that my siblings and I possess to illuminate our own paths.
So, when we heard the same complaints and blame about our mother during that argument shortly before my brother’s wedding, we’d had enough. My brother tried extending an olive branch to my father’s side of the family to make peace before the happy occasion arrived, but rather than move on, admit to E.’s lie and put all this behind us, they intensified their attacks against our mother, we’d had enough. Because while our mother may not be perfect, she is still our mother and we decided that we would draw a line in the sand. They could still come to the wedding, my brother said, but no one was allowed to say a word to our mother.
Most of my father’s side of the family announced that they would not be coming to the wedding because of what our mother had supposedly done and demanded an apology. We said that our mother had done nothing wrong in standing up for her children and that it was they who should apologize instead for all the years of mistreating our mom.
In the end, they didn’t apologize. We didn’t apologize either. They said they would not come to the wedding, claiming that they were so upset with my mother that they could not bear to see her in person. Much to my surprise, my grandmother also said that she would not come, echoing half-heartedly some of the reasons that my aunts had given. On the 12-hour plane ride to Los Angeles, I prayed that they would have a change of heart and not miss out on my brother’s wedding. In the end, though, pride and pain ruled supreme: they did not come. And I will never forget how deeply I felt my grandmother Amalia’s absence and how great my pain was when I saw a shade pass over my brother’s face for a moment as his wife’s grandma gave them her blessing.
The fact that most of my father’s side of the family refused to come to the wedding proved to be the final, decisive blow to the relationship we all had, however fragile it may have been at times. After much deliberation, my siblings and I decided that we no longer wanted people like that in our lives. Family members who insult your mother, who disregard her importance in your life, who think it’s okay to criticize her in front of you, as if her life were worth less than theirs–that’s not family in the end, we decided. We didn’t want people like that around us. So, that November 2017, we cut them off and decided that we would never speak to them again, so great was our pain.
And, unfortunately for us, that also included our grandmother Amalia, who would be dead in less than three years, robbing us forever of the chance to make an uneasy peace. I flew back to Barcelona a week after the wedding, telling my husband how weird it felt to have traveled all the way to California and not having seen my grandmother for one of our long conversations. I stared out the window as we took off, watching the downtown skyscrapers glisten in the sunset, and felt a great despondence begin to well up inside me like numbing seawater.
No one’s really sure how she got it. Whether she contracted the coronavirus from my cousin E. or my grandfather, both of whom lived with her, we do not know. We aren’t sure if, because she insisted on her independence, she got infected while using public transportation. Not that it matters now, anyway.
After arriving at the Kaiser Permanente on Sunset Boulevard, my aunt and grandmother waited patiently in the waiting room to be called by the urgent care specialist. My aunt thumbed emptily through a magazine, glancing at her mother every now and then who was probably dozing off in the hard wooden chair. My cousin W. was at the admissions window explaining my grandmother’s symptoms to the receptionist who typed away as he listed off the fatigue, the pains, etc. She stopped, pink fingernails poised in mid air, when my cousin described how confused and plain tired my grandmother seemed to be. The receptionist smiled politely and picked up the phone, asking for a team to come up to the front. A moment later, my aunt roused my grandmother and held her hand as she made her way to the open door that led to the emergency department. It would be the last time my aunt would be able to touch her mother.
That evening, May 4, my grandmother was admitted to the hospital: first urgent care, then the emergency department, and finally the Intensive Care Unit. The doctors suspected that she had contracted COVID-19, something that was confirmed the following day when her test came back positive.
My grandmother was admitted to the hospital with failing health. She had a pretty severe case of pneumonia and because she hadn’t eaten in several days, her blood sugar was perilously high. She had trouble breathing and was sedated and put on a ventilator within hours of being admitted to the hospital. They flipped my grandmother’s frail body onto her stomach to give her lungs a chance to heal. Given her advanced age, the doctors warned my father and my aunts that everyone should hope for the best, but brace for the worst.
That entire first week my grandmother oscillated between life and death. I spoke to my father multiple times a day, stammering to find the words to cheer him up, to offer him solace, to comfort him and assuage his anxieties. We never mentioned the fact that my siblings and I hadn’t spoken to my grandmother in nearly three years. He knew we loved her still and were just as worried as he was about her health and well-being.
Then, a week after she was in the hospital, she started responding to treatments. Her pneumonia was subsiding. The potency of the ventilator was being reduced gradually so that she could begin to breathe on her own again. They were going to try to wake her up and see how she responded. The doctors even spoke about what her discharge plans were, igniting all of our hearts with hope.
But, alas, it was all in vain. Wednesday of this week my grandmother’s pulse and blood pressure began to weaken. Doctors found scar tissue in her lungs and yet another nascent infection. Plus she had a fever of nearly 104ºF (40ºC). And then, on Thursday, May 21, my aunt received a phone call, saying that my grandmother would most likely not make it through the day and that she and one other person should come to say their final goodbyes. She called my father, who in some ways was my grandmother’s favorite, and shared the news with him. My mother drove them to the hospital for the sad affair.
Because of the pandemic, my father and aunt were only allowed to see their mother from behind a glass screen. They had to suit up with masks and hospital gowns and would only be allowed 15 minutes to somehow communicate their love to their mother who lay dying just five or six feet from where they stood behind the glass door. My father sent us a picture of my grandmother lying on her deathbed: tubes going into her mouth and nose, her hair messy and unfamiliar looking. She was evidently thinner and her head was cocked to one side as if in exhaustion. It was the shell of the grandmother I’d known and loved all these years. I broke down into tears at seeing that image and knew that she was going to leave this realm within hours, if not minutes. And half a world away, I also felt the first stabs of remorse.
I visited Los Angeles for Christmas in 2019, back when the coronavirus was still a distant rumor that hadn’t yet upended our lives.
The day before I caught my flight back to Barcelona this past Christmas, I was driving back to my parents’ house in my father’s car when I passed my aunt’s home. My grandmother, who I hadn’t seen in more than two years at that point, was slowly getting out of the car, holding a small pot that was probably filled with her homemade tamales, a food we all loved as children. I pumped the brakes, taking in her familiar form: the sloped back, the defiant auburn hair, the deep aging lines. She looked the same way she always did, and for a moment I experienced that same childish hope that my grandmother was somehow immortal.
When I got to my parents’ house, I turned off the engine and sat in my father’s car. The keys swung in the ignition. My aunt lived less than a 3-minute walk from my parents’ house. Go say hello. Bury the hatchet. She might not be here when you get back, I thought. I traced the edges of the car keys in my hand and saw my mother part the curtains to see where I was.
In the end, I let my pride win out. I’ve gone over a litany of regrets. I should have apologized, should have walked over there and let my grandma think she was right because she’s old and I have a lifetime to get over it but she might not have much time left. I should have just ignored whatever she said about my mother, chalk it up to her old age, and laugh about it later with my siblings over a beer. I know now that the right thing to have done was to let down my guard, express the pain I felt, to express mutual forgiveness while there was still time. But I made a mistake and was proud and selfish. I’ve gone to fancy schools and glimpsed the complexities of the human soul, but I was too proud and too blind to see the opportunity that the universe had given me that afternoon in Los Angeles.
I know that it’s useless to rehash old sources of contention and that, despite my grandmother and I not speaking for the last few years of her life, she forgave me before she passed away. As I have forgiven her. But this is something that I will expiate for a long time to come. Grief is a backbreaking teacher and does not allow you to forget anything easily. I feel that there is an urgent lesson to learn in the darkness.
So yes, I’ll say it out loud: I regret not going to see my grandmother the day before I flew back to Los Angeles. Yes, she insulted my mother and hurt my brother deeply, but just as I believe in the all-forgiving power of the universe, I also believe in the limitless capacity of the human heart. Though we made the decision that was right for me and my immediate family at the time in terms of cutting folks off, I should have set the example and expressed my forgiveness and made peace before it was too late. Of course, back in what seems like another time, I was afraid that time would be the one to snatch her away from us. In the end, though, the same virus I laughed at in February was the same one that would take her life in May.
Oh, how I loved my grandma deeply, fully, truly. And I know that she loved me, too. I don’t think my grandma hated my mom, but a series of misunderstandings on both sides prevented their relationship from becoming anything more than a simple formality. (They never even spoke to each other as tú, using always the formal Usted.) There is also the inability to communicate effectively that seems to run in our blood, something which I had to actively learn early on. Despite all this, I remind myself that wherever my grandmother is right now, she has forgiven every wrong whether real or perceived and is showering every single one of us with divine light.
But I know I could have done things better and could have said goodbye to my grandmother just as my instinct told me to do back in December. I might have been the mediator to heal so much pain. But the wound was still too fresh. I learned my lesson about the poison that pride brings into your heart, and it’s a lesson that has cost me dearly. I am not ashamed to say that I am disappointed in myself.
Because remorse, unremedied, is hard to cure when someone is gone forever. And for me, there’s the matter of the living to attend to.
I learned about my grandmother’s passing at the exact same time that my parents did. I was on the balcony, getting some fresh air, when I thought I heard my phone ringing. I’d been on the phone all day and decided that I would see who called in a couple of minutes. But I felt a gnawing urgency begin to grow, so I checked my phone. There were no missed calls.
Perplexed, I decided to call home, in case there had been some kind of connection error or something of the sort. My mother picked up. Her voice was hoarse from crying. I’d barely said hello when I heard my father’s phone ring in the background. I could hear my mom breathing rapidly into the phone. My aunt, the same one who had taken my grandmother to the hospital, was wailing into the phone.
Ya está, my father said to my mother. Roughly translated: It’s over.
I held the phone and stared off into space. She’s gone. My mother was crying softly into the phone, and I cradled it against my ear.
Later that same day, my sister went to my aunt’s house. She went to support our father, who had gone there to be with his sibling to mourn together. Along with my cousins and uncle, they all sat on the blue sofas in alternating periods of tears and stunned silence.
Just as my sister was getting up to leave, there was a knock on the door. My aunt dried her eyes and opened it. On the other side was an array of relatives—the same cousins, aunts and uncles that we had stopped speaking to before the wedding. My sister said that it all happened so suddenly: the peal of grief when my aunt saw her siblings assembled to mourn their deceased mother, the filling of the living room and kitchen with people she hadn’t seen in years. I imagine that a tense fist formed in the pit of my sister’s stomach, watching to see what would happen next.
No one, however, seemed to even remember why they were angry in the first place. My sister said that our aunts hugged her immediately, wailing into her shoulder, apologizing fervently. My sister was taken aback and did what she felt was right: she embraced them. Because grief at that moment was the sad thing that was uniting everyone.
But grief is also very complex. We all grieve in our own ways. My grandfather, who lived with my grandmother on and off for nearly forty years, did not at first seem to react to the news of her passing. He asked simply if anyone knew where my grandma’s identity documents were so he could alert the authorities of her passing. Some seemed to take offense at his reaction, but I would like to think that he was stunned by the news and thought about practical things that must be done.
My mother is also grieving in her own way. The family we are estranged from invited her over to the house to be together. But my mother, who has also been mourning for my grandmother and lamenting the fact that they were unable to make peace, would not go. She went for a walk and cried as she circled the park time and again. I must admit that I share her pain and would not have gone to that house either that night.
After my grandmother Ángela and Tía A. died in the span of less than a year, no one on my father’s side of the family except for one of my aunts, the one who lives closest to my parents, offered their condolences. Not a single text message or Facebook comment or phone call. Basic decency would suggest that despite any feuds, such unimaginable loss is enough to break the bonds of ego and reach out to console.
Now, my mother feels their pain because she walked the same dark path. She, of course, wishes she could console that side of the family as well. But after so many years of mistreatment and seeing that they did not deign to offer condolences, she needed time to decide whether or not she wants to make peace. I have the same opinion.
We buried her on Friday, May 28th, roughly a month after she’d started feeling the initial symptoms from the coronavirus. After she passed, several days went by without us knowing if we would be able to bury her or if, given the fact that she died of complications related to COVID-19, she would have to be cremated. Culturally, the latter option felt jarring to my family, as we believe in burial in order to have a place to remember our deceased. In the end, her body was cleared for burial, and because my grandmother had paid for her arrangements nearly twenty years earlier, we simply had to call the funeral home to make sure everything was squared away.
Given the pandemic, the funeral could not be the traditional large gathering of family and friends. Indeed, there were other restrictions: only five people (my father and four siblings) were allowed to view my grandmother’s body in the casket for a maximum of 15 minutes. Only ten people would be allowed to watch my grandmother’s casket being lowered into the ground while the family pastor delivered a eulogy. Once my grandmother was fully buried, then the family could assemble around the grave for a final goodbye.
I couldn’t travel to Los Angeles to accompany my family as they laid her to rest because of the situation, so my dad patched me into a group call (around midnight my time) so that I could see my grandmother’s body. If you want to see her, my father said.
I debated as to whether or not I wanted to see my grandmother–who has always been full of life and who laughed from deep within her belly–in that state. If I really wanted my last memory of her to be lying there, deaf to all our cries and blind to all our tears. In the end, I assented, and said that yes, I’d like to see my grandma one last time.
My father got the camera as close as he could and held it still for about a minute. My grandmother was lying in an plush oak coffin. A gold-colored cross was emblazoned on the inside of the open casket in such a way that for a moment, I somehow imagined it being the first thing my grandmother would see if she were to wake up from her eternal slumber.
Unlike the dead people that I’d seen at other times in my life, my grandmother didn’t look like she was sleeping though. Her skin seemed jaundiced and her hair was combed neatly in a way that I know she never would have done herself. My grandmother’s hands were crossed and placed over her belly button. But above all it was her expression that made me pause: no inkling of a smile, no restful countenance. She looked tense to me and her head was propped up too high on the pillow, giving her a double chin. Her knuckles, still bruised from all the IV drips, matched the purple of the dress that my aunt had chosen to bury her in. It was at that moment, seeing my abuela lying in her coffin, looking unnatural and unfamiliar to me, that I began to understand how much a body is really just a body when no soul lives within.
She’s gone, I said to my father.
She’s gone, he repeated.
I watched as my family began to gather around what would soon by my grandmother’s final resting place. Her coffin was piled high with flowers of all colors and I could hear some of my aunts and cousins crying as the pastor read some verses from the Bible. My brother and his wife were also kind enough to let me virtually participate in the ceremony itself by throwing a handful of dirt on my behalf onto my grandmother’s coffin once it was lowered into the ground.
The moment of the burial itself was planned down to the minutest detail by the funeral home staff. As soon as everyone had said their last goodbye, my family stepped back from the grave and let the workers do their job. An excavator piled dirt on my grandmother’s coffin, grabbing earth from the heap one, two, three, four, five, six times until the hole was filled unevenly and lumpy. A couple of workers shoveled the remaining dirt into the grave and began to pat it down. A different machine, one that compresses dirt, was then brought in. It made a terrible thudding sound as it patted down the earth that had been piled on top of my grandmother, compressing it, making it even, hard, compact. For ten eternal minutes it beat the earth, making it uniform and level. Then yet another worker came and watered the newly-packed grave. I fought back images of the water snaking its way into the earth and slowly dripping onto my grandmother’s coffin. Finally, once the machines and workers had been cleared, the funeral director took a pre-fitted square of astroturf and laid it over what was now my grandma’s grave. I watched the entire thing silently on my phone, not saying a word, imagining my grandmother’s taut expression and swollen knuckles lying under so much sodden earth.
Love, that “ever-fixèd mark,” knows no bounds. It surpasses the limits of death and time and can outlast even the decay and dust of our bones. It is this knowledge, and this alone, which has helped me navigate the turbulence of grief and negotiate its complicated web. My grandmother Amalia is in a better place and has no more earthly worries. In the end, it’s up to us–the living–to grieve, to mourn, but eventually, to continue walking.