She came to an ordinary end in this now-ordinary time: sick from Covid-19 in a nursing home, alone, and aged with a disintegrating mind, transferred to a hospital, dead within hours. We can’t know what she really knew of her circumstances or condition in the lead-up; whether she understood the peril of the time or recognized her youngest daughter waving from the car when she looked out her window; whether she registered, on her last day, that it was this daughter’s voice coming from the space-suited figure whose gloved hand held hers in the hospital as she expired.
Everyone has heard this story countless times since the pandemic descended. I have heard it countless times, usually without the gloved hand, the small mercy of this particular death, which came too late to be included in the latest Covid data reported by nursing homes to the CDC’s National Healthcare Safety Network: 58,481 residents dead as of September 27; 245,912 confirmed cases; 141,744 suspected cases. It becomes familiar after seven full months, this raking of the old, the infirm, the enfeebled—about 8,354 nursing home deaths from the virus every month since March.
Naturally, perspective shifts when the number being contemplated is one.
My aunt came of age when a woman’s ordinary destiny was marriage and children. And so she married, and so she had children. And moved to the suburbs, to a ranch house with a reinforced and well-equipped fallout shelter. The children had a collie and a big back yard, and then one of them died.
He was her youngest, her only son, 8 years old. They laid him out in his white communion suit. His skull was fractured when a car plowed into the side of his father’s Buick, and the child’s head was dashed against the inside frame of the backseat. I think it was a Buick. My uncle and the oldest daughter were in the hospital in traction with broken femurs for months without proper healing. Then they had surgery and body casts, and lay for weeks in rented hospital beds set up facing each other in the family room.
And there was Aunt Dolor suddenly in charge, laden with grief and the needs of two who were incapacitated, striving to be cheerful for them, nursing them once home, cooking and cleaning and dreaming up treats, comforting the other child, the little girl who was scared and sad and who decades later would be with her as she ran out of breath. A child myself at the time, riveted by death and injury in the family, I didn’t fully appreciate all that this cost my aunt. She bore it with an often comic sense of fate, as she did her own multiplying health problems as the years progressed, reaching for joy in the service of love, making “a life of abundance every day,” as her granddaughter said—“Grandma Doll.”
Dolor, Dolores; the name means “sorrow.”
Since her death, I have thought about all the women whose work is not recognized in “Those We’ve Lost” newspaper features. Women who spent down their hours home-making, as it used to be called, and who themselves are socially invisible now that they are 80 or 90 or more, in nursing homes, counted in bulk as “vulnerable populations” or “victims of the virus”—as if they had never labored to produce a generation, loved difficult men (or women), cared for aged relatives, mourned a child lost or mutilated, invented recipes and entertainments, invented themselves when the space for that was narrow, had their hand on history’s wheel simply by being.
It isn’t death that’s so terrible; it’s the eclipse of the courage and creativity of living. “At least she didn’t suffer,” people have said, learning that my aunt died within hours of reaching the hospital. It’s what people often say about death, shortchanging the immense undertaking of life.
Scenes From a Pandemic is a collaboration between The Nation and Kopkind, a living memorial to radical journalist Andrew Kopkind, who from 1982–94 was the magazine’s chief political writer and analyst. This series of dispatches from Kopkind’s far-flung network of participants, advisers, guests, and friends is edited by Nation contributor and Kopkind program director JoAnn Wypijewski, and appears weekly on thenation.com and kopkind.org.