This is a story about death in the age of COVID-19. It is the story of one death — my mother’s — but it is emblematic of hundreds that are starting to happen, quietly and quickly, across the country. A coronavirus death is heartbreakingly lonely, and it is followed by a hurried and isolated burial. There is no shiva or gathering or wake afterwards. There are no casseroles or bagels to be eaten in community. There is just shock at how suddenly a life has ended, and fear for the life that might be next.
I live in Berkeley, and my mother lived in Queens. New York City is the epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S., and Queens is one of the epicenters of the pandemic in New York.
On Sunday, March 22 at about 5 a.m. EST, my 88-year-old mother became a statistic in the city that she loved. She was one of the first 100 people to die of COVID-19 in New York City. In a city of more than 8.5 million people — in a city where she had both family and friends living nearby — my mother died alone. Because of the current hospital visitation rules, no one — least of all my 93-year-old father — was allowed to be near her to ease her pain and fear.
In the age of COVID-19, social distancing rules extend even to cemeteries. And after dying alone, my mother was allowed a mere four people at her funeral: three family members and a rabbi. So even at her funeral, my mother — who loved the excitement of crowds — was virtually alone. Only my sister, her husband and my niece (who all live in New York) were there in person.
My father could not attend his wife’s funeral, as he might now be infected. He has to quarantine himself and was forced to watch the burial from home, alone, via a live stream. In an ironic twist, my nephew — who is a Millennial and also lives in New York — believes he has the virus, which he caught from his roommate, so he could not attend either. He joined the funeral from his bedroom. (Doctors refuse to test him and his roommate because they are young and have no previous medical conditions.)
The rest of our nuclear family — my husband and myself, and our son — joined my mother’s funeral via FaceTime. It was a surreal experience to “attend” my mother’s funeral while standing in my living room in Berkeley. Because of the shelter-in-place orders, we did not even consider flying to New York. So my son joined us from his apartment in San Francisco, and the three of us on the West Coast were experiencing spring outside our windows as my sister and her family stood in the wind of a late March snowstorm.
Because of the pandemic, they were not allowed inside the cemetery office to conduct business, or inside the chapel to conduct any part of the service. All arrangements, payments and services had to be executed outside, in the frigid air. It was painful to watch them huddle against the wet snow as they attempted to hold cell phones while sheltering under umbrellas and trying to stay out of the wind. The inclement weather perfectly reflected the grimness and isolation of the event.
My father couldn’t manage FaceTime, so my niece streamed to him on one cell phone while the rest of us were able to “congregate” on a separate FaceTime screen. When my father spoke, his voice went from my sister’s cell phone, through the wind, into my niece’s cell phone and from there to FaceTime. It was almost impossible to hear anything he said.
“Yisgadal ve’yiskadash sheme Rabbo,” intoned the rabbi, chanting quickly through the Mourner’s Kaddish. This is an ancient Aramaic prayer that has survived through seven centuries of Jewish history and suffering. “Exalted and hallowed be His great Name.”
One of the primary commandments of Judaism is that Jews pray in community. Normally, 10 adult Jews must be present to form a minyan (quorum) before any prayer service — let alone a funeral — can begin. My parents belong to a very traditional Conservative synagogue, but the fact that only four people were physically present at the service was not even remarked upon by the rabbi. Such are the times we live in.
No underlying conditions
“I can’t believe how quickly it happened,” my father said. None of us could. A mere 10 days ago, my mother had been a vibrant, energetic octogenarian who lived at home unassisted, gardened and went to the gym three times a week. She had no “underlying conditions” other than her age. She went to a chair-yoga class once a week; had physical therapy; and played bridge on her tablet. She also loved Judge Judy and every other judge-y show and watched several every day. She was of the belief that there was a clear right and a clear wrong, and she enjoyed watching judges who would put everyone in their place.
But like all people pushing 90, my mother suffered from all kinds of aches and pains and mild ailments. Visiting a wide array of doctors and specialists took up several hours a week. The doctors rarely found anything seriously wrong, but my mother liked the reassurance. She loved going to Broadway shows and musicals; she loved the opera and ballet; she loved visiting with her grandchildren, and she expected her life to continue in more or less the same fashion for years to come.
My mom had to stay active at all times, and she continued going to the gym until shortly before she became ill. She also didn’t like to have other people picking her produce and groceries, so she insisted on going to the store herself rather than having food delivered, as her family was urging. Just 12 days ago, she took a long walk around her neighborhood. We will never know where she caught the virus, but we did find out — after her death — that she had tested positive for COVID-19.
My dad, blessedly, is still asymptomatic, and we are all hoping he will remain healthy. The doctors won’t test him as long as he shows no symptoms. So while my mother became a statistic when she arrived at the emergency room, my father and nephew and his roommate have all been (presumably) exposed, but they have not been tested. As such, these three people are not part of the official COVID-19 count in New York. This is a small example of why this pandemic is so much larger than the daily statistics suggest.
My mom first complained of “not feeling right” about a week before her death, but the first I heard of it was about three days into the malady, on Wednesday, March 18. My son called to say he talked to my parents, and my mom had a fever of 101 and a dry cough. He has been paying close attention to the pandemic long before my husband and I did, so I took his concerns seriously and immediately called my parents.
My dad still drives (despite my strenuous objections), neither of them uses a walker or even hearing aids, and they both appear 10 years younger than they are. Despite their unusually good health, they are both mild hypochondriacs who have been known to conflate a muscle strain with “bone cancer.” I wasn’t sure what to expect this time.
It was the later afternoon in California, early evening in New York, and my dad said my mom was sleeping. I suggested maybe he call a doctor about her symptoms and he said he would. On Thursday, I called again, and my father said the doctor had prescribed something and it would be delivered that afternoon. “The pharmacy doesn’t have the complete dosage because of the shortages,” he said, “so they will send some pills today and then more tomorrow.” I talked to my mom briefly — she was in bed, and it seemed to take her a very long time to locate the handset and get on the phone. When she spoke, she sounded like someone who had the flu: not good, but just flu-miserable. I never heard her cough, but then we only spoke for a minute or so.
I couldn’t get a whole lot of information out of my father either, so I called back on Friday, March 20. My mom was up, and my dad said I could talk to her. Again, it took her a very long time to get on the phone. “How do you feel?” I asked. “Better,” she said in a normal voice. She sounded less sick than the day before, and I figured the medication was working. But when I asked her a further question, she just didn’t answer. “Mom?” I said. “Mom? Mom?” I waited 10 or 15 seconds, but could not get another answer out of her.
My parents have two lines at their house, so I called my dad on the other line. “Mom just disappeared on me,” I said. “Yes, she does that,” he said, as though this were a perfectly normal thing. He told me her fever was now 103. That did not sound better. “I think you should call the doctor again,” I said. He did that, and this time the doctor said she should discontinue the medication he had just prescribed.
I asked my dad to read me the name of the medication and turns out it was related to treating pneumonia. I looked it up online, and sure enough one of the side-effects was disorientation. Perfect — problem solved. Stop the medication, and the “side effect” will disappear.
It turns out my sister also talked to my mom’s doctor on Friday and asked whether my mom should be admitted to the hospital. The doctor said no, the hospitals were overwhelmed with patients right now and chances of infection were high. My mom had not yet been tested for the virus. “He basically said, ‘Take two Tylenol and call me in the morning’,” my sister said. So my mom stayed home on Friday night.
When my dad woke up early on Saturday morning, he found my mother on the floor. She had fallen when going to the bathroom, and could not get up. She was still very disoriented. At this point, my father called the ambulance, and they came very quickly.
The two orderlies had trouble lifting my mom off the floor, but they managed to get her in a wheelchair and then lifted her and the wheelchair down a long series of steps from the house to the ambulance. “I couldn’t go with her,” my father said sadly. “It all happened so quickly. I probably should have changed her clothes!” I assured him that pajamas were fine for hospital admission, and there was no time — or need — to change clothes. He also forgot to give my mom her cell phone, but by then she was so disoriented it probably would not have made a difference.
“My dad called to say a doctor had called him. ‘It’s bad,’ he said. ‘I think he is trying to prepare me.’”
By the time I woke up in California and called home on Saturday, my mother was in the emergency room of Long Island Jewish Medical Center. Early on she could not say what her name was or where she was, but apparently later in the day she was able to say her name. I felt comforted that she was in the ER because I knew she would get more focused care than if she was admitted to a regular hospital room.
Sometime on Saturday afternoon, my dad called to say a doctor had called him. “It’s bad,” he said. “I think he is trying to prepare me.” What makes you think that? I asked. Turns out the doctor had asked about whether my mom would want to be put on a ventilator. The doctor explained that these machines were very uncomfortable, and some patients had to be restrained to keep them from pulling the tubes out of their nose.
My father explained that my mother had signed a living will years ago, and it stipulated that she did not want to be kept alive “artificially.” There was a specific provision related to ventilators, and she did not want that intervention. My father was firm on that, and that’s what he told the doctor.
At this point, I decided to call the emergency room to hear first-hand what was going on. I spoke to a nurse who said that my mother was still breathing on her own. In fact, they were trying to move her to a regular hospital room — they were just waiting for a room with a heart monitor to become available. The nurse said she had sprayed some oxygen into my mom’s nose, but my mother had not even required an oxygen mask yet. A ventilator seemed very far down the road at this point, and I felt reassured. This was around 4 p.m. our time, around 7 p.m. EST on Saturday, March 21. I didn’t want to burden the already-overwhelmed hospital staff, so I decided I wouldn’t call again until the next morning.
On Sunday, for some reason, I woke up at 5 a.m. and felt wide awake. I am not a morning person, so I decided to just stay in bed for a while. Just before 6 a.m., my husband — who is an early riser — came into the room, saw I was awake, and told me that my dad had just called.
My mother was gone, he said. She had died a couple of hours earlier.
It all happened so quickly. It was all so unexpected. How did my mom — who spent the vast majority of her time in her house and garden — end up being one of the first casualties in a city with 8.5 million other candidates? It is hard to wrap one’s mind around, especially from a continent away.
So on Sunday afternoon — after talking again with my dad and my sister and my son — I decided to go out for a walk in my central Berkeley neighborhood and try to get some perspective. Even though I always walk the same general area, I noticed some unusual things that particular day — things I had never noticed before. Someone had put a striking new wooden bench on the sidewalk and inscribed it with a quote from Moby Dick. “For when they did enter it, it was something as a street-door enters a house, turning inwards …”
And then on Bancroft Street, there was an old, ripped-up poster I had somehow managed to ignore on previous walks. “Contains its own destruction” it read. Say, what?
And then I noticed a beautiful magnolia in full bloom. It stood proudly outside Congregation Beth Israel. If my mother lived in Berkeley, this might be the congregation she would join. She also loved flowers, so I decided to spend some time taking photos of the blooms, in her memory. The light was shining through the top branches, and I snapped a quick shot. The result was totally unexpected: it appears as though a heart is shining through the leaves. Could it be?
The light at top right shining through a magnolia tree appears heart-shaped. Photo: Daphne White
I continued taking photos with my phone, and as time went on I noticed that some of the leaves began looking somewhat ghostly, more like art prints than photos. I wasn’t using any special effects filters or doing anything unusual. What was happening?
I decided to sit a while on the steps outside the synagogue because the building itself is, of course, closed. But the doors have gorgeous metal-work on them, and I noticed that someone had tucked two flowers — a mother and a very different species of daughter? — into one of the metal cut-outs. I snapped another shot.
“Yisbarach veyishtabach veyitapa’ar veyitromam…” May it be blessed, and praised, and glorified, and held in honor, viewed with awe, embellished, and revered …
As I write these words from the Kaddish prayer, my father is quarantined at home in Queens, deprived of the shiva ritual that Judaism offers mourners. This is a practice where the home of the deceased is open for one week, and people are invited to come and comfort the family, share reminiscences, and, most importantly, break bread together. Instead, my father is constantly answering the phone, as people from his various communities call to check in on him. “I can’t breathe or even have time to eat,” he told me the day of the funeral.
The next day, still feeling healthy, he said he has decided to add two chapters to a memoir he had been working on for the past several years. He has not shared this memoir with his daughters yet, but it sounds as though he is getting ready to unwrap it now.
“I am going to write a chapter about your mother,” he said. “And then I am going to write an epilogue. If there is time.”