Disaster comes in different forms and orders of magnitude. I won’t attempt to define them here except for one: catastrophes that you’re happy your parents weren’t alive to see. That’s an admittedly personal and subjective metric. And generally more applicable to those of us of a certain age whose parents are less likely to be around. But some events are so profound and disturbing you’re glad your mother and father were spared the experience.
By my count we’ve suffered two of them in the last twenty years – the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and now the pandemic. I might add a third recent calamity: the storming of the United States Capitol. People are resilient and can live through almost anything. But there’s a unique class of experiences that challenge the spirit, that undermine one’s faith in humanity. If your parents were good people and were fortunate enough to lead rich, long lives you’re grateful they didn’t survive to be subjected to the worst of human nature.
My wife felt that way when her father, a World War II hero and all-around virtuous community-minded person died three months before two planes crashed into the World Trade Center. He’d survived the battle of Anzio in January, 1944 so he could have surmounted 9/11. But it’s a blessing he didn’t have to.
I feel the same way about my mother and the pandemic, though for more practical reasons. She died two years ago last week, and almost exactly one year since a mysterious virus started spreading in Wuhan, China. It’s not that I hadn’t previously thought about how lucky we were that she didn’t have to risk catching the virus at 94. But Joe Biden’s raw words commemorating the victims as the death toll passed half a million, especially his acknowledgement of the peculiar suffering of those who didn’t have the chance to say goodbye to loved ones, brought home our good fortune.
I realize it’s bizarre to think of someone dying as a good thing but my mother’s death couldn’t have been more gracious, for her or for us. She was admitted to the hospital with pneumonia and grew so weak that even hospice was ruled out. So the hospital moved her into a single room, thoughtfully rolled in a table filled with snacks and our vigil began. My last coherent conversation with her occurred eight days before she died. Testing her memory and also just because I was interested, I asked her the name of her beloved German nanny and what became of her.
She immediately produced the name – Frieda Schnap – and believed she’d died in London during the war. I’ll have to do more research; a cursory search of her name on Ancestry.com suggests she survived the war. But the answer proved my mother’s memory, at least her long-term memory, was intact.
When she and the snacks were moved into that single room her children and grandchildren had time to gather from Wyoming, Kentucky, Texas and Brooklyn to say their goodbyes. The nurses and doctors assumed she’d go quickly but she lingered for several more days. The hospice nurse that had come to examine her and had pronounced her a poor candidate for hospice was surprised at her resilience and described her as a “tough lady.”
It was an unlikely description because in some ways my mother was among the most fragile people I’d ever met. She was so physically weak that we laughed off her threats when we misbehaved as children. My father, her enforcer, was a different story.
But in another way the nurse had it right. I’d never met anyone more stubborn than my mother, and occasionally more maddening. One quick example: she and I were standing outdoors one afternoon and I directed, at least I tried to direct, her attention to the beauty of the full moon burning brightly in the afternoon sky.
My mother refused to look up. “The sun and moon are never out at the same time,” she stated flatly. We went back forth like that for about five minutes until I finally got her to raise her eyes. “That’s not the moon,” she said. “It’s a round cloud.”
Love isn’t an element that one finds anywhere on the Periodic Table alongside hydrogen and potassium. But I’d argue that it’s a mystical property, forming an almost palpable web of connections between people just beyond the visible light range.
Those bonds were conspicuous as her children and grandchildren took turns holding her hand and, once she’d stopped being fed, wetting her lips with a tiny sponge on a stick that resembled a lollipop.
While sad, I don’t want to give the impression that the vigil was tragic. My brother ordered in from the Pastrami Queen deli across the street. We observed cocktail hour every evening because in her later years my mother remained extremely sociable, as long as she wasn’t required to leave her bed. My daughters and nieces used to visit her at her apartment, pour themselves a glass of wine, and regale her with their social lives.
When she finally left there were three of us in the room – my wife Debbie, Wong her housekeeper of thirty years, and me. I was holding one of her hands, Wong the other as she took her last breath.
When I heard Joe Biden’s acknowledgement that “I know what it’s like not to be there when it happens,” I thought how fortunate I was to be there when it happened. It’s an immense privilege to be present when the person who gave you life departs hers.
It would be presumptuous of me to try to offer comfort to those who were denied that opportunity during the pandemic. Perhaps the only comfort I can offer is my belief that one of the miraculous properties of love is that those bonds remain just as potent at a distance.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.