• StevenF

A Sad Anniversary

Two years ago today is the last time I saw Nena (Isaias' mom) in person. Who would have thought then that we'd be where we are now?

In some ways, it feels so terribly long ago, and in others, it feels achingly recent. That day we were together felt carefree, innocent, and fun.

Now, exactly two years later, our lives have been shattered by so much grief, and the void left from Nena's passing from COVID has left an enormous my life, in Isaias' life, in his family members' lives.

It feels a bit ironic that today, instead of going to see Isaias' mom as we were wont to do when she was still alive, we are having a meeting with the attorney who is handling her probate case.

Because Nena didn't leave a valid will, because her estate is tied up with debt, because an already sluggish probate court system has been even further crippled by the pandemic, and because the attorney generously offered to do our case pro bono, we are still dealing with Nena's estate two years later, and it will almost assuredly take another six months or more to see an end to dealing with these matters.

I don't want to say too much out of respect for Isaias' privacy, but Nena's death unfortunately has fractured his family in a way I did not anticipate and has left his siblings and him in various states of heart wrenching grief.

Nena often felt like the center of the family's universe, and her passing has left the ship rudderless, so to speak. Isaias' family has always been a tight-knit group of people who gather often to communicate and celebrate, but since Nena's passing, things just haven't been the same. In some ways, it almost feels life without her has left some of her children directionless.

I've also seen changes in my husband that have been painful to watch. Isaias and his mom were enormously close, much as my own mom and I were. He called her nearly every day. We visited her often. He loved her so very much. Life without her has been difficult for him. Add on top of that the loss of one of his closest friends; the disappointment of losing an opportunity he was expecting; the passing of our two cats, Jasper and Trooper; the recent news of another friend's possibly terminal cancer returning; and new job stresses that have come with his relatively recent promotion, and it has been a hugely challenging and often sad two years for my dear husband.

I think fondly of that enjoyable day with Nena two years ago. A Red Lobster had recently opened near Isaias' and my house, and I had asked Nena if she would like to go. Isaias and I had recently returned home from Belgium, where we had gone for Isaias' job, and Nena had also been busy, so we had never quite been able to pin down a date until March 14th.

When the time finally came to have our date, the pandemic had already reared its ugly head in the US, and there was already talk of a possible lockdown occurring (which happened just three days later here in Nevada, if I recall correctly) to "flatten the curve." There was a sense of nervousness in the air. Isaias and I had recently gone grocery shopping to stock up on supplies for a possible lockdown, and there was a real feeling of controlled panic exhibited by many of our fellow shoppers.

Nena and I had considered canceling our date and rescheduling when things calmed down—not knowing, of course, that this pandemic and its effects would last much longer than we anticipated or hoped or that the ravages of COVID would decimate our family and take Nena's life.

But we decided to brave it in the end, and I'm so glad we did. I have to admit that I was a little nervous to be eating out. Although our cases were low at the time, COVID had hit Nevada around March 5th, I believe. Both President Trump and Governor Sisolak had already declared a state of emergency. I think Nevada's first COVID death would come two days after our Red Lobster outing. So even though things were relatively calm in Nevada, I still felt a state of tension and anxiety about being out in public because I knew the disease had hit our state and was very contagious.

But Nena and I had really great time, and because it was our last real face-to-face encounter, I cherish that day. I can't remember what each of us ordered, but I do know we shared a dessert (a Brownie Overboard with ice cream, I believe), and I know that she loved the tea she ordered so much that she asked the server what brand it was (Revolution Golden Chamomile), and I later bought her a pack of 30 bags from Amazon as a gift, which she never got to finish due to her passing.

I took a photo to commemorate our day, and this turned out to be the last photo of Nena and me:

When we had scheduled the lunch, I was supposed to have had rehearsal for the play I was getting ready to open, Waiting for Lefty, but we had had our last rehearsal the night before and had been told we would be canceling the show, which we did.

Isaias and I took the lockdown very seriously. We did not go out much—certainly nowhere with other people—and so we did not get to see Nena, as would have been our usual fashion. I know this was particularly hard for Isaias, who was so accustomed to visiting his mom often. But we wanted to keep her safe and we wanted to keep ourselves safe. I did talk and text Nena on the phone, and we also had a Facebook Messenger video chat.

One time, the only other time I interacted with Nena in person, Isaias and I brought her some supplies, but we did not go in. She was on the other side of a screen door, but it was bright outside, and the house was dark, and so I could only hear her and my sister-in-law, but I could not see either of them. We, of course, greeted each other and told each other how much we loved one another. And that is the last in-person interaction, as brief as it was, that I had with her.

As diligent as we tried to be at protecting ourselves and trying to keep our family safe, there was a sense that they were not being as careful in Isaias' mom's household as we would have hoped, and being a large, family-oriented unit of people, COVID made its way into the family pretty quickly and with alacrity, taking several prisoners. It hit Isaias' two brothers, his sister, his sister-in-law, and, of course, his mom. Isaias' brothers and mom had to be hospitalized, Isaias' mom going in on what should have been a day of familial celebration, Mothers' Day.

It was a gravely stressful time, and there were times when we were uncertain whether any of the hospitalized would survive. Isaias' sister, who declined to go to the hospital but probably should have, was quite ill during this time. Only Isaias' sister-in-law had less severe symptoms.

During this time, Isaias and shuttled around to deliver supplies and groceries outside Isaias' mom's house, where Isaias' sister-in-law was alone and sick with COVID. We would go to the two different hospitals where Isaias' brothers and mom were, where we would sit in the parking lot and pray for their recoveries. We would have difficult conversations with members of the various medical staffs and with each sibling to let them know the statuses of the ill. It was a really hard time.

And like was a yo-yo or a roller coaster or emotions being given hopeful news one day and devastating news the next. Keep in mind, this coronavirus was still so new and doctors were still experimenting and figuring out how to best treat it. Things that normally should have worked weren't working and the virus was behaving in unpredictable ways.

And there just came a time when it was too difficult for Nena to breathe on her own, and Isaias' brother, sister-in-law, Isaias, me, and Nena had one of the most difficult, sad Facetime conversations I have ever had to have. Doctors were recommending she be put on a ventilator, and we were calling to make sure she was okay with that. This would turn out to be the last conversation I ever had with Nena.

The conversation still haunt Isaias and me.

I hope I can come home.

That's what Nena said. And Isaias answered, "No, you’re gonna come home, Mom. You are. You’re gonna come home."

He told her the doctors wanted to put her on a ventilator and asked if she was okay with that, and she replied, "If it’s gonna make it feel better." "If you guys think that it’s gonna help me."

Her last thoughts were of her family. She was concerned about the other sick members of the family and asked about them and how everybody else was doing. She of course told us she loved us. We prayed for her. We joked with her. We told her we loved her and urged her to get better. The thing I remember so much from that video chat was how kind, caring, and compassionate the nurse was. I never knew her name, but we were so grateful for her and how she treated Nena.

And that was it. Nena went on the ventilator a short time later. She spent her birthday, a day that normally would have been spent taking her out to eat, in a hospital on a ventilator.

She was a strong woman, and there were times when we thought she would pull through. But eventually it was just too hard for her. She was too tired. Her blood pressure was too low. Her kidneys were in danger. And she died.

And of course, due to the contagiousness and potential fatality of the disease, we could not visit her at any time during her illness. We could not be with with her or see her in person or comfort her, as a family would be accustomed to doing in the event of a serious life-threatening illness. We could not have the kind of funeral she would have normally had had COVID not prevented it.

The funeral was sparsely attended in person and mostly seen through streaming. We were all spread apart and masked as individual familes. Isaias two brothers, sister-in-law, and sister, still dealing with their own COVID battles themselves, could not attend the service. Of the infected, only Isaias' sister Ruth came to the funeral home. The mortuary staff had arranged to wheel Nena's casket outside, and Ruth's housemate drove his car next to the casket so Ruth could be near her mother's body.

Unable to actually get out and touch the body or casket, Ruth wailed, cried, and sang a hymn from inside the car while we, her helpless family members, watched from a distance, unable to provide her any comfort. Then, when she was done, we watched her and her housemate drive away.

The funeral staff had even recommended we not touch the body as they were not sure at that early juncture of COVID if it might still be infected.

The burial was the closest we all came to being together, although we were all trying to be careful to socially distance from each other, so there was not the kind of hugging or pats of comfort one might see at a normal funeral. Isaias' brothers could only say goodbye to their mother over a video call, and Isaias' sister and sister-in-law, still positive, were allowed to say their goodbyes separately after all of us had done so and just before the body was buried.

When Isaias went to get Nena's belongings, they had all been put in a protective bag and handed to him by an attendant in protective gear. I waited out in the parking lot while he went into the hospital to retrieve the items. We were both fearful he might catch COVID there. Isaias was unable to see his brother, who was still there.

Still not fully knowing at that time how one might catch COVID, we left the bag of his mom's belongings in the trunk of my car and then eventually out in the sun on our back porch for several days before even attempting to touch them or go through them.

One of Isaias' brothers, still weak from his boutique with COVID, was able to go home. He had received one of the first doses in Nevada of the then experimental drug remdesivir and, fortunately fared better than Nena or Isaias' other brother Tony, who ended up being in the hospital for three months.

I remember without fondness those days when we would deliver supplies and food outside the door of Nena's home, where Isaias' brother Joel and sister-in-law were convalescing and also deliver things to the hospital where Tony was. The window to Tony's room was on the ground level and so we could stand outside in the hot sun and talk to him on the phone while looking at his emaciated body through a pane of glass as if he were a zoo animal or a prisoner.

Those were long, arduous, unpleasant days, and the day we finally greeted Tony outside the hospital to take him home was a joyous one indeed, although Tony's have been irreversibly damaged, and he is a shell of who he was before COVID permanently altered his life.

These events irreparably changed our lives, and the void that remains has been so hard to fill for all of us, although life must go on.

I often wonder what condition Nena would be in if she survived. We think she would have had some serious challenges. Maybe her passing was better for her than the health problems she might have been plagued with had she survived. But we miss her incredibly and wish she were still with us. As I said, her passing has been incredibly difficult on Isaias.

Butterflies seem to be a symbol Nena uses to let us know she's still around. When she was sick in the hospital, we left at various locations in the parking lot several metal butterflies Isaias had made for one of his art projects and which Nena had helped him paint.

Attached to each butterfly was a note telling the reader about Isaias' brothers and mom and asking for prayers on their behalf. Since Nena's passing, we have witnessed many occasions when a butterfly or several butterflies came into play and reminded us that Nena's eternal spirit lives on.

The November after Nena died, Isaias was asked to create a Day of the Dead display at the Springs Preserve. He dedicated it to his mom and all the souls who had lost their lives to COVID. This past October, he did another one dedicated to his Mom, his friend who had passed, and our cat Jasper. (Trooper had not yet died at that point.)

At the Day of the Dead celebration, we saw this little butterfly boy, who reminded us of Isaias' mom.

Just last night at my job, a woman passed by me wearing these same wings and of course, Nena came to my mind. It felt like she was saying hi on what was almost the anniversary of our last outing together.

Since Nena's passing, she has been featured in news stories and honored in art pieces and memorials. She would likely be embarrassed by and dismissive of the attention. But she is just one of the nearly 10,000 people in Nevada who have lost their lives to COVID; one of the more than 960,000 US casualties; and one of the 6,000,000 worldwide for whom COVID has been fatal.

This doesn't account for any of the survivors, both those who are still battling or living with the effects of the disease and those who have been left behind by someone who has succumbed to it. There are millions of people, like us, who have stories of the trauma associated with losing someone to COVID.

I think one of the hardest aspects of losing someone to COVID is a lack of closure. Certainly we were not able to comfort or grieve in a way that would have been more normal pre-pandemic. Losing a loved one is always sad and fraught with challenges, but losing Nena this way was especially hard. It has left Isaias especially shattered.

We miss Nena so much. Every day.

I sincerely hope COVID is on the decline, as it seems to be. I hope one day this diseases and its ravages will be but a distant memory. But it has left deep scars on so many.

There is this longing for the way things were. But that can never be. We must move on. We must let go. We must eventually heal. We must continue to live as Nena would have wanted us to.

When Nena was in the hospital, I would text her and also told her in our last video call together that she needed to get better so we could go to Red Lobster again. Alas, it wasn't to be.

But I am forever grateful we had that lovely day two years—a lifetime—ago.

Today, Nena, I celebrate you and all you were to me and to us. We miss you so very much.

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