A grainy image of a person looking down.

First Person

When Grief Turns to Rage

After losing her father last year, this writer grapples with the preciousness of life and the callousness of those unwilling to take simple steps to protect it.

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Last summer, I wore my mask and stayed home. The very least I could do, even if not required by Georgia’s regulations (or lack thereof). I puttered in the garden, transforming my dusty, overgrown, and uninspired backyard into a perennial wonderland for birds, bees, and butterflies. It had been a traumatizing six months for many of us—the elderly and immunocompromised, children and adults, essential workers and furloughed workers. My best friend had worked in a COVID intensive care unit in New York City throughout March and April 2020 and sent me exhausted texts about working multiple 14-hour shifts in a row—COVID patients on ventilators or COVID patients coming off ventilators, and of course, COVID patients dying. So many dying, she messaged. Unprecedented times, so it seemed. No clear, predictable way through. How to carry on while carrying the weight of our individual and collective fears, anxieties, and nascent hopes? Gardening felt like a hopeful act while waiting for the vaccine.

I summarize what most of us know and experienced across those six months because I must remind myself why I made another choice last summer: My father was dying, and I did not travel from Georgia to New York to be with him in his final days. His cancer, which had been in remission for years, had suddenly returned and metastasized with cruel and ruthless speed. Blessedly, he was mostly without pain, and until the end, he held onto hope that he would pull through and come home and see us all again. Every day on the phone and then on the iPad, I told him I loved him and that I couldn’t wait until I could give him a hug and kiss in person. “Love you, Kerry,” he’d say. “I can’t wait until we are all together again, too. Really, I can’t wait.” 

My Dad died in the hospital while I waited in Georgia. No hug and kiss. No “all together again” until, perhaps, we’ve all passed on from this world. 

I missed my father’s funeral and burial because I was damned if “mah rights” were going to contribute to the spread of COVID and someone else’s father dying as a result. I could not make it in time because of travel restrictions and quarantine requirements in New York. Even if I clicked my heels, I would not have made it in time. Friends had suggested I drive like a bat out of hell, sneak into the state, and lie about quarantining—-an irrational suggestion only because they could see my agony and knew there would be no second chance. But my father was a man of integrity; a lawyer. He did not take a kind view on cheats and sneaks and liars, and I knew he would not want me to risk my life or anyone else’s in a desperate bid to snatch a few more hours from death’s certain grip.

So I stayed home.

In that last week before his death, he overheard my mother and me on the phone talking about my stove’s overheating electric coils. “Let me talk to Kerry,” he said. My mother handed over the phone. “No, no, that’s not good,” he said. “We’ll help you with a new stove. Go to Lowe’s tomorrow.” I was ashamed talking with him about such mundane things and heard in his voice and his breath the effort it took for him to talk for those few minutes. My father, however, always worried about his family’s safety. He sent emails about recalls, warranties, insurance reminders, impending storms, and a tiger on the loose in Atlanta. He was an attorney, and his area of specialization was product safety and liability. That little seal on the back of crayon boxes and markers and paints that states: ACMI/Certified Non-toxic? That was his doing. He helped make the world safer.

I said my “I love yous” to my father on the iPad. I whispered my goodbye when my mother called me at 6:12 a.m. on August 11, 2020 to tell me he had passed. I watched his funeral and burial on an iPad, alone, sitting at my kitchen counter in Georgia sobbing, sobbing, sobbing and not able to hug my mom, sister, or brother. 

Surreal. Unreal. Grief in limbo. 

Thank god for the iPad. F*ck the iPad. Thank god for the iPad.

On July 25, 2021, I was able to travel to New York and have my last few words with my dad at his grave. A military cemetery because Dad had served his country during the Vietnam War. Rows and rows of white headstones. Men and women who sacrificed their time, and for some, their lives, for their country. I pressed my lips to the top of his headstone instead of his cheek and sobbed. Together, finally.

I recount my story, which is also my father’s story, not because I think our circumstances were inordinately extraordinary, but because of how tragically ordinary such stories have been throughout the pandemic. Too many of us have had to wait and watch from a distance as family and friends died of COVID or of other causes. We could not be with our loved ones to say goodbye and mourn together. And now? It’s an ordinary grief that comes in waves these days. Long-term collateral damage.

But what else comes? Rage comes too.

For 16 months, I have watched anti-maskers, anti-vaxxers, and anti-Lifers with cold, hard, tamped down rage. How callous they are about all of our precious lives. How callous they are about our children, our elderly, our immunocompromised fellow citizens. Naively, I thought a vaccine, a free vaccine, when finally available, would bring us back together and mend some of the rifts.

Now? It is hard, some days impossible, to summon compassion for those who could have gotten vaccinated but willfully chose not to get vaccinated and are now sick and dying. I don’t think my father would have wanted me to simmer in rage so I try to focus on compassion, reminding myself that anti-maskers, anti-vaxxers, and anti-Lifers have been inundated with COVID and vaccine misinformation. 

But I am a daughter in mourning and an imperfect human being so my compassion ebbs and many days my grief/rage consumes me. A compound, run-on feeling now: grief/rage. Scientists gave us a gift and fulfilled our hopes that helped us survive the awful months of 2020. Many of us got the vaccine as soon as we could, checking and checking for updates on when we would be allowed and where it was available. We know the vaccine protects us, our loved ones, and our larger community, too. Not an act of hope or faith, but belief in scientific facts. 

Is there any hope anti-vaxxers might come around? I doubt it. But the least the anti-maskers could have done was to have humbly and gratefully accepted this gift and done their small part for the greater good. After all, they just want it all back to normal, right? 

So yes, I hold the anti-maskers, anti-vaxxers, and anti-Lifers responsible for this new resurgence. We see their desperate posts and videos from hospital beds, some offering their foxhole regrets about not getting vaccinated (though health care workers report many COVID patients still deny their COVID diagnosis even as they are about to be intubated and placed on a ventilator). Their callous idiocy spits in the eye of the 58 percent of us who have gotten at least one dose of the vaccine and who have sacrificed so much over 16 months to shelter each other from this virus. Though I agonized over my decision to stay home in Georgia while my father was dying in New York, the right choice often demands immense sacrifice. Rarely do we regret doing the right thing, and I do not regret my choice.

Of course, I will always miss my father. I still send texts to him. “I love you! I miss you! Call me back when, if you can!” I know he can’t, won’t. His cell has been disconnected. Will someone else be issued his number and receive my little text bargains with the universe? But I send the texts anyway in the hope that one day I’ll receive a text back: “Love you, Kerry. I can’t wait until we are all together again, too. Really, I can’t wait.”

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