The FaceTime call seemed like an easy way to introduce my new cat to my grandmother, homebound in her Maryland nursing home during the pandemic.
She sat in a room designated for video calls, bright lights illuminating her face. I was 900 miles away sitting at the breakfast table in my childhood home with my parents and boyfriend.
“Meet Lola,” I said to her, thrusting my 8-pound cat in front of the tiny cell phone camera.
She smiled knowingly.
“Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets,” she replied.
We all chuckled. She was still yiayia, a little sassy and never afraid to speak up, even as she adjusted her hearing aids or laughed in a way that revealed she didn’t quite understand everything that was going on.
I didn’t know that would be the last time I’d talk to my yiayia. I guess you never do.
I was shocked when I heard the news. No matter a loved one’s age, their death always deals a blow.
My second thought was the sad realization of how the coronavirus pandemic would interfere in my family’s grieving process. Normally, my grandmother would have had a large funeral with family and friends. We would have had a luncheon followed by each of us sharing stories from her full life. Coming together would have soothed the pain, even if just for a while.
She deserved more than a prayer service over Zoom, random family members cutting in and out as they forgot to put their audio on mute.
My yiayia was the archetypal Greek matriarch. Sundays were spent at her and my grandfather’s house. The whole family gathered for large brunches that devolved into loud clapping in front of the TV over football games and me and dad playing pinball.
I remember the food, the heaping platters of spanakopita and tiropita, the trays of sliced feta. Whenever we walked into the house, I’d ask if she had made any spinach or cheese pie that day. She would laugh because most kids don’t beg for spinach. (To those kids, I say: You haven’t had spanakopita.)
She was so vibrant. Leaving any gathering with her took forever — there were so many goodbyes and always another person to kiss on the cheek. On visits to Florida, she and my papou would stay up until the wee hours of the night, sitting at the coffee table and laughing, their voices carrying through the house, turning over old memories once more. I would sit in my bed, preparing for the next day of high school, wondering how me, the teenager, was more tired than my 80-something grandparents.
She was also fiercely competitive. She and my papou once got into a heated argument over a game of Monopoly. When I repeated this story to my mom recently, she reminded me that it wasn’t even traditional Monopoly that had started the storied fight. It was the cat-themed spinoff, Cat-opoly.
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She absolutely thrived on social interaction. No one had so many friends. She was a part of a bowling league for as long as she could manage and played bridge with her friends for years. My grandfather and her were attached at the hip until his death more than seven years ago. So I worried how all that time alone would impact her.
I also worried about the physical threat of the virus itself, knowing how fast it can spread in enclosed places. People had died from COVID-19 at my yiayia’s nursing home. But when all the residents were tested, she came back negative. I knew the virus could strike again, but it felt like we were in the clear, at least for a while. It felt like we had more time.
My yiayia frequently told my dad that she worried she’d never see him again. When I learned that detail after her death, I let myself cry for the first time.
The image of her sitting alone in a room, confused, worrying whether she would ever see her children again — it seemed the worst kind of torture.
My yiayia didn’t die of coronavirus. She died of natural causes, of being 95, of living a full life, of closing her eyes one night and not opening them the next morning.
But I wonder how much the isolation weighed on her. I wonder how much she understood. I wonder how afraid she was, how alone she must have felt.
I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. As the pandemic stretches on, many of us will lose someone we love, from COVID-19 or something else, and grapple with what it is to grieve in this new world.
I’m not sure I’ve fully confronted it yet. There’s a deep sense of unfairness I feel with losing a grandmother and not being able to honor her properly.
What I am trying to do now is take her memory with me throughout parts of my daily life and cherish her in my actions. I feel that’s all I can do, given the circumstances. After all, a funeral, luncheon and formal burial are just a way of expressing grief in public. And unfortunately, once they are done, the grief still remains.