Given that she had narrowly, and yet triumphantly, cheated death a year before while she was living in Poland, I was perhaps a little overconfident when my cousin asked for a phone call. Although she was her usual upbeat self, her words landed like dirt on freshly fallen snow.
I should not have been surprised. She had been fighting a very deadly form of cancer for a year. But denial is a many splendored thing and my knees crumpled with the shock.
Mind you, my voice stayed strong. I wasn’t about to let her know how hard the news of her impending death hit me.
When confronted with a misfortune or a tragedy that has befallen a loved one, I make little to no outward expression of emotion and go right into problem solving mode. Of course I couldn’t solve stage four cancer. But that didn’t stop me from launching into helper mode.
Could I call our other cousins for her? Done! Would I be the person she could share her pain and depression with? Yes.
I absolutely did not want her to care-take me while she was dying. I knew there would already be a long queue of fans and mentees who would be foisting their tears and sorrow on her already weighted down shoulders.
We were two states away from each other. She now lived in Seattle and I lived in Northern California. So we took to leaving each other Marco Polo videos. As her condition deteriorated, we started leaving videos for each other nearly every day.
She was mostly cheerful. That has always been her way. No matter how dire the circumstances, she always mustered a hearty laugh as if doing so could shake off the worst situation.
But sometimes she let her agony show. Her tummy hurt. Her face was bloated. It had been a bad day. Etc. And then I got a phone call from her roommate.
He told me that he was quite certain my cousin would not live until Christmas. If I wanted to see her one last time, I best get my butt up to Seattle as soon as possible. Did he think she would live until Thanksgiving? The doctor had said three months. We were still in that window and she had just gone up in a hot air balloon the week before. Surely two weeks from now would work.
But how was I supposed to travel to see her two states away in the midst of a pandemic? Covid cases were surging. States were starting to shut down again. Then a dear friend suggested that I rent an RV. What a great idea!
My cousin’s roommate had requested that I get tested prior to my visit because everyone in their household is vulnerable to the virus. I wanted an RV with a generator and a bathroom in order to keep myself quarantined after my Covid test.
I began combing the ads online. I searched for an RV that fit my specifications, but all of them were 20 or more feet long. I had never driven an RV before and the thought of driving a large vehicle from Northern California to Seattle with zero experience was daunting. In fact, it kept me tossing and turning a couple of nights as I envisioned wrecking on my way to say goodbye.
After a couple days of frantic searching, I chose a 25-foot pet friendly RV with a generator. I certainly was not going to meet death face to face without some doggie love as a salve for my breaking heart.
I scheduled the rental for two weeks from the day my cousin’s roommate called me. My clients were already scheduled for those two weeks and I thought the Thanksgiving holiday would be the best time to take a week off. Besides, Thanksgiving has always been a big deal in our family for as long as either of us could remember.
Driving an RV from the Sacramento area to Seattle wasn’t going to be the fast dash I could have made in my car. So I allowed a week to get there and back..
But before my departure date, there was another phone call.
Did I know that the state of Washington was asking all out of state visitors to quarantine for 14 days? No, I hadn’t heard that, but seriously, isn’t an RV in itself a form of quarantine?
And anyhow, how could they enforce that? I was coming to Seattle to see my cousin one last time regardless of what Governor Inslee thought about it.
Everything was in place and I was ready to go when the phone rang again.
My cousin has always been very popular. Posts to her Facebook page routinely garner more than a 100 likes on a daily basis. So it should come as no surprise that a ton of people wanted to say goodbye in person. Visitation was limited to those closest to my cousin. But one of those close friends tested positive for Covid shortly after her visit.
I wasn’t going to let that stop me. I would see my cousin one last time no matter what. And if everyone in the household tested positive for Covid by the time I got there, then I would visit them through the window.
But then I shared this latest news with my partner and his wife. Yes, I have been in a poly relationship for ten years now. My cousin is poly too. Maybe it runs in the family?
My partner gently reminded me that it’s standard protocol with Covid, to quarantine for 14 days after any exposure to the virus. His wife also felt protective of my health. But I had to do an online search before I was convinced.
Yes, there it was in black and white. They were both correct and at that my heart sank again.
I wrestled with the idea of driving 1500 miles round-trip to visit through the window. It seemed like the only option. Unfortunately my cousin’s condition was worsening by the hour. She was no longer able to sit or stand. Her hospital bed was in the middle of the living room and she would not be able to see or hear me through any of the windows.
The next day I regretfully informed my cousin’s roommate that I wouldn’t be traveling to Seattle after all. I pleaded for a Zoom visit. But it was already too late. She was incoherent and fading fast.
I got to tell her that I love her over the phone. She was laughing but untethered from reality. She wanted to know if I was on my way to share Thanksgiving dinner with her. Rather than tell her that I wasn’t coming, I simply said I hadn’t left yet.
It was a short phone call but one that I will of course remember for the rest of my life. All she wanted was to share one last Thanksgiving dinner with me. But this damned virus complicated, and in the end, prevented that.
Some of you may feel that I should have risked traveling by car so I could get up there more quickly. Some of you might think that I would have been safe to enter the home after someone tested positive, as long as I wore a mask. Others might wonder what right I have to even consider violating the quarantine in Washington and the curfew in California.
In America, we are a divided nation around the pandemic. Some loathe masks and others not only wear a mask but also gloves. Maybe we will never agree about Covid. But regardless of where you stand, I am sure we can all agree that the pandemic has in one way or another, caused a great deal of heartache for all of us.
My cousin died the night before Thanksgiving. Rather than recalling that holiday with fondness, I am sure that going forward, I will feel a sharp pain in my heart as I recall her asking me if I would be there in time for Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, even if I had held to my original travel plans, it would have been too late.
Perhaps that is the thing that makes me that saddest — that despite our best intentions and efforts, we are not in charge and we can’t control most of life and certainly not death.
Wednesday night I cried myself to sleep. Of course. But I didn’t just cry tears for my personal loss. I also cried for the hundreds of thousands who have not been able to hold the hand or kiss the cheek of their loved one as they died of Covid. It’s true my cousin died of cancer. But Covid prevented that last goodbye nevertheless. And now I feel strangely bonded to those who have lost a loved one to the virus.
Perhaps you have personal experience of being separated from those you love because of this pandemic?
Maybe that separation takes the form of protecting a vulnerable relative by not visiting them in person. Or maybe you were denied that last embrace before your loved one died from Covid.
However you have suffered in 2020, don’t lose hope. No loss and no tragedy is greater than the love that lives in our hearts. Make sure you tell those you care about that you love them as often as you are able. Although I am grieved that I didn’t get to hold her hand and kiss her cheek one last time, I am grateful that the last words we spoke to each other were “I love you.”
You may be wondering what I did with that RV? The morning after my cousin died, my dog and I drove to Death Valley. Where else would we go?