Grief in Isolation

Content warning: this blog post is about the loss of a parent & impacts of the pandemic.

When I hear the number “2020”, I remember how my father, a terminal cancer patient without Covid-19, almost died alone in a hospital because of their strict no-visitor policy, courtesy of 2020. (And I do mean alone.) I remember how my desperate mother and I followed the ambulance and then sat our car on the street–as close as we could legally be to Dad–while a stone-faced security guard circled us like a shark. How my mother moved heaven and earth over the phone to transfer Dad to a safer place, one where she could care for him, where he could be with family. And worse memories, ones I cannot bring myself to share. Cruelties the uninitiated would not believe. So much pain because of a pandemic with far-reaching, devastating impacts.

My father passed in a different hospital, surrounded by his family. Hooked up to a mechanical ventilator (which he needed because of cancer-related complications), he could not speak, but he wrote us letters and signed “I love you.” The night before he passed, Dad stroked my mother’s arm as she slept at his bedside.

There was no funeral, no public memorial. No gathering of the family and friends who loved–who still love–a compassionate, intelligent, beautiful man. My fiance, a veterinarian, took a Covid-19 test and visited for two days. Any longer would be risky. Since then, we’ve grieved alone. For months, we’ve been alone.

Grief has not come in stages. It’s been continuous heartbreak interspersed with despair. When I was young, somebody told me that, if I forced myself to laugh, to smile, I’d feel better. It didn’t work then, and it doesn’t work now, but I continue trying.

There are few ways to pass the time in isolation. Television is no longer a diversion; I’ve stopped watching anything Dad would have enjoyed. No more mysteries or funny series like Schitt’s Creek or Kim’s Convenience or Derby Girls or Agatha Christie’s Poirot or …

None of those.

I play Minecraft in fits. Generating new worlds. Seeking out villagers. Trying to build a home. And inevitably becoming disillusioned. None of the worlds have what I’m looking for. I’m on my thirteenth world since June. All the others have been deleted.

For nearly a decade, I’ve belonged to an ongoing tabletop RPG with a group of friends, including my fiance. I took a break when my father died, and every weekend, I promise them, “I’ll be ready next Saturday.” But I never am. My friends are patient. Kind. I miss them. But I cannot bear the thought of role-playing a happy person.

I’ll try again next weekend.

To keep my mind busy, I’ve focused on the launch of my first book, attending a whirlwind of virtual conferences, conducting interviews, and even starting my next book. A writing professor, Dad has always been my biggest champion, my number-one beta reader. He was the first person (outside of my publisher) to hold a finished copy of Elatsoe. It made him smile. “Beautiful,” he said. “I’m proud of you.”

Father and daughter.

I wrote my first novel when I was a 7-year-old with big dreams and a tenuous grasp of the English language. Dad, then an English student at the University of Iowa, read and edited all 40 pages of run-on sentences, misspellings, and strange plot twists involving polished rocks. This year, when I had to choose between writing fiction and my Science!Job (I could not continue juggling both demanding careers at the same time) he encouraged me to follow the path that made me happy, even if it was scary. So I followed my dreams. I became a full-time writer. Then, the pandemic happened. Then, he was gone.

They say 2020 is a hard year to be a debut novelist.

I’ve known it would be hard since 2018.

The same month I sold my book, Dad was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a terminal cancer caused by asbestos exposure. Let me rephrase that. My father’s cancer was caused by greedy men who sacrificed his life–who sacrificed so many human lives, and what of the suffering of families and friends?–for money.

I studied asbestos in college. Geoscience degree, Princeton. At once point, when I was terribly young–still a child, really–my professor held up a wispy, pale mineral. Cotton candy-looking specimen. “This is asbestos,” he said. And then he taught us the many ways a mineral can kill a man.

The knowledge hurts me.

After learning my father’s diagnosis, I sliced off my hair. My long, dark hair. In the traditional way, I never cut it until I had to cut it.

Later, when the Super Cuts stylist straightening my hack job asked, “Why did you do this to yourself?” I simply said, “Mourning.” She did not attempt small talk with me again.

My hair is still short. I’ve kept it short since 2018. Nobody asks me why. When my father passed, I cut it even shorter. My hair is now crooked. It’s a quarantine style, unquestioned. Sometimes, I want to wear a mourning veil so everyone will understand what the year 2020 means to me.

What it means to countless people. All of us alone.

I hope this blog post will help somebody feel less alone.

Three things keep me going: my love for my family and fiance; the kindness and support of everybody at Levine Querido (Elatsoe’s publisher); and the enduring impact of my father’s love for me. Whenever I feel like giving up, I remember Dad’s lifetime of sacrifices, his many acts of selflessness for the sake of my well-being. And I recall 30 genuinely happy years. 2020 cannot overshadow that beautiful history. 2020 cannot corrupt my father’s legacy. I won’t let it.

For you, Dad: I’ll persevere.

My father with the love of his life. Mom and Dad were grad students when this picture was taken.