By Rabbi Sam Yolen, Congregation Beth Israel
As the list of people lost directly to COVID or to COVID-related complications grows, I’d like to share my personal story of loss. It’s with a heavy heart that I remember my Grandmother Annabell Schwartz this spring, and I hope that reading this gives you a similar sense of closure with your loved ones as writing it has for me and my bubbe. No one deserves to die alone, and yet in death, though we face it alone, we are not alone. We are with all those who have passed before us, even if that means leaving our children on this side of the Earth when we pass.
And for Grandma Annabell’s children (my parents), and grandchildren (me), we always thought there would be more time. Another trip to the park. Another Jewish holiday. Another family meal. Another great grandchild to greet into the world. But no, the soul of my dear Grandma Annabell departed from her body thirty minutes after I sang to her on speakerphone one last time. The aide next to her insisted that despite not being able to speak, she mouthed all the words of Debbie Friedman’s MiSheberach prayer. And then, just at sundown, she was ready, and left.
For a few years in rabbinical school, I had been my grandma’s primary caregiver. Helping her with fun things like the movies and restaurants, and also embarrassing things, like trips to the bathroom and physical therapy. I was her designated chariot, her “date,” her confidant, and her partner in crime. Once I moved to Lebanon, we spoke on the phone a few days a week. “It’s a beautiful day out,” she would call to say, “Just like you.” But with the distance between us, visitations became difficult. Then after COVID, picking her up and holding her hand became impossible. And with that loss of touch, her mental acuity and physical health plummeted.
Her gradual deterioration came upon my whole family like a slow moving train wreck. But COVID was the proverbial nail in the coffin. The pandemic induced isolation punctured her daily socializing with a malingering depression that no amount of distant fraternizing could dispel. What she needed most, obvious to her family, was physical touch. The impact of this loss was beyond words, as her condition progressed from full conversations in the dining hall to half conversations in the dementia ward and then ultimately to an eerie silence, bed stricken with melancholy.
She was a proud woman. A distinguished woman. A loving woman. A woman who had enough foresight to choose her funeral stone’s epitaph, “Tov shem, mishemen tov,” or colloquially, “A good name is better than fragrant oil.” And everyone knew her name, not because of the fancy perfume she wore, but because her kindhearted generosity preceded her wherever she went.
It wasn't COVID officially. That’s what the doctors at her old-age home told our family. She was just frail and had stopped eating. It was her time. She may have had a low fever, but that wasn’t the whole case. She just didn’t have energy the last week of her life. She wasn’t able to communicate properly, but no, the doctor insisted, it wasn’t directly COVID.
I am not naive enough to believe that without this last year of pandemic Grandma Annabell would have lived forever. Or even another five years. Other than Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi in the Talmud, no one cheats death. There’s a famous story called “Death in Tehran,” where a man sees a vision of the Angel of Death and runs away, fleeing from the Angel of Death in one city only to be taken by The Angel of Death hundreds of miles away in another city. “I thought I escaped you,” the man says to Death before succumbing to a heart attack after his long and arduous journey. The moral of the story: no one escapes death.
But that’s not what this pandemic grief is about. This loss wasn’t directly the loss of Grandma Annabell, though stinging and poignant. This was the loss of that final hug that Grandma Annabell may have needed before she underwent her final passage. It was the loss of one last embrace that guards you on the lonely trip into the unknown. It was the physical knowing of the Beatles line “in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make.” And Grandma Annabell deserved to know and feel, in the love language that was so resonant with her, the tactile truth of her existence.
For those out there who may have experienced something similar, this loss was the last chance to say to your mother or father or grandmother or grandfather, “don’t worry, I’ll be coming after you sometime. For whatever you did in this world, you’re forgiven. When you cling to your ancestors, make some space for me - for I will be arriving at your destination one day, too. You will always be missed.” And that deep message could all be said in one look and one sigh. When someone is in hospice, that’s the power of physical presence and touch.
Grief is not linear and I don’t expect the morbid complications surrounding Coronavirus to be ameliorated in a linear-sequential fashion either. My beloved Grandma Annabell was ready, and she let herself out in a lonely but distinguished way. But for the sake of closure - my closure, my family’s closure - I wish I could have sang her Frank Sinatra one more time. I wish we could have had her at Passover, pointing out where the Afikomen was hidden one more time. I wish we could have celebrated her in the flesh, not because we didn’t appreciate her enough when she was here, but because we refused to endanger the health of others in celebrating the last moments of her life at the end. Even in her painful confusion we chose what she would have wanted us to do, “pikuach nefesh,” the saving of lives, by not transmitting the disease.
This was my Grandma, but you have or had a grandma, too. And in the Book of Life, where I pray we are all written, I hope that God makes a special note of those distinguished souls who gave up their last moments of terrestrial pleasure to stop the cascading deaths of coronavirus. Whether they wanted to or not, there is nothing more sacred than preserving life. Grandma Annabell lived in a way to preserve life, and she died in a way to preserve life. One day, when I see her again, I’ll tell her just how brave she was, and we will dance to Sinatra in eternal pardes, l’olam va’ed.
Annabell Schwarts died at 85 on May 5th, 2020.