The Isles of Mourning
By Shameka S. Erby
My uncle died seven weeks ago. Not of COVID, of cancer. But in this terrible year of loss, does it really matter? Another moment of mourning, another empty space. It’s all the same, right? Except it’s not. Because we’re experiencing loss alone, some of us for the first time in our lives.
Everyone has that moment, when you lose someone and you look around and it settles on you that they’ll never be there again. That moment when it’s just you and your tears. Your memories. Your regrets. Your questions. But this is different. Because COVID means that there’s more moments like that. It’s every moment. Masks out, and your sobs are muted. But so are your memories. Your reminisces about your loved one are cut short because you don’t want to visit too long, or have your masks down when you do visit. Longing for touch, we still hug, but now we hug and pray. Now we hug shorter, and try to do it without touching. Now we hug like we’re not mourning. Now we hug like we’re not connected. Now we hug like strangers. And COVID assures that we are, in a way. We’re all mourning by ourselves, on islands, waving at each other. And when I finally have a thought of my uncle not tinged with grief, no one will see my smile. Because I’ll be masked. Or alone. And I’m as sad as I’ve ever been. But I’m angry too.
My uncle was a contractor. He built houses, did renovations, worked on cars. He could fix anything that was broken. That’s a superpower. And he was a hero to me. But he was more. As I write this, I’m listening to Billie Holiday, legendary jazz singer, whose songs I know all the words to, because of him. I’m sitting in my aunt’s house, a house that he’s had his hands on, a house that even as his strength waned, he was giving my aunt suggestions on how to fix. As I’m writing this, I’m remembering him telling jokes about all of the new people gentrification brought into his neighborhood, and onto his block. As I’m writing this, I’m missing him. But I’m alone.
I worry for my grandmother. My uncle is her oldest child, born when she was just fifteen, and her best friend. They grew up together, after all. I check on her 3–4 times a week. I want to be there every minute, but I also don’t want to come around too much. COVID makes me scared of getting too close, of spending too much time. I wave at her through the big window at the front of her house. I hug her sparingly. I feel like an awful granddaughter. COVID has taken away more than my uncle, more than my ability to mourn him. It’s taken my gran’s love. Her touch. Her ease about touching. It’s taken everything. And I’m as sad as I’ve ever been. But I’m angry too.
I drove past a funeral some time ago. The mourners were many and unmasked, standing close and grieving loudly. I was angry at them. Don’t they know this virus is real, I thought. Don’t they get that this is life or death? And then my cousin told me my uncle’s cancer had spread. That treatment wasn’t working. That they’d given him a year. He died five weeks later. And as I raced to my grandmother’s house, masked up to gather with the rest of my family, I understood how you could take an action knowing the consequences can kill you. I knew how easy it was to ignore an edict not to touch someone. There was no way I could be separate in that moment. There was no way to reconcile or explain the choice I was making, the choice we were all making. I knew that too. But when the bottom drops out of your heart, where else can you go except to the people who hold the rest of it? Where else can you rest if not with those whose hearts are breaking too? Don’t they get that this is life or death? I did get it. We all did. But we all did it anyway. Because what the fuck else could we do?
My uncle didn’t want a service. Part of me knew he did that for our benefit. He didn’t want everyone gathered in his name, standing too close, breathing each other’s breaths. An avid news watcher, he’d been taking quarantine very seriously, for himself and his wife, my aunt, and especially my 85-year old grandmother. So when he made it clear that there was just going to be a cremation and nothing else, I knew. He did that for us. Don’t they get that this is life or death? My uncle did. And he tried to protect us, even at the end. But we were defiant in our grief, holding each other much too close, having our masks down as often as up, because how else can we share stories? Memories? My aunt who supervises a janitorial staff in a big office building came through to sanitize everything she could; when we remembered, we bumped elbows instead of touching bodies. We washed hands and wore gloves. We staggered visits so there weren’t so many people at the house at once. We did the best we could. But there was still so much risk. So much fucking risk. In mourning. In crying. In remembering one of the greatest people of our lives. We were defiant. Because how can you not be?
My uncle didn’t die of COVID. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a part of our grief. It’s in everything we do and say, and everything we don’t. I have to go check on my grandmother soon. I will be at her house, mask up to do so. Safety demands that I don’t go inside; grief demands that I do. I have to touch her, at least. Maybe I will feel my uncle when I do. Maybe if I’m lucky, a piece of him will linger after I’ve washed my hands.