This commentary is part of The COVID-19 Writers Project (C19WP), which captures a hyper-local view of the coronavirus pandemic, while examining the extent to which health outcomes are impacted by socio-economics, education, and race.
My cousin Gertrude was the youngest child of a woman also named Gertrude.
Born in 1975, she was teased mercilessly for having an old lady name: It made her angry and defensive. She was short and solid like most of my family, but ham-fisted and could pack a punch. It also gave her empathy towards me and the bookish and quiet childhood demeanor, which earned me the adoration of adults and the scorn of other kids for being an unwitting goody two shoes.
Gertie, as she preferred to be called, was ten days older than me and light years ahead when it came to hood wisdom. She knew the difference between girls tough enough to whip you, and those who merely threatened for cool points. Gertie was friends with all the cute boys, the ones with high-top fades and outer borough swagger.
When I was at home in East New York, I lived in lockdown, safely sheltered behind the wrought iron gates of my grandparents’ brick house. I was barred from the wild predatory danger of the streets upon which my mother roamed freely until the summer she spent working as a camp counselor and returned home pregnant with me.
Aunt Gertrude tried in vain to protect them from the Far Rockaway community that had devoured her oldest three. But poverty and sorrow had strangled most of her by the mid-eighties.
Still, she managed to put on a brave face on Sundays for our visits. She and Grandpa would fellowship in the kitchen, leaving me, Gertie and the rest of the kids to our own devices. Sometimes we played games and watched movies in the girls’ bedroom. That where Gertrude breathlessly shared stories about hanging out, meeting cuties and getting numbers, long before I’d worked up the interest or the courage to think seriously about boys.
Occasionally, we’d leave the house, wandering up Beach Channel Drive in search of the good times Gertie mentioned. None of the cute guys ever showed me or my thick glasses and chubby awkwardness any attention. But I did get to meet Gertie’s first and forever love, an older boy, recently arrived from Jamaica with a wicked grin and quiet demeanor. She looked into his dreamy brown eyes and saw her future, drowning out my admonition that a 16-year-old boy was much too grown for her twelve-year-old self.
Gertie and I drifted apart during adolescence, when I went off to Spence, an elite girl’s school on the Upper East Side. There, I immersed myself in an environment that was the polar opposite of East New York. Gertie’s romance deepened and matured, and she had a baby at seventeen.
I left for college and we fell out of touch. Our lives became two different sides of the same Mary J Blige album. She got the love songs while I laid claim to the heartbreak jams. I partied and studied and fell in and out of love and lust, while Gertie settled in with her man Dee. They moved in together and welcomed their second child in 1994. The young couple got married and moved to Florida.
Years flew by and suddenly we were grown women. After more than a decade of non-contact, except at her mother’s funeral, Gertie found me on Facebook. By then, her marriage had lost its rosy glow. She was back in New York, a mother of three with a straying husband. The couple split briefly, but decided to reconcile for their children’s sake.
When we reconnected, our friendship fell back to the easy rhythms of childhood. Our connection was better, because of our grown-up mutual respect and admiration. She respected my professional grind and was proud of my blossoming media career. I was awed by her ability to juggle three children, a husband, work and school.
She still wouldn’t listen to my advice–like every woman in our family, she preferred to do things her own way, but she did allow me to be a trusted confidant. Gertie always had a job or was in search of one. She mastered the art of robbing Peter to pay Paul and was too proud to accept help from me whenever I offered. She always had a joke or sympathetic ear for my problems, which for anyone else might have seemed trivial compared to her problems.
When I went to visit her in the Bronx, she plied me with food and hugs as we caught up on old times. She gave me a copy of Grandpa’s funeral program. One of the greatest and most heartfelt gifts I’d ever received. My copy was long gone, washed away in a flood in our basement. I wrote his obituary, my first public work as a scribe. After I got married and struggled for years to conceive, she held me close as I cried about the baby I feared that I would never have. She possessed Grandma’s resilience and sturdiness, and anchored me to our roots.
When my mother died suddenly in Atlanta, Gertie couldn’t come, but called to check on me during those awful first days without mom. Life conspired to keep us apart, but Gertie made a point to call every few months, just to check in.
We also resumed our childhood ritual of mutual birthday celebrations: hers on April 10 and mine on April 20.
This year, COVID-19 cast a pall over the festivities. One evening, after an exhausting day of managing my son’s distance learning, cooking, and grieving, I reached out to her. I was determined to celebrate, if only for a moment.
Gertie didn’t answer the phone, messaging me instead. She apologized and promised to call me the following day. I teased her, and said that she was finally as old as her name. She said she felt under the weather, and declared that she had a bad cold. But as she described her symptoms, it was clear to me that she had COVID-19. Still, I thought, she was relatively young with no known co-morbidities, except a few extra pounds. In blissful ignorance, I assumed that she would be back to herself again very soon.
She believed that she contracted it at work. As an essential worker at a homeless shelter, she didn’t get the luxury of sheltering in place. I sent her a recipe for Fire Cider that I’d found on the internet and we promised to talk soon.
I plunged back into the malaise of quarantine as the hours ticked into days. Suddenly, it was April 18th, eight days since I’d spoken to Gertie. I went to her Facebook page and read a post asking for prayer. Anxiety formed a knot in my stomach as I began calling and texting her. The phone was eerily silent. Then, her niece posted, and my heart dropped: “Rest in Peace, Auntie.”
No! It wasn’t possible! It couldn’t be! She had just celebrated a birthday!
Frantic, I called her older brother Haji. He picked up with a cheery tone, flooding me with a sense of relief. It was short lived.
“What happened to Gertrude,” I asked, my voice quivering.
His voice filled with compassion: “Aww, Mani, you haven’t heard?”
Suddenly, I knew. And the last of my childhood innocence crumbled in an instant. I broke down, overwhelmed by tears and snot.
For two months, I laid on my couch tortured by what I could’ve and should have done. We were supposed to grow old and irreverent together. Two grey ladies who had lived long enough to give zero f---s. Instead, I faced a hostile world without the cousin who had been my friend since birth.
Grief is purgatory, an arid plain of emptiness and pain. It is an endless void where the final moments with your loved one and all of your mistakes and cruel words and gestures toward them are replayed on an endless loop.
If I had just followed up, I could’ve insisted that she go to Lenox Hill Hospital with its substantial state-of-the-art facilities instead of s----y a-- St. Barnabas, and she might still be alive. Hell, I could’ve called her an Uber.
I punished myself for not calling to check on her the next day, for my arrogance and ignorance in thinking that only old sick people died of coronavirus.
I had been in this despairing place before, and I was all too familiar. When my mother died, it took years for me to get a handle on my grief. There is a moment when you first awaken, only to realize that the person who loved you most in the world is gone. I felt like Prometheus, reliving that heartbreaking moment every day. When my mom passed, after months of crying myself awake and to sleep, crying on friend’s shoulders, on phone calls, looking out of car windows and everywhere, I decided to see a therapist. She helped me come to terms with my loss and rekindle my desire to live fully in the world.
This time, there was no therapist to save me from my grief.
Because of the coronavirus, no service for the family to seek solace and closure. Bodies piled up in the morgue. So for weeks, she remained unburied. I had nothing but the aching loss of her absence.
Her family’s financial hardship added anxiety to the grief. There was no money for funeral rites that no one could have anticipated, and like millions of Americans, she didn’t have insurance. I did my best to be useful to her shell shocked husband and kids, helping to craft the Go Fund Me plea for community assistance. I donated what I could, and rallied my friends and family to do the same.
Being of service to them provided a small measure of comfort, but not enough to move past the mourning. I prayed for strength, for comfort and for understanding.
They haven’t yet embraced the idea. Having lost my own mother, I understand and empathize with their grief. I’ve called a few times, but I’m not giving up. I’m maintaining a respectful distance but still checking in.
I’m connecting, for them and for me.
This work is supported by BK Reader, Brooklyn Community Foundation COVID-19 Response Fund, The National Geographic Society’s COVID-19 Emergency Fund for Journalists, The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, and The American Medical Association.
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