Albert Einstein College of Medicine MS3
June 17, 2020
Bronx, New York
I sat at my usual table on a morning in early March. The school library was only partially filled, as students began socially distancing themselves. In the hushed library, my phone vibrated. My aunt broke down and told me that my grandfather passed away.
My grandfather had been in hospice for a couple months prior to his death. Despite the ingenious engineering of our human body, the decline could be so rapid. The last month of his life was excruciating to watch – seeing my once energetic and stoic grandfather become so emaciated and fatigued. However, I was grateful for every minute I was able to spend with him. The weekend before his death, we took him to his favorite Mexican restaurant that he used to frequent when my mom and aunt were children. That night, he wanted to take a bath; my aunt and I carried him up to the second-floor bathtub so he could soak himself in hot water while sipping a mimosa. The next day, we went through the family tree; he read names of people I hadn’t known existed – who lived across continents and were connected by our family name. A few days later, he passed away peacefully at home with my aunt and grandmother holding his hands.
When I read articles on how people with COVID in the emergency room take their last breaths without their loved ones in a sea of beeping noises, raised voices and labored breathing sounds, my heart shatters. I wonder what their last thoughts were – did they feel scared…frustrated…lonely? I dwell on the pain the families feel on the uncertainty of whether they will ever see their loved ones again, once they are taken away by ambulance.
My grandfather’s death and COVID have taught me the importance of the quality of one’s life particularly during the last months. Although my grandfather had probably been in pain for a long time, he was always surrounded by family members and, in the last month, nurses who eased his pain through medications. He wanted to lie in silence, eat bites of my grandmother’s delicious food and have his feet massaged. During my last meal at my grandparents’ home before his passing, he wished to sit with me at the kitchen table and told me stories of his childhood during WWII. I will forever cherish these last invaluable and beautiful moments with my grandfather. Medical professionals are often concerned with elongating life; however, it is also crucial to know when to draw the line so that loved ones can continue to create memories and the dying can leave this life peacefully and comfortably.
During the months of April and May, the news was filled with articles on isolated elderly in nursing homes and funeral homes that were not able to keep up with the death count. If my grandfather had his last days during the peak of COVID in New York, would I have been able to visit him without worrying about unknowingly infecting him? Would there have been nurses to take care of him given the shortage of medical supplies and staff? Would it have been possible for my parents to fly from Japan for his memorial service? My family was fortunate – we were able to say goodbye to him together and the funeral home came that night to prepare his body for cremation.
A friend who lost his father a few years ago once told me, “When I dream one of those dreams set in the real world, I feel in my heart that he is alive. In a way, he is. Even if my mind was the only one he existed in, there, he still exists. The parts of him I never knew, the facts that made him who he is, those exist too. They are in the minds of the various people who know him. That gives me great comfort.” My grandfather enters my thoughts on a daily basis; I reflect upon our time together and hope that he is traveling the world and enjoying hot baths, two things that gave him great joy, in heaven. I ponder about others, whose lives were cut short by this cruel virus. I continue to read the New York Times obituaries and have attended online vigils for people who passed away from COVID, in hopes that parts of them continue to live in this world through people’s memories. These lives disappeared from this world too fast and without enough recognition, but it brings me solace to think that my, along with many others’, memories and thoughts continue to maintain their presence on this Earth.