The author at age 3 with Grandpa Charles.
WE CREMATED MY GRANDFATHER the week I was supposed to get married. The white dress I bought a year ago still hangs in my closet, next to the black dress I brought home with me to Virginia. I’d flown back from New York the first week in September, when he was still alive, when there was still a chance he could stay that way. But we all knew the odds. The black dress was a precaution and a reminder of how badly things had gone awry. I’d bought it when I still thought I would wear it to work in the summer. Then the pandemic happened, and it’s a funeral dress now.
My grandfather died from complications of covid-19. The last time I saw him, I wore gloves and a plastic gown, and put a face shield on over a mask. I stood next to his hospital bed with my family. The doctor warned us not to touch him, but I did, gently, one gloved hand over his. That he should die without touch felt intolerable, a punishment for a man who didn’t deserve one. We reminded him that we loved him. My mother told him that the neighborhood bear had returned, that the farmers’ market had good carrots. Despite our alien look, he recognized us. The virus was bad, he said, but he’d fight it.
He tried. He lingered for several long days until the virus had its way. From the evening I got the call that he was sick until the moment my mother told us that he’d died, he fought. But he was 86 years old, which made him a high-risk covid patient. His health had been declining, gradually, for months. The virus attacked his lungs, and then his heart, with lethal precision. In the end, he was no match for it.
That is a fact. I admit it. I write it out syllable by syllable, a ritual to exorcise grief. But the exercise fails me now, as it has failed me for weeks, because grief isn’t all that haunts me. My grandfather’s death, six months into the pandemic, is more than a tragedy. His fate is as political as it is biological. And I am furious.
In the corner of southwest Virginia where my grandfather lived, mask wearing is far from universal. In the reductive stereotype perpetrated by outsider journalists, the area is Trump country. My grandfather’s memorial service—small, socially distanced, masks required—could have inspired a David Brooks column: Trump voters mingled with the deceased’s Bernie Sanders–supporting grandchildren in Appalachia.
Later, when I walked into Kroger and saw all the middle-aged men without masks on, I almost approached them. I wanted to know: Did one of you kill my grandfather? But the men were a distraction. They were taking a risk, yes, and putting others at risk, but they weren’t the real problem. That problem is larger than a few men without masks, or the president who encouraged them. Trump served as a vessel for widespread ideas—and as an apologist for older sins.
MY GRANDFATHER’S NAME WAS Charles Tibbetts. Although he lived in Virginia, he would want you to know he was not from the South. He was from Maine and crossed the MasonDixon Line only because my grandmother had died and he wanted to live near his only child, my mother. He spent most of his life in a series of odd jobs: at a factory, and a shoe store, and finally at an estate owned by the heirs of the Curtis Publishing Company, which once produced The Saturday Evening Post. My grandfather kept the grounds, and my grandmother cleaned the house. They had followed prior generations of our family into domestic work. My great-grandmother was a “laundress,” as my mother put it, and my mother herself cleaned houses to help pay for college. It was better, she once told me, when the families that paid ours didn’t try to clean up after themselves—they only made more of a mess.
In my grandfather’s spare time, he fished and went to church. Sometimes he carved wood: toys, furniture, and, once, a feeding station for the backyard chipmunks. Mostly he worked and drove my mother to her music lessons, an endeavor that eventually bore fruit. My mother went to college for music, the first person in her family to graduate with a degree. She married another college graduate, and together they raised two more.
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