Who Dies
New York magazine|November 09, 2020
COVID took my grandfather. But it wasn’t what killed him.
By Sarah Jones

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.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM NEW YORK MAGAZINEView All

Torrey Peters Goes There

The author’s debut novel, Detransition, Baby, wades into two of the most vulnerable questions for trans women.

10+ mins read
New York magazine
January 4-17, 2021

The System: Zak Cheney-Rice

The Never-ending Coup Against Black America - Historically, “recovery” tends to look a lot like betrayal.

6 mins read
New York magazine
January 4-17, 2021

The Group Portrait: A Beleaguered White House Press Corps

Four years of history, day after day after day.

2 mins read
New York magazine
January 4-17, 2021

Prom King

With a huge Netflix deal and the power to green-light just about anything, Ryan Murphy has become the ultimate insider. And his work is suffering.

10 mins read
New York magazine
January 4-17, 2021

Schlock to Remember

If you can’t wait to relive last year, Netflix has a special for you.

4 mins read
New York magazine
January 4-17, 2021

Leave the World Behind

Shacked up in the suburbs of Kansas City, indie singer-songwriters Katie Crutchfield and Kevin Morby are making some of their best work.

4 mins read
New York magazine
January 4-17, 2021

Extremely Online: Craig Jenkins

Clubhouse Is Close to Becoming Our New Internet Wasteland - If you love mess, you won’t be disappointed.

6 mins read
New York magazine
January 4-17, 2021

A 1915 Crown Heights House That's Only On Its Third Owners

After living all over the world, Thomas Gensemer and Gabe Brotman settled down in a Brooklyn place with “a bit of an English feel to it.”

3 mins read
New York magazine
January 4-17, 2021

220 minutes with … Sarah McBride

Strolling Wilmington with Delaware’s history-making new state senator.

6 mins read
New York magazine
January 4-17, 2021

Total Boomer

A bumper crop of albums made for contemplating mortality.

6 mins read
New York magazine
January 4-17, 2021