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Everyone Moved In and We Saved Each Other

“What do I do for him?” my daughter Anna asked when her husband, Adrian, lost his mother to COVID-19 and he couldn’t go to her.  

She died in another country and it might as well have been another world. He watched the burial on Zoom; they couldn’t get the sound to work. Their oldest daughter—my doppelganger granddaughter Helen—thought for 30 minutes after Adrian told her, and then said, “Abuelita is in my heart, Papi.” 

Anna and Joan
Anna (left) and her mother, Joan (right)

Anna has understood grief for many years, since she lost her father when she was 13. That was the second time she saved my life. I cried for a year, stopped eating, got ulcers. And we reversed roles, with her watching over me. 

The first was after I had brain surgery, and my 9-year-old Anna became my mini-caretaker; every day she walked me around the block with my cane as I tried to regain my balance. She decided we should bake a cake and hide an apricot inside. Then, we cut it open and threw away the apricot just like my tumor. 

This pandemic is the third time.  

Anna, Adrian, and their three children—ages 4, 2 and 2 months—moved in with me at the start of the pandemic for almost four months. And they didn’t just spend time with me, they also fixed everything that I’d neglected in my 1925 house. When the ceiling leaked, Adrian fixed it. When the pipe broke under my kitchen sink, he got it working again. When my dishwasher broke, Anna and Adrian purchased an over-the-sink dish rack that everyone now wants. 

They slept on couches, inflatable mattresses and the floor—as well as the beds, giving me the rare experience of loving and holding them close.  

This is also when I got to know my son-in-law, a man who keeps to himself, is an extraordinary father and shares a strong work ethic with the rest of our family. His mother was the only force strong enough to call him back to Mexico, the country he left at 14, but where the pandemic made it impossible for him to return. She was his lifeline to a past he refuted long ago. She was the one who told me on the phone when Helen was born, “Take care of them for me.” 

Adrian, who I was with in the delivery room when Helen was born, grabbed me in a moment of uncharacteristic elation and hugged me as the baby was placed on her mother’s breast. Adrian is the best cook I know and gave me four months of the best meals I ever had in this house. Adrian is so different in his history and his religion, has a statue of Guadalupe next to Anna’s menorah, and has a Christmas tree decorated in blue and white for Hanukkah. 

When my daughter asked if I wanted them to move in, I said, “The social isolation will kill me before the virus. Move in.” They cooked. They cleaned. They shopped. And most of all, they were here for me. 

My daughter, two months postpartum, watched as Adrian bonded with their new son—waking up to feed him, lying nose to nose when they slept, and carrying him constantly. He is well-loved and the happiest boy. And I am the best-loved grandmother, whose 2-year-old Alma came into the dining room each morning saying, “Grandma, brush teeth? Wash hands?” and then sat on my lap to eat breakfast. 

As different as our histories are, our cultures shadow each other in their practices. His family has eight days of mourning; ours has seven days sitting shiva. They light a candle after a month; we light one when shiva begins. Grief is grief wherever it accosts us. And rituals are important markers. 

And so, my answer to Anna was this: “Hold him. Be there for him. There is nothing else to do.” And as I always say about grief after a death, “It doesn’t get better, it just gets different.” And I watch him, in anger and denial, in insufferable pain, and I must also do the most difficult thing—just be here for him, for them. 

Every new death brings back all the old ones. And life in the pandemic is also a kind of death and for some, like Adrian, the death is not theoretical. So we give him the time he needs, however long that is, and hold each other close. And we remember. 

Joan Jeffri Keller

Joan Jeffri Keller is the mother of 18Doors contributor Anna Keller, and grandmother to her three children. She is a former academic, and an arts administrator and researcher.