Three of the People Behind the Numbers
When I asked people how they were grieving those they lost to COVID-19, I learned a more complicated truth.
The front page of Sunday’s New York Times cover story, “An Incalculable Loss.”
Over one month ago, I was given an assignment by a magazine editor: Tell us how people are grieving. Surely you have seen by now the cover of Sunday’s New York Times, a list of over 1,000 names of the people we’ve lost to this pandemic, with a headline proclaiming that our country’s official death toll is nearing 100,000. When I submitted a version of the below piece, the number was around 45,000.
In fairness, I am not sure I succeeded in reporting how people are grieving during this pandemic—not in the way my editor wanted, anyway. It was hard for me to wrap up in a “trend piece” just how excruciatingly painful it is to lose someone to the coronavirus—to know they passed away in solitude in quarantined hospital rooms, to realize their deaths could have been prevented if only their neighbors had been more considerate, if only our President had been more capable. I heard about the bodies piling up at our morgues, unable to be buried due to an overwhelming backlog. I heard about families trying to grieve over Zoom conference calls, knowing that it wouldn’t feel entirely real until they could cry on each others’ shoulders once again. I heard about doctors holding up phones showing FaceTime calls to the faces of delirious patients, whose respiratory failure would surely spell their death in a matter of moments. On more than one occasion, I pressed “mute” on my phone so I could cry without interrupting the story of the person on the other end of the receiver.
As we begin reopening in phases across our country, it can be tempting to ignore the very real fact that death is still everywhere. We may choose to forget that this virus claims not just the sick and the elderly like originally believed, but the young and healthy, too. It moves quickly and menacingly, and it’s still unpredictable. There’s still so much “unknown” as we begin to rebuild the lives we once knew. Many of us will do so with a sense of relief. Others will re-emerge into the world with one less loved one, and one less reason to feel grateful.
Their grief is ongoing. Sometimes, it is festering due to a lack of proper, in-person closure. Sometimes, it is scarred by a righteous and simmering anger. Sometimes it feels impossible to confront. As one of my friends put it, his grief “sits on a shelf,” ready to be taken down when he can be reunited with his family to mourn together.
I don’t believe it’s possible to fully talk about grieving in this moment because it is still happening so clearly. So instead, I wanted to talk about those we are grieving, and those they left behind. Even though this isn’t the piece my editor ultimately wanted, I think it is still important to publish. I took the time to listen to my friends’ stories, and got to know a little bit about just three out of the almost 100,000 people we’ve lost. I am grateful to my friends for trusting me with their stories. Since we spoke over one month ago, many of the below details may have since changed or evolved. This is what they told me then.
I. Johnell Peoples
Lindsay Peoples, the editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue, looked at the photos of the polls from the safety of her Brooklyn apartment. She was, in a word, annoyed. Lindsay is from Wisconsin, where most of her family now lives. Decades ago, they found their way there from Alabama, “ready for a change from the South,” she says, with its “racism and craziness.” Now, she could do nothing but observe and text in rage with her parents, who would not be kept from exercising their right to vote that day.
“Coming from the South, I think about our history and our ancestors in slavery,” Lindsay explains. “So many people have died for us to be able to do this, and look at us now. We’re still out here putting our lives at risk to be able to have these liberties and speak our voices.”
The Peoples family took this risk already knowing the havoc coronavirus could wreak on a family. Two of their clan had already shown symptoms and tested positive for the virus. Five days before the election, her Uncle Johnell Peoples was sent to the hospital. The updates from inside were sparse, she explained, since the family wasn’t allowed to visit. The only news that reached her in Brooklyn was that Johnell was on a ventilator, and his situation was being monitored closely.
They were afraid, even though Johnell was a sturdy man. Sure, he was 61, but he was otherwise perfectly healthy with no pre-existing conditions to speak of. In fact, his niece remembers him at a recent party hula hooping with the family’s 15 children. Even though he’d left the South many years ago, Lindsay insists her uncle still held onto his roots. “He liked to go hunting, play poker, and eat the typical Southern stuff,” she says. Frog legs, she recalls amusedly, were a particular favorite.
Uncle Johnell was fond of hearing about his niece’s adventures in the big city. Her accomplishments—made of magazines, fashion shows, and television appearances—seemed like a dream come true. Lately, though, Lindsay was feeling particularly attuned to the values he imparted back home in Wisconsin. “To him, it was never about having the nicest things,” she says. “It was just, ‘We have God, our family, and food on the table. What else can we ask for?’”
God perhaps ranked highest on the Peoples’ family priorities; Lindsay’s dad is a pastor and her mom is a faith counselor. Lindsay grew up praise-dancing and singing in the church choir. Early on, her father taught her a key mantra: “You can go to church your whole life and not know anything about God,” she recalls. “If you want that relationship, you’re going to have to work on it.”
Lindsay was cooking dinner on the night of the election when her phone rang. It was her mother. She looked at the screen and paused: she knew instinctively that something was wrong. “He’s gone, isn’t he?” she asked when she picked up the phone. Uncle Johnell had indeed passed away hours earlier, with nobody from his big, proud family beside him.
“I don’t often feel angry about death,” Lindsay says. “But I did this time.” She retreated to her prayers and searched for something to ease the sorrow. One of the oft-recited sayings of her childhood was, “God’s never going to give me more than I can bear.” Her whole life, she knew this to be true. This time, she felt it was bullshit.
“We couldn’t be there to pray with him and tell him that we love him, and he just didn’t deserve that,” she says. “He’s been such a good brother to my dad, a good uncle to me, and a good son to my grandmother, and he had to die like that?”
Johnell’s family spoke together to make the decision about his funeral arrangements. His mother wanted him sent back to Alabama to be buried next to his father. Unfortunately, that would prove too difficult to arrange at a time when funeral homes and morgues are already severely overwhelmed. For now, Johnell’s body will wait until the people he loved can be there to witness him enter the ground. His brother will preside over the burial.
After a week of allowing herself to feel anger at the injustice of it all, Lindsay attended a digital mass. The preacher said something that stuck in her brain: “Life is hard, but God is good.”
“I’ve been repeating it to myself nonstop because I know it to be true in my life, in my parents’ lives, and everyone in my family’s lives,” she says. “This isn’t a situation that I’m happy about, but there’s something about allowing faith to become the anchor that grounds you, especially now.”
II. Richard Rosenberg
It was 1994 when Richard Rosenberg first found out he was HIV positive. While the crisis was ongoing, there were signs of hope: Bill Clinton was now President, ending the reign of his predecessors, who’d long stymied efforts to prevent the spread of the disease and the search for treatment. Pedro Zamora, a young gay man living with HIV, joined the cast of The Real World, making television history and helping to alleviate the disease’s stigma for the young generation watching. On the other hand, people were still dying—in fact, AIDS had just become the leading cause of death for all Americans ages 25 to 44. Making matters worse, Rudolph Giuliani was just elected mayor in New York City, where Richard lived, and he had recently proposed the elimination of the city’s Division of AIDS Services. More than 1500 people marched across the Brooklyn Bridge in protest of the budget cuts, resulting in 47 arrests.
Accessing care was difficult—and even then, AZT, cocktails of medications weren’t always delivering life-saving results. Consequently, Richard neared death many times in the years following his diagnosis. At one point, he was so weak that his brother, Robert, had to pick him up and carry him into the emergency room, begging for somebody’s help. Each time, Richard survived. He came close to death on so many occasions that his family began to wonder if maybe he was immortal.
In the early 2000s, Richard moved into Rivington House—a special nursing home for those living with HIV/AIDS. During the decade he lived there, he saw nine of his roommates die, but his luck was still intact: He was a survivor. When Mayor Bill de Blasio sold the property to a real estate developer for $116 million in 2015, Richard was nearly displaced. He joined the protests outside of the building condemning the Mayor. Eventually, he ended up in a new assisted living facility near the Guggenheim Museum, which catered to his interests; he loved going to the park, and always searched for free New York City events to attend. He knew the theatre like the back of his hand, and carried a book wherever he went. Perhaps because he knew death more intimately than many of us, he took every minute of life seriously.
His HIV diagnosis—and the battles for housing and care that would follow—are part of what inspired his nephew (and Robert’s son), Jason, to join the New York chapter of ACT UP. Jason is the group’s gateway to social media and digital organizing, bringing their provocative chants and groundbreaking demonstrations of the ‘80s and ‘90s to a generation of LGBTQ+ people who have so much to learn.
Jason describes his uncle as “relentless, especially when he saw injustices happening around him.” “Seeing how leadership both locally and federally failed my uncle keeps my drive to seek HIV justice in all areas of the world,” he says.
On March 25th, Jason learned that his uncle tested positive for COVID-19. The Rosenbergs had already braced themselves for the news: Richard’s roommate tested positive and was hospitalized shortly beforehand. Assisted living facilities and nursing homes have been uniquely harmed by the coronavirus; the elderly and immunocompromised are particularly susceptible to the worst of the disease. Jason called his father to cry. “My uncle told me not to worry, that he’d get through this. But I think I really knew that this would take him,” he recalls.
One week later, Robert was called to confirm the identity of his brother. Richard had passed away. The family rabbi presided over a private burial, and went back to his office to conduct a funeral via Zoom. Forty of Richard’s loved ones were present, sharing stories and jokes—a joy he would have wanted. “It was tough in the beginning to not grieve with my family in person, but thank God we have technology that allows us to connect virtually,” Jason says. “It served some justice on his life, and closing the chapter on it.”
It is customary in some Jewish families to “sit shiva,” or in mourning, for one week following the death of a loved one. Here, the logistics of social distancing proved too challenging to overcome: “We can’t really expect people to go on several Zoom calls for a full week,” Jason explains. Instead, the day after the funeral, there was a wider “community gathering” of friends, family, and people from synagogue who all shared their own anecdotes and offered condolences. It was nice, but it wasn’t quite the closure Jason hoped for.
“We’re still grieving and picking up the pieces,” he explains. “We’re not fully sure how we’ll gather his material things left in the facility. There are just a lot of questions and things still left unanswered.”
For now, he’s channeling his emotion into his organizing—helping to orchestrate digital meetings for ACT UP, distribute information about the importance of protecting those living with HIV, and calling out the elected officials who continue to do wrong by people like his uncle.
After all, Jason still has time on his side. “In Jewish tradition, there’s an unveiling ceremony [at the gravesite] that happens one year after the death,” he explains. “So we’re hoping that, by April 2021, we’ll be able to gather in person and honor my uncle’s with a community gathering. I think he would rather that.”
In a way, Jason has still yet to properly say goodbye. This is more like a “see you later.” And that’s ok, too.
III. Ana Ramona Rodriguez
Javy Rodriguez finds it “unfortunate” that his family resides in the neighborhood of Corona, Queens. The irony is not lost on him that Queens is the borough in New York City hardest hit by coronavirus, once considered the “epicenter” of the pandemic. This is uniquely devastating: Queens, home to an estimated 200 nationalities, is one of the most diverse places in all of the United States. But it breaks Javy’s heart to contemplate the ways in which this virus has visibly ravaged his neighborhood.
Instead, he prefers to remember Queens as a place of family—the place most of his 29 cousins called home. On holidays, his relatives would file into his grandmother’s apartment, filling the space with their celebration. She was known to sit on the sofa comfortably and observe quietly, her eyebrows raised in amusement (or bemused judgment—it was sometimes unclear which), wearing her signature “house dress” with her jet black hair all done up for the occasion. She insisted on dyeing her roots before receiving company, even though she was now in her 90s, and everyone surely knew she had gone gray.
Now, however, coronavirus was inside of the very place she’d made a home, the same place she’d greeted her 22 great-grandchildren, where they’d wrapped her in love and gifts every Mother’s Day. “It was hard for my family to obey social distancing,” Javy explains. “Our culture is being together, being on top of each other.” With the virus spreading, their instinct was not to isolate their grandmother, but to keep her closer than ever before. Her son, who lived downstairs, had fallen seriously ill. One of her granddaughters, who lived in the same apartment she did, came down with a fever. Eventually, she felt her own temperature rise. Then, in a matter of days, it became difficult to breathe.
By then, everybody heard the horror stories coming out of Elmhurst Hospital—the refrigerated trucks waiting outside, the hospital beds crowding the hallways—so the Rodriguez family sent their beloved Mamá to a hospital on Long Island. One of the grandchildren realized he knew the head of security at the hospital, so he donned protective gear and was snuck into the Intensive Care Unit. He took a video of her, the mask on her face, and gloves tied to her hands to prevent her from ripping off her breathing tube. She couldn’t fathom why she was here, alone, with no visitors in the ICU, only being taken care of by strangers. She asked to go home so she could be with her family.
“She just needs to make it through two days,” the family was told. Then, the worst of it would be over—and, hopefully, she’d be on the road to recovery. But Ana Ramona Rodriguez didn’t make it through. She passed away in the hospital. “The fact that she went alone when she had such a big family who would have been there—that’s something we are still dealing with,” Javy says. “Not that we want this to happen to anyone but, why her?”
Today, Ana is at a funeral home, still awaiting a coffin more than a week after her passing. Javy’s mother, a devout Catholic, is trying to arrange a Zoom prayer with her favorite priest in Ana’s memory. The Rodriguez family is now weighing how to honor their beloved matriarch when the coffin becomes available: Will they do a socially distant funeral, following the hearse in their cars, never stepping outside of their vehicles? Will they have a wake where just eight of the 49 of them are allowed to go inside, taking turns in pairs? Even if they do so, will Javy’s father, who himself is considered at risk for coronavirus, be able to say one last goodbye to his mother?
“It feels like I’ve had to put my grief on a shelf,” Javy says. “Because it’s there and I don’t know where to express it. When something like this happens, you want to see your family. That’s how we’ve always come to terms with grief.”
Ana left just one request for the funeral she knew was coming: She wanted “all of the roses.” No doubt, she imagined her large, expansive family present to say their goodbyes, to throw their roses onto her coffin, sending her off with just as much beauty as she’d given them. She waited all of her 91 years—and now she would have to wait some more.
When he thinks of his grandmother now, Javy starts to cry. After a week of trying to process her loss, he’s realized something about her memory: That even when she wasn’t there with him, it felt like she was. “She may not be with us physically,” he says, “but what she was will always be—and always has been—with us.” When she finally passed, he realizes now that because of the very fact that he was alive, there is no way that she was ever alone.