All in the Family
December 2019—aka last year—I was emailed a schedule from the communications manager of Letters, providing the regular columnists a list of submission deadlines for the 2020 calendar. In addition, the schedule noted what “focus” the issues were looking to highlight. This issue’s focus falls under the category of “timing is everything.” This issue’s focus is family. And I can’t think of anything, as we self-isolate, that has struck as deep a chord as family.
Whether we talk about immediate family or extended family, biological family or sociological family, to be kept from people we love when we need them most, not to be physically touched with love is, I think, the haunting legacy of this virus.
My Mom celebrated her 88th birthday in her apartment in a senior living community, tucked as safely as can be, even if it’s lonely, behind closed doors. My brother sent out a Zoom invite, and I talked her through the clicks on her computer, until finally, we were all there. And I mean all of us—children, spouses, grandchildren, significant others. From all over the US and a few other places, we were those opening “Brady Bunch credits” times three or four. Mom’s eyes didn’t know who to focus on first.
We all talked, and over-talked, and laughed, and shrieked, and jumped up to get pets and pulled them into frame until they were sharing the screen, and so it went, on and on, until it came time to end the celebration.
And then Mom smiled at everyone and proclaimed this had been her best birthday ever.
I disconnected, shaking my head, laughing, and then, realizing it wasn’t exactly hyperbole. In some ways, she was right. We were all there, together, breaking through the isolation and truly in the moment, because we needed to celebrate with her as much as she needed to celebrate with us, with family.
Joseph A. Boyle aka “Chief” had a big family. One begun when he married Barb, his “bride” of 68 years, and continued growing and morphing through six children, their spouses, significant others, grandchildren (17 of them!), and great-grandchildren. He was a man who served America, spending more than 20 years in the US Navy. An honorably discharged Chief Petty Officer, well known for wishing all to “have a great day and fly the flag.”
An Eagles fan, a Mummer (for 75 years!), a volunteer at the Battleship New Jersey Museum and Memorial, and an early-Mass greeter at St. Charles Borromeo Church.
Chief passed away several days after my Mom’s birthday. He was not a casualty of COVID-19, but his death was encompassed by it, and the aftermath still is.
Humans have rituals because they ease our way. The Boyle family found themselves ripped apart from those grounding, stabilizing, comforting options. In small ways, there can be no flowers. In bigger ways, no mourners, no friends. And in devastating ways, a big family cannot gather as one. So the family had to be split, each small group given a time they would be allowed a visitation.
And hardest of all, there cannot be a group hug. No one can lean over and catch the tear running down another’s cheek. No one’s shoulder can be leaned into for strength.
And we’re the lucky ones. We see them on TV every night. We cheer our family of first responders, fighting their fears, pushing through boundaries, soldiering on. We grieve with those in mourning, weeping as a family “talked for 30 hours on an iPad,” staying with their Dad until he lost his battle with the virus, a Zoom goodbye.
Technology humbles me.
I read of a man whose newborn twin brother died of the Spanish influenza while a hundred years later he died from coronavirus. I cannot imagine the loneliness of those who died in the days of the Spanish Influenza and all the plagues before that. I’m grateful to Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp and Google Hangout and Skype and….
Family. I met Chief’s son, Michael, shortly after I moved to my Rehoboth house. Michael met my Mom a while later when she came to visit me. One day we will get together and share a hug, one that encompasses both celebration and grief; life and loss. I will stand and grab the hand next to me as Chief is honored, getting his flag and his 21 gun salute.
Stay safe. Stay sane. Until we hug again.
Stefani Deoul is a television producer and author of the award-winning YA mystery series Sid Rubin Silicon Alley Adventures, with On a LARP and Zero Sum Game. Her third in the series, Say Her Name, came out in December 2019.