Chapter Four

It has taken me a while to get to the point of writing about what happened after I learned that my mom was dead.

Should I have softened that up and said, “had passed away” instead? That’s what everybody else would do.  Julia said that I “don’t have an ounce of sentimentality.”  I didn’t know what she meant by that and had to ask.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but she actually meant it as a compliment. I was to think of that Austen novel. Sentimentality, Julia explained, is responding emotionally to major events in your life the way that society expects you to.  When one’s mother passes, the surviving son is supposed hold back at the funeral like a man, but be caught silently shedding a tear in the kitchen during the wake. I’m supposed to speak Hallmark ready-made phrases and so forth. 

I didn’t do any of that when Mom died. I didn’t even call Horatio. I just fucking cried my eyes out alone.  Other than the Uber driver and the coroner, I spoke to no one about it for days.  I didn’t call a friend. I didn’t inform our cousins (on my dad’s side).  Gertrude had no siblings.  I was the only one to mourn her. And I did it alone.

There was no funeral or memorial service because it was not permitted by law. Morticians were among the workers who were told to stay home, stay safe. A funeral, with all that snot, would be far too dangerous. Passing through the necessary stages of grief toward closure is not an essential activity. I didn’t want closure anyway.  I wanted to nurse my hurt. On the news they reported that the Covid bodies were piling up so thick and fast that refrigerator trucks had to be rented to hold them. The fact was that they were backlogged because the funeral homes were closed. There was no place to send the bodies. Gertrude is still among the loved ones piled up in a freezer in a parking lot outside the morgue.

The Uber driver, who had brought me all the way from JFK, was the kindest fellow in the world. When we arrived at the farm, he got my suitcases out of his trunk, lugged the heavy one up the stone steps and set it on the porch while I brought up the two lighter ones. Then he bear-hugged me and patted me on the back. While I searched my carry-on bag for my house key, he waited in the driveway to make sure I got in the door before driving away with a consoling, toot toot.

As I turned the knob, there was a slight cracking sound of a door that had not been opened for days, the stickiness of paint or moisture or whatever. It was to me the breaking of the seal on her tomb. 

Having been away for so long (two years?), the smell of my home, wood varnish mainly, confronted me with vidid memories of my becoming who I am. Point of origins. Inside the stone foyer her garden shoes waited under the bench where as she had left them, expecting her to return shortly.

The old wide floorboards in the dining room creaked as I turned toward the kitchen and saw Gertrude’s last breakfast dish standing on its side in the drainer. On the counter was her stovetop coffee maker and the antique bean grinder that had been her mother’s. As I entered the tiled kitchen, my steps echoed and I realized I had not stopped to remove my shoes in the foyer. Gertrude would not approve.  I touched the wood handle of the grinder and contemplated how her hand, after her mother’s, had worn a slight groove.

“She’s not here.”  I said to the emptiness.

I went upstairs and looked into my bedroom from the landing. In the years since I’d been away, Gertrude had packed most of my childhood things and the room was now a neutralized guest room. But some of my books were still on the shelf. My photos of Dad and of us three.

Her bedroom door was ajar.  Without entering, I pushed the door further open from the hallway, as if trying to surprise a ghost, and saw the uninhabited room. The bed covers were dog eared on the far side. Her pillow had a depression in it. It would smell like her hair.

I decided I would wash the sheets and begin to pack away her clothes and maybe move into her room in a week or so. Why did I decide that? I don’t know.  Hers was a more peaceful room than mine. Windows north and east facing. “What happened?” I asked her empty bed as I sat down. “How did this happen?”

Gertrude did not fit the profile of an at-risk person. How could a Kimmie or a Ariel survive it and not Gertrude, lean willowy Gertrude, with her dark brown hair hardly any gray?  I thought about Gertrude caring for the fat women and remembered how, when I was in bed with a fever as a child, she would kiss my hot forehead and say, “I wish I could take your fever from you.”  Sometimes she would catch my fever. I’d wake up cured, and she would be in her robe with a thermometer in her mouth, setting the breakfast table for me and Dad. She didn’t convalesce in bed. She kept going through her flus and colds. Maybe that was part of it; she just didn’t take care of herself.

But those nurses. They weren’t nice. They were absolutely mad and abusive. They weren’t the heroes that the world was beating pots and pans about at 20:00 every evening. They didn’t do that in Russia, by the way.  They didn’t worship the essential workers like that. Russians still have some of that Soviet dedication to duty that doesn’t require cheering on.  The Russian nurses were like firefighters that didn’t need applause to goad them into the burning building. They went in without looking back.

I noticed a ball of clean socks on the floor. Gertrude must have packed an overnight bag hastily before going to the hospital to check herself in.  Her car was in the driveway I realized. She must have gotten a ride from a friend.  Kimmie? I wondered.

I went into Gertrude’s bathroom. There were more signs of a hasty departure.  Her bathrobe was lying on the sink counter. When I went to hang it up, I found her cell phone beneath it. It was connected to the charger, but the charger was lying on the counter under the outlet. I picked up the phone and tried to turn it on.  It was dead. I plugged the charger in, but the heavy thing just fell right out again. The plugs were never right in this house. That partly explained why she had stopped texting when she went into the hospital. Booz or Ariel or whoever had taken her there would not have been able to find the dead phone. I took the phone into the bedroom and successfully plugged it in under the nightstand.  When it got enough charge, I would look to see if she had gotten my message that I was on my way. 

I threw back Gertrude’s heavy comforter and stripped the sheets off and wadded them up against my chest and went down the stairs. Against my face was that slight sunflower oil smell that was my mother’s. Tomorrow morning, I would make a phone call to the hospital and ask what I was supposed to do now, to make the arrangements.  No doubt the hospital would expect me back, calmer, masked up, ready to sign papers and such.

I found two quiches in the refrigerator and ate three quarters of one. It was a little stale but still good. Gertrude had been well enough to cook, apparently.  She had added chard from the garden, and had probably used the last of the potatoes and onions from her winter stock and, I think, there was some sun-dried tomato too, which was an addition to the recipe I knew. There would be a lot of eggs in the barn with no one to gather them. Maybe Booz was on top of that. Picking up the last crust crumbs with my fingers, I was suddenly overwhelmed by jet-lag. My eyelids had that proverbial heaviness that I’d never experienced before. I went up to my old room, stripped to boxers and fell into bed. Under the blankets I smelled the stale air of the Aeroflot flight still on my skin and in my hair. Wearily, I got up again and took a long hot shower that was the best shower I’d ever had in my thirty years. I felt somehow giddy with gratitude for the massaging comfort of the hot water pelting my face. Then I got into bed naked and damp and fell immediately off a steep cliff of welcomed unconscious sleep. 

I woke early the next morning, my body confused about the time zone change. As consciousness slowly came back, I had that disorienting sense of not knowing where you are. Traveling most of the time for the last few years, I often woke slightly panicked that I didn’t know where I was. This morning the familiarity of my room seem strange in the first instance, and for a second I didn’t know what had happened the day before. Then the memory of the long flight, the recognition of my boyhood room and the absence of my mother arrived in that order.  I got my running shoes on in the still dark room and dressed for morning chill. 

In the wee twilight hour, the rail trail—a bike path that ran from the Wassaic station, the last stop on the train from New York City, to the next village ten miles north—was deserted and hung with summer mists. As I approached the trail, I was confused by the mirage of pale bluish shapes scattered on the ground, like eerie, lurid giant mushrooms. They turned out to be masks and latex gloves strewn everywhere. Some appeared to have been cast aside weeks ago, soiled and stuck with leaves; other masks were freshly discarded, caught up like tiny parachutes tumbling as a breeze rose with the sun. 

I put in my ear buds and started a slow jog. My knees were hurting from all the running I’d been doing on pavement in Saint Petersburg. I knew the pain would go away after a while of warming up, so I kept going.  But the music in my ears was too familiar. I’d been listening to the same playlist for too long.  It didn’t inspire me to go on. I took out the ear buds and listened to the sound of the waking woods, dripping moisture from from the fog, a scurrying black squirrel, the swoosh of a startled morning dove. In front of me, a party of three deer crossed the trail, a mom and two young ones, stepping daintily. Mom froze when she caught sight of me. Her big ears turned independently of each other and surveyed the soundscape. Then she leapt off the trail into the woods, the little ones following the white of her upturned tail as it disappeared into the brush.

For a moment the image of my mom lying in that hospital bed behind the glass hooked to plastic hoses and surrounded by electronics came to mind. Adrenaline went through my heart, as if I’d tripped.  I kept jogging. I put my ear buds in. I turned the music up. The pain in my knees was gone now and I went into a full sprint.

At the far end of the tree tunnel, three or four cyclists were approaching. They were coming fast, and I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw that they were wearing masks and gloves.  As they neared, I guessed they were from the city, based on their expensive gear and the brands advertised on their outfits. As they swooshed passed, I stopped and gestured at them that they were out of their minds for wearing masks while riding.  But how they took my message could not be known because they had no way to show expression.

Soon there were more cyclists passing singly or in pairs, all coming with oxygen-depriving face coverings and useless gloves. The train from the city must have just come in.  I didn’t have to wonder what they did with the surgical wear once they were done with their rides. 

I ran to the end of the trail where it met the train station. There was construction going on extending the trail south to the next hamlet. I decided to explore the yet-unpaved section for a bit, but after about twenty yards I turned around.  I realized I wasn’t in the mood for new scenery.  I got back on the path that I knew so well, that I had run so many times as a teen and young man. As long as I stayed on the familiar path, it was like going back in time.

As I approached the intersection of the road that led back up to my farm, I saw ahead of me the figure of an old lady, with a bed-rumpled manly haircut, leashed to terrier. I took out one ear bud and smiled and waved hello as I passed. 

“Hamlet,” she cried out.

I stopped, unable to recognize the voice behind the mask. “I go by Winston now.”

“Right. You don’t recognize me?”

Smiling nervously, “I’ve been gone a while. Everyone’s changed.”


It was Nellie. The next-door neighbor, who up until a few years ago had been good friends with Gertrude.

“Visiting your mom?” she asked rhetorically.

I paused. Could it be that she was not aware that Gertrude had been sick or in the hospital?  Surely she would ask how she was doing. I noticed Nellie was walking backwards, putting ten feet between us.

I wiped the sweat from my face with my long sleeved elbow. “What’s with the masks outside?” I asked. “Sorry. I just got back from Russia yesterday afternoon, and it is like the Twilight Zone here.  What are the gloves for?”

“The virus settles on surfaces,” she snapped. She was holding her dog leash with a gloved hand.

“On the leash?” I asked. I really wasn’t trying to be impolite, although I was pretty certain that her answer was going to be incredibly stupid.

“It reminds me not to touch my face,” she explained.  “The mask also reminds me not to touch my face.”

“Okay,” I said, wiping my face again with my sleeve. “That explains something, I guess.”

“What were you doing in Russia?” she ventured, pronouncing “Russia” with disgust.

“Working,” I said curtly, just to annoy her.

“Not for those fake news trolls, I hope.”

I considered for a moment and decided I could not honestly say, “no,” since I worked for Octopus, so I left her question unanswered. “You know my mom was sick.”

At this Nellie jerked back like I’d thrown ice water at her. “Not Covid, I hope!” 

I took a deep breath.  I felt tears spring to my eyes. I was on the verge of blurting out, “She’s dead,” but it was too awful to say. Nellie wasn’t going to give me the hug I needed, that was for sure.  Instead I said, trying to keep my voice from shaking, “I’m afraid so.”

“Well, I’m sorry, but you shouldn’t be out here spreading germs on the rail trail.  That’s very irresponsible of you, Winston.  This is a public health emergency.  I taught Public Health policy at Brown, you know, and I can tell you that we are not going to get control of this situation unless everyone is onboard with the measures.” She scowled. “And I notice you not wearing a mask.” She gave her terrier a yank and hurried on her way. After a while she yelled over her shoulder, “And you’re supposed to be in quarantine!”

I opened my mouth to hurl an insult at her, but instead tears welled up, and I sat down on the trail and put my face in my hands.  More cyclists swooshed by without bothering to ask whether or not I was okay or in some deep horrible pain.  That made me a little angry, which gave me the motivation to just get up and go home. 

One may wonder why I’m not onboard with the measures since I, who have been hit so hard by the virus, should know better than anyone.  Aside from the fact that I’m aware that every totalitarian regime in human history has straight away gotten the people to do the unspeakable for the “common good”—which made me hesitant to believe in that marketing strategy—I wasn’t subjected to the same conditioning treatment that my fellow Americans were because I was elsewhere during the three months of lockdown.  In Russia, I’ll have you know, the most popular image of the Covid crisis, which circulated when the disease was doing its worst in the world, was a photograph of a beautiful young nurse wearing a bikini under her see-through plastic PPE. (She dressed that way because she was hot, metaphorically and literally.) Her chipper elderly Covid patients were in the background sitting up in bed and taking notice.  Compare this to the most popular images going around in Western countries of eerily lighted ICUs with dehumanized patients whose bodies had been invaded by dozens of tubes.

Speaking of which, at 9:00AM after my run and coffee, I called the hospital that had ventilated my mom, and I was told there was no need for me to come in person to take care of paperwork.  Further, there was no need to make funeral arrangements any time soon, the woman at the other end said.  I should just “sit tight” and wait for a call from the morgue.  She extended her condolences before she hung up the phone. 

It’s the second time I’ve been denied a funeral for a parent. Scratch that. That’s just me feeling sorry for myself.  I don’t want to focus on my pain; perversely, I seem to want to focus the terror my mom must have felt being alone.  That’s why it’s better not to think at all.

I am not the victim. My parents were. I am not to be pitied.  I reject your pity, good reader.  If no funeral, then no family and no friends will be watching the casket descend with snot-soaked masks clinging to their faces. So it’s just as well.

I remembered Gertrude’s phone.  After her quiche had hit me like a shot of morphine, I’d forgotten about it.  I went upstairs and found it, now fully charged and waiting to be opened without a password. Although she hadn’t received the messages I’d sent from the Moscow train station and airport, she had received the one I sent when she told me she’d gotten Covid:

Hi Mom. Glad to hear that your case doesn’t seem so bad.  Still I’d rather be there.  Good news. They are allowing a couple of flights to leave for New York out of Moscow starting on Friday. I’m already booked.  Tomorrow I will get everything packed, and on Wednesday I’m taking the fast train to Moscow.  I’m on my way.  Love you!

I was a bit relieved to know that she never got my messages saying that that flight had been overbooked and I was bumped by oligarchs who had parties in Napa Valley to get to and that I, like Snowden, had been stranded in the limbo of an airport transit hotel for almost a week.

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