In March, the pandemic shut down campus. In April, I found out my Opa had cancer—it was in his esophagus, his lungs, his brain. In May, he died.
My family lives in Sarnia, ON., which is, at best, a five-hour car journey from Kingston. After coming to Canada from the Netherlands when he was in his twenties, my Opa lived in the same yellow country house for 50 years.
Growing up, my family moved around a lot, making my Opa’s house a cornerstone in a constantly shifting world I didn’t fully trust. He was always there to drive us where we needed to go, and his house became a refuge while my mom tried to build a life for herself and her six children.
The simple act of turning the corner of my Opa’s house and seeing the tree-filled acre stretch before you—maybe he already has the fire going, or the door to his workshop is open and music spills out while he tinkers away at something—and you let out a breath you didn’t know you’d been holding in. You’re stepping into a timeless place, somewhere so peaceful it’s like all the light comes to you through water. I wanted to believe he’d have one last summer there, but soon my mom called with the news: he wouldn’t make it to the fall.
She asked my brother and I to come home and see my Opa before he was gone, but I had just started a new job. I told myself I could put it off for a couple weeks. I had seen videos of him holding my cousin’s new baby, heard anecdotes on the phone of his good cheer. I kept telling myself it was fine that I couldn’t make it home yet; he would still be okay when I got there. Deep down, I think I was refusing to believe the reality of what was happening—too much had already changed in the past month.
When I finally returned home at the end of May, my Opa could barely walk, let alone speak. When I went to see him, expecting to be able to talk to him and see him smile, he had to go back to his room after less than an hour. Underneath this shock were feelings of shame: I felt guilty about traveling during a pandemic, I felt guilty about taking so long to go home, I felt guilty about working, I felt guilty about not working.
I let the days go by. I went to his house on a few of my Mom’s morning trips, but I didn’t go into his room. I had never been exposed to such sickness before, and I’m ashamed to say I was terrified. I’m still ashamed.
On the day before I had to return to Kingston, I worked up the courage to go into his room and say goodbye. The cancer had transformed his body. I don’t think it’s something you can ever be prepared for, seeing a person you’ve loved and known your whole life wasted away like that. When he saw me he tried to talk, and I don’t remember everything I said to him, except don’t talk, you’ll be with Oma soon, I love you, I love you, it’s okay. He squeezed my hand; it was all he could do. I kissed his forehead and left. It felt like it should have been more than that, but it wasn’t.
For students whose families live more than a few hours away from Kingston, you can sometimes feel like you’re living two different lives, each pausing while you visit the other. My brothers drove me back to Kingston, and my Opa died before they returned home. He was gone, but the pandemic continued. Working at a newspaper meant I couldn’t simply ignore COVID-19 and its pummeling headlines, so I put my Opa’s death aside instead. There was no funeral to go home to, no act of closure; only my mom, her siblings, and their partners could attend the burial. My Opa’s house went up on the market and was taken down three days later.
When I went home in August, hoping to see the house before the sale closed, it still needed to be emptied. My family had done a lot of the work over the summer, but most of the house was still full.
We spent several days clearing it out. I cleaned out his kitchen, throwing away his old food and dishes. I emptied his bookshelves, which felt like violence. Here was a book he bought on the road trip we took together when I was 16. Here was a hand-written list of Louis L’Amour books he wanted to read. Here was an old Dutch cigar box containing an obituary of my Oma, a photo of a street intersection in the Netherlands, and a rock. Why were they there, together in that box? And then there were the strangers wandering through the house in masks, picking out things to buy. None of it felt real, and so at a certain point I simply turned myself off.
On the night before the sale closed, we drove to the cemetery and sat in a circle around him and Oma, who had been buried there more than three decades earlier after her own cancer battle. Mom passed out the cups and the whiskey. Proost. The yellow house had been a home, or maybe Opa had made it a home we could take with us wherever we went.
Then we went there and had one final campfire. We roasted hotdogs, drank more, told stories. My siblings and I pushed each other on the old tire swing. We walked through the house and ran to the back of the yard. I slowly turned myself back on. When we went home, I cried with my Mom on her bed.
I know it’s not realistic. I know my Opa was a person with faults and mistakes and regrets. But in my mind, the sky above that yellow house will always be pure, the days always soaked in sun, feet always bare and running through grass. Somewhere my family is still sitting around a fire at night with trees above us, listening to my Opa talk, his Dutch accent like a slow, smoky rain.
I’m still trying to come to terms with all this, especially my feelings of guilt and shame. COVID-19 has taken up so much space inside my head and my heart that I’m still trying to find room for grief. It comes to me unexpectedly—the smell of crushed apples beneath a tree while I walk to work—and there’s the stone in my stomach: he’s gone.
To anyone who’s lost someone during the pandemic, I’m sorry. Whether it was due to the virus or something else, our traditional mourning processes have been disrupted. We’re forced to invent new ways of eulogizing while finding spaces inside us for loss itself.
I wish I hadn’t lost my Opa during the pandemic. When everything else around me was changing and uncertain, what had been most stable and peaceful in my life was taken away from me, too. I wasn’t ready for this step in growing up.
It’s selfish of me to feel this way, which adds to my feelings of guilt. I wish my Opa was still here in his yellow house. I wish I had asked him more questions about his life and his family. I wish I had learned all the piano songs he asked me to. I wish I had returned home sooner. I thought time worked for me and not against, I thought some people were impenetrable, I thought some places were safe and couldn’t change; losing someone during the pandemic has showed me the truth behind all these things.
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