Nora Feely on loss during the pandemic, chosen families, and the small but devastating things 2020 took away.
Two years earlier, John and I had gotten sick around the same time. I had lymphoma, and John had a complex, non-alcoholic liver disease and separate cancerous masses. Those years were filled with operations and medications to help his body function, and emergency hospital visits when those measures didn’t work. Like many long illnesses, it seemed to ebb and flow: Sometimes we thought he wouldn’t make it, and then he’d stabilize for a while before another, more acute bout of complications would return.
We were all living in the land of the sick. As I went through my own diagnosis and treatment process in Chicago, I would text with Susan and the kids while they sat in hospital rooms in St. Louis. But through it all, I knew that recovery was much likelier for me than for John.
Despite the challenges of arranging care for John, Susan still came to see me during my chemo sessions. One day, she drove from St. Louis to Chicago with a car packed full of goodies for us: ingredients to make her famous lemon meringue pie, one of Nico’s favorite foods; various chips and cookies; and a new roller for homemade pie crust. “I figured you didn’t have a good one,” she told me, as she unpacked bag after bag like some kind of Armenian Mary Poppins. That week, Nico and I should have been moving across the country, off on our post-grad-school adventures. We were both feeling the loss of the life we’d planned, and I could tell Nico was flagging after four months of intense caregiving. It can be hard to ask for the kind of help you need; I didn’t know that what we needed was Susan and her bags.
I watched as Nico brightened when she arrived, and the way that he laughed and relaxed for the first time in weeks while they made pie. In those years, it was sometimes hard to relax and have fun with other people. When we did, we later found that they’d used our laughter as proof that we were actually fine, rather than realizing that moments of joy were brief, necessary buoys when we were not at all fine.
But Susan’s day-to-day life, like our own, was filled with anxiety and doctor’s visits and symptom tracking and pain management. We all knew the value of those little moments. That weekend, we rolled out homemade pasta and made meatballs. Susan walked to the grocery store nearby and wound up going to the Pride festival on the same street. Delighted by the party, she brought me home a rainbow scarf and pulled out her phone to show me photos of all the beautiful outfits she’d seen and people she’d quickly befriended. When her car broke down and she had to extend her stay with us a little, we tried not to feel bad about how happy that additional day made us.
About a year later, when I was six months into remission, I finally felt able to return to St. Louis. I texted Susan that we were coming and she replied, “Great! John’s been wanting to have a barbeque.” John was not cured, but he was in a slightly more functional period. He was in bed when we arrived, which was on the first floor so that he wouldn’t have to manage the stairs.
I sat with John as he woke up slowly, so much thinner than I’d ever seen him and never quite feeling he was all the way with us. We talked about his daughter’s pregnancy and him becoming a grandpa. He started to stand up on his own, and I helped him as his sons sighed behind me that they could help if he’d just let them; I could tell this was a frequent conversation. Food arrived: fried chicken, pulled pork, ribs, macaroni and cheese, a cake. More than three meats, and lots of St. Louis beers.
One moment sticks out: John, making his way across the yard with a cane (and several people watching to make sure he didn’t fall), softly singing every word to “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.” He smiled and his voice keyed up as he got to “make a new plan, Stan,” drawing out the a’s like always.
In that moment, at least, John was still very much himself.
On the rainy morning in April, Nico and I are running late to get out to Hartford. While we pack the car, John looms large in my head. It’s been almost a year, I realize, since that last St. Louis trip.
The pandemic and its new restrictions have made John’s decline even more painful. As the coronavirus swept the Northeast, he’d spent a week in the hospital and then more than a week in rehab without any visits allowed from Susan and the kids. Eventually, all the glimmers of hope that had peeked out over the last few years disappeared.
Covid-19 has kept us from being there for John at the end. My mom is devastated—night after night, she tells me, “I should’ve just flown out before the restrictions.” She can’t bear to sit at home while her best friend watches her husband slip away, but it feels impossible to do much more.
“We should bring them treats,” Nico says, knowing that in lieu of being able to hug, we needed to offer some form of comfort. We pack up leftovers of my mother-in-law’s Cuban roast pork and congrí, then place a takeout order at our favorite fancy appetizer store for good cheese—something French and melty for my mom—and a whitefish dip that my family loves. “Remind me to take off the price tags,” I say to Nico as I submit the order, wondering if I’m the only adult who hides prices from their parents.
As we arrive to pick up the food, Nico waits for me to get out of the car, but I get a text and wave for him to go instead. It’s John’s oldest son, the de facto communicator for the family: John is gone. I need a minute before I can say anything. No one else knows yet, and John’s son asks if I can spread the news to the Russell people. Nico gets back in the car, and my voice cracks in my throat as I tell him.
Our lives together have been full of loss, and this chosen family has taught me that joy and sadness are intertwined, rather than ingredients to be kept separate and well-ordered.
An organizer at heart, I am relieved to have a task so I don’t have to feel it yet. I call our little family of friends—first my sister, then my parents so they know before we arrive. As I call the other Russell families, I feel a sense of closeness in their familiar voices hundreds of miles away.
We pull up to my parents’ little house. My dad is measuring out spots ten feet apart, walking toe to heel through the yard: one for him and my mom, one for Nico and me, one for my sister and her sons. My tiny mom walks out in a big coat, her gaunt, exhausted eyes peering out above her surgical mask.
Boo Radley, the big black dog we’d come to say goodbye to, is usually thrilled to see me. When I would come home to St. Louis, he’d smell me the minute I got out of the car and hurl his seventy-five-pound body at the front door as I walked up the steps. Then he’d romp around the house, howling and baring his teeth in a sort of werewolf’s grin, unable to contain himself as he ran to the bathroom trash for a toilet paper roll to bring me as a gift.
Not today. Boo doesn’t recognize me through the drugs and the pain from the cancerous mass they found in him three days ago. He got sick so quickly that I didn’t get to see him decline—instead, I see this big black dog stumbling toward me, his dark eyes unseeing, his nose not recognizing my scent. My mom hands me a box of Milk-Bones, which, in his final days, he gets to eat straight from the box.
I laugh as I cry, and think about how much John would appreciate watching this dog dive into a full box of treats.
At Thanksgiving breakfasts, I remember making eggs while John told stories. He’d ask, “Have you ever read the Federalist Papers?” and launch into a story that managed to connect his encyclopedic historical knowledge with pranks he’d played in college. Other times he’d talk about life around the house with their latest stray—of both the human and animal variety—who somehow found John and Susan and took refuge in their home for a while.
Over the years this ranged from the friends and coworkers of their kids, people who needed a landing place, to a flock of abandoned kittens that took up permanent residence in their garage. They wouldn’t go near anyone but John. He’d moved an old armchair into the garage and would whistle to the tiny, wild beasts as they slowly made their way out of hiding and climbed on him, their patron saint.
Most of John’s stories ended with him bursting into song or whistling in his superhuman, orchestral manner. As a child, I tried to understand the connections between John’s musings on the Federalist Papers and songs like “Kokomo” and “Hotel California.” By sixteen, I’d learned to not worry so much about why John sang. John just wanted to sing. Sometimes he’d remark on my Irish looks, break into a flawless brogue, and start crooning “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” I’d laugh, roll my eyes, and keep stirring the eggs.
I think about all of this as our beach chairs sink into the soggy ground, each in different corners of the little yard. I look at the bleak sky and pull my fleece around me, then break the silence. “So, this is just the worst, huh?” We laugh, and my mom shakes her head as her thin body frame shivers in the cold. “I just wish I was there.”
Nico, struggling for anything helpful to say, tells them that we’ve brought food for everyone. My mom perks up momentarily, but then we realize we can’t eat together because of the virus.
My sister walks to her car. “I brought a speaker; I thought in John’s honor, we could play some songs.” Though we came to say goodbye to Boo Radley, it has become an accidental wake for John.
I think back to the last Russell Boulevard wake, which wasn’t technically a wake at all. It was a few years ago, before any of us were sick, and I was getting married. My family was also preparing to leave St. Louis for Connecticut, and the Russell families had decided to throw a pig roast in my parents’ backyard two days before the wedding. Ultimately, this included a lot more people than the house or yard could technically hold, but Dorothy, one of the moms, decided that we should go big for what might be our last party together in St. Louis. One of her sons worked at a restaurant in Memphis, and he and his girlfriend had driven a whole pig overnight, then met his dad in our yard to dig a trench and get the coals going. This is my chosen family’s love language: financially and logistically stressful food and travel plans.
The night before the party, several people near and dear to the Russell families died. As she traveled to the wedding from London, Shelly, one of the moms, lost her mother from long-term stroke complications; on the same day, Dorothy’s mother-in-law also died following a stroke. As we got these back-to-back calls early the morning of the party, my mom said, “It’s like you’re cursed.” Nico’s eyes widened as I huffed that she shouldn’t say that out loud.
Throughout the day, the Russell families converged to help with the party, some in a haze of grief. Shelly came first, bottles of duty-free scotch in hand. Her sleep-deprived daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend, who was meeting all of us for the first time, trailed in, behind her. Around 11 a.m., while her daughter started to make potato salad, Shelly started to pour drinks. “My friends,” she said, “I’m so glad to be with you today.”
Dorothy arrived as planned from Madison, still somehow carrying jars of the gazpacho she’d promised to make for the party. “You didn’t have to bring it! You didn’t have to come!” I told her, as she unloaded her car.
“Of course I’m here,” she replied in her steely Midwestern mom voice, offended at the suggestion and busying herself with utensils and napkins. I spent the day vacuuming dog hair in my parents’ house, clearing out piles of stuff to pretend that we are not people who have piles of stuff.
Susan showed up with her bags as John ambled over to check out the pig. “Nora, m’dear!” he said, kissing me on the cheek. “John!” Shelly squawked from her lawn chair, holding up her scotch in a cheap little glass from a local brewery. “My friend! Come sit.”
Back in the kitchen, as I complained to Susan that my parents were driving me crazy, she laughed and held out a cardboard box with a sly smile. I peered in to see a line of perfect, miniature lemon meringue pies. “For Nico?”
She nodded. “They’re smaller, so you each get your own—but you have to make sure Nico gets one.” I knew that these pies were a little blessing from John and Susan, just like when Susan presented Nico with his own lemon meringue pie at Thanksgiving breakfast a few years back. I choked up when I leaned over to hug her, soaking up this quiet moment.
The wedding guests arrived in the early evening, which in August was still muggy and hot. At one point during the party, someone asked why Shelly was crying. “Her mom just died,” I answered matter-of-factly, though I knew the subtext of the question was why Shelly was crying here, at a wedding party, in front of strangers. I didn’t care. I looked out over the table full of food prepared and brought across the country by these people in the midst of their losses and busy lives.
As the party rolled into the night, John and Susan’s daughter found me. “We have to make sure we get some of my mom’s pie.” Word had spread, and the Russell kids magically gathered in my parents’ kitchen, all a little drunk as we opened up the boxes I’d hidden in the fridge. My body was sticky with sweat from the thick air of my final summer in St. Louis, relieved by the shivery kick of pure lemon juice coated in sugar, rounded out by the lightness of egg whites melting in my mouth. Susan caught us halfway through our secret feast. “The hell are you doing!” she yelled, her curls bouncing as she laughed. But she let us continue: She’d made those tiny pies for us.
“To Russell,” we toasted, looking around at the wrecked kitchen and the people we grew up with.
This memory warms and haunts me as I sit on my parents’ depressing lawn listening to the Eagles. We’re thankful the music is filling the silence as we list songs that John sang for us at often-inappropriate moments (in churches; during dinners while someone was in the middle of a story). “Kokomo,” “Hotel California,” various Irish folk songs, and, of course, “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.”
None of these songs match the scene, and they both lift our spirits and highlight how absurd this makeshift wake is: a bunch of St. Louisans freezing in a nondescript Connecticut suburb, sitting ten steps apart on lawn chairs, unable to hug or eat, while our dying dog stumbles around not recognizing anyone. This is grief in 2020, and we’re lucky to even be sharing a lawn.
John, like so many of the thousands of lives lost in 2020, deserves a proper wake. We should be throwing the messiest, funniest, weirdest wake to commemorate his life that brought so many songs and jokes and stories into our lives and demanded nothing in return. Our lives together have been full of loss, and this chosen family has taught me that joy and sadness are intertwined, rather than ingredients to be kept separate and well-ordered.
I hate to think of Susan in a quiet house, to think that this family who has shown up with laughter and bags of supplies for every single event of my life, good and bad, is grieving without us.
These smaller losses are building up in everyone’s lives, unacknowledged and unresolved. What will happen to all of this unnatural, lonely grief?
These are the smaller, quieter things the pandemic has taken away: not only the funerals and milestones, the official and religious ceremonies, but the ability to simply show up, and the distractions brought by gathering. The bickering over whether we have enough potatoes, of who is picking someone up at the airport and where everyone is going to sleep. It’s the noise, the physical tasks and things and humans for us to vent our grief on in the form of logistical frustrations of our own creation.
We’ve lost the outlet of love and grief that we get when we layer a lasagna, when we drive across the city for the good donuts before the funeral or the booze that we sneak along the way, of the electricity released in the fights that spontaneously break out between siblings.
These smaller losses are building up in everyone’s lives, unacknowledged and unresolved. What will happen to all of this unnatural, lonely grief?
My family sits on the lawn for about an hour, mostly quiet but occasionally telling a story or singing along to the music. We leave as my sister starts to cry. It’s too hard for me to watch and not be able to hug her. I physically cannot tolerate the moment.
“I need to eat,” I tell Nico as we climb in the car. We sit in the Shake Shack parking lot and eat cheeseburgers, greasy and beautiful and slathered in sauce. It wasn’t three meats, and it wasn’t a wake, but I send my family a text: “I hope the pork and snacks make you feel a little better tonight.”
The sky clears as we drive, but the light is bleak on the budding trees of early spring in New England. I think about St. Louis heat and lemon meringue pie, and wonder when I’ll get to go home again.
Nora Feely is a freelance writer, advocate, and social worker who studied trauma and resilience at the University of Chicago. She is from St. Louis, Missouri, the hallowed birthplace of toasted ravioli, and recently moved to the East Coast. You can find her on Twitter @nkfeely or over at her blog ButYouLookGreat.net.