Virtual Grief in a Pandemic

Virtual Grief in a Pandemic

Virtual Grief in a Pandemic 1920 1282 Zachary Hourihane

For the past month, I had been calling my grandmother every day, from Singapore, to read her a poem. It started as an isolation project. She was cocooned at home in Dublin and I thought she could use the company. Things were bad with Papa, he needed care round the clock. I called before her afternoon snooze. I imagined her cupping the phone with one arthritic hand, blinking the sleep away, staring at the garden that Papa had tended with love when he was able. We read Sylvia Plath, Marie Howe, and Mary Oliver. She was captured by the lyricism of natural world poets. Often, she would recognize the immortal plants of literature in her own garden: we have some of that goldenrod, it’s just gorgeous in September. How strange that this taste had been passed down to me, even stranger that I never noticed before.

*

Papa’s death was expected but still a surprise. My mother rushed in with her hair wrapped in a towel to tell me he was dead. I was chewing a potato chip. My first thought: I was not prepared to grieve. I went to a yoga class that morning, drank a coffee, and read half of a book. This day was too sublime with mundanity to share this news. I shed no tears. I wandered into the living room to find my father in a heap on the sofa. It was barely noon, but I fetched him a beer. I took his hand and the potato cheap congealed in my mouth. Before I had thought: grief is raucous. It consumes a person and demands attention from the world. But there was only the silent heaving shoulders of my father and the chirping myna birds outside. I spat the remnants of the chip into my hand and got him another beer.

On one of our long-distance calls, my Granny asked if I would make a booklet of the isolation poems so she could read them again when we were finished. I printed them finely on amateur watercolors. She is a wonderful artist––though she has lost interest in the craft. On her advice I bought synthetic brushes and dipped them in turpentine to keep a fine point. I did not speak to Papa during these calls. His illness had rendered his speech low and labored, unsuitable for quick conversation. To be frank, we never had much to say.

The evening he died I sat on the balcony with my parents and watched the sun dissolve from a setting ochre to a tarmac grey. The clouds were bloated and low hanging in the sky. We had, together, run through all options. If times were normal, we would be on a plane cutting through the clouds and soaring home. But times weren’t normal, and even if we could get on a flight the funeral home would not let us in. My uncle, a doctor, breaks this to my father. It breaks him.

*

The Irish way of death is alive and well in Singapore. An impromptu wake was held, family friends called over with food, the phone rang constantly, a bouquet of lilies stunk up the apartment. Funeral flowers, I thought as they arrived at the door. Three days stretched into a long and unending vigil that was punishingly dull. Mimicking the process 7,000 miles away felt like an empty gesture. I thought death was momentous, but this was dreary and silent. My father wrote a eulogy, I wrote a poem at the request of my grandmother. The same thought hung between us as we ate meals without speaking, we should be there.

Papa was complex. A truly difficult man. He was high minded—once the dean of medicine at Trinity College, a perennial lover of literature, opera, bird watching, and golf. His interests were towed by a deep curiosity for the world, to know more, to learn always. That level of intelligence is off-putting to a child. He drifted around the house humming arias and reading the sports section of the Irish Times, a glass of red wine in hand. He did not hold with children. I was relieved when he climbed into his car and visited the golf course for the day. It left me with my granny to make up worlds and talk nonsense. I felt that he didn’t know me. When he died, I wondered if I knew him.

*

It’s a great thing, the World War I memorial in Singapore, Soviet-like in its austerity. The memorial sits in the oldest part of town, amidst grand colonial buildings and perfectly pruned rain trees. This is where we chose to honor Papa on the funeral day. His uncle was killed in the war in India. It was the best we could do. We bought a bouquet of flowers, and a single sunflower for my great-great uncle, then walked to the memorial in a noonday sun. There was no one around, a stroke of luck or a sign of higher sympathy. We placed the flowers and said a few words beneath the grand spire. I stood back to give my father a moment and again his shoulders heaved, sound tracked by a lawnmower roaring in the distance. Then we had lunch. Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant. I remembered this Didion line as I plucked peas out of my fried rice. I still had not cried.

The funeral was live-streamed. After our visit to the war memorial we had taken naps and poured drinks. I watched my Granny tread unsteadily to the front row, where the chairs were spaced six feet apart. I watched my cousins read poems and prayers, laughed along with the rousing eulogy, held my breath when my aunt read my poem sent from afar. There was a strict half hour time slot. When the curtains closed on the coffin, the humanist official (my Papa did not hold with the Catholic church) hurried to my grandmother and ushered her out of her chair. I saw her face for the first time, concealed by a mask. She wobbled unsurely then forged down the aisle, locking arms with my uncle. She hadn’t even a moment to watch the curtains settle. A great movement happened in my chest—an unlocking feeling, and tears finally came. My cousins embraced. Then the livestream ended and it was silent again.

*

I did not want to come out to my grandparents. They had voted no on the same-sex marriage referendum in Ireland, confirming my fear that they would not hold with my ‘lifestyle’. One summer, when I had gone to college and Papa took a greater interest in me, we sat down for a light lunch of cheese scones and mushroom soup. He wiped his mouth with a napkin and asked if I were gay. For a moment, I paused—tempted to lie as I had for such a long time. Instead I said yes and looked at him, waiting for condemnation. Why didn’t you tell us? He seemed perplexed. I thought you wouldn’t love me anymore, I said. At that, he paused and stared—the way he did when I threw a tantrum at the table as a child. We love you just the same. We love you more. I think it was the first and last time he said that he loved me.

I didn’t need to hear it again.

After the funeral we face-timed our relatives. They were in the local pub with a small group of mourners. In Singapore, the day had grown overcast—bloated clouds returned and dotted the horizon. It was bright but there was no sun. My grandmother blew kisses and wished we were there, relatives drifted in and out of focus and no real conversation took place—it was too loud, they were too far. As my uncle moved to end the call my father exclaimed at the dead sky that briefly glowed magenta. The light had pierced through the veil of clouds as we struggled to hear the condolences. We showed my grandmother and she smiled. It was gone when we hung up. That night I added the poem I wrote for Papa to my best attempts at watercolor. The book was finished, and a chapter was improperly closed.

Header photograph © Mane Hovhannisyan

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