How the Story Ends

I probably spent two hours at a time driving KY route 626 from end to end. It starts with a fork in the road I grew up on, about three or four miles from my home. It, like many things, was always there but remained unexplored in my play-everything-safe childhood. Exploration had only become something I cared about since graduating high school and leaving home for a couple years to work and figure some things out. Lately, however, getting out had become way more of a necessity than it had ever been.

In March 2020, the world stopped. The COVID-19 pandemic which seemed as far away and foreign as the virus itself is to the human body finally fell on the supposedly indestructible and infallible nation people wish was the United States of America. It only took a wave of death to sweep through Asia and Europe for us to finally accept that this was all much more serious than we thought.

We went fully virtual at both my jobs, and I was already finishing my bachelor’s degree online, so I had an edge in that sense. It was actually kind of nice to have some more flexibility for my jobs, and it was interesting to watch us all stretch ourselves to become more than we thought we could be and to serve people in ways we would never have thought to serve before.

Awesome, right? Until it wasn’t.

For all of the awesome steps forward we took, a massive toll was also required. Despite the fact that many of us were able to cope with lockdowns by hosting calls on Zoom and gathering very small scale in open air when things quieted down a bit, it didn’t change the fact that everyone was still isolated in a huge way.

Some people thrived because they didn’t have to deal with the stress of people. For others, staying away from people was purely an act of survival.

That was my experience of it, anyway.

At the time, I was living at home, a situation I’d wanted to be done with for a long time but for many reasons wasn’t. I was 28, and I was itching to be where every other 20-something I knew was. You know. Full-time work at one job, particularly one in the career they chose. In their own home, whether that meant an apartment or a house, simple or not. Finally married, but I was actually working on that one being that I was engaged with a wedding date set.

It only took about a month or so for me to start hitting a breaking point. Like basically everyone else, I found myself stuck under the same roof with the same people all the time. That in itself causes its own issues. It wasn’t just that I was surrounded by people with personalities quite opposite of my own or with irritating habits (and I do know I have my own). At the beginning of quarantine, my then-fiancée moved in with us for a couple of months until she could find a new place. At the time, we were fighting pretty intensely over a couple of issues. Eventually, things worked out, but being stuck under the same roof with conflict already brewing was a Diet Coke meets Mentos kind of situation: ready to explode.

To be fair, though, not everything goes according to plan, and sometimes you find yourself in a situation you don’t want in order to serve a purpose you don’t yet understand. For me, at the time, it was to help out with granny. Ninety-four years worth of a life lived the most she knew how. Mom took the most care of her, but I was there as a backup. I was the one that got woken up first in case of emergencies. Little tasks that needed to be done. An auxiliary, I suppose.

When the pandemic began in the U.S., keeping her safe was top priority. We were vigilant, maybe even to a fault at times, not only for our own sakes but for the sake of the most fragile life in our lot.

Eventually, people started to move on with their lives as safely as possible [for the most part]. Eventually, that’s what has to happen. We can’t spend our whole lives never leaving our homes, but we also can’t shirk the responsibility to protect one another in the name of freedom alone. Everyone was and is trying to navigate that [for the most part].

After three or four months of remote-only work, we took our first steps back into our workplaces, increasing capacities bit by bit, following the guidelines we had been given to protect one another.

In November of 2020, at a time when I was overly exhausted and feeling the effects of it, I developed symptoms of COVID-19 that were borderline undeniable. It was no longer an allergic reaction to dust in the air from the old carpet that had been ripped out and the new that had been laid down. It was no longer being too tired from editing audio and visual content for hours and writing papers into the middle of the night.

I received a positive COVID-19 test result that Thursday.

Granny contracted COVID-19 soon after, which had only been discovered because she fell from what was an apparent microstroke but was potentially a result of loss of oxygen.

She died in December, newly ninety-five.

Cause of death? COVID lung: the slow buildup of fluid in the lungs as a result of a COVID-19 infection.

Transmitter of the virus? Me.

I’ve struggled with depression since I was twelve, probably. It didn’t really get better with time. I just learned to live with it. Although it’s not exactly a rule, you can probably guess that suicidal ideation came along with it. Not always. Not even frequently, but it was there. Every now and again, thoughts of not being in the world anymore would surface, and I’m sure they will again.

You can probably imagine what it would be like for someone who is already predisposed to depression to go through what I did.

My mind ran the gamut of questions:

What if I’d moved out sooner? After all, I should have already moved out by society’s standards.

What if I’d been more careful somehow? Even more extreme masking habits, which had already prevented everyone around whom I was masked from becoming infected and might explain some other infections I had observed prior to and following my own, might have saved her.

What if I’d found a better place to quarantine? I don’t really know where that would have been, but maybe someone out there had an extra room or something.

Is there any version of the story where I didn’t contract the virus?

Is there any version of this where she would still be alive?

Hypothetically, maybe.

In actual reality, no.

It doesn’t matter what could have happened. What matters is what did happen.

I brought the very virus home that we were trying to keep away.

It killed her, and I was the unwilling sword.

It doesn’t matter whether or not I blame myself. That changes from day to day. Most of the time, I can reason within myself that it wasn’t my fault. The reality is that even in the hypothetical world wherein she is still alive, I have absolutely no idea what I could have done to ensure that it didn’t happen. And there are times when I wonder if a microstroke or some other malady would have taken her anyway, on top of the plethora of health issues wrapped up in the burden she bore. One way or another, she would have died eventually. That is the reality in which we live, and nothing besides God himself can change that, and one day he will. Ninety-five years is a long time for a person to live by any standard.

For those of you asking, I know that God is sovereign. I know that he has the ultimate say in how things turn out regardless of human decisions or how much free will he gives to either love well or only love ourselves. I know that God doesn’t want bad things for people despite the fact that people choose sin all the time and force our own sins on each other. The autonomy of human beings does not negate the sovereignty of God.

God’s ultimate sovereignty does not make it any less painful to lose the ones we love, let alone stop the mind from wondering if we could have done things better. It is nice to know that death is not the end of the story, but the story is not over, and neither is the grief.

On top of long-term depression, on top of horrible experiences in the past, on top of lockdown, on top of isolation, on top of feeling stuck in circumstances, I felt hopelessly and utterly out of control and like a weapon wielded by death itself. Trauma doesn’t just go away because you know some theology or because you’ve seen the faithfulness of God.

If there were any time anyone would prefer they didn’t exist or that they at the very least disappeared so that someone else could live, it’s now.

I know I’m not the only one.

This isn’t a call for masking, although I wish people would.

This isn’t a call for vaccination, although I wish people would.

This isn’t an argument about freedom and regulation.

This isn’t even me baring my grief because I don’t know what else to do with it.

This is a reminder that people have been struggling since long before this virus floated its way through the air on the droplets of our smallest sneezes, and they will still be struggling long after this one of many pandemics of its kind becomes a distant memory in human history.

Trying to navigate this world in this era, or ever, is not easy. We miss the ones we love, and that’s not just because of social distancing and Zoom calls. It’s because some of them are dead, and despite the comfort of the knowledge of heaven and the new creation, they’re not here, and we are left alone to navigate the absence of it.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

We don’t have to do this alone, but first, we have to find each other, and that’s hard to do without the light of hope.

If you have made it through the darkness and still have the strength to walk, go back in and find someone to carry through it.

We are all trying to survive more than just a pandemic.

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