When we heard the news of Babi’s death, we were on a family bike ride, wearing face masks and keeping our distance from other Czechs who had also escaped to the countryside that Saturday morning for fresh air. Babi was my husband’s grandmother. Like my family back in Virginia, we had already been under quarantine due to the coronavirus for several weeks.
I first met Babi twenty years before when she noticed that no one at the family gathering was talking to her grandson’s American girlfriend. She patted the seat beside her and gave me the nickname Emilka. Over the years, I’d stand beside Babi in her tiny kitchen as she squeezed juice from grated green apples for strudel and dipped slices of wild mushrooms into egg and breadcrumb batter. She taught me the trick of flouring a dishtowel to keep dough from sticking and patting slivers of butter on top of the cinnamon and sugar layer to keep the strudel moist. Near the end of each visit, she took my hand into her soft, wrinkled ones. “Emilko, jak se mají Beth a Jim v Americe?” She said my parents’ names with a lilt in her voice, asking how they were. It made me smile that Babi remembered I had a family, too.
My husband pulled to the side of the road and leaned his bike against a fence to take the call. We had only just started on the trail. The children and I stood on the side of the road waiting. A few minutes later, he walked back to us. “Babi died in the night. At two a.m.” He took off his sunglasses and pressed his fingers against the bridge of his nose. His eyes were full of tears. “Let’s keep going.”
All of us wiping away tears, we pedaled past the empty soccer field, the ruins of an abandoned castle. “I’ll go to my family tomorrow. By myself,” Radek said, when we stopped for lunch. Although I wanted to join him, we were under government orders to stay home. We had been in quarantine in the Czech Republic since the beginning of March. Quarantine had brought a new, simplified rhythm to our usual travel-heavy lifestyle. Instead of packing and unpacking duffels, we spent weekends staining patio furniture and weeding the garden. The kids and I would stay home.
A few minutes later, my daughter, Anna, who’s 15, pulled her bike up to mine. She whispered, “I’ll go with Daddy. I want to go.”
No was on the tip of my tongue. No was a word I had said repeatedly during quarantine. When my daughter asked to come grocery shopping with me, I had to say no. When she asked to go by bus to town. When she wanted to have a friend to sleep over. Just as I was about to say, “No, that isn’t the smart thing to do. Let your father go by himself,” I caught myself.
“Do I look okay?” she asked that Easter Sunday. She was wearing Burberry plaid shorts, a ribbed white tee-shirt and skin-colored nylons. A tortoise-shell headband matched her tortoise-shell glasses. She held a black cardigan sweater in her hand. “I feel like I should be wearing black.”
“Are you sure I look okay?” My daughter rested her purse and a Nancy Drew book on the kitchen counter. “Do you think I can take my book?” When I paused, she continued, “I’m nervous. I don’t know what to do around grownups who are sad.”
“It’ll be okay,” I reassured her. “They’ll be glad to see you.”
Babi’s death was hard on all of us. Until Covid-19, we visited my husband’s family in the mountains regularly, stopping by his grandparents’ for afternoon tea to recount our adventures of skiing or biking. At 90, Babi was the family matriarch who had reigned from a supine position in a hospital bed in the middle of her small apartment for the past three years. Though she had been ill, it was still a shock that complications from pneumonia had forced her sudden hospitalization and subsequent death. No one got a chance to say goodbye. The Covid-19 test that my husband insisted the hospital perform was negative.
After my husband and daughter left to see his family, I clean the house. Dust shelves. Fold clothes. And, I cry. I think about how things are different now in this time of Covid-19, when everything must be sterilized, even our own grief. I wonder if Babi died peacefully, and if the last person to touch her wore gloves. I think about how many of us aren’t able to touch or to comfort the ones we’ve lost. I remember how much it meant to me as an almost teenager to share my father’s pain over the death of his mother.
We were at my brother’s soccer game when my father got the call that his 60-year-old mother had a brain aneurysm. It was a school night. My father’s shoulders slumped, and his eyes filled with tears. I knew that I had to do something. I offered to go with him to the hospital. I was 12.
I was surprised when my father said, “Okay, come.” I don’t remember what my mother said. But she and my brother stayed at home.
I sat in a hospital meeting room at an oval table and heard the doctors tell my father that my grandmother was paralyzed on her left side and had only a few weeks to live. I remember hugging my confused, sad grandfather goodbye when we left. I was confused and sad, too, but it is the first memory I have of belonging in a grownup world.
I wonder what my daughter is thinking.
Soon she and my husband send me old photos via WhatApp messages. There is a black and white picture of Babi, young and smiling, her hair black and shiny. She has a flower in her coat lapel. Her husband, who we call Deda, looks like a shorter, leaner version of my husband.
Hours later, they come home. Over dinner, I ask my daughter about the day. Her eyes tear up. “I don’t want to talk, Mom. I’m exhausted,” she says. Ordinarily I would say something like, “Come on, we see you only at mealtimes, can’t you share a bit about your day?” But today, I respect her exhaustion. I remember it.
A few days later, my three children attend their first funeral. They are the only great grandchildren there. We wear black face masks, and the children each lay a white rose on Babi’s coffin. They play Czech songs I don’t recognize, and then one I do. The last song is Amazing Grace. Through my tears, I see my daughter crying, too.
Later, walking in the empty fields near our house, Anna says, “I was surprised by the funeral, I thought Dad would cry. But maybe when you’re a grownup you learn how to hide your feelings.”
I tell Anna I had been grateful for the mask that covered my face, so my husband’s family wouldn’t see my tears. It didn’t seem right for me to mourn my grandmother-in-law’s death so fiercely. I tell my daughter that people wear their emotions differently. I am a crier. I suspect my daughter is too.
Anna doesn’t know it, but her father does cry. The day after the funeral, instead of going for our 7 a.m. run, Radek and I have an argument, the tensions of the quarantine, our grief bubbling to the surface. When I see his tears and my anger softens, he says, “Don’t be nice to me now, just because I cried.”
That night, Anna tells me that she’s spoken with her grandmother, Nada, Radek’s mother, and that Nada told Anna she found a feather from Babi on her windowsill after the funeral. I smile thinking what an appropriate way to say goodbye. Anna thinks I am making fun of Nada’s grief. She is furious. I burst into tears. Anna apologizes.
Two days after the funeral, I plant three roses, two for my grandmothers and one for Babi. The soil in this part of the garden is rocky and digging a hole that is large enough is difficult. But it is a task I am determined to do on my own. Just when I am getting tired, Anna comes outside offering to help. Two of the roses are red, and one is a light pink. She decides the light pink one will be for Babi. It is the tallest but the most delicate, like our fresh grief.