by Bill Rowley
My grandmother died on June 4.
I want to reflect on the life of my grandmother – and by doing so, I want to reflect on all that we have lost in this pandemic.
Most of our measures of the losses of this pandemic are impersonal and generalized. At present, the death toll in New Haven County is 855 – in the US, it has passed 122,000, – and globally 467,000. It will still get much higher as it spreads across the globe and into more vulnerable communities. These numbers do not reflect the suffering of the almost 9 million individuals who have been infected or the lingering debility of those who have become ill and recovered, or the experiences of medical personnel who are working overtime to save the seriously ill. Nor do they reflect the punishing personal and economic cost – borne by those who have lost jobs or businesses across the globe.
These numbers are staggering – but they are numbers – and we are familiar with (and jaded to) the quantification of suffering in such terms – and if we even able to feel the grief of such numbers we are likely fatigued into a kind of acceptance (think of the other tragic numbers we have heard – death tolls in international wars, famine, malaria, ebola, mass incarceration, just to cut short a list which would itself become a tragic number of its own.
My grandmother was born Lois Arloene Nieuwendorp. She was born in 1927, shortly after her twin brother Lowell. The depression pushed their family, second-generation immigrants from the Netherlands, into poverty – her father moving from farming, to janitorial work, to carpentry over the years – though she reports never really feeling like they were poor. She was an excellent student and delighted in writing stories and short pieces for the local paper throughout her life. She married my grandfather and changed her name to Rowley at the end of the second World War – she raised three children with my grandfather – and then had eight grandchildren.
My strongest associations with my grandmother are the smells of the house my family now calls “the ranch” (the remains of a 10 acre citrus and avocado ranch that now lies below suburbs). It is a combination of outdoor smells wafting in through the open windows: lemon and orange smells, along with the dry leaf litter under the avocado trees and indoor smells: lava soap, a faint odor of solvents (from my grandfather’s shop), miscellaneous household cleaning supplies, often cookies, trout, or ham from the kitchen on holidays. She inhabited that house, indeed the whole property, like a soul – so that it was not just homely – but it was a place full of love for any visitor – and especially her grandkids. That love was an extension of her love for Christ – her faith was always expressed as love.
Her love survived her dementia, even if her memory failed her. She played with her great-grandchildren. She still welcomed everyone – even when she wasn’t quite sure who they were – only that she loved them. The house retained its welcoming soul.
She had not been in a nursing home for two weeks when Covid-19 came. It came with a dying patient with pneumonia who did not test positive for Covid – but had it nonetheless. It spread to her caregivers and then to her. We were told immediately by the hospital staff that she would not survive – but she lingered longer than was expected – she was made of tough stuff.
It came so quickly that I never got to say goodbye. There will be no memorial service. Her ashes will be spread in the mountains that she loved, but – I won’t be there to see it.
The lives of the 467,000 Covid-caused deaths are doubtlessly as varied as human lives can be. But they share the unrepeatability, the unsubstitutability, the irreplacability of the life of Lois Rowley. Each bears the image of God – is loved by Him – was the object of the greatest act of sacrificial love ever by God or Man. Each is a story worth telling and hearing, even if we will not, for the most part, hear them – hidden by the sheer size of the climbing numbers. Lord have mercy.
For my part, I’ll never smell a hot wind through orange trees without being reminded of her.
Lord we are humbled by the size of the ongoing tragedy of the Covid-19 pandemic. We are grieved by the losses which numbers fail to adequately quantify. We pray for the souls of the lost and those left behind. Find us in our sorrow. Find us in our numbness. Heal. Comfort. We plead for your help. Save the sick. Help those who minister to them. Protect the healthy. Lord have mercy on us. Pardon and deliver us.