How long have our lives been haunted by the calls and texts that you hope never to receive? Bad news that arrives in unholy bursts. A glance at your phone that can instantly reduce you to rubble.
The psychic detonation finally arrived for me last December, a week after my grandmother’s 90th birthday. My mom, in her usual nonchalant fashion, broke the news on a Saturday morning: “They think Grandma has COVID. You should probably call her. She’s not feeling too great.”
The first thing you should understand about my Grandma Rita, or “Grammy” as she insisted on being called, is that she probably has the most musical voice of anyone that I’ve ever heard. A former interior decorator, she still wears her hair rosy red, except for the period when the pandemic forced the closure of hair salons and improvisation led her to a punk-rock pink. Every time I call, she greets me with a jubilant and mellifluous “Jeffrey,” which somehow sounds like it’s a number out of South Pacific, the residual effects of a long-ago childhood spent performing in song-and-dance revues. When my great-grandfather moved the family west from Chicago during the Depression, talent scouts briefly tried to turn Rita and her late twin sister, Della, into the next Shirley Temple—except with two for the price of one. But Papa Max refused; no daughters of his were going to enter Hollywood Babylon. Fairfax High in the swing era was scandalous enough.
But on that Saturday morning last December, her voice sounded atonal and winded. Speech was an obliterating labor. Waves of nausea left her unable to stomach a bite. The home lacked doctors on call, and its workers understandably couldn’t risk helping her out of bed to do basic tasks. It’s unclear how it spread through the facility; the restaurant’s manager had caught it. So did a few caretakers. Ultimately, 14 residents tested positive.
“I’m not well, darling,” she repeated several times. “I’m having trouble breathing and my head is pounding and I can barely see anything. It feels like someone has painted my legs and my chest and my arms full of pain.”
Every few sentences were punctuated with noisy lunges for oxygen. By this point, only four percent ICU capacity remained in L.A. County hospitals, and at the exponentially increasing rates, they would be completely overrun within days, if not hours. No medical professionals were about to pay a house call, and no one I knew had the VIP connections required to buy the miracle cures lavished upon the ultrawealthy. I mean, it would take days to get an oximeter shipped to her, a necessary gauge to see whether or not she needed a ventilator. By that point, it might be too late.
I begged her to go to the hospital, but she refused. The stories had reached her of patients waiting in ambulances for four hours. She saw hospitals as vectors for disease, and she preferred to be in her own bed, listening to country music, surrounded by the familiar twang of the past. Then she said that she was too tired to talk anymore; she told me how much she loved me, and she hung up.
For the first eight months of the pandemic, the contagion that had started to terrorize the city had graciously passed over her facility in Palms. Grammy attributed it to the administrator’s vigilance, which from what I could gather included little more than daily temperature checks of the employees. Residents were allowed to visit their families, which meant possible exposure and easy retransmission in the building’s indoor dining hall. Servers and cleaning staff returned home every night, unable to avoid cramped living conditions due to exorbitant L.A. rents. My grandmother said she felt immensely safe. My mom regularly compared it to a time bomb. And then it finally went off in December.
When you receive news like that, everything appears to crumble in slow motion. My car, silently sliced past the unbroken line of homeless encampments near the 101 on-ramp on the eastern edge of Silver Lake. I was heading to acupuncture, begun last summer as a way to mitigate the long-haul symptoms I hadn’t been able to shake since my own COVID exposure. After being first infected in the spring, sporadic vise grips of fatigue and brain fog seized me. A relatively minor case, I felt fully recovered within ten days. Then throughout July, crippling fatigue blindsided me. My brain was a dumb bog, and reading was a maze. After a few sessions, the inflammation abated. Then in January, just when I’d thought that I’d permanently healed, that same mercury mind sickness grounded me for a full week.
As I drove across town that Saturday morning after hearing the news about my grandmother, I wanted to cry. Instead, I bled a cross-eyed rage, a reckless fury at every imaginable target. At the Trump White House and the criminal politicization of a public health crisis. At the blundering of local and state officials who had had eight months to procure more hospital beds to prepare for a winter wave they insisted was imminent but somehow still blindsided them. At the entire system that backed me into the choice of having to let a 90-year-old woman fight a lethal disease at home while I ordered her deliveries of soup because no better alternative existed. My encephalitis included the conspiracy-addled Facebook cultists who saw cotton masks as a constitutional referendum on freedom; the people blithely Instagramming from Tulum; the copper-snake scammers of radio and cable TV who’ve swindled millions from the lonely and susceptible. Q.
Amidst the grim chaos, a few lingering delusions remained. Surely, the state or the county or the city would step in when the federal government failed. “This is America,” I assured myself, but eventually, a fatalistic acceptance took over. No action could reverse the Roman decline. All there was left to do was call my grandmother every day, offering ad hoc prayers to gods that I don’t believe in, and hoping that she would somehow improve. For the next week, I agonized about whether every call would be our last and tried to brace myself for the moment when it would arrive.
The truth is, I will never be prepared for her exit. A few months before COVID, I bought a video camera to memorialize her stories for future generations. But there was always next Saturday or the Saturday after that, until now, when life is suddenly measured in minutes. I considered the children that I don’t have and imagined how all the stories about my grandmother would ring hollow and distant, just as her stories of my unseen ancestors felt like colorless fables.
There are always exceptions. I’ve lost count of the times that Rita regaled me with the tale of her parents’ wedding in Roaring Twenties Chicago, where they hired their nephew, a clarinet prodigy named Benjamin, to entertain the guests for the princely sum of $15. “You should’ve paid him $10. He’s just a kid,” my great-grandmother, Jeanette, scolded my great-grandfather, Max. Little did she imagine that in two decades, her daughters would witness their cousin, Benny Goodman, headlining the Cocoanut Grove at the Ambassador Hotel in L.A.
After losing everything in the crash, Max moved the family to the West Coast, where he made and lost fortunes flipping real estate. His king’s gambit was purchasing the old Hollywood Hotel, the one-time haunt of studio moguls and Rudolph Valentino. Rita reminisced about visiting “Papa” at work, marveling at the bronzed hitching posts that remained from the horse-and-buggy days. He unloaded the property within a year or two for a small profit. Had he kept it, the family would’ve become fantastically wealthy from its sale decades later, when it was redeveloped into the Hollywood & Highland mall.
My mom, instead, attended public schools in the Valley, a latchkey kid whose single mother worked three jobs to support her and her brother. Rita had left my grandfather in the late ’50s, a scandalous gesture for the Father Knows Best era, but imperative for the sake of her freedom. At night, my grandma moonlit as a vivacious bachelorette in the 818 dating scene. As for this phase of her life, there are questions that a grandson doesn’t want to ask of his grandmother—finding her Playgirls from the Ford years was evidence enough.
By the late ’70s, Rita Tubin (née Gellerman) remarried and took the last name of Kenneth Hausman, a retired engineer and bibliophile with a gambler’s taste for the stock market. They lived in Century City in the same condominium complex as Julie Andrews, across the street from the Die Hard building, two selling points that intrigued my sister and me. Alas, Mary Poppins never umbrellaed down, nor did terrorists overtake Nakatomi Tower. The true saving grace was a custom-built, black bathroom with stained-glass monkeys that hooted every time you flipped on the lights.
During my first decade, Rita was in her fifties and still looked so young that people mistook me for her child. In fact, she insists that she was so close to me that she often forgot that I wasn’t her own son. My unofficial education belonged to her: excursions to the L.A. County Museum to see Impressionist exhibits when I only wanted to see the mammoth drowning in asphalt at the La Brea Tar Pits; an attempt to expose me to fine dining when I only ate hamburgers; and countless MGM musicals from the ’30s through the ’50s. Gigi never took. My pursuit of a career in the arts is probably all her fault.
She infused vacations with a sense of magic. A journey to the castellated Hotel Del Coronado, where L. Frank Baum wrote The Wizard of Oz. A tender ferrying us to Catalina, an island with an arcade, all the adventure a kid needed.
Don’t get me wrong: not everything was boat tours and Baked Alaska. At 13, Jewish children are sold the ancient hustle that a few prayers and a haftarah will usher in adulthood. The real selling point is the party with your friends where your parents’ friends give you checks that your father hopefully doesn’t pocket to pay for the cost of the ceremony. My bar mitzvah happened to coincide with the glory years of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, the zenith of gangsta rap, a time when a grandmother’s musical poetry couldn’t quite compete with G-funk. This notion was lost on her when she interrupted the party, telling the DJ to silence the jams. It was now her time to perform a loving musical tribute to her grandson, Jeffrey, turning 13 on this immortal night. I was mortified and powerless to stop it: She and her friend Ginny sang a jazz-poetry call-and-response. The theme—as you might surmise—was how much my grandmother loved me (“Always”). We didn’t speak for a few months after that.
The older I get, the more I realize that her perseverence is mostly luck. My dad’s mother died in her late seventies, just months after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer. What if I’d never got to meet Rita as an adult? It would’ve been one of the saddest things conceivable. Most grandparents get a decade or two with their grandchildren. I would have missed the opportunity to return the favor to my grandma—these last dozen years where I’ve been able to buy us tickets to see Eugene O’ Neill plays at the Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice, or take her to hear jazz at the Blue Whale. The dinners afterward at Norm’s on Pico, which made her nostalgic for the days when she grew up with the daughter of Norm himself.
Mostly, I would have never known the mundane power of these Saturday afternoon visits. Once a week for an hour or two, where I tell my grandmother about my stresses and travails, and she offers sage advice and summaries of the books that she’s listening to on tape. Lately, she’s become obsessed with old country ballads that she plays over and over—the soundtrack on a loop she listened to as she suffered from COVID. Charley Pride and Johnny Cash. Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty. The latter are the duo who famously sang “It’s Time to Pay the Fiddler,” a song I kept picturing her listening to in complete darkness, her life twisting in the wind, as the world disintegrated outside those four walls.
If you ask my grandmother how she persevered, she’ll give the credit to country music and positivity. She says that she never feared death for a second. In her words, “It just reinforced my belief that we can live through anything if we have the right attitude.” Three other residents at her facility weren’t as fortunate. For now, Rita’s health is relatively good, though the disease has accelerated her macular degeneration.
For the past year, I’ve constantly thought about the Italo Calvino quote, “The best we can hope for is to avoid the worst.” I might have been spared, but millions of others can’t say the same. A generation will be deprived of the surviving links to a bygone world we never witnessed: the recipes and familial wisdom, the zany vacations and uncomfortable bar mitzvah ballads.
But by some combination of luck, genetics, and the post-World War II penchant for early childbearing, Rita has stayed alive to guide me through the decades. My grandmother’s survival counted as something of a minor miracle, considering how COVID has ruthlessly scythed through the elderly population.
Late last November, before her diagnosis, we celebrated her 90th birthday in COVID fashion: a few members of my family, masked and six feet apart, set up a forlorn ring of chairs on a lawn outside her retirement community. In honor of her passion for poems (like the Serenity Prayer, which she’d gifted me, framed, when I was seven and interested only in Nintendo, baseball cards, and Calvin and Hobbes), I read a verse written to convey the depth of my love and a reminder that I’d always carry her joy for life, art, music, and conversation with me. She said that it was the best day of the worst year of her life and marveled at my niece, her newborn great-granddaughter, even though it devastated her to not be able to cradle her in her arms.
I couldn’t see her for the next two months. But then, over the last month or so, I’ve been allowed to visit again. Rita is now well enough to walk outside, where we sit on lawn chairs in the sun, still masked and socially distant, talking about books and the Britney Spears documentary, the frustrations of quarantine and the impossible questions at the heart of life. Last Saturday, my mom and stepdad and my sister and her five-month-old daughter, Jeanette, came to join us. The baby was named after the great-great-grandmother whom she missed by a half-century.
If I want to understand how much Rita loved me as a child, I only have to see her gaze into the steel-blue eyes of the infant, named after her own long-gone mother, who will likely still be alive long after everyone reading this sentence has shuffled off. Beset with joy, Grammy breaks into song in her Rodgers and Hammerstein voice. Reflexively, I reach into my pockets and start recording it all on my phone, desperate to capture this moment that almost never happened. She’s singing “You Are My Sunshine”—the Johnny Cash version. Clapping her hands to the imaginary beat, Rita offers Jeanette a serenade:
You are my sunshine, my only sunshine / You make me happy when skies are gray / You’ll never know dear, how much I love you / Please don’t take my sunshine away.
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