The sobbing was faint at first, echoing to me through shut doors. I curiously wandered into my parents’ room in no rush. My mind was still half-asleep, my eyelids drooping, my movements sluggish. At this point, the sun had not even risen.
The door creaked open, revealing my parents and brothers anxiously huddled on the bed. Their shoulders shook, and their breathing was unsteady. I immediately noticed the glow of Mom’s phone, and the motion flashing across the screen. I approached my family cautiously, my presence noticed but not acknowledged. What was going on? Why was my family ignoring me? Why were they crying?
The bitter taste of dread flooded my mouth, as even more thoughts raced through my head: Someone probably had COVID! It was 2020, the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and I was positive one of my relatives was sick, causing this commotion. But who? And how?! We had all been so careful! We wore masks, we stayed home, we even wiped down our groceries. How could the virus have squeezed past all those precautions? I slipped onto the mattress, discreetly swallowing a growing lump in my throat. For a few moments I stayed like that, as silent as a mouse, my ears trying desperately to hear, my mind racing to put the pieces together. I was not used to being left in the dark, much less the shadow of pandemic that now engulfed the world.
Finally, after a couple of quiet minutes, I heard a familiar voice saying something about my grandmother, Mita. Suddenly, a new ominous possibility emerged as I recalled that Mita was “high risk.” She had been living with stage 4 cancer for many years now. I remembered the colorful scarves she proudly wore on her head, her talks with Mom about healthy eating and cutting out sugar. Was her cancer acting up now of all times? Did she get COVID? Somehow, within seconds, the situation progressed from bad to worse. Beads of sweat formed on my forehead, despite the fan gently buzzing nearby to combat the summer heat. I continued to sit there, paralyzed in my own worry, as I overheard more bits and pieces of the tragedy: the paramedics could not come to help her… my uncle drove her around for hours before finally finding a hospital that would not turn her away… the doctors were now on their 7th attempt to resuscitate her. And as I listened to all that, as my dread and confusion intensified, and the sobbing turned into wailing, nobody turned around and hugged me tight, promising that it would be okay. What an unforgiving, harsh way for an 8-year-old to wake up.
I ran out of my parents’ room, overwhelmed by all that was happening. I launched myself under my covers, screwed my eyes shut, and prayed harder than I had ever prayed before. It was the first time in my life that I really, intensely, legitimately prayed… And I did not just pray. I begged God for Mita’s life, tears finally finding my eyes, feeling the full weight of fear and sadness and pain straining my body.
Dad entered my room, his head bowed low, and his shoulders slumped. My gaze met his, my heart somberly hopeful, as he opened his mouth to speak. It was a mere whisper, soft and delicate, but it shook my room – “Mita’s gone…”
No, no, no! How could this be happening? How could this be happening to me?!
My flicker of hope, a dim light, faded, and all that remained was a deep cavern of black. I tried to breathe, but it seemed impossible in these depths. So, this is what drowning feels like. I choked on my tears as I became fully aware that I would never again feel the joy of my long story times with Mita.
Mita video-called me each week, settled on her corner couch with a cup of piping hot coffee and a fancy notebook. She sat poised, as usual, sometimes with her legs crossed, sometimes with her legs propped up on her table, but always prim and proper. She would listen intently as I read my stories, oftentimes for hours on end. She would nod, she would take notes, she would ask questions about my crazy characters and their equally crazy adventures. No matter how cringey my stories got, she appreciated them wholeheartedly. She told me over and over again that I was her favorite storyteller. She told me my stories made her heart happy. Mita was supposed to call again so I could share my most recent story with her. But that was now an impossibility.
How was Mita gone… how was she no longer with us… on this earth… smiling, dancing, and brightening the atmosphere? She was so full of life, even in her sickness. She was so strong. She was so special … so special to ME. She made MY heart happy. How could I ever write again?
My family and I were in shambles, confined to grieve alone, literally locked down, stuck, and still reeling from the other blows the pandemic had hit us with. Surely my sadness could not be shared with anyone; so much heartbreak already existed among us, and around us. And so, for the next few years, I held on tight to my sorrow, and carried my burden alone, wrapping it tightly around my heart, vowing to never let it loose.
A few months ago on my eleventh birthday, I stumbled upon an old shoebox. Inside lay cards and letters from years past written to me. As I rummaged through the stack, a dainty, handmade card caught my eye. I recognized the beautiful penmanship instantly — the scribbly cursive that could have easily come straight out of a calligraphy manual. In my hand was the last card Mita ever wrote to me before her tragic death. I hesitated. I braced myself for what I thought would be a crushing weight of emotions that would follow. However, as I reluctantly read Mita's words to me, my heart became happy again.
Mita called me beautiful, and a blessing, and fearfully and wonderfully made. She encouraged me to be all I could be, to keep writing my heart out.
And so, I do.