My mother, Consuelo Bustillos, was the world’s most sociable creature, always on her way to the next hen party or wedding shower, and so the isolation of quarantine made the last year of her life a profoundly sad one. There was no immediate fun to look forward to, she was getting less exercise, and she avoided visiting the doctor for fear of catching covid. She was so brought down. “Oh I’m just in my little jail!” she would say mournfully over the phone from her (very comfortable) house in Garden Grove, California; I could picture her seated at the dining room table next to a china closet positively stuffed with the appalling Lladro figurines she liked, and I’d respond look, hang in there, you are so damn old you will be the first in line for the jab, and very soon we’ll all go to Tahoe together and play slot machines (her favorite). My mind rests all the time now on certain casino memories, the swirling colors lights and pulsing pleasure-filled sounds of a jackpot coming her way, lighting up her face that was so lovely and so made for pleasure and fun.
She died on January 6th, 2021, the day of the attack on the Capitol. She was 90 and I keep reminding myself almost moment by moment that her life was very long, and had a lot of love and happiness in it, though my father died 28 years ago and she remained widowed, and deeply lonely for him. Our relationship was complicatedly affectionate and fractious, with decades’ worth of eye-rolling over my refusal to seek out a conventional, “well-to-do” life, with a big house, a rich husband and plenty of time for shopping with her at Nordstrom, instead of all the rambunctious, peripatetic chances I took and no doubt a lot of them were foolish as hell. Only late in her life did I come to see how trusting and how close we were, how we were agreed in essentials, parenting, humor, politics (though not activism, which she feared); how to entertain guests, keep house, fold laundry, cook rice.
She and I might have had covid early last year; she was in the hospital with pneumonia for a week in late February, before the pandemic really hit, and I caught whatever it was she had while I was down there with her. We had no fever, but both had racking, unending coughs, horrific fatigue, weirdly racing heartbeats and a freakishly long convalescence. She never bounced all the way back. But whether she had it or not, I will always think of my mother’s as a covid death. Over the last few months of her life, she was afraid to seek care for her worsening symptoms, because of covid; we had to send her in an ambulance alone, because of covid; she was admitted to a second “overflow” intensive-care unit, because of covid. I hasten to add that everyone involved in her care at Los Alamitos Medical Center was so dedicated, impossibly patient and kind (knowing the strain of their work right now), and nobody acted as if her life was worth less time or care because she was ninety years old and this makes me feel faint with gratitude.
People are dying of covid who never had it, and also I have been reckoning up everything else that was lost through the stupidity and venality of Republicans in this dark year. All the time we didn’t get to be together, if you were to add it up, beautiful things that couldn’t be made because of the dearth of happiness, peace or calm, songs written, slow dances in middle-school auditoriums and slumber parties and torrid affairs, unwelcome birthday surprises, evenings at the bar with a big gang of friends, a coffee date with someone you haven’t seen for years. All these, millions and millions. A year of life when you are very old and every moment spent with the grandchildren who adore you is a life-giving nectar. My mom died alone, the few who could make it on short notice watching her nearly-last breaths with me over the computer, all of us hooked up to some machines.
Pleasure, love and fun have been everywhere suppressed in these months, which everyone is trying valiantly to forget through sea shanties, drinking too much or Twitch or what have you but in these the very saddest and scariest of days I don’t want to forget what they’ve taken from us all, millions of people, millions of families. There should be no pretense about whose fault this is and no attempt to diminish the heavy cost, which should be weighed up and reckoned and the blame squarely assigned and the price paid by those responsible.
It is possible to make a world where everyone’s time and quality of life have value, and everyone could be as loved as my mom was and will always be.