The San Diego Decameron Project was inspired by a book written shortly after the Black Death overtook Florence in 1348, and is a collection of novellas structured as a frame story by Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375). The book contains 100 stories told by a group of seven young women and three young men sheltering in a secluded villa. They fled Florence to quarantine themselves for two weeks from the pandemic that ravaged Europe between 1347-1351. To pass the evenings each member of the party tells a story each night, except for one day a week for chores and one for religious observance, resulting in ten nights of stories over the course of two weeks.
During the COVID Pandemic of 2020, new Decameron projects emerged all over the US. Most notably, the New York Times Magazine tapped 29 authors to write works of new fiction to “help us unpack and understand this moment.”
My essay, Virtual Grief, which explores new rituals for mourning alone, online, and disconnected from family after the death of my father, was selected.
One day you’re weary of the heaving monotony of your life. The loading and unloading of children in and out of their car seats on the twice-daily drive to and from preschool. The boredom of packing lunches, the same streets, the same grocery stores. You dream of a vacation within driving distance, because flying to Europe to visit family with a five-year-old and 15-month-old twins would be financially and logistically eye-watering.
The thought alone was enough to turn my parents’ hair white overnight. When they visited from Europe six weeks before the pandemic hit the West Coast, they held an intervention.
“Lolly, your ma and I have discussed it: until the twins are older, there’s no way you can all fly to Europe. So we’ve decided, for the next few years, we will come to you.” This paternal reassurance allowed me to let my passport expire. I assumed if I needed to fly somewhere at short notice I’d simply expedite its renewal. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine a scenario that would make international travel almost impossible. Not even while a virus was spreading globally.
A week before San Diego schools closed, my husband and I quietly pulled our daughter out of preschool. If I’d known then that she’d never return, I’d have lingered in the classroom to admire the artwork, made a note of her favorite books, hugged her teachers, gazed at everyone’s naked faces. I wouldn’t have cancelled my coffee date with my friend. I would have renewed my passport.
One month into the pandemic, I was FaceTiming my mother who shared a grim reality. From within the phone in the grip of her hand, I watched the expression on her face turn from frown to frown, first sad, then determined.
“I must find a candle. My friend Marion’s husband just died of cancer, alone in a hospital. They won’t release his body. Sorry, they said, you can’t have a funeral for him. They just took him away and cremated him. She called earlier today to ask, Will you light a candle for Andre at seven o’clock? I’m asking all my friends … I know I have one … where is it?”
Four months later I’d be mourning my dad, alone. At first he was tired. I assumed it was lingering jet lag. When he didn’t get better, I wondered if he was getting old. When the coronavirus hit Europe, he understood his immune system was shot and that if he caught Covid, he’d probably die.
He didn’t understand he was already dying. None of us did. If I had known, I would have jumped (through hoops to get) on a plane to visit him. When I suspected cancer was eating him alive, I texted him.
Do you want me to come and see you? There are a few hurdles, but I think I could leave as early as next week.
The hurdles of organizing international travel during a pandemic were multifold. A complicated choreography of an emergency passport application (expedited renewals have been cancelled), flight availability, a letter from his doctor to prove a life or death situation (without which I’d neither be able to get a passport nor enter the EU, which has banned US citizens from entering except in exceptional circumstances), the results of a negative PCR test taken within 96 hours before landing in the EU. Then, quarantine.
Quarantine there to protect my dad; quarantine here to protect my children while weeping for the dad I’d never see again: starving for physical affection during weeks of isolation that sandwiched a masked visit. Could I be away from my young children for five weeks or more? What if they close international borders entirely while I’m in Europe? I fretted over my ‘Sophie’s Choice’: My children’s mental health or my dad’s dying wish.
I was prepared to go. My children are resilient. My dad dies only once. I’d researched how to stay safe in airports, on a plane. All he had to do was say, Come.
“The situation doesn’t call for it right now. I love you for asking.”
Knowing what I know now—that he’d be dead three weeks later—I’d have booked my ticket anyway. Instead, our final weeks were spent 6,000 miles apart. A series of texts. A couple of video calls when he felt well enough. I could hold him only virtually.
Later, a family friend shared, “When your father sat shiva for my father, he told me, ‘When I die, I want my wife to be holding one hand and Lolly holding the other.’”
Coronavirus denied him his last wishes as it denied me mine. Instead of a last hug, we relied on the same digital synapses that had fired our trans-Atlantic communication for the last decade. The same synapses shared the news of his death. Allowed me to take in the sight of his deadness. The day of his funeral in Bulgaria was late at night the day before in California. I sat, at a distance, in my backyard with a friend, she, drinking tea, me, drinking gin. By the time the funeral started there, it was the middle of the night here. Fueled by gin and exhaustion, I wept and laughed at memories over FaceTime with my family.
One day you find yourself grieving your old life where goodbyes and funerals are possible. A life where you could visit family during a crisis. A life where you can be held by your friends while you cry. A life where you wish your kid were attending kindergarten and scrambling in the playground with friends, unmasked and carefree. Instead, we invent new rituals to nurture our grief—the anticipatory, the personal, and the collective.
Some day is far off. Until then, the digital world has to be the salve that soothes you. Alas, right now that has to be good enough.