The Pandemic Made Me Prepare For the Worst. But Nothing Prepared Me to Lose the Love of My Life

After lockdown started, I thought I had considered every possibility, every apocalyptic scenario. I was wrong.

The writer’s partner, Eric Thornhill, at their Philadelphia home in October 2020. Photograph by Queen Muse

In the early days of the pandemic, when civil unrest was at its peak and no one knew when things would “go back to normal,” I let my anxiety take me to a place of unrealistic and, in hindsight, completely unreasonable panicked preparation.

It felt like we were losing the world we once knew. At one point in early June 2020, members of the National Guard posted themselves and a military-grade truck in the parking lot of a shopping plaza near my home, wearing full Army fatigue gear, their weapons in plain view. Riots had erupted in the city just days before in response to police killings of Black people, the most recent at the time being Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. I attended my stepmother’s funeral in September. Cancer. Informed my love that his step-grandfather had died in November. Complications from a stroke. Responded “Sorry for your loss” on the social media posts of countless friends and family members who’d lost someone that winter from gunshot wounds, heart attacks, even old age. Each time, I felt like I died a death that wasn’t mine. I felt for them deeply. I sent my thoughts and prayers, but somehow, I managed to carry on.

The death, the protests and the pandemic, the boarded-up windows at every store, the sounds of ATMs and fireworks exploding through the wee hours of night, the curfews and mandatory mask mandate, all made it feel like we were slowly headed toward a zombie-apocalypse kind of existence where, over time, there would be utter chaos.

I reasoned that if my 12-year-old daughter, my three-year-old son, my love and I were to survive, we just needed to be knowledgeable … and well-stocked. I ordered all sorts of emergency survival kits and loaded up on shelf-stable food; I watched YouTube videos about edible and medicinal plants and tried to commit to memory which were for healing wounds and which could safely be eaten for sustenance. I even researched some of the best places in America for survival. I found there were entire towns in the Midwest where people had built indestructible underground bunkers for the exact apocalyptic scenario I envisioned. I imagined we’d go there.

I thought through the entire insane possibility of us all being killed for our masks and supplies. I had prepared for Armageddon, but I had no idea what to do when, in November, my love suddenly fell ill. I’d committed to memory which plant to look for in the woods to heal a flesh wound, but I hadn’t remembered that any mention of chest pain should be treated as a serious warning. I was ready to run with a 30-pound child strapped to my chest, but when the time came, I wasn’t ready to take my love to the hospital; I had none of the things we needed packed or prepared.

In hindsight, I had prepared for all the wrong things. I’d imagined us fighting to the death against strangers trying to steal the last of our KN95 masks and the food bars in our survival kits. I wasn’t prepared to lose my love some other way. I wasn’t prepared to lose him at all.

But death didn’t care if I was ready.

My love smiled with his whole face, flaunting signature squinted eyes and deep smile lines that I used to trace with my forefingers when he beamed. He had a beautiful set of thick locs that grew as wild and free as his spirit. He was uncommonly thoughtful, the type of person who’d remember something you said you’d wanted weeks earlier and find a way to have it show up at your doorstep. In our life as a couple, he changed the lion’s share of dirty diapers and bore crying fits with our son so I could write stories like this one; helped our daughter with math to make me feel better about only being good at language; cooked nearly all our meals, unknowingly placating my nagging insecurity about being more working mom than Mary Poppins. He lived for our family and took pride in being there for every little thing our children needed. When he wasn’t off being Super Dad, you’d find him in his art studio in our basement, painting with true joy and passion.

A true romantic in a world full of realists, my love treated me like my name. We were an inseparable and joyful couple. But the arrival of the pandemic challenged our unique ability to find time for memorable experiences.

Our annual visit to New York City for my birthday in March, plans to take a couple’s trip to Prague over the summer, and our intended first venture to Disney World to celebrate our son’s birthday were all indefinitely postponed.

As the pandemic robbed us of these experiences, we found ways to cope with our losses.

We replaced our grander plans with more modest celebrations: a small masked dinner at our favorite pizza restaurant for my birthday; socially distanced trips to the beach with family in the summer; and, when COVID restrictions eased a bit, a return to the same cherished pizza place for a slightly larger masked dinner to celebrate our son turning three.

It wasn’t our dream, but like so many others adjusting to life amid the pandemic, we made it work.

When Thanksgiving arrived, we imagined we’d adjust again, have a small dinner at home with just us and the kids.

But about a week before the holiday, my love fell sick. By Thanksgiving morning, he was too sick to get out of bed. His mother took him to the emergency room. Pandemic rule: He had to go in alone. I later learned his ER visit came on the day Pennsylvania recorded its highest number of new COVID cases and a spike in hospitalizations. I still wonder if they were too busy with COVID cases to give him the attention he needed and deserved, or if he was even well enough to tell them what hurt or how badly, so they could properly diagnose him. It’s a flaw that hospitals maybe never fully considered when they implemented no-visitor policies amid the pandemic: How can you ask a very sick person to accurately tell you they’re sick?

With no one there to speak on his behalf, my love was sent home a few hours later with a prescription for nausea medication and a recommendation to schedule a follow-up appointment if he didn’t feel better in a few days.

On December 1st, my love drove our son to daycare, made sure our daughter was all set for her virtual classes, and then logged on to join his own virtual art class at the Community College of Philadelphia, which he attended as a continuing-education student. The next day, he died suddenly in our car while I was rushing him back to the hospital for what we thought was nothing more than a lingering stomach bug. He was 33 years old.

Everything that has happened since has been an amalgam of shock, trauma, indescribable sadness, and a desperate attempt to run.

I was open to any excuse to avoid spending Christmas crying while sitting in the house in which we’d built our life. Instead, I took the kids and a few close family members to an Airbnb in Ocean City, Maryland. There were genuinely good, happy moments there, a welcome relief from the dark cloud that seemed to hover over every room in the house where we’d fallen in love and raised our family back in Philadelphia. By Christmas morning, as the kids opened their gifts and there were none to or from Dad, as I scrolled through group chats and social media posts of happy families in matching pajamas, I was drawn right back to the day-one realization that he was gone.

Back at home, a giant pine tree sat in our living room. We’d planned to get a new tree for Christmas that year; my love had wanted to get a real pine to replace the artificial flocked tree we’d been using for years. It felt incredibly important to me that I find a way to still honor his wish, but I was in no condition for tree shopping. So my mother had someone deliver a pine tree to the house. It was massive, and I had no tree stand to support it. For days, the tree leaned against our stair railing, slowly drying out. By the time we finally got a stand for it, we spent more time vacuuming dead pine needles than we did decorating it. Every time one of us walked by it, a few more needles would fall from its branches, until a huge pile of them accumulated beneath the tree like an unwanted gift.

Everything in me wanted to rip the tree down and throw it out. My love hadn’t been there to pick the tree he wanted or help us decorate it. We’d gone away for Christmas, so we hadn’t even put any presents under it. It just sat there for the last two weeks of the year, withering away.

I couldn’t help but see it as a metaphor for the last two weeks of his life. I knew the tree was dry, but not to the point of falling apart. I knew my love was sick, but not to the point of dying. I wish I’d watered them both better, sooner. Instead, I was left with his ashes and a pile of dead pine needles.

As sure as time passes, we will grow old, and we will lose things. Our hair will shrivel, thin, and shed like the skin of a snake. Our skin will lose its youthful glow, giving way to fine lines, wrinkles and moles. Our blood cells will destroy themselves by the millions in mere seconds. Bones will diminish. Teeth will decay. This happens while we eat, when we sleep, while we fall in love.

The graduality makes it seem bearable. All that slow, invisible loss. The space — months, years even — between each departure seems to give us time to prepare ourselves for life without hair, teeth, youth … people we love.

I’d prepared myself for some hypothetical time, years and years into the future, when I’d undoubtedly lose my love; I’d imagined it would be to old age. His great-­grandmother lived to be 102 years old. I’d told myself we had at least 70 more years together. When he died, I didn’t just lose him; my children, our family, we all lost those anticipated decades: birthdays, proms, vacations, graduations, memories never to be created.

There is nothing you can do to replace imagined years. There is only grief.

Whether it reveals itself across dreadfully slow moments in time or washes over you like a seismic wave from tranquil waters, grief can never be contained by neatly prescribed stages. I’ve found there is no collective of brilliant mourners waiting to share with you the secret to becoming whole again. There is only you, the reluctant passenger, blindfolded, buckled into the rattling seat of an ancient roller coaster on a seemingly endless ride of days filled with steep plunges, shuddering loops, and unpredictably swift twists and turns.

I’ve found there is no collective of brilliant mourners waiting to share with you the secret to becoming whole again. There is only you.

Highs and lows. No amusement. All fear. (C.S. Lewis once said, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.”)

The lows are forlorn. March 27th was the day I learned what caused my love to die. It took two autopsies. And four months of waiting to hear: heart disease; the most common cause of death in America, yet incredibly rare for his age. I received an answer that left me with even more unanswered questions: Why so young? What could we have done to prevent this? What could this mean for the health of our son?

The highs feel like taking the first deep breath of fresh air after wearing a mask for hours, days, weeks, months. Inhale. Exxxxhaaaaale. April 2nd was the day we honored my love with a public art show and memorial. We spread his life’s work, nearly 100 paintings, around a beautiful courtyard and indoor gallery at Bartram’s Garden, where more than 200 people came to celebrate his life. Playlists of his favorite songs blared through speakers as we stood around a firepit, burned his favorite incense, and shared stories of how he impacted each of us.

That day, I saw and shared hugs with many of my family members and friends for the first time since the pandemic began. I met some of his family members for the first time — something I imagined would happen at our wedding, not his memorial. Still, it was one of the few days since December 2nd that I genuinely felt his presence. I imagined him smiling, sitting on a bench in the corner of the gallery, quietly drawing a new masterpiece as people looked in awe at his art, asking, “Where’s the artist?” and him giving a humble wave and nod.

The highs never last long enough. And in between, there’s just time.

This time last year, I thought that if I read the right books, bought the right gear, gamed out all the scenarios, I’d be protected. Now I know there are some things you can never prepare for. People have said there must be some great lesson to be learned from all of this — that somehow, someday, I’ll understand why my love had to die so tragically and so young. I still cringe at the thought that his life could be exchanged for a lesson in mine, or that his death somehow makes me more prepared to face life’s next big challenges.

I know only that I loved him. And I love him deeply still. That’s what I’ll carry forward with me; that’s what’s left of my survival kit.

The rest I’ll have to figure out as I go.

Published as “The Art of Letting Go” in the July 2021 issue of Philadelphia magazine.