The human condition is to believe that we’re invincible.
That we’re the exception—untouchable by the common tragedies of life.
It’s why people still smoke cigarettes, drive under the influence of substances, or go cave diving. It’s also why when someone else’s family experiences an unfortunate event—like the loss of a loved one—we offer half-assed condolences and go about our lives, barely allowing the thought, it could have been us to cross our minds.
Perhaps because that thought would be paralyzing if we ever actually thought it through.
This pandemic has been a nightmare for each of us in its own way, whether halting our plans, confirming our deepest fears, or everything in between.
At the start of it, I remember feeling a deep and resonating knowing that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but that swelled in the pit of my stomach, growing stronger each day that passed and as numbers of COVID-19 cases rose.
It was the feeling that I’d known something was off this whole time, that certainly the simple but luxurious lives I and the majority around me were living were somehow too good to be true.
At some point a few years ago, I remember feeling my privilege as a full-time yoga instructor who somehow could afford to travel to Portugal twice a year. Granted, I didn’t have health insurance, and my car barely ran—but I had my priorities.
The most important thing to me was to make it to Portugal as often as I could to spend time with my beloved grandfather.
Even as I type these words, I am still processing them.
I have been extremely fortunate to have been able to visit him once or twice a year for a long time now. The time spent with him has been so precious—a gift I will always treasure. I spent many of my summers with him and my Vovo (grandmother), traveling to Portugal each year with my sister. It was our opportunity to bond with them and connect with our roots since we lived halfway across the world the rest of the time.
Seven years ago, I received the news that Vovo had been diagnosed with lung cancer. Having been a smoker the vast majority of her life, I knew in my heart and in my gut that it was a death sentence. I grieved the diagnosis more than her actual passing the following year.
Since Vovo’s death, it has been especially important to me to spend as much time with grandpa as possible. Right before I fell in love with my husband, I was even drawing up my plans to move to Portugal.
When the pandemic started, my worst fears (at the time) were confirmed: no travel.
This really threw a wrench in my plans to spend time with Grandpa, and I knew that it would be hard on him to spend so much time alone, without having international visitors or any trips of his own to look forward to.
Portugal responded quickly and complied so well with the lockdowns compared to some of their neighboring countries that I really wasn’t concerned about my family’s safety. The rest of my family in Portugal were extremely cautious, and everyone was playing it so safe this entire year that I worried more about the detriment of his mental health than his risk for contracting a virus.
“He needs human touch and connection,” I thought–but I also knew that they were doing the right thing and that their distanced visits were still wonderful for him.
Thankfully, Grandpa has a best friend with whom he formed a pod during the warmer months when numbers were lower. The two of them would go out to lunch most days during the week, egg each other on about soccer since they are fans of rival teams (Benfica and Sporting), and marvel together about the pandemic and politics. Then on the weekends, they would each spend time with their families.
During our video calls, he would express his sorrow that we couldn’t visit each other any time soon, but he demonstrated resilience and hopefulness about the whole situation that only someone of his generation might muster.
Just over a week ago, I received the news that grandpa’s best friend was in the hospital under constant monitoring. He had been diagnosed with COVID-19. My thoughts immediately flooded to Grandpa, who had been such a trooper this whole time. I knew he would be crushed—and I also knew that he could be at risk.
At first, he just seemed depressed. For some reason, he’d stopped answering my calls. Within a couple of days, after my aunt took him to the doctor, I got the news that he, too, had tested positive.
Until it hits your family, tragedy isn’t real. It’s an abstract concept that sucks for other people, but that even the most compassionate among us can’t really wrap our heads around.
Finding out that Grandpa had COVID-19 was entirely different, yet utterly the same, just as finding out that my grandmother had cancer.
For some reason, I haven’t allowed myself to cry about it yet, to grieve the suffering that he is experiencing, or feel the weight of the reality of the situation that has hit thousands of other families all over the globe this past year.
I have been more concerned about my parents in Florida than about my elderly grandfather in Portugal because, for me, Portugal has always been a sanctuary where nothing bad ever really happens–not since the passing of Vovo, at least.
As a kid, it’s where I went to feel free and more loved and accepted for being myself than I’d known possible elsewhere. As an adult, it’s my soul’s refuge and nourishment. Portugal is the fortress that holds and protects my heart and my family, keeping us all safe.
For the past year, my mind has kept my grandfather safe for the sheer fact that he’s in my safe place. The possibility of him or anyone in my family getting sick in my fortress just hadn’t crossed my mind.
And that’s the way this works–it is the exact reason why people are careless and don’t wear masks. It is the reason why we allow our own selfish desires and impulses to keep us from staying home.
These past several months, we have witnessed so much ugly name-calling and blaming by people on both sides of the fence.
What hasn’t sat right with me, though, is that the reason the guidelines and rules for public safety haven’t been followed could be as simple as mere ignorance, narcissism, or selfishness.
I would argue instead that, ironically, it is the same human instinct that protects us from danger. I now know why I’ve felt this to be true: it’s because until this thing touches you, it simply isn’t real.
Once it does, it is too real. It is too real and too scary to fully process or fathom.
My prayers and healing love go out to each family who has been impacted by COVID-19, and I deeply appreciate yours as well, for my beloved Grandpa and for my family.
Let’s be kind and compassionate to each other always–now more than ever. May this time be of benefit, that the path toward our collective healing and back to the fortresses that hold our hearts be illuminated.