Willing ignorance killed my grandfather

My uncle killed my grandfather. Not in cold blood. But with willing ignorance.

My grandfather, lovingly called “papaw” by his grandchildren, died from complications caused by COVID-19 in a hospital alone. He did not suffer long, but his heart condition and advanced age made his odds of beating the virus very slim.

My family knew this. My mother — my grandparents’ main caregiver and a former nurse — repeatedly warned her siblings to wear a mask, distance themselves, and keep her elderly parents safe. My uncle would nod yes, but in the next breath, repeat conspiracy theories about the virus and the benefits of herd immunity. His family complained about mask mandates — infringements on their civil liberties — and said the country has to “get back to normal.” His wife has refused to get vaccinated because she doesn’t want to be microchipped.

It was just a matter of time.

. . .

Late one evening, my uncle tested positive for COVID-19, having visited my grandparents only a couple of days before his diagnosis. My grandmother, “granny,” had already begun showing symptoms but swore up and down that “it’s just a little cold.”

She and my papaw were promptly put on medication and urged to monitor their blood oxygen levels. We enlisted friends and family to check in on them, help them to the best of their abilities and all seemed to be going well.

I called my grandmother during the first week and she assured me they were doing just fine — my papaw hadn’t even shown any symptoms — and that she was more worried about my uncle, who “was having a hard time with it.”

Yet a few days later, my mom sent a text, “Papaw fell out of bed early this morning. He wouldn’t get up or let mom help, so she called 911. At the ER they found he has pneumonia.”

He remained stable for several days and we were hopeful. For a while.

Late one night, my father texted, “Mom is with Granny. Papaw has taken a turn for the worse and they are having to put him on a ventilator. Ventilators are hard and he could go into cardiac arrest so he may not make it. We will let you know. Sorry. Keep Papaw and Granny in your thoughts and prayers.”

My papaw passed away hours later with only a nurse beside him, reminding him how much his wife, daughters, sons, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren loved him. He was a good man. Even if he wasn’t, he deserved to be surrounded by his family as he breathed his last. COVID-19 and the selfishness of so many people robbed him of this simple dignity.

. . .

My papaw was 88 years old. Three years ago, we nearly lost him. He developed a heart condition that caused a fluid buildup in his lungs, turning him into a fragile version of his once gentle, strong self. We were scared and prepared to say our goodbyes, but he pulled through. Even at his most precarious moments, we were able to visit him in his hospital room, hold his hand, listen to his stories, simply be near him.

COVID-19 has stolen this closure from my family.

Losing a family member to COVID-19 is tragic. Knowing that it was my uncle who had passed it along to him makes the grieving process more messy, complicated. I am sad and angry. Sad for losing the patriarch of our family. Angry that sheer negligence caused his life to end in this way.

As a believer in forgiveness and healing, I was prepared to forgive my uncle. I was hurt and knew our relationship would never fully recover, but I believed he would acknowledge the role his actions played in my papaw’s death. Or apologize and take the virus more seriously, now knowing what he did to our family.

At my papaw’s graveside ceremony, he shattered this illusion. During the viewing, his son wasn’t wearing his mask. When urged to put it on, my uncle stepped in and said, “He’s a grown man and can make his own decisions.”

Willing ignorance killed my papaw. And I fear, in the era of fake news and a former president being acquitted after inciting an insurrection, willing ignorance will continue to rob us of our loved ones and our relationships to those it ensnares until we stamp it out for good.

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Abby Hassler

Abby Hassler

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An anxious writer and observer who explores the issues of identity in this crazy, new world. Care to join me?