Who we lost KY: Her name was June – She was my grandmother
WUKY is collaborating with Martha Greenwald, creator and curator of 'Who We Lost KY'a writing project where friends and families who have lost loved ones to the pandemic pay tribute and in some cases, say their final goodbyes. Today we hear from Jamey Hill Temple of McLean County who has this fond remembrance of her grandmother June Hill.
When you lose someone, you lose them in a thousand different ways.
You lose her birthday cards that come to your mailbox; you lose her voice on the other end of the receiver. You miss the image of her, sitting in the lift chair, feet kicked up. You miss the taste of her creamed potatoes, the liver spots on her hands, the way her fingers crooked at their ends. You miss her black hair with silver streaks, the pitch in her voice when she laughs. You lose making plans to see her. You lose new pictures and new memories as if she’s vanished from the frame.
About a week ago, I talked to my grandmother on the phone. She had a dry cough and had been to an urgent care where they diagnosed her with bronchitis. She said she took cough medicine twice a day, and she was surprised that the syrup tasted good. Her voice sounded strong even though she said her legs had been weak. She couldn’t get up to “wet” because her legs would fall out from under her. She’d managed to get a wastebasket, pulling it to her chair. When she felt like she was about to explode, she’d hover over it. She said she managed not to make a mess.
I don’t remember everything we talked about, it seems so trivial now, but I know we talked about Gov. Andy Beshear and his updates, showing true leadership. She mentioned that she’d put a card in the mail for my youngest, who turns 7 on April 10. We said, “I love you,” keeping the conversation brief, so she didn’t cough.
A few days later, my father called to say that she had been taken by ambulance to Baptist Health Madisonville because she was so weak. Aunt Beverly had to sit outside in the parking lot because no visitors were allowed. Aunt Bev sat there, not knowing what to do other than call around, updating family, and calling the hospital for updates.
The first update said she had pneumonia. The second that she was in isolation on a COVID-19 floor. She’d been tested, of course, but her results wouldn’t be available for 48 hours. Very few staff worked the unit to minimize transmission. She’d have to test negative twice to be moved elsewhere.
At first, updates were mostly positive. She wanted to go home, which was a good sign. There was even talk about sending her home. But then we received word that she’d tested positive for COVID-19. In just a few hours, her oxygen levels began to drop, the pneumonia built in her lungs. She, as the medical professionals say, had taken a turn for the worse.
Waking can be hard because you remember. You remember someone you love is hurting, can’t quite catch her breath, and she’s alone in a hospital room. That’s the cruelty of COVID-19, the separation. As humans, we need connection, but COVID-19 has severed that cord ruthlessly.
I woke this morning and headed downstairs. It was too early to call for updates. But at about 7:30 a.m. as I made a chicken salad sandwich, my phone rang.
Did I know before I knew? Before I heard my father weeping? Before the words “she passed sometime during the night?”
Everything unravels in that moment. Everything you’ve held close, the breath and tears, let loose.
Will there be a funeral? Will we be able to hug? Are we carrying this grief alone, too, only to cut it open when we see one another again? If we are able to see one another again? Will a hug even mean the same?
That’s another thing COVID does — it makes you question a gesture once meant for comfort, because now anything might kill you.
It’s easy to hear statistics on the news — a number isn’t a person, but when one number becomes a person you love, you’re angry and scared shitless.
If this faceless killer can find my grandmother, homebound, in rural Kentucky, it can find us all.
We’re all more than a number, let’s not forget. Her name was June. She was a mother, grandmother, sister, aunt. She loved us all, and we loved her.
Jamey Temple is June Hill’s granddaughter and an English professor at University of the Cumberlands. This piece was published in The Courier Journal, 4/5/2020.