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It was around 1 a.m. last Friday, and my wife, Marni, nudged me awake. Her shoulders shook in the darkness. The tears ran freely down her face.
“She’s gone,” she said softly, her voice filled with depthless pain and loss and disbelief.
It was the news that we prayed would not come. After three weeks of a brave fight that saw her pingpong from the brink of death to what we cautiously hoped was her recovery, my wife’s mother, Rona Gertz, 74, of Manalapan, N.J., died on April 24 of complications from COVID-19.
And in a split-second, Rona, a whole person, with a life fully lived, joined the sad cohort of the more than 61,000 Americans who have so far lost their lives in the pandemic. Taken on its own, the tally is so vast that it’s almost incomprehensible. It’s a faceless sea of data.
But in every death, in every empty place at the table, there is a story.
This is one about Rona.
It’s the end of February, just before lockdown, and my wife and I are standing in our living room, our bags packed, poised and ready, for her combination birthday/Valentine’s Day trip to Niagara Falls. Rona, who will be watching our daughter while we’re gone, is due to arrive at any moment.
After 20 years of knowing her, I’d learned to deduct anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour from Rona’s announced arrival time. Even though it almost always took us at least three hours to make the trip to her home in central New Jersey, Rona always seemed to make it to our house in suburban Harrisburg in two hours and some change.
We often joked that it was only a matter of time before some alert New Jersey or Pennsylvania State Trooper, desperate to make quota that month, would smell an enforcement goldmine as Rona went rocketing past him.
And today, when we needed her to be there the most, she was running late.
“I bet she finally got busted,” I told her.
Moments later, or so it seemed, Rona materialized on the front porch, bags in hand, her forehead creased in consternation, muttering dark oaths.
“You’re late,” I joked, greeting her.
“I got pulled over,” she grumbled. And Marni and I fell over laughing.
I tell this story to reinforce how absolutely central Rona’s family was to her life.
Every December, like clockwork, she’d be there, her arms laden down by flowers, for my daughter’s ballet company’s performance of “The Nutcracker.” And while I know that every grandmother is proud, there is nothing quite like the pride of a Jewish grandmother. Rona would be luminous with it when my daughter emerged from the dressing room after the show to greet her.
A week or so later, she’d be back, to help our little interfaith family celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah. To this day, I’m not sure how she managed to bend the laws of physics to fit that many bags of gifts into her car. But it was her granddaughter. And it was a holiday. And Einstein could take a flying leap if he didn’t like it.
She loved to cook. So when we came out there for simple visits, or for Rosh Hashanah, or other holidays, Rona didn’t so much serve meals as she staged endurance tests. There were appetizers before the appetizers. Multiple bottles of wine. Side dishes upon side dishes. And didn’t every family have two turkeys for Thanksgiving? And five pies, right?
All of it homemade. From scratch. Leftovers for days.
The restaurant owner’s kid in me rejoiced. And we’d chat about recipes and cooking techniques. And I was never more nervous than when Rona came to our place for Christmas and I’d cook dinner for the family. Eisenhower didn’t spend as much time planning D-Day as I did those meals.
If I got the nod of approval, and that slow smile, and the “John … this is delicious,” then I was golden. If she asked for the recipe? Well, that was just extra.
And I know she doted with equal pride on my two nieces, my brother-in-law’s children, two golden-haired girls a few years younger than my daughter. Rona was game for just about anything. She tagged along with them on road trips to Spartan races, just as she occasionally tagged along with us to Pittsburgh (the marathon for Marni, the half-marathon for me).
There were restaurant dinners, again, always overflowing with laughter and cheer, and food, and, well, let’s not be delicate, lots of wine. Every now and again, the tab would be paid before we could get to it. And after a while, we knew better than to protest.
And it’s these little things that I think about now: The meals. The ballet performances. The road trips. The phone calls. The moments in conversation. We’ll have to console ourselves with these memories. And we’ll tell these stories over and over, keeping her memory alive.
So when you hear people start talking about numbers in this pandemic, I hope this story will remind you that there are faces attached to every loss. And behind every loss, there are families who are going through the ritual of mourning without being together, making the loss all the more heart-rending.
And if you are mourning a loss right now, saying goodbye to your own Rona, know you’re not alone. From my family to yours, we offer our profound condolences and prayers. May all their lives be a blessing.
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