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A few days before Christmas, I dropped groceries at my grandma Debbie’s door and stood in the middle of her lawn. It was our pandemic ritual that we had perfected after nine months of lockdown.
Each time, I’d insist we avoid physical contact while she would insist on giving me a gift. So we agreed to a compromise: she could throw her presents at me – a bag of fresh tomatoes, spare face masks or a $20 bill for “gas money” – if she kept a safe distance. On that day, she tossed a “holiday check”. I smiled behind two layers of masks and wrapped my arms around myself, pantomiming a hug.
It was the last time I saw her alive.
I did everything I could to keep my grandma safe, but in the middle of one of the worst Covid hotspots in America, during the worst phase of the pandemic yet, it wasn’t enough. On 10 January, she was one of 166 Covid deaths reported in Los Angeles county. She was 80 years old, part of the age bracket whose deaths are considered least newsworthy, but whose lives were nonetheless stolen well before their time.
The loss felt cruel and unfair, not least because she died days before she would have been eligible for the vaccine. I’m convinced she would have lived two decades more.
We’ve grown numb to the death counts in America, pausing only to mark the grim milestones: 100,000 deaths in May; 300,000 by December; 400,000 this month. Senior citizens are the most readily dismissed victims in the daily updates, even though their deaths were premature, preventable and often follow months of traumatizing separation from loved ones.
Every loss stings, but my grandma’s passing was particularly painful given how much she had already overcome in her life.
Deborah Theresa Wong was born in Brooklyn in 1940 to parents who had immigrated from China. They were young, poor and never planned on having children. Somewhere around the age of three, they abandoned Debbie at a Catholic church in Virginia. My grandma later learned her parents’ names were Alice and Dick, but she knew little else about them.
The nuns at the convent took Debbie in and raised her. She missed out on most childhood traditions. She never celebrated a birthday. She didn’t learn to ride a bike or swim. And she only ever saw two television shows: a Catholic program featuring Bishop Fulton Sheen, and Hopalong Cassidy, a cowboy show. She often cleaned the feet of one of the church statues – “for fun”, she would say.
As a child, she didn’t understand that she was Chinese, and she never saw another Asian person.
At 12, Debbie began to rebel and convinced two other girls to run away with her. They attempted to hitchhike but were caught and returned, leading to her first spanking. At this point, she was asking questions about her parents, demanding to know their identities and whereabouts. The nuns had no answers.
By 14, her behavior apparently became so unmanageable that the convent handed her over to a Jesuit priest in Chinatown, New York City, making her a ward of the state. She remembers weeping as she said her goodbyes to the nuns, including her beloved Sister Claudia, who gave her a missal and a 14th birthday card – her first ever present. “I was hysterical. I laughed and cried so much,” she recounted in recent personal writing.
Debbie struggled through seven different foster homes; the state repeatedly sent her to Chinese families, even though the culture and language were foreign to her. She grew to hate Chinese food. One of her only fond memories of her foster experience was Sheila, “a lovable collie dog who every night slept in my room”.
Against all odds, she managed to graduate high school early and became an independent adult at age 16. I never understood how she did it but I think she knew emancipation was her best option, and by then, she was an expert in survival. She got a cashier job at a Chinese restaurant, and later began working for IBM in New York City.
A priest who had looked out for her told her she should marry someone “like her” – so she did. At 17, she met my biological grandfather, Jack, a Chinese American engineering student. The only thing they had in common was their ethnicity, and Debbie gave birth to my mom at age 19.
They moved to Pittsburgh and divorced, and Debbie eventually met the love of her life, my step-grandfather, Tom Hennessy. The two were kindred spirits, both orphans, and together they started an alternative weekly newspaper that ran for five years until it nearly bankrupted them.
Tom’s career brought them to Michigan for the Detroit Free Press, and then southern California for the Long Beach Press-Telegram. In Tom, she found a soulmate and partner who supported her in her own career, which took her from the nation’s first anti-poverty program to eventually becoming executive director of the California State University academic senate. She was often present in Tom’s slice-of-life columns, nicknamed “the Duchess”. In his final column, he thanked “my own Florence Nightingale” for taking such good care of him while he was sick: “God, I love her.”
A champion of the free press, she was a loyal supporter of my work. During my first internship, she’d leave comments on articles, saying: “This new Sam Levin writer is very talented!” But it was more than just a grandma’s unconditional love.
Sometimes, she would email me feedback not long after my Guardian articles were published. She cared deeply about the subjects of my stories on inequality and felt I was carrying on Tom’s legacy. This became clear during our long lunches where we’d discuss the abuses in our prison system or racial justice, and she’d remind me how little had changed since Tom was writing about the same subjects years ago.
When my grandpa Tom died in 2016, Debbie was so heartbroken it affected her physical health. She would tell us of her nightly dreams of him. Nothing could fill the void of his loss, but she tried. She had survived on her own before and she learned to do it again in her 70s, with help from a close-knit group of friends in Long Beach and my brother, Ben, who had moved to LA to pursue acting and became one of her closest companions. My grandma slowly found a routine and community that got her through the worst of her grief.
Then the pandemic hit.
One of the most brutal realities of the Covid crisis is that it forces us to keep distance from the people in our lives who we are most at risk of never seeing again. When Covid arrived, none of the ways that my brother and I had spent time with my grandma were safe any more.
So we found a new way to do our socially distanced Sunday hangouts, typically breakfast burritos or Chinese food in her backyard. The visits provided a respite from the chaos of 2020, and she’d always distract us with some new extraordinary story of her life that we’d never heard before.
We never let our guards down. Sometimes my brother would give a big hug to a tree in her yard when saying goodbye, in lieu of embracing her. She agreed to do a big Zoom party for her 80th birthday even though she didn’t love video-chatting. She got very good at sending texts with the perfect combo of emojis.
We’ll never know for sure how she got Covid, though the most probable explanation was that she was exposed while getting necessary medical treatment at a hospital. What is clear is that she did everything right throughout the pandemic – and still wasn’t safe.
Her infection (like every Covid case) was preventable and the fact that it occurred in January 2021, after nine months of following all the rules, felt like an indictment of our government and healthcare system. It has been hard to process the fact that after nearly a year, our leaders have continued to let the most vulnerable people be victimized, whether our essential workers, people in prison or the elderly. The US has made it impossible for people to stay home and stay safe, forcing people to work in dangerous conditions that expose themselves and their families – facilitating the kind of rampant community spread that my grandma simply could not escape.
We tried to remain hopeful even as her health rapidly deteriorated. She had such a youthful smile and giggle, it was hard to imagine she wouldn’t pull through. Even as Covid was wrecking her body, one doctor in the hospital commented that she looked so much younger than 80.
The last time I saw her was on FaceTime with the help of an exhausted nurse. My grandma was sedated and unresponsive at that point, but I wanted her to hear my voice in case it helped. I tried to stay calm for my mother, who was on the call, and we gave my grandma an update about her favorite football team and the Georgia special election. We told her to keep resting, and I shouted at the screen listing all the food we would eat in her backyard when she came home. At the end, my mom begged the nurse to take good care of her; he promised he would.
I wouldn’t wish a Zoom funeral service on any family, but I found a lot of comfort in the tributes from people across the country whose lives she touched over so many decades. Everyone had a different version of the same story of her generosity.
It’s bittersweet celebrating a loved one’s life after their passing – giving them the recognition they deserve when they’re no longer around to receive it. In the weeks since my grandma’s death, I’ve been plagued by feelings of guilt that I didn’t properly interview her and document her life before she died. But I’m clinging to the time I was so privileged to have with her and the stories she left with me.
During the pandemic, my parents encouraged her to write about her incredible life as a way to pass the time and record her amazing memories.
After she died, I saw, for the first time, the start of that memoir – an unedited, unfinished Google Doc in which she was jotting down the rich details of her life and survival that I had never heard before. It ended in the middle just after meeting Tom.
It hurt me that it was incomplete, but I’m thankful she left us that one final gift.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: My grandma’s survival in America defied all odds. Then Covid stole her from us