Last Breath

“Harvard College students will be required to move out of their Houses and First-year dorms as soon as possible and no later than Sunday, March 15 at 5:00 pm.” 

“Move out of their Houses and First-year dorms as soon as possible.” 

“Move out.”

“As soon as possible.” 

I had laughed when I first saw that email. I watched in shock as hundreds gathered in front of Widener library to cry away the sadness of leaving their friends, saying goodbye, and reminiscing of all that could have been. The next few days I applied Purell so often the skin on my hands felt as though it was going to peel off, tearfully hugged my friends, and packed the contents of my room into six cardboard boxes. As I arrived at the airport wearing my mask and gloves, a couple in the elevator sympathized sadly with the premature ending to my semester, the JetBlue representative waived my overweight bag fee, and the waitress at a restaurant gave me my meal for free after realizing I was a college student. Even in the face of a pandemic, when all I could see were eyes peering out of the top of surgical masks, when no one blinked an eye as I clorox wiped down my airplane seat, and when everything seemed to be going wrong, there was still good in the world. 

For two weeks at home, I self-quarantined out of fear that I would give my family COVID-19. I was mostly convinced that I had been exposed to it given news that there were some students who had tested positive, and campus was still crowded the last week, with students still going to lectures, eating their last meals together, and trying to spend as much time together in the last few days we all had together. 

It was Sunday, March 29. It had been a normal day – wake up, eat breakfast, have dance class, finish up some assignments. It was 2 p.m. when I was studying and my brother rushed downstairs. 

“Appa (father) said thatha (grandfather) is not going to make it past today. Come upstairs. Immediately,” he gestured. There was a sense of urgency in his voice. 

In shock, my mother and I rushed upstairs, watching my father carry my grandfather to his bed. For a second, I couldn’t step inside, stunned. Tears began to well and my body trembled as I mumbled “no, no, please, not again,” remembering my grandmother who had passed a few months prior. I couldn’t have this happen again. It wasn’t fair. 

For the next few hours, my family and I sat by my grandpa, bringing him water, chocolate milk, and bananas (his favorite fruit). His eyes widened as he gazed up at all of us, often asking whether something was wrong. Observing my tear-stained face, he looked to my father and asked if something serious had happened. Clasping his hand as tightly as I could, I told him nothing was wrong. Whenever I let go, his hand would search for mine. It felt as though he gained strength grasping me. Yet, I felt helpless. 

Perhaps my family and I had held on to the slightest bit of hope until my grandfather’s doctor conducted a virtual visit and told us it would be best for him to stay at home, rather than pass away at the hospital like thousands were. My grandfather was not going to make it.

What is it like to know that death is impending? I don’t know. But I can only imagine it to be one of the scariest feelings to experience, for uncertainty lies in the future. 

As my father, mother, and brother cried, taking turns holding my grandfather’s hands, my grandfather hugged us all tightly. His breaths became more labored as the hours continued and he lifted his oxygen mask only to pray, bless us, and comfort us. As he held my quivering body, telling me he had lived a happy, contented life, I could only think to myself how unfair it was that he was the one comforting me, when I should be the one telling him that he would be okay. 

Wiping away my tears, I held both his hands. He could barely speak, but he took turns looking at my family. At 6 pm, after asking my father the time, he hoarsely asked for a glass of water to do his prayers. His hands quaked uncontrollably, the water spilling. 

“That’s enough, please rest,” my father begged. 

“No, I have to finish my prayers,” my grandfather argued back. The rays of the sun glinted, reflecting off the windows as I watched my grandfather repeat his prayers three times, forgetting he had already completed them once. 

At 7 pm, he lifted his mask one last time, reminded me and my brother to make sure to do our prayers daily, said his last prayer, and closed his eyes. His breathing was raspy and labored. I lay in his bed with him, my head on his chest, my hand grasping his, in the hopes that if his breathing stopped, I would hear it. As the night wore on, the azure skies turned to an eternal black, his head leaned on my father’s lap, and my brother and mother lay on the floor. His labored breathing continued into the night, but his pulse ox kept dropping.

At 2:30 am, my brother woke us all up to tell us it was time. And that was it. I saw my grandfather take his last three breaths. And he was gone. I clasped his cold hands, unable to breathe, shaking uncontrollably, the tears flowing incessantly. I screamed, hoping that it wasn’t true. I could not have lost my last grandparent. My body felt numb as I clutched my grandfather’s hands, knowing once I let go, that was it.  

I had lost two of my grandparents before, one to cancer. I was 12 at the time and had been in charge of taking her temperature after chemotherapy sessions. I would lay on the floor of our living room with her as she exclaimed in pain after a particularly different session. I would dance in her room and her eyes would glisten as she would clap along. I would rush up to her room right after school to report on all that had happened that day. I would sit on her knees when they ached. I had given her one last hug and kiss. Though unable to speak, the corners of her eyes had crinkled and her entire face lit up. But I had not been there when she passed. I was called into her room at 5 am and clasped her cold hands, similarly to how I had held onto my grandfather’s, but I had not seen her last breath. 

Watched someone take their last breath. Realized that someone who was so present, who had been there from your first step, was no longer going to be there to greet you with the brightest smile when you returned home from college. Cried into the depths of the night. In a way, all of this had given me closure. Knowing that my family and I were right next to him, just how he had always wanted. 

The grief subdues over time and the happy memories I have shared with my grandfather overwhelm me, as I hope to forget the last hours of pain he suffered. I constantly remind myself that this was what he had always prayed for, for the four of us to be with him as he took his last breath. 

Yet, so many are not as fortunate. Grandparents are dying in hospital beds alone, unable to see or speak with their children. Mothers are saying goodbye to their children via walkie-talkies. Nurses, donning full personal protective equipment, are praying with their patients as they take their last breaths. Hundreds of bodies are bagged and stored. Doctors wipe away their tears and move to the next room, hoping that the outcome of the next patient might be different. Family members are not allowed to visit their dying parents, children, or spouses. The last time some see their family member is when the EMT picks them up from their house. Followed by the dreaded phone call. 

When this is happening, how can I be selfish and ask for anything more than to have been able to hold my grandfather’s hands as he passed? My heart aches for all those we have lost in the past few months and I grieve for all of those who have left us without being able to say a proper goodbye. It isn’t fair.

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