My daughter died Thursday, April 23, at 1:11 p.m. And I was not with her when she died.
Her name was Laura. She turned 33 in March. She died of diffuse gastric cancer. But because of the spread of COVID-19, I — her mama bear, as she took to calling me late in her illness — was not with her.
Yes, she died of cancer. But because of the sudden onset of shortness of breath, fever and cough ― symptoms that developed in early April — she was classified as “presumptive COVID-19.”
A few days into her last hospitalization, she called me, frustrated and sobbing, because no one was allowed in the hospital to support her ― not me, nor her steadfast fiance, Brett.
The hospital had not permitted her to bring so much as a change of clothing or underwear. Her long, beautiful hair was dirty and tangled from fevered sweat and sleeplessness. She cried that even if she could manage to shower, she was not permitted hair conditioner or her comb.
She was utterly alone in her hospital room, with only overworked nurses to assist her. Not even her doctors would visit, she said. Because of her “presumed COVID-19 diagnosis,” they, too, were afraid to get close to her and would only call her on the phone or check on her through the glass window of her hospital room from the safety of the corridor.
She just wanted to go home.
Laura was released from the hospital on Easter Sunday, April 12, and sent home to recover with supplemental oxygen and occasional home health care visits. She continued to teach her high school biology and chemistry sections via distance learning throughout her illness.
Teaching was Laura’s passion. As a girl, she would come home from kindergarten, line up her dolls and stuffed animals in a circle, and give them homework and tests. She always gave her favorite doll, Judy, A’s on all her assignments, while Nico, her stuffed raccoon, invariably earned C’s.
Laura had been suffering with stomach pains for months in the fall of 2017. She’d seen her doctor, been prescribed antacids and was advised by well-meaning friends to “go gluten-free.”
Despite intermittent gastric pain, she and Brett traveled to Andalusia, Spain, during her holiday break in 2017, where Brett asked her to be his wife. She was thrilled to be planning a wedding and a family of their own.
Spain was very special to Laura. Early in her career, she left her job at a research laboratory in Utah to teach children at a bilingual school in a small town in the mountains outside of Córdoba.
Laura was diagnosed with cancer in January 2018, following routine surgery. She reacted to the blow by quickly deciding what was important to her: continuing to teach, her loved ones and her ability to continue to explore the world with Brett at her side.
Courtesy of Laura with her fiance, Brett Littleton, in Seville, Spain, on Dec. 24, 2017, the day they became engaged.
She scheduled chemo treatments, and later an immunotherapy clinical trial, around her school and travel schedules and was able to live her life fiercely and on her terms.
She enjoyed drinking craft beer, a habit she picked up during her college days in Corvallis, Oregon. She was frustrated that following chemo treatments she could not bear to drink anything cold.
Laura loved rock climbing and managed to hit the climbing gym as frequently as her schedule would allow, despite chemo-induced neuropathy. She told me once, “Mom, the climbing gym is one of the only places nobody knows I’m ‘Cancer Girl.’”
After Laura came home from the hospital on Easter, she had some good days teaching, cooking, remodeling the bathroom and walking Delilah, her new puppy. We shared “stay at home” comfort food recipes, and she was thrilled when, for her birthday, I gave her the pocket travel guide to Paris she asked me for.
But she continued to use supplemental oxygen, and her oxygen needs continued to increase.
On Saturday, April 18, Laura was walking the dog, passed out and fell. When I heard what happened, I texted, “Do you want me to come down and fret with/for you?” She replied, ”I don’t want to risk you getting corona.” I texted back, “Damn virus.” And I waited.
Laura was scheduled for a bronchoscopy the following Monday, April 20. Two days after the test, she called me, sobbing. The results from the bronchoscopy were dire. Her lack of oxygen was not, in fact, related to COVID-19, but to something far more sinister: The cancer had spread into her lungs. Without aggressive treatment, she was told she had perhaps only a month to live.
We discussed options ― talked about how she had a few days to choose whether she wanted to continue to “fight like hell.” Or not.
I told her I loved her with all my heart and would support her either way. I started packing for the four-hour drive to be with her the next day, and she texted me to “call first.” I packed for a vigil. I carefully slipped on the earrings she’d bought for me in Colombia last summer. We both thought we had time.
Laura died a few minutes before I arrived on an exquisite Colorado spring day at home, with Brett cradling her in his arms.
Courtesy of Mary Hagen Roberts Laura with her stepfather, John Roberts, at her brother Tom’s graduation in May 2019.
I’ve been told that she was lucid and talking and sipping a smoothie just before she died. A nurse was with her to discuss hospice options if Laura were to decide on palliative care. The nurse had arrived around noon, and she immediately increased Laura’s pain and anxiety medications as Laura was finding it more and more difficult to breathe. At one point, just after 1 p.m., Laura stood up, walked a few steps, collapsed and was gone.
And I have no idea how to carry on now that she is gone or what to do with my unbelievable and unbearable sorrow.
Someone needs to tell me how to grieve, as I’ve found shouting at people for not wearing masks or grousing at folks pushing and crowding me in line at our now open Colorado shops does not seem to be working for me.
Tell me how to grieve when we are not permitted to have a funeral or memorial service, when the precious body of my child disappears into the back of a repurposed funeral home minivan, never to be seen again.
I want the rituals of mourning that our society ― that I ― have learned to rely on to process grief.
I ache to hold my grandsons. I want to hug my sister and see my brothers who live a thousand miles away. I miss my friends. I want to go to Laura’s favorite brewpub and order greasy sliders and a pitcher of IPA and share and cry with her coworkers and friends.
I want to accept the mystery casseroles and chocolate brownies that my neighbors, when called upon, will rally and bring me, along with their sympathy and love.
But because I am 64 years old and immunocompromised with Addison’s disease, I’m afraid to answer the door.
For now — instead of a service, instead of a funeral — our small family mourned our unbearable loss and told stories from Laura’s wild-child youth and brilliant, short life. We cried, and we talked and damned this virus and its spread. But now I wake up every morning and go to bed every night with this hole in my heart, and I don’t know how I’ll move forward.
Mary Hagen Roberts is a retired speech language pathologist who lives with her husband, John, in Salida, Colorado. She enjoys teaching swimming at the local hot springs pool (when it’s not closed due to COVID-19) and volunteering with Central Colorado Conservancy.