I Couldn’t Stand Him — Then He Died of Coronavirus

My former brother-in-law died this week from Covid-19. He’d been on a respirator for seven days.

There was no love between Carl and me. About 15 years ago, Carl walked out on my sister after 25 years of marriage. Julie was 50 at the time. I first met Carl when I was 19 and visiting my sister in Seattle. He was her new boyfriend. On that first trip, I caught Carl rummaging through her medicine cabinet, looking for any drugs she might not miss. When I tracked sand into my sister’s apartment after a day at the beach, Carl criticized me for not using the vacuum cleaner correctly. He thought I was a spoiled little princess. He wasn’t completely wrong.

From my point of view, he was mean to my sister. A drunk and a drug addict, Carl was withdrawn, living in his own world, and careless with their children. Once my sister came home from errands to find their four-year-old son on the roof. In fact, Carl was careless with everything. On a family vacation to the Florida Keys, he went snorkeling with the rental car keys in his pocket. A Hertz truck had to drive 64 miles from Miami to deliver a replacement.

Certainly my sister played her part in the disastrous relationship, but his departure threw her into a bout of panic attacks, which led to its own ramifications.

Carl was a tall, good-looking man, blond and broad shouldered. Originally from Idaho, that was where he was intubated and where he died. He had no health proxy, so his children — my niece and nephew, his next of kin — had to make the call to take him off the ventilator. His organs had failed. He was 74.

Carl’s death from the coronavirus, the first person I knew well to die of the disease, has scared the shit out of me.

I have photos of a gambling trip that Julie, Carl and I took to Reno sometime in the 1970s. The casino is a bit of blur. At one point, Carl found me slumped over in the Keno lounge, either passed out or sleeping, or some combination of the two, and pointed me back to our motel room.

As a precaution at the beginning of our trip, Carl had tucked cash in the bottom of his shoe. The idea was that if we all got financially wiped out, we could at least pay for airport parking and retrieve the car. But Carl gambled that money away too, which we discovered on the 40-minute flight from Reno to Seattle, when he tried to buy a cocktail with a credit card. (In any case, the airline didn’t serve alcohol on flights under one hour.)

When we landed, he called his friend Chris, who arrived in a red pick-up truck to rescue us. We were young and it was all funny. I laughed so hard that I fell on the parking lot pavement. I have a photo of the three of us from that day — Julie, Carl, and me. My sister looks happy and game, her hair cut short and curly. Carl had long sideburns, long hair, a droopy mustache, and wore a thick leather belt. I’m in jeans, frizzy hair parted in the middle.

Anyway, years later Carl went into recovery. Finally, he developed a strong relationship with my niece, Sophie, and became a devoted grandfather to her three kids. His relationship with his son was more fraught, but Carl, at least, tried. Carl was isolated in the ICU, and the kids had to say goodbye to their father through FaceTime. A chaplain brought in a phone. But it was too late — Carl was unresponsive.

I last saw Carl about 10 years ago at Sophie’s wedding. He’d taken lessons in public speaking at Toastmaster International so he could deliver a perfect father-of-the-bride speech. After his toast, Carl berated himself for forgetting part of his prepared talk, but of course no one had noticed.

When he and my sister met, Carl was a college drop-out who worked at an electronics company, sitting on a bench next to a lot of other guys, putting together instruments. This was pre-silicon valley days and it was neither remunerative nor glamourous work. My sister fell for Carl — his good looks, his fringed suede jacket, his laid-back manner and easy acceptance of whatever came his way. His voice was soft and a little flat. Carl was an unflappable guy. He also had a goldfish, who he actually pet, which Julie oddly took as a sign that he’d be a good father.

She was young.

In certain ways, Carl was the opposite of our father. He wasn’t ambitious or competitive, he didn’t care about money, and he didn’t much care what people thought of him. But no sooner had my sister gotten engaged, then she began trying to convert him into someone who would be acceptable to our high-powered, judgmental, East Coast parents. She hounded Carl to get his college degree, which he did, taking courses at night. Next, she went after him to get his master’s degree, which he also did.

Nothing was enough though — Julie didn’t like his friends, his taste, and most of all his passivity. Meanwhile, when my sister was 9 months pregnant with her second child, Carl was arrested for drunken driving. He wanted to charge the cops with “entrapment” because they were parked in the bar’s parking lot. When Carl was sentenced to weekend jail, my sister was freaked out he’d miss the birth. He didn’t.

Carl, for his part, has grown up with a bullying, racist father and a silly, society-conscious mother. His mother once asked Julie if she was relieved that by marrying Carl she was “diluting her Jewish blood.” My sister began to fantasize about murdering her mother-in-law.

Julie and Carl grew farther and farther apart, sleeping in separate rooms, taking separate vacations and finally embarking on separate lives. Julie was nonetheless shocked when he left and begged him to stay. She said she’d do anything, any kind of couples therapy, whatever he wanted. He refused and told her that one day she’d thank him.

Yesterday, Julie told me she knows Carl would have had a happier life if they’d never met. She figured he’d have kept working at that company, getting high with his friends, and simply enjoying his himself.

And it would have been enough for him.

It would have been fine.

Was Carl a terrible guy? Not at all. He was a damaged man, who struggled. My sister was deeply damaged too, in part by the constant criticism she’d grown up with in hyper-competitive family. Julie perceived herself as a failure, and thwarted her own ambition and drive into a man who wanted no part of it.

They met when she was 22. Except that they got two kids out of it, their marriage was a tragic mistake, In the last few years, Julie and Carl had arrived at, if not peace, at least something like a truce. A few years ago, their son was hospitalized,and Carl slept at his bedside. Julie and Carl made sure they never overlapped in real time while visiting their grandchildren, but they at least shared their love for them. And they were able, finally, to talk about their marriage and divorce.

And now Carl’s dead from the coronavirus.

The numbers keep climbing but Covid-19 no longer an abstraction.

I picture death as your world peeling away, layer by layer, Carl. First you let go the most peripheral things in your life — your emails, your chores, your obligations, your layer of acquaintances. Next would be a deeper level — you let go of any idea that you might return to work, or that dream invention that would be your big payday. Less intimate friends would no longer be part of your life. Letting go of your close friends, your grooming and many other thing you once thought indispensable, would follow. As each layer is peeled, you are a little rawer, a little more of a body and less of a person.

Finally, you’re down to your immediate family, knowing the deep pain that you are causing them, experiencing your own anguish that you are leaving them, and knowing that you will not get to see your grandchildren grow into the people they will be.

And the world. Oh, the world, with the tiny pink buds on the trees right now, the swashes of yellow of the forsythia and the daffodils, the mountains you’ve climbed and those you haven’t, the soft blue Caribbean seas you’ve bathed in, the crunchy virgin snow you’ve trekked in, the quiet woods with their moss colored rocks, the pounding ocean on the Eastern coast….

But you open your eyes and see nothing of nature, just masked strangers, in hazmat suits if they’re lucky, bending over you. You’re vaguely conscious of muted pain, and on some level understand that a machine is making your chest rise and fall.

You understand that you are alone.

And then nothing.

Journalist/author. Contributor NYT 20+ years. Also WSJ, Time.com, GH, more. Author: Mama’s Boy Myth (Penguin/Avery 2012). Cook. Parent. Queen Latifah fan.

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