Love, Loss, and COVID-19: Lessons left behind from the Greatest Generation

My cousin Ivy took this picture of my grandparents on August 8, 2020. Dot and Carl, or Grandma and Grandpa, as Ivy and I knew them, were in their 74th year of marriage and 5 months into the COVID-19 pandemic. Grandma, always dressed impeccably, made the short trip across the retirement community grounds to visit Grandpa in the skilled care wing. This had been her daily routine for years, but the past few months had been particularly challenging.

She took her usual seat in front of the locked entrance door, fiddled with her mask, and chatted via iPad with Grandpa on the other side of the glass. There wasn’t always a whole lot to say during these visits. Grandma is legally blind and Grandpa nearly deaf so the iPad became more of a humorous prop at times. Most days, Grandma was just happy to check in on her “Buddy” and make sure he was ok.

But August 8 was special and Grandpa’s eyes lit up a little more than usual behind the glass door.

That day, standing just a few yards behind Grandma, was most of his family, sons, daughters, and grandchildren, many of whom he had not seen in weeks or months. It was Grandpa’s 100th birthday and no locked door, visiting restrictions, or non functioning iPads could stand in the way of his family having a pandemic-appropriate celebration. He sat with his nurse and beamed the entire time, just as he always did when anyone came to visit. His family was his greatest joy and had always given him life. It was a birthday to remember.

8 days later, Grandpa passed away.

I was lucky enough to be with him just before he died, sitting next to his bed with his birthday balloons still floating high. I remember looking at this photo and feeling heartbroken. This was the COVID-19 moment I will remember. What was supposed to be one of the most joyous occasions now felt incomplete, muted, and quickly turned dark. This, I thought, was the most tragic consequence of the pandemic. How could anyone with a failing body overcome the isolation and stress of these times. Had my Grandpa, like so many others, given up hope?

My Mom looked at the photo and had a different point of view. She usually does, and as her daughter, it is both infuriating and humbling how often she makes me think. That day was no exception. “That is a picture of ultimate devotion” she said. “It’s not a sad moment at all.” I will admit, as a happily divorced 40-something with a strong independent streak, these are words that don’t immediately resonate with me. I never liked the idea of devoting myself to anything. I can’t even commit to how much pulp I like in orange juice.

I eventually set aside my initial reaction and started to look at the picture through the eyes of my grandparents. Those two were never sad, and day after day, they sat there, separated by a glass door, and found joy in being with one another. While I was losing my mind hearing about mask debates, mail not getting delivered on time, and airline reservations getting canceled, my grandparents did what they always do: they accepted where they were, got on with life and made the most of the situation.

I suppose this is a trait of many people who grew up during the Great Depression and World War II. The Greatest Generation, as we now call them, survived the most tumultuous period of the 20th century. While I understood and appreciated how different their life experiences were, I failed to grasp the importance of the lessons they leave behind. Aside from watching Grandma save the bag lining of her Wheat Thins (according to her they make great sandwich bags) I had never really given it much thought.

Both my grandparents grew up in modest households, finding opportunity, and each other, during World War II. It is not an unfamiliar story. Grandpa went into the military and later found work as an engineer. Grandma followed him to Charlotte, NC from her home in Canada and gave up her nursing studies to raise a family. They settled in the suburbs and raised four children. The success they aspired to was not about career or social accolades. They cared little about buying bigger, better things as their post-war lives improved. They remained focused on being self-sufficient and providing a stable, loving home for their kids. They continued to do so for the rest of their lives, always welcoming family and providing 9 grandchildren some of their happiest memories.

Grandpa later admitted feeling embarrassed after they moved to their retirement community, a place they could only afford due to their steadfast insistence on living modestly. He never went to college, and always felt a little uneasy among his more credentialed peers. Grandma wouldn’t hear it. He was a master of self education and she was so proud of who he was. Their lack of exceptionalism is what made them exceptional.

It has long been said good things come to good people. My inner skeptic often struggles with this concept in a hyper-competitive society where the loudest, wealthiest, best-connected voice often wins. Grandpa was one of the most kind, patient, soft spoken men you would ever meet. He wasn’t interested in challenging authority and never ever complained about anything. As a 90 year old man, he was loved and admired for these qualities. As a younger man, raising a family in the 50s and 60s, I imagine it would be easy to judge him as a pushover, a man who was too nice to assert himself.

I sometimes wonder if my Grandpa was ever hurt by this type of criticism, but it didn’t seem to matter. He always remained true to himself and his kindness never wavered. It was the reason my Grandma trusted him enough to move across the continent and marry him. It was the reason his sons adored him and later named their own business after him. It was the reason his daughters grew up believing no matter who was in the room, their voices mattered.

After 100 trips around the sun, it is clear to me his lack of ego was also his greatest strength.

August 8, 2020, will always be a bittersweet memory for everyone who knew and loved Carl Todd. It is difficult to shake the sadness, despite my efforts to appreciate the incredible gifts he and so many others from the Greatest Generation leave behind. This photo may be my COVID-19 moment, but it is also the last time we saw our Grandpa smile. We could barely see him through the reflection in the glass door, but we could hear his words through the iPad speaker.

“Are you enjoying your birthday party Mr. Todd?”, one of the nurses asked him.

“I wish it would never end.” he replied.

Neither did we, Grandpa. Neither did we.

Professional services marketing consultant, world traveler, and advocate for lifestyle entrepreneurship and adventure. Hey, Dos Equis guy…hold my beer.