My own reaction surprised me—I broke down in tears.
“You know what… give me a moment.”
I stopped at the corner of Preston Street and tried the usual “take a deep breath” trick. I heard my sister doing the same 6,000 km away, in Paris.
My mom had just called her—my grandmother had found my grandfather unconscious at home. She had called the paramedics then my mom, who had just had the time to call my sister before rushing to the hospital, and my sister was now responsible for breaking the news to me.
There’s a lot of calling to be done when you live far from your relatives.
This was back in winter 2018. Against all odds, my beloved 89-year-old papi woke up from coma and was eventually discharged from the hospital. I saw him a lot when we travelled to France the past two summers—we’re very close, my mom’s parents live a five-minute walk from her place. He looked weaker, he moved slowly, but he was alive and well.
But this is how, two years ago, I suddenly realized that one day, I was bound to receive bad news by email and cry again over the phone, that one day I’ll go to sleep blissfully unaware of a situation happening in France only to learn about it several hours later when getting up.
Last February, papi was back at the hospital after another seizure. I was in Santos when I received the email and I called my mom right away. He was okay-ish physically but weak. We weren’t as alarmed as the first time and indeed, the situation sounded less dramatic. It would take time to recover but he had a strong heart.
“You gotta give it to mamie,” I joked, “she picked a reliable model 70 years ago!”
The following weeks were uneventful, albeit a logistical nightmare for my mom who was taking mamie to the hospital for visits and trying to convince her to accept the support of a caregiver when papi would be discharged.
Then COVID-19 happened and France was put on lockdown. Hospital visits were no longer allowed. My mom had the doctor on the phone several times a week and apparently, my mamie had managed to call papi a few times but it was tricky to get a nurse to bring him the phone—perfectly understandably, it’s not exactly a priority in hospitals.
Two weeks ago, my mom got a phone call from the hospital. “He has a bit of fever… we’re transferring him to another hospital for a COVID-19 test.”
Two days later, we learned he had tested positive. Oh, the irony… Long-term patients were sheltered from the outside world because of the pandemic but he caught it at the hospital.
It went downhill from here. Technically, he didn’t have the most severe form of COVID-19 with respiratory distress, but at 91 years old, even the flu would have been bad news.
I’ve been glued to the phone for the past three weeks. I feel powerless because I’m stuck in Ottawa—I never thought I’d be literally unable to travel to France for emergency. So I’ve been calling my mom every day for updates and to provide emotional support.
The lockdown is making everything more painful. My siblings and my only aunt are in Paris, so my mom got left with the dirty work, namely liaising with the hospital and making my mamie accept that this time, it could be the end.
It’s not easy to know that you will be the one telling your 89-year-old mother that her husband died.
For a week, we thought he may make it, then we understood he probably wouldn’t.
My mom and I started talking about all the practical aspects of death and dying, again made more complicated because of the lockdown. You can’t go buy new clothes, get flowers or just say goodbye properly.
One afternoon, I lost it just thinking that he would die alone without anyone to hold his hand, surrounded by people wearing protective equipment.
“I just… I need a moment, I’ll call you back,” I sobbed before hanging up on my mom.
Just before Easter weekend, we discussed where to bury him for a couple of hours.
“Mamie claims they never had the chance to talk about!” my mom said, half giggling because the statement was typically what you’d expect from my grandparents.
“Right, totally makes sense—after all, who even considers death at 90 years old these days?”
And then I came home because I’m making all these calls outside to be able to cry alone and for Mark’s sake—the whole COVID-19 situation and the partial lockdown are alarming enough for a seven years old, he doesn’t need to know yet about his great-grandfather dying. “Mommy, mommy, when can I do the Easter egg hunt?” And this is how, after wondering about the best cemetery in Nantes, I went to hide Easter eggs…
Last week we tried to solve another moral dilemma. The hospital had offered one final visit. No way we would even let mamie consider it, both because of potential contamination risks and the psychological challenge ahead. My mom didn’t seem too keen on it either. “Don’t feel bad about it,” I advised. “He isn’t conscious. If you want to go, do it, but it won’t change a thing.”
On Saturday, my brother managed to take the train from Paris to Nantes—after being questioned by the police forever…—because he wanted to see him one last time.
I called them both in the afternoon—turned out my mom went with him after all.
And while I was on Skype with the two of them, the phone rang.
“It’s the hospital,” my mom said. “This is…”
My brother and I remained silent while she was taking the call in the bedroom.
“Good timing for your visit,” I mused after a minute.
I could tell he was trying very hard not to cry and I was doing the same. I looked up to the sky. I was walking on Baseline, along the Experimental Farm—first warm day of the year in Ottawa.
“He passed away at 11:30 p.m.,” my mom reported. “It’s… yeah, 11:40 p.m. So ten minutes ago.”
“Are you telling mamie right away?”
We debated for a couple of minutes whether it was best to break the news late at night or early in the morning then agreed it was best to do it right away.
And before getting ready for the late-night visit, my mom went to call her sister, my brother went to call our sister and I called my dad because even though my parents are separated, papi was part of his life for forty years.
There’s a lot of calling when someone dies.
And typing this makes me giggles—“don’t spend too long on the phone,” papi would have said. “It’s expensive!”
And so ended the life of Michel Giannesini, 91 years old, former sound engineer, repairman and one of the first people to sell TVs in France in the 1950s. He is leaving behind his wife, two daughters, five grandchildren and one great-grandchild (yay Mark!), a basement full of old TVs and other random post-war technology that “could still be useful one day if I fix it,” and strong opinions about made in China products (“it’s just crap”).
He barely knew how to read and write because he never felt like learning but he could fix almost anything, albeit his way (read, not in a way that meets any acceptable current norms). He had wanted to be an airline pilot but never took a plane. He found the world fascinating and could talk about history for hours.
Last summer, he reminded me that life was short. “There’s no god or anything like that. It’s all bullshit. When that’s it… that’s it.”
Now if you’d excuse me, I’m gonna cry for a while.