I Reconnected With My Nephew After 30 Years — But He Died of Covid Before We Met

Illustration of a woman in a graveyard

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 I still get teary-eyed thinking about what could have been.

As we hit the two-year anniversary of Covid taking over the U.S., we asked Wake-Up Call readers to tell us their personal stories with the virus. This subscriber’s experience resonated with us, and we hope it does with you, too.

In 2009, I lost my brother Frank. We’ve been close my whole life — we loved fishing together, and he even lived with me for a while. Then the worst happened.

One morning, my husband went to pick up Frank for work, just like he always did, but no one was there. A neighbor came over and said an ambulance had just been at the house. Frank had a heart attack caused by chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). I never got to see him again.

In 2018, COPD took my husband, too. That was incredibly hard, and it took me a long time to recover enough to get back out into the world. My family has endured a lot of loss and pain. It’s made us empathetic, but it still takes a toll. 

In the midst of coping with those feelings, something completely unexpected happened: In August 2019, I got a Facebook message from a man asking if I was related to Frank. “Yes,” I said, “I’m his sister. Why do you ask?” He said, “I’m John, his son.”

I hadn’t seen my nephew since he was 14 years old. He didn’t have the best relationship with his dad, and after Frank and his wife divorced, I lost touch with John. When Frank died, I looked for John for the longest time. I wanted him to know what happened to his father, but I could never find him. And now, here he was, 46 years old and finally back in the picture.

John had been looking for his dad when he found the obituary. Then he tracked me down and we took it from there. How do you catch up after more than 30 years? We shared pictures and updates — everything we could. He wanted to know about his father’s sickness, and I wanted to know what he’d been up to all this time. He’d spent 20 years in the Marines, and now he was living in Virginia and running a furniture business. 

Even though I was hundreds of miles away in Florida, John wanted to get together as soon as possible. I said, “As soon as we can synchronize it, we will.” In the meantime, we stayed in touch over text. We both looked forward to finally meeting in person, when we could really catch up and make up for the time we lost. But even texting was special to me. I didn’t have Frank anymore, and John was an extension of him. I thought, This is like having a piece of my brother back.

A few months later, I was planning to celebrate my birthday, which is on New Year’s Day. So on Dec. 31, 2019, I went for a manicure and pedicure. When I walked into the salon, the employees had gloves and masks on. I asked someone what was going on, and she said, “There’s a virus in my country, and it’s here in your country, too.” I didn’t know what she was talking about. 

When I went out for my birthday, I was so excited and happy. Finally, some relief from my husband’s death — I felt very optimistic about my future. Then in March, Covid hit.

My little brother lives with me — he has Down syndrome and moved in after our mother died. After Covid, we became pretty much like hermits, though we got vaccines as soon as they were available. The rest of my family didn’t, including my nephew John. I didn’t want to push him on masking or vaccinations. I’ve had so much turmoil in my family since Trump, so now I don’t bring up politics. I didn’t know John’s affiliation, and I didn’t want to go there. 

The pandemic was raging on for months, and we still couldn’t see each other. I wasn’t ready to go out. But I cherished the messages we continued sending back and forth.

In August 2021, I hadn’t heard from John in a while and it worried me. When I got in touch, he wrote back with alarming news. “Covid is kicking my ass,” he said. It turns out his girlfriend and her entire family had gotten sick, and John was the last one of them to catch the virus.

He told me which hospital he was in, so I called them. When I finally got through to a nurse, I said, “Look, I don’t know if you need next of kin or anything, but I’m his aunt. And in case of an emergency, or if you need someone to sign something, please call me.”

“He’s holding his own,” the nurse told me.

And then he took a turn for the worse. 

At the end of August, he told me he was “just going day by day.” One week later, on Sept. 3, I wrote to him again. “John, how are you doing?” I said. “Are you going home anytime soon?” 

I never got an answer.

On Sept. 4, 2021, John died of Covid-19 after a month-long fight. I found out because I received a friend request on Facebook from his girlfriend, who had just recovered from the virus herself. She posted the news, along with a collage of pictures of them together. 

I wept. I was devastated. I had this glimmer of hope — a living piece of my brother — and now, that fantasy was shattered. I still get teary-eyed when I think about the “coulda, woulda, shoulda.” I’d spent so long trying to find John, and now this is how it ended. What should I have done differently? What could have been if we’d had that chance to give one another a big hug?

I’ve lost five family members to Covid. It’s especially hard because they weren’t vaccinated. But even beyond the pandemic, over the last 13 years — since my brother Frank died — it seems like losing family members is all I’ve been dealing with. But I didn’t expect to lose my nephew. Not that young. 

I’m not telling you this to put out a sad story. The story is sad, but I don’t live in sadness. I try to find optimism everywhere. I only want to go forward, but you still have to deal with the present. So I have moments of being down, and I’m sure so many people who have lost their relatives to Covid do, too.

What’s next for me now? Well, since I was a teenager, I’ve always wanted to visit Paris. Back in 2012, I had everything ready to go. I was planning to spend my birthday there. And then my husband collapsed, so we put that on hold. But I’m trying again to get there.

I’m waiting for Covid to slow down, but I’m hoping I can make it this year. I just turned 69, and I want to celebrate whatever moments I can. My little brother just had a birthday, and even though he’s starting to show early signs of dementia, we had such a great time. It made me realize that I’ve been spending so much energy taking care of my brother and everything else that I’ve kind of forgotten about myself.

I haven’t had any moments of happiness in a long time, and that’s why I’m ready to go to Paris. I’ve got the luggage, and I’ve planned out everything I’m going to wear there. I just want something to look forward to.

The writer’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.