My grandmother, Elizabeth McGuinness, passed away on June 18th, 2020. The below essay, dedicated to her, was written a month or so before, when she was diagnosed with Covid-19 (which she, miraculously, survived). Until we meet again, Nani. We’ll love you forever.

My grandmother tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday. My Nani, who has been battling the relentless Alzheimer’s Disease for the last 15 years and who is currently in hospice care at a nursing home in New Jersey, is also COVID-19 positive, with no symptoms. It’s very likely she’ll be one of the lucky ones who survive this, yet will have no idea that she did.

Elizabeth “Liz” McGuinness, lovingly dubbed “Nani” by her five grandchildren, three girls and two boys, was born Elsa Yolanda Mercedes Lozano de Ibanez, on March 25, 1939 in Bogota, Colombia, to a single mother. They moved to Barranquilla, where she lived for the first part of her childhood, before being brought over to join her mother, Beatrice, in New York City.

Not much was known of my grandmother’s patriarchal lineage, as the family was led to believe he died of yellow fever shortly after my grandmother was born, with my great-grandmother going so far as to wearing a wedding ring to prove her status as a widow to anyone who would ask. It wasn’t until the last decade that we found out that this was an elaborate falsification – and that Elsa/Liz was, in fact, the product of a love affair between my great-grandmother and a soldier in the Colombian army. Our knowledge of this side of our family is continuously evolving as we uncover more about my great-grandfather, a man that had always been a mystery, and whose relatives still reside both in the US, and in my grandmother’s birthplace.

By age 17, Elsa had changed her name to Elizabeth and married my grandfather, James McGuinness, a white, blue-eyed American who was proud of his Irish heritage. She gave birth to three children, all girls, who were raised in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. My mother, Deborah, was the oldest of the trio born in 1957, followed next by Karen, and then Kelly. We’ve grown up hearing stories of our young, glamorous grandmother, a beautiful 60’s housewife who craved attention and famously loved mowing the lawn in her bikini for everyone to see. No one loves a good tan as much as Nani, a trait she has passed down to me, her eldest granddaughter.

By 1974, my grandmother had embarked on the next chapter of her life: the work force. Liz was a hustler. She worked hard to earn what she wanted in life, and as an immigrant who proudly became an American citizen in 1960, living out the American Dream, owned her own home and supported herself financially. My grandparents were divorced by this point, and she would work three jobs, clocking out from one to clock into another. This lifestyle would continue for decades to come.

When I think of my Nani, I prefer to think of an endless array of clothes, and suntan lotion, of her beehive hair-do and lightning bugs. I think of us sitting on the beach in Long Beach Island, a Jersey Shore unlike anything MTV has ever shown, eating long, stringy potato chips out of the canister on the sand. I think of us all sitting in the backyard of my Aunt’s house during the sticky East Coast summer, with my sister, my cousin and I running around the backyard, while the adults maintained a watchful eye. I think of her driving – she always loved to drive, and she would always be the one to transport us to and from the airport every time we would visit. I think of her ringing the doorbell on Christmas Eve to surprise my sister and me: a Christmas miracle, really, and a vision I’ll never forget. I think of the scent of mothballs that forever wafted through her house, I think of mosquito repellent, I think of us watching VHS movies at night curled up in her messy bedroom, and of her love for a good discount at the local store. When I think of my Nani, I think of my childhood. They are synonymous; they are one and the same.

By the time I was in High School, the words “dementia” and “Alzheimer’s” were already becoming regulars in the vocabulary for our family, but at that point, I don’t think I ever really understood their meaning. After my Aunt Kelly passed in 2007, my grandmother began to decline, the grief and stress of losing her youngest child accelerating her disease. Despite our loss, we still had a version of our Nani, even if she started to forget things here and there.

Once I got to college, Nani moved in with us full-time in California, into the spare room in the house. My Mom turned taking care of my grandmother into her full-time job, devoting hours of her day to driving Nani to various doctor appointments, and keeping an eye on her to make sure she stayed in check. I still lived at home and when Mom needed a break, I made sure Nani was observed and kept entertained. My go-to outing with her during those days was taking her to the local thrift store, where she would obsessively check the tags of every piece of clothing and would only buy ones that were discounted.

From my perspective, as someone who didn’t go to any of the doctors appointments and who wasn’t privy to any of the minute details of the progression of her disease, Nani declined slowly, at first. She would mix up my name with her dead dog’s; she would hit on my boyfriend and tell him he should be hers instead of mine. She would obsessively shoplift greeting cards every time she could get her hands on them, and then after that, would consistently be found raking the leaves on the front yard (even when no leaves were left). She would either forget where she left her dentures or leave them on the kitchen table while we ate dinner, she would steal jewelry out of our jewelry boxes and hide it in places where they would never be found, she would throw trash down the toilet, she would become aggressive with my sister when she didn’t get her way.

The decision was finally made to move Nani back to New Jersey, where she was eventually put into a home for 24/7 professional care. In August of 2018, it was announced to the family that she was being admitted into hospice, where, miraculously, she has survived through present day. This is the nursing home where she still resides, and where she has contracted COVID-19.

I don’t talk about my Nani much with my friends now, as an adult, preferring just to tell them she’s “in a home in New Jersey”, as it’s all too hard and emotional to explain, because how do you tell someone that your grandmother is alive, but not really, and she’s living through a reality you would never wish on anyone? Childhood friends I grew up with know the situation, know who she was and understand the reality of how she is now.

But other than that, how do you explain to someone else that when you go to see your grandmother, you sit and talk to someone who is completely incapable of responding, and that the only sound that you hear is the sound of your voice, and your mother’s and your aunt’s, and the greenroom is too hot, and it smells like the stale scent of nursing home food, and you constantly have to look to know where the box of tissues is, just in case it all becomes too much to handle and you need to mop up the tears that are suddenly sneaking up on you again?

It’s a wild thing, to witness someone revert backwards and to witness the decline firsthand. It feels unnatural to have to watch someone die slowly, while they’re still alive, and to have to say good-bye to someone every time you see them, fully expecting that it’s going to be the last time you get to do so. I’ve said good-bye to my grandmother a handful times. The final farewell, in repeat, with photos as evidence of an encounter that will never be shared, as she’s currently in a body she never would’ve wanted people to remember her in. It’s all too hard to explain, unless you’ve lived through it. Unless you’ve been a loved one, squeezing the hand of someone who has no idea who you are.

I prefer to recall the version of our Nani who would let us lick the cake batter off the mixing bowl, or who can still be seen on her beloved beach at the Jersey Shore, her brown, weathered body glistening with sweat and tanning oil in the summer sun, versus the empty version of her that currently lays in the bed in New Jersey.

And yet somehow now, in the midst of a global pandemic, she’s been given another blow: a positive COVID-19 test and….now what. How do you deal with this when your grandmother doesn’t even realize the hysteria that’s going on around her; when she doesn’t even know her own name? I’ve filled in some friends, more to tell someone, because internalizing big news can be detrimental, but what’s there for them to say besides, “I’m sorry.” How do you sum up the life of an extraordinary, determined woman, who has become a shell of a human being, who has now been diagnosed with one of the worst viral diseases we’ve seen in over 100 years?

One thing is for certain, without a doubt: Elizabeth McGuinness has fought and earned a life that she so greatly cherished, with her children and her grandchildren by her side, an individual who is loved beyond measure. Our Nani is a woman who forged her way into her own version of the American Dream: damn proud of what she accomplished for herself and the life she was able to provide for her family.

Still, somehow, she’s existing in a perpetual dreamland, a never-ending limbo, where no one can reach her. It’s up to her to finally decide it’s time to make the final leap into the sky, a heaven that I hope is filled with pristine beaches and Frank Sinatra tunes, where she will no doubt be trailed by the magic of those lightning bugs that we all used to chase together on those sticky summer nights, and with her signature scent: an odd but beloved mixture of perfume, tanning oil and mothballs, being left in her wake for us all to remember her by.