A Life Well-Lived Offers Guidance for Moving Forward after COVID

Andre Dubus III and his mother-in-law Mary

By Andre Dubus III

One night not long after dinner, my mother-in-law’s voice came over the intercom, and she sounded weak. “Can you guys come down? I fell. Twice.” My wife and I and our son, Austin, pulled on our masks and hurried down to Mary’s apartment, where we found her slumped in her kitchen chair in her robe, her head resting on her arms. Her face was pale and in a slightly wavering voice she told us how she fell off her step stool trying to pull her window shade down, that she hit her dining room table and then the floor only to get back up and climb that stool and fall the same way again. While my son and I helped Mary to the living room, Fontaine told her mother that she should have called us to help with the shade, though she said this in a warmly teasing voice for we all knew that Mary, even at 98, preferred to do things on her own. Then Mary said: “But you people don’t come down here anymore.” 

She was right. We were two months into the pandemic, and except for when I brought her groceries while wearing a mask and sanitized gloves, we rarely went down there at all. 

But it wasn’t always this way. 

In her first years living with us, I’d start my day by standing on the exterior steps leading to my front door and wait for Mary to come to her kitchen window. She lived on the first floor of our house, my wife and I and our three kids living in the floors above, and after I’d driven them to school, after I’d parked my truck in the gravel driveway of our home in the woods, I’d pause on those steps. 

Mary would usually see or hear me pull in, but if she was finishing washing her breakfast dishes at the sink, then I would wait for her. Even if it was raining or snowing. Even if I needed to get inside and get to work. Because when Mary appeared at that window, it was like starting my day with some sort of blessing. 

She was a small woman, and when she smiled her hazel eyes became two upside down crescent moons, her lovely face suffused with warmth, this life-loving, first generation Greek American from Boston who had not only given me my wife but had also become one of my dearest friends on this earth. She’d wave and blow me a kiss, and I’d do the same. If I were wearing a hat, I’d take it off and give her a deep bow, which always made her laugh. 

At the bank where she’d worked part-time as a teller until she was 80 years old, they called her Sunshine Mary. She appreciated this nickname but seemed genuinely confused about why she was given it. For those of us who knew her, however, there was no confusion. Because no matter whom Mary was talking to, whether it was a wealthy customer or someone just getting by, whether it was the bank president or the young janitor emptying the trash can near Mary’s window, she turned that radiant smile on everyone, and the thing is, she meant that smile. 

In the 15 years she lived with us she would say to me many times, in that strong Boston accent she’d had since the 1920s, “Oh Andre, I don’t think it costs anyone to be nice. I take people as they are.” 

When my wife Fontaine and I decided to build an in-law apartment into our home for her aging parents, I did not foresee how much daily joy they would bring to our lives, especially Mary. She was 84 years old when she and her husband George moved downstairs, but you would never know it. She did her own grocery shopping and cooking and cleaning. On Monday mornings she volunteered at the soup kitchen at her church, feeding men and women who quickly grew to love Mary as much as her bank customers had. On Monday nights she went to choir practice, for she’d been singing in her church choir since she was a teenager, and on Wednesdays she volunteered at a domestic violence prevention agency where she answered the telephone and stuffed envelopes and shredded documents and always walked in there with that smile and often her homemade baklava. On Fridays she’d drive to my wife’s dance studio and sign in the ladies who took Zumba class, many of whom said they came to class mainly to see Mary. 

Every holiday, Sunday dinner, or house party—of which my wife and I hosted many—Mary would walk up the interior stairs from her apartment, knock once on the glass-paneled door, then enter with that smile. She’d be in a perfect outfit for whatever occasion it was, mainly dresses and blouses and sweaters of all colors, her jewelry matching, her hair just right, and even if our kids didn’t see her right away, they seemed to sense that their grandmother was in the house and they’d all go to her, hugging and kissing her and saying, “Hi, Yia Yia!” 

For the dinners Mary would help Fontaine set the table, and she’d help me with appetizers or anything else that needed doing. My wife’s a modern dancer and so many of those house parties were cast parties after performances, and while Fontaine would be finishing up at the theater, Mary and I would get the house ready, both of us in aprons, jazz playing, the tinkling of ice and glasses as I set up the bar, Mary cutting up carrots and celery and blocks of cheddar, and all the while she and I would talk about whatever came up — how I bought too many meatballs again, though she’d point this out with that smile. We’d talk about how wonderful Fontaine’s show was, and Mary would say how she loved to brag about her “multitalented daughter.” We’d talk about anyone in our families who might be suffering in some way, a subject that always made Mary reflective and momentarily quiet, for above all else she hated to see or hear of the suffering of her fellow human beings. 

Old photo of woman and GI
When her husband, George, had a hip replacement, it was Mary who tended the wound, and it was Mary who got him out of the rehab facility she was convinced was killing him. Then, after five years of living with us and after nearly 68 years of marriage, Mary’s husband George died in his sleep at age 90, and now for the first time in her life she lived alone. 

Fontaine and our kids would go down to her apartment and visit her, usually after dinner when Mary was watching her game shows. Grieving or not, she’d turn that lovely smile on them and talk over whatever show she was watching, her favorite being “Jeopardy.” If I wasn’t out of town or busy with schoolwork, I would go down there, too, though every Friday night I’d visit her without fail and the two of us would scratch lottery tickets, winning very little over the years but not losing much either. Mary would turn the TV to one of the music channels, one that played Big Band music from the ’40s, and she and I would finish our gambling and sit back and talk about our weeks, about my three kids and her four grown kids, about her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. About her late husband, George. 

When the pandemic came, we’d keep the news on mute and as the numbers of the infected grew, as the numbers of the dead grew, Mary would often be close to tears. “Oh, those poor people, Andre. Their poor families.” 

She was now 98 years old, but she still cooked her own meals and cleaned her apartment and did her laundry. She still drove herself to buy her groceries, though in the last few years she’d been asking the teenage baggers to put less in each bag so that she could carry them, a request I’m sure she made with that smile. 

I don’t remember the moment we asked Mary to stop going to public places like grocery stores, but I do remember her quiet resignation about it. “But Andre, I worry about you doing the shopping. Are you careful?” 

I was careful, though Mary was not. When I walked into her kitchen carrying her grocery bags, my mask on, gloves on my hands, Mary would walk right up to me to take a bag and I’d have to tell her to please stay back. 

“But I need to pay you. Do you have the receipt?” I’d thank her and ask her to stand in the hallway while I put the receipt on her table where she could leave the money, which I then told her I’d come get after she left the room. She did all this, though she seemed to think I was being too cautious, or maybe it wasn’t that. Maybe it was something else. Many times over the years she’d say to me, “Oh Andre, I’ve lived my life. I worry about you people.” 

We were in full lockdown now: all of our town’s restaurants were shuttered; Fontaine’s dance studio was closed; and I was now teaching all my UML classes online. As the numbers of the sick and dying kept rising and rising from coast to coast, we stopped going down to Mary’s apartment altogether. One Friday night in early spring when I would normally be downstairs with her, sitting under the lamplight together scratching our tickets and talking and laughing, I called down on the intercom and said I didn’t think we should do that for a while. 

“You think so?” 


“But why?”

“We don’t want you to get sick, Mary. We love you.”

“I love you, too.” Though she sounded far away when she said it. 

Summer came, and we could visit with Mary on her front porch, though we would sit many feet apart and not linger for too long, and except for when I delivered her groceries, we hardly went inside her home at all. Now tens of thousands of people had died, and Mary, who no longer volunteered at her church’s soup kitchen because it was closed, who no longer sang in the choir either, who now had no office to go to or the dance studio, who couldn’t even get out of the house to shop and run errands, she became quiet and withdrawn. 

I’d stand at that kitchen window and talk to her through the glass, but even though she still gave me that smile it seemed to rise up from a well of sadness. 

Late at night, Fontaine and I would talk about how important it was to keep Mary from getting the virus, yes, but wasn’t it also important to keep her from dying of loneliness? Because that’s what seemed to be happening right there in our house. 

The morning after she fell trying to lower that shade, her doctor paid her a visit at her living room window, and later that day one of our nieces, a newly licensed physical therapist, examined her, too. It was clear that Mary had fractured her ankle and now she could no longer do her own cooking or cleaning or laundry, and so instead of staying upstairs and away from Mary, for weeks we took turns going down there at least four times a day: at seven in the morning to help her roll her walker to the kitchen for breakfast, then back to her living room and her husband’s old recliner, where Mary would elevate her ankles and we’d ice and wrap her foot; at lunch and then dinner; and then later, one of us would help her to bed, and all the while we’d be masked but talking to her and listening to her, and despite her pain and discomfort, despite her constant apologies to us for needing help, apologies we would always tell her were not necessary because we enjoyed helping her, Mary’s life-loving smile returned, as did her warm presence. 

In this time of such fear and isolation, of such hardship and daily loss, Mary falling off that stool seemed like the best thing that could have happened to her. 

In June, Mary no longer needed her walker or even a cane and she turned 99 years old. Fontaine invited friends and family to drive up to our house to celebrate Mary from their cars, and I rented a tent for shade and set out chairs under it for close family. Mary wore a gold crown and had big helium balloons tied to the arms of her chair, and even though she wasn’t a drinker, I mixed her a Pina Colada with fresh pineapple while Austin played Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Big Band music on the sound system. 

Over the course of that afternoon, the sun high over us all, 35 carloads of friends and family drove down our long driveway then into the yard in a wide arc that brought them within feet of Mary, their horns honking, many of the cars decorated with glitter and balloons and hand-held signs wishing her a happy 99th birthday as they shouted out their open windows, “We love you, Mary!” 

And Mary’s legendary smile had never been brighter. She kept dabbing at her eyes and saying, “I can’t believe it. All these people. I just can’t believe it.” 

The next morning, I called down to Mary’s apartment, which was filled with bouquets and floating balloons and over fifty birthday cards. I asked her how she was feeling. 

“Oh Andre, last night I cried myself to sleep.” 

“Why, Mary?” 

“I just feel so happy.” 

Twelve days after that party, I woke with a bad feeling I couldn’t shake. Instead of going straight to my writing room, I carried my coffee out to my porch, something I rarely did, and looked down at Mary’s kitchen window. Every morning she would pull that window’s shade up at just before seven, but now, close to nine, it was still covering the glass, and now I was running down the back stairs to her apartment, jerking my mask on as I hurried down the hall to her bedroom. All her shades were drawn there too and she was still under her covers from the night before. I called her name, but she could not answer. 

We would lose her a few days later, though it was not the virus that took her; it was just her body giving out after nearly a century of life, a rich, people-loving life. And if Mary has taught me nothing over the years, especially after watching her endure what we’ve all been enduring, this lovely woman born just three years after the Spanish Flu, she has taught me this: We need one another. We need to spend time in each other’s company. And we need to treat each other with respect and with kindness. 

After over a year of so much loss, we’re beginning to sense a break in the trees of this dark forest we’ve been wandering through, our faces covered, our bodies far from the touch of another. And so once it’s truly safe, let’s take off those masks and turn to one another, and let’s smile. And let us, like Mary, mean that smile. 

For everyone. Whomever they are.

A full-time professor in the English Department at UMass Lowell, Andre Dubus III's seven books include The New York Times' bestsellers "House of Sand and Fog," "The Garden of Last Days," and his memoir "Townie." His most recent novel, "Gone So Long," has been named on many "best books" lists, including The Boston Globe's "Twenty Best Books of 2018." Dubus has been a finalist for the National Book Award, and has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, The National Magazine Award for Fiction, two Pushcart Prizes and is a recipient of an American Academy of Arts and Letters in Literature. His books are published in over 25 languages.