PERSONAL ESSAY

Rapture in the Zoom

Like a glitch in a Zoom call, where people often disappear without warning, my brother died abruptly at home, alone

By Nancy McCabe
Published September 25, 2021 7:30PM (EDT)
Improvised desk on the balcony, with a wooden table, a digital tablet and headphones (Getty Images/Sol de Zuasnabar Brebbia)
Improvised desk on the balcony, with a wooden table, a digital tablet and headphones (Getty Images/Sol de Zuasnabar Brebbia)

During the first July of the pandemic, my brother died on the floor of his living room in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Already for months we'd been reminded via Zoom how people can disappear in a blink. Thunder cracks and bulbs darken. Suddenly, faces freeze, startled, as if Mt. Vesuvius had just erupted and they'd caught their first sight of falling ash. My last conversation with my brother was via text. My last update about my brother was via Facebook. I found his body by calling the police in Tulsa and requesting a welfare check, so technically, they're the ones who found him. He was on the floor, the officer told me two hours later. The living room floor. It looked like he'd collapsed while heading to the kitchen for a snack.

On Zoom, people are often abruptly snatched away: one taken, the rest left, like the rapture. My brother disappeared like someone fading into cyberspace, caught between breakout rooms. My younger brother drove from Kansas to Tulsa that night to close up the house. "It was like a crime scene," he said. I pictured yellow tape, chalk outlining the shape of a body. You forget, from a distance, about the messiness of death.

As I made plans to drive to Tulsa from Pennsylvania, that image repeated in my mind: my brother falling, my brother lying there for who knows how long, moments, hours, days, his frantic cat pawing at him.  Did he know he was dying? Did he suffer? Did he try to call for help? It was hard to bear this thought. To imagine the waiting, the hoping, the dawning of understanding. What was I doing those last hours as my constant, my closest of kin, the brother who frustrated and exasperated and entertained and amused me, quietly left this earth?  

Sometimes on Zoom, movements turn jerky like stop-motion claymation, or supermodels freezing into sequences of seductive poses. Or eyes and cheeks and mouths dissolve into a series of squares. And then the people shapeshift back to themselves, back to fluid human movement, like nothing ever happened. So I think about my brother, maybe this was a mistake, maybe that wasn't actually him, maybe he's actually in a hotel or hospital somewhere, maybe this was a practical joke, maybe it was just a brief blip of the internet.

But often on Zoom, when people freeze the internet fails to recover, and they are abruptly zapped away, wiped from the screen, with everyone else's squares rearranging and enlarging to take their place.

My younger brother and cousins arrived in Tulsa before me. I drove up to what looked like a garage sale, furniture crowding the driveway. "It smelled pretty bad," said a cousin. "We just wanted to get it out of the house."

For some reason, I thought he meant everything smelled like cat pee. The first thing I noticed, walking into the sweltering living room, was the big black stain on the hardwood floor. It was the first thing anyone would notice, but we all carefully avoided staring at it. I knew it was the place where my brother had fallen and died, but I couldn't quite process that stain, the idea that death is this messy thing that leaves behind its imprint in wood. I kept imagining there had been an overflowing litter box here, or that the cat was so distressed that she peed and pooped everywhere. My cousin's new wife, an RN, told me that she'd cleaned up the floor. I said, "Oh, thank you for cleaning up the cat poop," and she exchanged a glance with her husband.

My cousin said gently, "It wasn't from the cat. There was blood and tissue everywhere."

His wife had paused to retch as she scrubbed up blood, a piece of an ear. "I'm not immediate family, I didn't know him that well," she told me. "I didn't want any of you to have to do it. I did it as respectfully as possible." It looked like he pitched forward, she said, hit his head on the tile, split it open.

So did he stumble, did his legs go out, did he sustain a head injury, did he have a stroke, a low blood sugar episode, a heart attack?  Did the blow to the head take him out right away? Did the cat wander around crying as fluids seeped into the floorboards?

We are all only one fall from our lives changing forever, one of my boyfriend's sisters said recently. Though I am younger, I too have a terror of falling. About ten days before she died, my mom fell inside the train station where she'd arrived to visit me. For so many people — my step-grandma, my boyfriend's father, a friend who was energetic into her 80s — a fall is the beginning of the end.  

Almost six months before my brother fell in his living room and died, I fell and broke my arm. I'd been tubing, only moments before pummeling down an icy lane in an inner tube that slipped and skittered from side to side, threatening to plunge into an adjoining lane. The cold felt brutal, the wind like a wall my head kept bashing into until I was dizzy, my heart pounding. I was desperate to stop, go inside, warm up. The inner tube cruised to a halt, but when I stood, my peripheral vision disappeared. Blackness closed in. My feet hit unpredictable every-which-way ridges of ice and I went slamming down. My left arm shot out to catch me.

After my brother's death, the funeral home was hushed, solemn and serious. Death during COVID is so complicated, most of the usual rituals impossible. Time Magazine reported that Jewish people couldn't sit shiva together, mourners had to skip the Islam ritual of washing the body, Catholic priests had to settle for drive-through funerals. A friend stranded in Spain read to her father for eight hours over Zoom at his deathbed in Nebraska, just kept reading until he took his last breath.

I couldn't imagine a funeral that would be appropriate for my brother, who would have rolled his eyes at stately music and weeping mourners. If he were here, he'd have made a joke. The whole idea of a funeral seemed tonally wrong and overcomplicated, shipping his body back to Kansas and then deciding who would be allowed to attend in masks, properly distanced, so as not to exceed space limitations. My little brother and I agreed that we weren't going to do that, nor were we going to do a formal ceremony online, a laptop screen facing a gravesite. We decided on cremation.

Six months before, I'd raised my face from the snow and said to my boyfriend, "I can't get up." But at the top of the hill, a row of figures in bright puffy coats waited poised to barrel toward me, and panicked, I struggled back onto my feet. I couldn't move my arm. I couldn't move my fingers. My arm was crumpled and a dazzling field of snow spread around me, the lodge an impossible six feet away. I grabbed for a fencepost. It was just a flimsy stake holding a flimsy net marking off tubing lanes. If I took a step, I was going to fall again. My world had abruptly, senselessly narrowed from a long list of projects and tasks and plans to a desperate need to take a few steps through this dizzy whirling pixilated excruciating pain.

Someone slid an inner tube under me and dragged me to the lodge, out of harm's way.

A couple of weeks after my fall, I asked my big brother, "Didn't Dad have some kind of vertigo issue? Some inner ear problem?" He didn't remember. He wasn't that interested in talking about it. Maybe he knew he had bigger issues.

Sitting at a card table a few feet from the black stain on the floor, we all — my little brother, my big brother's best friend, my cousins — speculated, as you do after a death, needing to bear witness somehow to the last hours of a life. What exactly was my brother doing? Had the TV been on when the police arrived? Packages and books had been piled all over the couches and chairs, so where had my brother been sitting? Where had he been sleeping in the oppressive heat? A cousin told me that there was a recliner by the wall under the air conditioner, that maybe he was napping there before he rose. My brother's friend said no, my brother had probably just gone to that end of the room to plug in his phone, was turning to clear a place on the couch but fell before he got there.

I wonder about his last thoughts. Did his body seize? Did he feel a sharp pain through his chest and down his arm? Did he grab his chest, gasping? Stagger sideways, go down, like a character on TV having a heart attack? Or did his head go light the way mine does when I'm dizzy and suddenly the earth tilts and rocks like a ship in a storm? How long did he lie there? The idea that it might have been hours or even days was agonizing.

My little brother insisted that he'd tried to crawl across the floor to his phone just three feet away. My little brother swore that there were handprints on the floor, scratches in the stains as if it had been clawed by fingernails. A cousin said no, he was likely gone before he hit the floor. Or maybe he died when he cracked his head on the bricks. There was, after all, so much blood. No, there wasn't that much blood, another cousin said.

I pictured my brother's phone plugged in a couple of feet from where he fell. I imagined the texts beeping in. The phone ringing a few feet from where he lay. Me, my younger brother, my brother's boss, the phone ringing and ringing, chiming and dinging.

I was back at work the next week, in Zoom meetings with cameras and mics mostly turned off, so the screen felt like a cemetery, rows of rectangular gravestones with names carved on them. I resumed Zoom gatherings with friends, where it looked like you were studying others when you were really just looking at yourself. When you trained your gaze on the faces of others, your eyes instead seemed downcast, lost in daydreams. I hosted a Zoom memorial for my brother, thinking about how when you stared into the camera, that white pinpoint of light, it appeared that you were looking others right in the eye. And yet you weren't looking at them at all. You were peering into a mythical beyond, the abstract blinding light of the afterlife.

Being on Zoom is like being outside of your own body, watching yourself from a distance. It was sometimes a shock to find myself rapidly returning to mine. Like when a mild stress reaction while calling the probate attorney or getting a COVID test before a procedure at the hospital suddenly escalated until I was so tight and tense I felt locked into place. As if my body was preparing itself to fight or flee, muscles forming an armor, rigid as steel. It could happen unexpectedly, like when I went to the bank to open an estate account. The bank officer insisted I put down the word "Executrix" next to my name. Young, clean-shaven, tie knotted at his throat, he even helpfully spelled the word executrix for me. I followed his directions even though the word made me feel demure, like a minx-like female named Trixie up to my wily feminine tricks, and I wished I'd just written, instead, the more active-voice, more decisive executor, or the more accurate representative. Afterward I felt wracked with tension, like someone at war with herself, telling myself that none of this mattered, really, in the face of death. In the midst of wondering if my brother suffered, if he knew in those final moments, or hours, or days, what was happening to him.

The medical examiner's report came back. There had been no attempt to determine a time of death. My brother's death was attributed to hypertensive atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease. I closed out bank accounts and claimed life insurance and stopped car insurance payments and tracked down a storage unit in Ohio. I sorted through credit card bills listing every purchase of restaurant food while my brother was on the road, every subscription service he'd belonged to. I gathered checks, signed Nancy McCabe, Executrix, and turned them over to the estate account. One day in the mail I got a bill from an urgent care clinic for a visit three or four weeks before my brother had died. I asked for his records, hoping to learn something new, but it turned out he'd gone in for leg muscle pain. In the end, I had to accept how little I would ever know about my brother's final hours.

But sometimes I still wondered, retreating to my backyard after hours suspended in that strange out-of-body experience that is Zoom during the pandemic. That summer, for the first time ever, I'd planted things, and now I sat among my crazy tangles of oregano and mint, chives and parsley, my spurting strands of fountain grass, my wilting lettuce, the tickseed's yellow flowers, the complicated green heads of the stonecrop, some hanging pots of geraniums that bloomed pink and red. On those breaks from the computer, the phone, the endless paperwork and details and tasks that follow a death, I swung, gazing out at the looming trees in the wood beyond my yard with their spooky draping layers of pine needles and drooping, weeping branches. There was something peaceful about staring into all of that green.

Next August, I would be older than my older brother would ever be, I calculated. I stared off into the trees ruffled by a light breeze, thinking about my brother's fall, remembering the day I broke my arm. How as I lay, face planted in snow, it felt like I was in a long dark tunnel, and nothing mattered, nothing, nothing that I'd thought was important only moments before. As the blackness crowded my brain, it seemed so easy to just let it.

My friend whose father died in Nebraska while she Zoomed with him from Spain told me that he, too, had fallen and lain for days before someone found him and whisked him to the hospital. She too was haunted by the hours that he lay alone on the floor, but later he didn't remember it as hours, didn't remember feeling frantic or terrified. Time compacts during such emergencies, my friend told me. And now, looking back, it's as if my own winter fall, despite all of the pain and inconvenience that had accompanied it, had been a kind of gift. Had shown me that with the urgency of all-consuming pain comes a kind of peace, a knowledge that you can die right then and there without resistance or regret. Shock provides insulation against panic and despair, hastens some semblance of acceptance.  

So maybe this insight was accurate, or maybe it was just one of those beliefs that helped me find comfort. Maybe it was one of those illusions, like how my brother and I joked as children about the miniature people inside the TV. An illusion like the home movies where my brother still appears to be alive as he blows out birthday candles or sits in a corner of the couch with a book propped in front of his face. An illusion like how when I watch my own image on a screen, I appear to be real, when in actuality I am nothing but pixels and soundwaves.


Nancy McCabe

Nancy McCabe is the author of six books, most recently the memoirs "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" and "From Little Houses to Little Women: Revisiting a Literary Childhood." She teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford and for the School of Creative and Professional Writing at Spalding University. Follow her on Twitter at @nancygmccabe or learn more about her work at nancymccabe.net.

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