We Hadn’t Planned to Die This Year
Lica and Zamfirică were married for over 50 years. They raised a family, built a home, and had a good life. Then the pandemic took him.
By Georgiana Ilie
Photos by Cătălin Georgescu
Reading time: 38 minutes
15 February 2022
This story was originally published in Romanian in November 2021. Read the Romanian version.
Romania passed the 50,000 COVID deaths milestone in October 2021. It’s an overwhelming number, therefore abstract. Behind it though, there are over 50,000 people and their life partners, parents, children and friends. What does this experience mean for them and for all of us? What did they leave behind? How much could these be our lives too?
Lica’s day started like any other day in the past six months. She woke up at six and stayed for one more hour under the duvet, watching the morning news on Antena 3. It’s the first Monday of October and the house is already cold at night, but she hasn’t started the fire in the terracota stove yet. When the day grew lighter, she got dressed and made her bed – an old-fashioned one with a glass cabinet that showcases pill bottles and many photos of her husband, Zamfirică, their daughter and son-in-law, Silvia and Cristi, and their niece, Andreea, who they raised together with their in-laws until she was in the second grade and her parents took her to Milan to live with them.
In a black vest over a striped sweater, black pants and a black beret from her vast collection of hats, the tiny woman went out in the morning cold. She let the chicken out of their coop; cleaned the waste from the pigsty and put it in a bag, where it would rot until spring, when she will use it to fertilize the garden; fed the 17 chickens, the two pigs, the dog and the two cats she says aren’t hers, but who she feeds anyway. She caught two of the four roosters she has – large birds with shiny black and brown feathers, that contrast with the tinier, ruffled hens –, immobilized them between her knees and, with a sharp knife, cut their throats. Then she scalded them, cleaned them of feathers and insides and left them in cold water. She had too many anyway and she needed two for the Saturday commemoration lunch.
Only then she opened the summer kitchen to have some breakfast and make coffee. Not using the espresso machine Silvia and Cristi brought from Italy, which sits on a cabinet by unopened pod boxes, but in a pot, on the stove, like always.
One cup, just like every other day these last six months. Not two, as she made for over 50 years, when every morning started next to her husband.
Lica (short for Vasilica) Ilie is 73 years old. She’s been living in Mirceștii Noi, a small village on the banks of Putna river, in Eastern Romania, since she was born. All her life she spent taking care of people. Of her two younger siblings, when she had to temporarily drop out of school to help her mother take care of the household. Of her family, when she married Zamfirică at 21, and they had Silvia.
Of the people in the village, after she went to sanitary school and became the nurse anyone can call at all hours for a shot, a hypertension or a body temperature reading. Of local elections, when she was part of the electoral observing committees. Even of the local football team, Mircești Hawks, when they had matches; Lica would spend two hours by the village stadium, ready to help in case of an injury. She describes herself, in jest: “I’ve done them all, except being a priest.”
She took care of Zamfirică too, when he started feeling weak, at the beginning of April 2021. He had never been sick or in the hospital up to the age of 75, when he had found himself investigated for colon cancer. The tests came back negative, but he was an anxious man and he had been emotionally drained by the experience. They called an ambulance on April 7, when he became more and more apathetic, “to give him an IV, to put him back on his feet”. The ambulance medic told him he was suspected of COVID-19, so they took him to the hospital, with a hurried bag with new pajamas and everything you need in the underfunded Romanian hospitals: cup, towels, toilet paper.
Zamfirică got into the ambulance, while all their neighbors watched, gathered in the street, as this was not an everyday event in their village, and said to Lica: “Come after me!”
That was the last time she saw him.
On Saturday, she will organize the six-month commemoration service – outside, in the backyard, with food to go – and a family lunch, with the in-laws coming from Focșani, a large town nearby, and, especially, Silvia and Cristi, who are returning from Milan.
She put orders in for the takeaway food at a restaurant that specializes in commemoration services (7 EUR/person) and for the commemorative cakes and loafs the priest will use in the service. She already had plates, cups, spoons, towels, candels, match boxes, and a ton of Italian sweets Silvia sent her, but she would rather share them in the commemoration service. She spoke to the priest, who serves the church right around the corner, built by the villagers, including Zamfirică and Lica, to come to the house on Saturday.
But there’s still so much more to do.
Starting Monday, she made the list with the 25 people invited to the service and started calling them on her old Nokia phone. She can’t see the screen very well, so she copied all the important phone numbers in a notebook. Its blue covers say, in capital letters, “Donors for the Mirceștii Noi church” and its pages are filled with both Zamfirică’s and her handwriting.
She took a break in the afternoon, when she laid in bed in silence, then she continued her work around the courtyard until sundown. She picked the last peaches from the garden, smashed some snails that had attacked her cabbages, then cut two fat, thick cabbages and put them in the freezer to soften them for the commemoration lunch. All her work took her between the garden and the summer kitchen, a room of about 25 square meters, with a tube TV that runs loudly on România TV (where today they talk of the motion of censure against the Cîțu government and the queues of ambulances in front of hospitals), a large table in the center and a blue curtain that hides the half of the room where, on well-organized shelves, sit supplies and utensils. This year, a modern cast iron stove with a glass front appeared here, so from now on it is no longer a “summer” kitchen, but an all seasons kitchen. But she still calls it so.
She had dinner at half past six and, after putting the chickens in their night coop, she entered the house. It’s a wagon-house, about six or seven rooms in a surprising maze which makes you forget where you left off. There are thick carpets all over the floor to keep you warm, rugs on the walls and lots of family photos. The house smells fresh and cold and the ticking of the big wall clocks in every room can be heard everywhere. Terracotta stoves are only in the first two rooms, which are also the first they have built. She sleeps in one of them, and in the other is her desk: a table on which she keeps her blue notebook, bills, holy bread, and holy water, from which she eats and drinks in the morning. At this desk, she talks to Silvia, on a smartphone that she doesn’t take out of the house.
Silvia called on WhatsApp several times until Lica heard the phone. When she saw that she had missed calls, she opened the notebook and read aloud what she had to do.
“Swipe… WhatsApp opens on Silvia… Tap the message, then the green arrow to send the message…”
She wrote that she hadn’t heard the phone and that she had it now, so Silvia called her right away. Her daughter calls her “my mommy” and phones her almost every day. She asked her if she was okay, how the preparations for the commemoration were going, what else to bring. She told her that their plane had been canceled, so they would come with another one, on Thursday night, to Bacău, and from there they would rent a car. And about Andreea, their 26-year-old daughter, who is preparing to graduate from the Faculty of Dentistry in early November, and that’s why she can’t come with them. She will have a graduation ceremony, then take the residency exam to obtain the right to practice medicine.
After the conversation with her daughter, Lica laid down in bed for the pleasure of every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday evening: the Turkish soap opera The Oath on Happy Channel. It’s a complicated love story, between a handsome man and a beautiful woman, whom his mother wants to kill. The characters are often quiet, but they have internal monologues about what they want or they talk it out with a parrot, but in the end, each episode, extended to two hours by frequent advertisements for drugs, takes the story further. It makes her laugh, revolt, emotional.
At 10, already dressed in her nightgown, she switched to Antena 3, where, at Sinteza Zilei (Daily Wrap-up), moderator Mihai Gâdea accused the former Minister of Health Vlad Voiculescu of selling the personal data of those who were tested for COVID to an NGO. Lica watches almost exclusively România TV and Antena 3. She likes that they have guests who say things as they see them, and she recognizes what happened to them too: lack of drugs in hospitals, doctors hiding information, abusive laws that increase prices to utilities.
“They’re going to kill us one day,” she said towards the TV, before scheduling it to turn off and lying in bed on her side with her eyes closed.
The next day, after the usual chores of the house and the courtyard, Lica prepared to go to Zamfirică’s grave.
At 10:30, she tied a five-liter plastic canteen to the back of the bicycle seat and went out the gate. She locked it and pulled the secret latches to make sure no one would go in, then hurried off on the bike. She uses it to travel anywhere in the village, and for longer distances or heavier things to carry, she takes the Dacia Sandero, which was driven more by Zamfirică.
The road to the cemetery is straight. The street, like all the ones in the village, is wide and well-kept, with good asphalt. Most houses have freshly painted or new fences and behind them you can see modern improvements: Lindab roofs, insulated windows, cubic-clad courtyards. It smells of ripe grapes everywhere.
You can also see abandoned houses and courtyards. “This house is 100 years old,” Lica tells me, pointing to one of them. “She died a long time ago and the house is leaning to the side, like that.” And the houses of the friends she sees and helps every day, even if they are new to the village: “Here the engineer bought it when it was just the structure, and he finished it” . And the houses of her relatives, who surround her on her side of the street: “Here is Zamfirică’s brother, but a son of his has rebuilt the house” .
She likes it where people have arranged their front gardens in a modern way, with stones and “those brown sticks from Dedeman” , that is, decorative mulch, so that you don’t have to water and clean weeds all day long. She wants to do the same in the cemetery. Some of the less modernized house have deep vertical cracks, a sign the village sits close to the epicenter of the Vrancea earthquakes.
At the first intersection, she saw a neighbor coming out of his yard.
“Michi, my place on Saturday at 10 to 12, yes? You won’t forget, will you? Thanks!”
The neighbor confirmed and Lica continued on her way. She stopped by the bakery, which sent her bread when she was quarantined in April, and said she regretted its closing.
Immediately after, you could see the church, large, new – built in a few years and consecrated in 2009, with the efforts and funding of the community, because the nearest church was in the next village, Mirceștii Vechi, across the river. Zamfirică kept the finances of the initiative, noting in the notebook all the donors and all the expenses, and she helped with the construction, going up the stairs to a height of six meters to pass on bricks. Most recently, they donated 2,000 lei (400 EUR) for the iconostasis, the wall that separates the nave from the altar, sculpted and painted with faces of saints.
In front of the church there is a heroes’ memorial, celebrating the fallen from the two world wars, erected because Zamfirică found a list with their names in the attic of one of their relatives. This is where Lica comes to service every Sunday, sings in the choir and is sometimes involved in food donation campaigns organized by the priest. In 2019, they both went to a poor community in Mărășești and donated food packages. The church also appears on Facebook as the site of the activities of a nationalist association, Calea Neamului, Mirceștii Noi Branch, but Lica and Zamfirică, as well as their neighbors and relatives, did not participate and are nowhere in the countless Facebook photos from the organization’s protests: anti-vaccine, anti-Hungarian or anti-restrictions.
The pandemic did not change their lifestyle too much, because they were able to do everything almost as before – working in the fields and in the yard, going to church, going to the doctors – although the village took first place in the county for infections in every wave so far. But it kept them away from Silvia and her family. Before, either the children came to Romania and went on vacations to different places in the country, together with Lica and Zamfirică and Cristi’s parents, or the parents went to Milan and visited the city with all its attractions, from the Dome to the San Siro stadium, a place of pilgrimage for football fans like Zamfirică.
2020 was the first year the children did not come, due to pandemic restrictions; but access to the vaccine had given Silvia hope that both pairs of grandparents would be able to come to Andreea’s ceremony in November 2021. They had an appointment for vaccination on March 25, but because they only found AstraZeneca and it was said that it produced blood clots, they wanted to do their annual checkups first, to know that they were not at risk.
On her way to the cemetery, she was stopped by a truck, which hit the branches of a walnut tree.
“Look how many have fallen!” Lica said as she approached. “If they’re on the ground anyway, it would be a shame … These trees make really good walnuts with a white core.” She started picking them up from the street and putting them in her pockets. You don’t waste resources.
The cemetery is across the road from that walnut. A new cemetery, on land donated to the locals by an uncle of Lica’s. Until its commissioning 17 years ago, the only cemetery was the one in Mirceștii Vechi. Their family was among the first to receive the plot here. Nobody pays a concession, everything is free.
Zamfirică’s grave is on the main alley, the first in a row of his brothers’ and sisters’ graves – there were nine children in all. He has a marble cross and fence, multicolored chrysanthemums and flowering petunias, and, on the side where he is buried, there are still more wreaths with plastic and paper flowers, slightly discolored by the sun, left over from the funeral.
“Here’s my husband… here’s my husband… here’s my husband, poor thing,” she repeated several times in a broken voice and began to cry. “This is not your place, man, this is not your place! Your place is at home, where we have everything we need.”
Wiping her tears, she replaced an exhausted red candle, which burned protected by the wind in a large glass and white metal lamp, ordered by Silvia on the internet. There is also a solar-powered candle, which lights up on its own every night. She watered the plants with water from the canteen, cleaned the grave of dried flowers and took them to the bin.
On the cross, there is a photo of Zamfirică from three years ago, when they were last in Milan. She chose this one because he smiles and wears a suit and tie, as he wore all his life when he went to events. On the cross hangs a heart-shaped laminated note, which is handwritten on one side: “Daddy, I miss you so much! God bless you!” And on the other: “Goodbye, dear angel”. It is written and hung by Silvia when they consecrated the cross in the summer. “In general, girls and their fathers… she was everything to Daddy, and Daddy was the same to her.”
They had the cross made when they received the lot, but the fence was made now in the summer, because she wanted something special. “My husband worked all his life, I wanted to respect him.” She shed tears again: “I wanted to respect him, but I can’t, I don’t know what to do for him. God, God, why did you take him? Those bastards… ”
She is upset with the personnel at the hospital in Adjud, she thinks they have not treated him properly and scared him. “How can one person die in three days? I can’t imagine that!” And even today, somehow, she doesn’t believe him dead, because she never saw him in the coffin. Some part of her is still waiting for him to return home.
The cemetery, where she is alone with her thoughts, is the place where she is struck every time by the realization that she is returning to an empty house. “It’s unacceptable to be alone. It’s one thing when you’re alone from the beginning, so you know you’re on your own, and another when you’re with your husband and look, one of you is no more.”
“This is not your place, man, this is not your place! Your place is at home, where we have everything we need.”
The year had begun with plans: with animals to raise, vineyard and corn in the field to harvest, with so many things to improve at home. A lot of work for two people still in power, who made sausages and ham and sent them to Milan for their children to not miss the taste of home, who made wine, brandy, and pickles, milled their own chicken food, had three full cellars, gave shots to the imobilised villagers, put pellets in the neighbors’ power station when they were gone so their pipes don’t freeze, went on vacations, to weddings and baptisms, memorials and funerals. Lica’s stepfather, Grandad, had died at the age of 95, on April 1, just 10 days before Zamfirică.
That’s exactly what they didn’t consider, says Lica.
“We hadn’t planned to die this year.”
They had nothing prepared for the funeral — clothes, towels, things that people gather in advance. They were not old people. They had only prepared for Grandad.
When she returned from the cemetery, she passed under the vine canopy, laden with grapes, and wondered what she would do with it. She has a lot of wine and brandy from the past years. They made it because they always had visiting friends, large parties. All opportunities to drink the homestead’s production, and these had not happened in the last two years.
Their last big party was in August 2019, when they celebrated 50 years of marriage. They had themed T-shirts – his said “50 years together – and my wife is still hot!”, and hers, “50 years together – and my husband can see better every day!” –, balloons, cake, a popular music singer, the whole extended family.
Lica prepared everything without Zamfirică knowing. A nephew or brother-in-law would come at night and sneak in meat, mineral water, beer, and she would carry them in the cellar so that he would not find them and figure it out. They also had printed invitations, just like wedding invitations. She told him only on the Thursday before the party on Saturday because there was too much to do and she could no longer hide her surprise. They were married again in church and their best man and maid of honor were their original best man and maid of honor’s son and his wife.
Zamfirică courted Lica for four years.
Two years after her mother took her out of school, at the end of the fourth grade, her music teacher came to her house and told her mother that the girl had to go back to school, that she could go to high school. It was 1960. Lica then returned to the school in Mirceștii Noi, in the first generation that studied middle school for four years (it used to be three before).
She was two years older than everyone in the class, but she didn’t care, she wanted too much to learn. Then she applied to a high school in nearby Focșani, studying to become an accountant, a good job. She became the head of math tutoring and kept a bunch of boys in check.
Zamfirică, three years older than her, was already employed as a driver at CAP, the local agricultural co-op (which was state-owned, as Romania was under the Communist regime). They knew each other from the village, but Lica’s mother did not want to hear that her daughter was talking to boys. She forbade her to leave the house, but Lica ran away anyway to house parties her colleagues threw to see him. For four years, he drove past her house in the CAP car and threw paper plane-shaped letters in her courtyard.
After she graduated and became an accountant at CAP Mircești, in 1969, they got married. They ordered burnt bricks and began to build their house on Zamfirică’s parents land. Lica became pregnant the following year, but in the eighth months she was rushed to the hospital and the twins, a boy and a girl, were stillborn. Zamfirică made small coffins for them and they buried them in the cemetery with a service held by the priest. They gave alms for the children, but also for the two of them, for health and forgiveness of sins, a whole house: bed, table, wardrobe, blankets and duvets, carpets and plates, as is customary in their region. The doctors told Lica that she would no longer be able to have children.
Because she worked hard since childhood – “my mother put a stump for me to climb on to get to the stove, to cook” – Lica always had health problems, especially with her spine. She was operated on many times in Iași, by a neurosurgeon for whom she has only words of praise, but before she found him she suffered many complications, including a severe infection caused by a treatment. She realized that she was pregnant after the operation to clean the infection, which left a deep scar on her lower back and made her sleep on her stomach for many months. The miracle child, Silvia, Silvi, was born in 1972.
Zamfirică was then hired as a driver for Vinalcool Vrancea, a rich state-owned enterprise, in the heart of the wine region (Panciu and Odobești vineyards are just a stone’s throw away). He went on business trips all over the country, which brought him a higher status in the community – he had a good job, he knew people from all over the country and he could open doors.
In the 1980s, they went on an airplane trips to Kiev, Moscow, and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). They returned by train, with the sleeping car, and brought some gold jewelry, which they hid in the cabin, in the insulating sponge under the wooden plywood. That’s what people used to do back when the country was suffering from extreme shortages of anything worth buying.
At the same time, Lica enrolled in a course at a hospital in Focșani. She finished work at the CAP at four and from five to nine in the evening she went to classes. In two years, she was licensed as the village nurse.
“I did it primarily for my family, so I know what to do.” But she was happy to help others, especially since it was and still is an extra source of income.
Silvia moved from home to Focșani after high school, in 1992. They retired one by one, first Lica, due to illness, her spinal operations, in 1990, then Zamfirică, when he reached retirement age, in 1998.
If they had any misunderstandings, Lica doesn’t talk about it. The photos in the house, his clothes, the tool shed, which she closed with a curtain so that she wouldn’t see his tools and his bicycle when she goes to the garden, all remind her of him.
When she hears the gospels being sung at church, about the second coming of Jesus and the resurrection of all the righteous, she does not believe it will happen, or that she will ever see him again, in this world or the next. She thinks all she has left is what they’ve been through together.
Because she didn’t like how some branches hit the roof of the summer kitchen, Lica went up the roof to cut them on Wednesday. She wouldn’t have done that if Zamfirică was alive, just as she wouldn’t have made the pickles, but she wouldn’t shy away from anything if she had to.
These are the things that are in her power.
Others are not easy for her.
When she saw a Vodafone salesman walking down the street, leaving leaflets with cable and internet offers in mailboxes, she called him in the yard, placed him at the long table in the back, and put a stack of papers in front of him. “Explain to me why I’m getting an invoice if I deactivated the number and haven’t spoken on this phone since April?” she asked, exasperated. The man, young and dressed in a red fleece jacket, began to read the papers, even though they were not from the company he represented.
In August, when Silvia came to Romania for a few weeks, they went together to a Telekom store in Focșani to ask for the termination of the contract for Zamfirică’s number. They took the death certificate. There they found out that the number was not in his name, but in Lica’s, but that they could close the subscription and keep the number on a prepaid card, in case someone called who didn’t know that Zamfirică had died. They completed a request – Lica has a copy – stating that the change will take effect in 30 days. In September, however, Lica received a five-page bill. Puzzled, she went alone to the store in Focșani, where an employee told her he couldn’t help her and advised her to call customer relations. At home, when she called, a robot took her through all sorts of options, then hung up.
The Vodafone agent is not the first stranger she tells this problem to. She knows he’s not working for the same company, but she thinks he could explain what happened. The man, after reading the papers, admitted that he did not understand. He called colleagues at Telekom, where he had worked before, trying to find someone to help. He was not successful either. He left after a quarter of an hour, shrugging with regret that he couldn’t help her. He recommended her to go to Focșani again.
Lica lives on her 1,200 lei (240EUR) pension – Zamfirică had twice as much – and tries to dip into her saving only for major things, such as home repairs or the grave fence, but life is not easy for her.
This problem and the fact that she can’t solve it are on her mind all the time.
After Zamfirică’s death, she stayed alone in the house for two weeks, in endless suffering, feeling abandoned by the people she helped over time – some neighbors brought her food at the gate and the baker sent her bread daily – but many did not even approach the gate for fear of the disease.
“But I didn’t have COVID,” he says bluntly. “They hid behind the disease so they didn’t have to help.” She says she had no symptoms of COVID and no one came to test her. The Health Department did not contact her, nor did the police, and the family doctor did not receive any quarantine decision for her. She stayed inside for 14 days just because the doctor on the ambulance told her to do it, in front of all the neighbors on the street, those gathered to see how they were taking Zamfirică. “Everyone in the village knows what you’re doing. My husband, they said he died of COVID, how can I get out of the yard and give it to others, if I have it too?”
Legally, she could have gone out at any time; morally and socially, no.
The neighbors, too, when they had COVID, quarantined. For some of them, she did their shopping, she even bought medicine – they left their prescription and money in the fence and she put the bag in the same place. Even though most people here do not follow the rule when it comes to wearing a mask on the street or in the store – some not even in church – all, with their eyes on the neighbors, have respected the quarantine.
Not even the people at church asked her if she needed anything.
The worst thing for Lica was that she couldn’t take care of the funeral or take him to the grave. When the hearse stopped in front of the house and the family and neighbors gathered on the other side, she stood 6-7 meters from the fence, in the yard. There is a picture in Silvia’s phone from then, with Lica hunching her shoulders and hugging herself, alone under the leafless vine canopy. She watched them all walking towards the church, behind the car, but she doesn’t remember anything else from that day.
The other bad thing was that she didn’t eat for a while. She could only drink water. She lost eight kilos in a few weeks. And she wasn’t sleeping. She got scared she would die, so she did two things: she went to the family doctor and asked for medication „because she was not well in her head” (she received a strong anxiolytic, which she did not take for long as it made her feel confused, then replaced it with a herbal sedative) and tried to trick herself into eating until she succeeded. She would take a bite of an apple, then drink plenty of water to keep it down. And so on, until she got back on her feet.
Now she eats normally, at fairly fixed hours, and ends each evening with an apple picked from her apple tree in the yard, which she eats in bed.
When she began to deal with grieving traditions, she got better. At the 40-day memorial service, she packed Zamfirică’s clothes – leather jackets, good shirts, sweaters, pants – and put them along the street for the neighbors to come and pick up. She still has his suits, which she will give away at the one-year commemoration.
The month of May also came with the gardening work. She only planted tomatoes, cabbages, peppers and eggplants on half the land, the rest she sowed with corn for animals, because she knew by then that she would not need so many vegetables just for herself.
But the shock of his death remained like an over-extended spring, ready to jump and unbalance her every time something got out of control.
A week earlier, Lica had harvested her vineyard with ten people from the village. Some she pays, others she goes to help back with their harvest. This Thursday, in the Putna river meadow. Before she left at eight o’clock by bicycle, because it was far away, she woke up at five o’clock, lit the fire in the terracotta stove in the house, and kneaded brioche dough in the kitchen. She slammed it into the table several times to give it elasticity, then placed it in a large bowl, tightly covered with plastic wrap and a thick towel, on a chair next to the stove.
She only returned around noon, walking by the bicycle. Her tire broke when she left the vineyard, so she got a little tired from the long road and from carrying the thing that was supposed to carry her. She took it to a neighbor to fix, then began to form and bake the brioche.
To prepare eight cake trays, cut five kilograms of dough into 16 pieces and make them all the same size, roll, fill with lokum and walnuts and knead two-colored dough requires not only patience, but decades of practice.
On the TV in the summer kitchen, where she did all this, there was news about the subsidy of the gas price, which upset her because it seems unfair to her how the government wants to give differentiated help – “what’s normal is to give to everyone the same” – and about the pilgrimage of Saint Parascheva in Iași, which was about to begin and which upset her because she does not understand why the elderly, who traditionally attend this event, were going to expose themselves to the pandemic.
She also went on this pilgrimage, as a sign of gratitude, after the more difficult surgeries she had had, but otherwise she does not keep all the religious rituals. She says that being a believer means being a good person and helping others without bragging, that’s what God sees.
While she was making the brioche loaves, neighbors began to appear in the yard to ask how they could help for the alms. The family of the deceased must not touch the food served as alms. So the women know that Lica needs them to get ready for Saturday. She gave them eggs, flour, sugar and butter to make sponge cake and told them when to come to make the stuffed cabbage and the rooster soup.
After removing the brioche loaves from the trays, she finally allowed herself to rest. She spoke with Silvia, who was leaving for the airport, and looked at Sinteza Zilei, where she found out that hospitals were out of COVID drugs. She thinks that’s what happened to Zamfirică: they didn’t give him any pills, they just gave him oxygen and he died of fear.
Before coming home, Silvia and her husband, Cristi Grădișteanu, stopped at the cemetery and brought flowers to “Daddy”, lit a candle and told him what else they had done. They arrived at Lica’s around noon with shopping bags.
When they come to Romania, they stay in Focșani, in the studio that Silvia had before she got married, from the time she worked at the Post Office. It’s in the same apartment building as Cristi’s parents’ house. That’s how they met, they were neighbors. After they got married, he went to Italy first, in 1999, when their little girl, Andreea, was four years old. Silvia followed him in 2003 and Andreea remained in the care of both pairs of grandparents for another year, until 2004, when they were able to take her with them. They are both 49 years old and have a good life in Milan. He is an electrician and installs smart home systems, she is a nurse at a dental clinic.
After they made sure their mother has everything she needs for the memorial service and alms, that everything is ordered, Silvia and Lica went to Focșani to solve the phone problem.
They found out that Lica was called on September 6 with a new subscription offer and accepted it, although she only remembers that she was called to confirm that she wanted to cancel the old subscription. So Silvia, when they got home, called customer relations again and put the phone on speaker. Forty minutes later she hadn’t been connected to any operators, so she hung up when the summer kitchen filled with women. One cut cabbage leaves into small rectangles, another mixed minced meat with onions, eggs, corn and semolina, others rolled cabbage rolls as small as tiny spools.
During this whole process, the women – Silvia’s godmother, Vasilica, the wife of Zamfirică’s brother, Aurica, and the neighbor across the road, Maricica, who also brought the cakes made for alms, joined by the neighbor Violeta, recently returned from holiday – talked about Zamfirică’s last week. They did it for Silvia, to give her more details about how it happened, and for them too, because this is the tradition at all the events associated with commemorations: stories are told about the one who is no more, so that he can live once more in everyone’s memory.
They had called Zamfirică every day. They found out that they moved him from the hospital in Focșani to the one in Adjud on Thursday, that they put him on oxygen, that his breathing was getting worse and worse. Lica managed to talk to him until Friday, when he seemed scared and overwhelmed by what was happening to him, but, as the women confirmed, Zamfirică was always scared. Lica, who had seen him leave on his feet and thought he was well, except for the fear, kept telling him to leave if he didn’t like the way he was treated – he had money to take a taxi if he wanted to come home. She sent him another packet of pajamas – Violeta took it. On Saturday at one o’clock, the last to speak to him was his brother Ion, Aurica’s husband. He is the closest brother, both in age and in nature. In photos from family albums, it’s hard to tell them apart.
Zamfirică called him and said – Aurica stopped rolling and played the tormented voice of the man, whom she had heard through her husband’s phone speaker: “Ioane, I must … tell you … something … I must…”. And then there was a noise as if his phone had been dropped and the call got interrupted. They weren’t able to contact him again after that.
Lica grew smaller listening, with her head down, and Silvia’s eyes filled with tears.
Silvia had spoken to them the previous Sunday, April 4, with video. She didn’t talk to them every day, but when they did, they liked to look at each other – her phone is full of screenshots of conversations with both of them or just Zamfirică, whom she called separately too. A big picture with his smiling face and a small, happy one, with her face.
When Zamfirică was taken to the hospital, Lica did not tell her, to avoid worrying her. And then she still didn’t tell her, because she didn’t know how he was.
On the morning of April 11, Silvia received a text message from neighbor Violeta. It said: “Condolences, Silvia! I am sorry. Rest assured I’ll take care of everything, don’t worry. ”
Silvia didn’t even understand what she was saying. “I thought she was saying condolences for Grandad, I wanted to write back and say that I knew he was dead, it’s been two weeks.” But she decided to call home. She first called Zamfirică, because he was the parent she was the closest to, to whom she confessed and asked for advice, her soulmate. His phone was off. Then she called Lica, who answered crying out loud. Then she found out that Lica was in quarantine, that Zamfirică had been taken to the hospital on Wednesday and that he had died – she had just been called by the hospital.
The next 24 hours were a nightmare. They went to the airport to catch a plane, but they could only board with an RT-PCR test, as they did not yet have a complete vaccination scheme. The test should have been done the day before, they couldn’t get a result so fast. Then Cristi said they should just drive. From Milan airport they went directly to Mircești. They left at one o’clock and arrived at seven the next morning. He was the only one driving, she didn’t know where she was or what was happening. She doesn’t remember eating anything on the road. At the Romanian border, they explained to the officer why they were coming, he told them that they had a 72-hour grace period, then they had to leave the country or go into quarantine.
When they passed the hospital in Adjud at six in the morning, she knew he was still there at the morgue.
Neighbor Violeta took care of the formalities. She is a confident woman, an inspector at a public institution in the county, but she had never been to a morgue to recognize a friend. She first called the priest to ask what to do. The priest told her he had to be buried in 24 hours, that he was waiting for confirmation from the archpriest that he could do the service in the church, that the funeral rules had just changed, and he gave her the contacts of a funeral home.
They put Violeta in a tight-fitting suit and allowed her to enter the morgue to identify him. Although she was emotional, she felt empowered by the thought that she was Silvia’s and Lica’s eyes and that she had to make sure that was Zamfirică. She did not want these women to live the rest of their lives in fear that they buried someone else, as it happened to other families since the pandemic started.
After they dressed him in the suit she brought, she took a photo of Zamfirică and sent it to Silvia on WhatsApp.
Violeta also went to the Population Registry with the death certificate to obtain the funeral certificate. Zamfirică’s things from the hospital got lost, the new pajamas and the rest. The funeral home people, when they took the coffin, received only his wallet and telephone, without a charger.
In Mircești, a niece took care of ordering the food for the alms, hired grave diggers and bought all the things they needed and didn’t have, because they hadn’t planned to die this year.
At home, Lica was at a loss, crying and lonely.
On Monday, at noon, family, neighbors, and relatives just arrived in a hurry from Bucharest gathered in front of the gate – some had seen Zamfirică 10 days before at his father-in-law’s funeral. On one side of the fence, them, on the other, in the distance, Lica.
The hearse passed in front of the house and stopped for a few minutes, although it did not have to if it was to follow the COVID protocol’s indication to take the shortest route. But Violeta and the priest had persuaded the driver to make this gesture of humanity towards Lica, to see Zamfirică once more.
Zamfirică was the first person to die in the village since the pandemic started who had a proper memorial service, inside the church, not only by the grave, as it has happened to everyone else since March 2020. Even when the village had no case of COVID and one of the women who had contributed to the construction of the church had died, they still could not get inside and do her full service – it was difficult for people to understand why.
Silvia remembers almost nothing from the funeral, who was there, what was given, what was said. On Friday, at the cabbage-rolling gathering, she asked the women in the summer kitchen, “Were you there? Were you there?” She doesn’t know.
What she does remember is going into Lica’s yard at night after the funeral. With a mask, at a distance, but she had to see her, to know that she was ok. They then went back to Italy, not to exceed the given deadline.
Later, she asked for his medical record to see what treatment he had and what was the cause of death. They did not reply to the first e-mail, so she insisted, with documents proving that she was his daughter, and the request, at the end: “please help me find peace of mind.”
Only then did she receive an answer. It was a scanned, letterheaded page listing the dates he was hospitalized (April 7), moved and RT-PCR tested (April 8) and, finally, had a cardio-respiratory arrest, on April 11, at 8:30 a.m., was resuscitated to no avail and pronounced dead at 8:45 a.m.
Because a lot of details remained unclear – why was he hospitalized in the Internal Medicine unit, not Infectious Diseases, why it took so long to get an RT-PCR test, why they didn’t give her a copy of the death certificate – and because they didn’t give her any chance to continue the dialogue, it’s hard for her to believe what they wrote.
She would have liked to see “more collaboration, a little compassione.” Although she speaks perfect Romanian, without an Italian accent, when she is emotional, the words of the adopted language seem easier to say. She can’t get over the impression that her father, like the other people dead of COVID, are just numbers for the authorities.
A week later, she dreamed of him. It was him, but it wasn’t him, like it is in dreams, and he said, “Know that your father loved you not much, but very much.” The next day, Silvia got a tattoo, a stylized angel, on her right wrist, so she could always see it when she writes and she could place it against her heart.
In August, Silvia and Cristi returned and stayed longer. They processed the succession papers, they helped Lica to close a terrace of the house, they replaced the old stove hood with a new one and they restored the electrical circuit of the house, which was obsolete, they taught Lica to use the smartphone Zamfirică used to handle for their videocalls and WhatsApp. And they took her to get the vaccine; they stayed long enough for her to get both doses of Pfizer.
And, in order to be able to take care of her remotely, Cristi set up a video surveillance system. Every time someone enters the yard, Silvia receives a notification and checks. They also asked her to lock all the doors when she left the house, bought her a large flashlight to put in the eyes of a possible intruder, and a baseball bat.
Lica is amused by all these precautions, because she is not afraid, but she does not resist.
After the cabbage rolls began to boil and the stories ended, the women went to their homes, with precise instructions about the next day, when they would come to help make the takeaway packages. Silvia left too.
Later, inside the house, Lica sent Andreea several heart emojis on WhatsApp and told her that she loved her and she was preparing for her grandfather’s six-month alms, because „he is no longer with us.” Her niece immediately replied that she should be strong and that she loved her too. Lica cried and then went to bed.
“This is my house, my place, and as long as I can take care of it, I’m here.”
On Saturday morning, Lica was more agitated than ever. She would go look for cups and then end up inside the house, looking for something else. Neighbors and friends came around 10 to help, and as they sliced the brioche and put cups, plates, and towels in bags, they each remembered that Lica would not sit still, but that she had no choice either.
The year started with a plan for two, and since April she had to carry it by herself. But next year will be better. Without a pig, with a smaller garden, with the land already put up for sale, she won’t have to work that much.
Silvia finally managed to talk to a Telekom operator. She was told they had audio proof that Lica had approved the offer. When she insisted that, however, her mother did not know what she said “yes” to, she was coldly told “stop beating the air that she was old and deaf, they are legally covered”.
She was dumbfounded by the reply and the fact that she felt she could not protect Lica.
Her fears are not unjustified. She showed to those gathered in the kitchen, on her phone, a video in which, in September, a neighbor, a younger man, waited for Lica to go to the cemetery and entered and rummaged through the house.
Lica caught him at the gate and scolded him for being in her yard in her absence, and she didn’t seem overwhelmed by the situation. Silvia, on the other hand, was very frightened because she saw in real time how he was walking around the house; and she was terrified that Lica would find him and he would kill her out of fear.
Silvia would like to take her to Milan, to be able to take care of her all the time, to know that she is fine, but Lica doesn’t even want to hear it. When she was in Italy, she saw that all the pensioners do is go to the cafes and then sit on the balconies and look at the people on the street, and she was outraged by such a waste of time. “This is my house, my place, and as long as I can take care of it, I’m here.”
At around 11:30, 25 people began to gather at the memorial, exactly as many as she had called. Ion also came, although he finds it very difficult to enter the yard where he knows that he can no longer find the brother next to whom he lived for 75 years. They sat on the benches and chairs in the yard, some more scattered, others tighter, all wearing masks.
The priest and the deacon arrived in time to start at 12 o’clock, as announced. The priest, a tall man in his 40s, had a cold and said he was being treated with black radish and honey (he hesitated, looked around, where there were many elderly women, and said “traditionally”; the women replied: “old-wives style?”; him: “well, if you say so, yes.”). And he, unlike the deacon who sang the whole service, had been wearing a mask since he entered the yard.
He lit the candle, cut the ceremonial bread, said the words. The people, all standing up, made the sign of the cross and said Amen. When he lifted up the ceremonial cake, all the people came together, and they laid their hands on the shoulder of the ones who were before them, and the priest said:
“Oh Lord, give rest to the soul of Thy departed servant Zamfirică, in a place of brightness, a place of refreshment, a place of repose, where all sickness, sighing, and sorrow have fled away. Pardon every transgression which he has committed, whether by word or deed or thought. For Thou art a good God and lovest mankind; because there is no man who lives yet does not sin.”
The deacon, behind the group, sang the words “Memory eternal!” three times and people remembered all their departed and that we are all connected to each other.
Lica sat next to the priest and wept with her face covered with her hands.
After the clergy left, the packages were distributed, both those from the catering company (with cabbage rolls, meat pilaf, cake and bread), and those with towels and cups and cutlery, and the family gathered around the table: the three of them, Cristi’s parents, cousins and a niece from Bucharest. They ate quickly.
Lica, dressed in black clothes, with a felt hat with small brim, got up and sat down a lot. She instructed the women who served the food. She ran back to bring her famous cherry liquer, made from all the fruits in the yard. She answered the questions about why she doesn’t go to Andreea’s graduation – because you can’t just go for three days, if she goes, it’s for two weeks, and she has no one to take care of the pigs, you can’t ask the neighbors for something like that. But next year, after finishing in April with all the important memorial services for Zamfirică, she will go to visit relatives and, of course, to Italy.
At the table, people recounted how Zamfirică instigated the children of the family to annoy their parents – especially during their holidays at sea, when they spent a month with relatives, at Techirghiol, and went to the beach with a flock of nephews and nieces, gathered there from all over the country. The photo album from the 50th anniversary was brought to the table and everyone looked at when they were all happy and cheerful, and there was also talk about how amazed Zamfirică was at the whole thing and how clever Lica had been to do it all on her own.
As Silvia says: her parents were as different as the sun and the moon, Zamfirică relaxed, calm and funny, Lica stubborn, agitated and serious, but they always wanted the same things and did them together. They both worked towards the same goal, their family.
Then, a few people at the table started talking about cryptocurrencies and how the unlimited video cards you need to mine became more expensive in Romania and in Italy.
People started leaving around two o’clock. By the kitchen door, looking at those getting up from the table, Lica said to a neighbor, “Alright, now I can calm down, I’ve done everything right.”
COVID funerals, stricter than anywhere else in the EU
Funeral rituals were among the first to be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. First, after the state of emergency was established on March 16, 2020, the organization of funeral services in places of worship was banned and the number of participants in the cemetery service was limited to eight people. On April 6, 2020, by an order of the then Minister of Health, Nelu Tătaru, it was forbidden to dress the COVID victims and autopsy them. Each deceased was laid naked in a sealed bag, which was then placed in a sealed coffin that came out of the morgue and was taken directly to the cemetery, where the service was held by the grave. Families were not allowed to see them or organize a vigil.
It has been known since 2020 that the virus is not transmitted through contact with surfaces, but only through aerosols, and a deceased person no longer emits aerosols because they are not breathing, but this was not reflected at all in the national provisions.
The COVID funeral protocol was changed at the national level only a year later, on April 9, 2021, after the heads of religious cults asked the Ministry of Health to allow services in the place of worship and, especially, to allow the deceased to be dressed.
Romania has had and still has stricter burial rules than those recommended by the World Health Organization, which since September 2020 has said that families can see the dead and keep the vigil, but not to touch them, not to kiss them and to keep a distance of one meter. (Reporting by Sorana Stănescu)
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