Yash Aprameya/MiC.

Over the past two years, my vibrant paintings have engulfed my once unembellished bedroom wall. Each comes with a unique color scheme: from a pale orange canvas of Lisa Simpson to soulful butterflies flying across a lilac sky. To me, painting is a therapeutic release that I don’t find in other spaces I use for comfort. While I often use journaling as an outlet to organize my thoughts and track my personal growth, I find that painting gives me the ability to express my emotions and leave the experience with a souvenir. I can trace a memory back to every one of my pieces and the emotions I experienced during its creation. Adding onto my wall of paintings has become an incentive for me to experience a brief moment of euphoria and pride for the art that I made with my own vision. It quite literally allows me to bring my thoughts into reality. When I paint, I find freedom in mixing any color to create another. My paintbrush is not capable of creating anything but beauty, and I have the ultimate autonomy of deciding how to personalize my canvas. During 2020, I used painting as a fluid art form; it was the only aspect that I had control of when every other part of my life was thrown in disarray during the pandemic.

Since 2020, 17 members of my family have tested positive for COVID-19, two of whom have died, one of them being my grandfather. My grandfather had lived in the U.S. with my family since I was born, and as a first-generation Asian American, I saw him as one of my greatest blessings. Having a figure like him present throughout my life, I learned the importance of humility, genuinity, strength and compassion simply by observing him. Between his conversations with everyone that entered our home, the relationships he built with my friends or how he said “God bless you” every time he answered and ended a phone call, my grandfather set the foundation for my values that I still live by.

He also served as a bridge connecting both of my cultures — American and Indian. Since visiting India was only possible every few years, I relied on my grandfather to affirm my Indian identity. The universal identity crisis that first-generation Americans face is humbling and never-ending, but having my grandfather around was how I felt enough. With the inability to grow up with my family in India, I held onto my grandfather as a connection to my culture. Practicing Telugu with him, listening to his stories from his childhood or even teaching him about Thanksgiving and other American traditions gave me a balance that I couldn’t find on my own. Losing him meant losing my immediate sense of cultural identity. When he passed away, I struggled with losing someone so sacred to my heart, as well as my understanding of who I was. 

Grieving the death of a loved one is hard in itself, but grieving someone through a pandemic is a slap in the face. Going to the grocery store, making plans with my best friends or even stepping outside for a walk has trapped me in an endless bubble of fear. Will I encounter the virus today? Will I see someone, who saw someone, who tested positive? I hope I don’t expose my family. Dealing with anxiety my whole life, I’ve leaned on my friends for support and surrounded myself with the things I love to do when things get rough. But even this form of comfort was taken away from me. How was I supposed to do that when I was in my room trying to do anatomy labs over Google Meets and adjust to the possibility of encountering the virus if I left my house? I was trapped in a state of constant movement and change. I needed time to stay still for just a moment to process my grief, but instead, the pandemic introduced so much disturbance in my life that I simply didn’t have the energy to experience; I just had to get through each day. 

While this was the ugliest time in my life, it enabled me to create the most beautiful art. I channeled my grief into painting as a way to cope with my new reality. While painting was not an escape from the burden I was bearing, it helped me understand my situation better.

My grandfather’s passing taught me that life is a lot like painting on a blank canvas. We have an idea of what we want in life, but the colors we are given rarely align with our wishes. Regardless, we end up finding ways to work with our circumstances to create a masterpiece. This pandemic will eventually come to an end (hopefully). The mask mandates will lift (for a final time). “Maskfishing” will no longer be an issue for Gen Z to consider. Life will go back to being somewhat normal. Maybe, even, the lingering fear I face when leaving my home will disappear as well. But the guilt that plagues my mind will forever be a part of me. The survivor’s guilt I have had throughout this pandemic has been one of the biggest roadblocks in my healing process. I remember the long-awaited day I got my vaccine. Despite my mortal fear of needles, I was almost excited to get my injection. I remember thinking that finally I could hug my friends without having to replay and worry about the interaction later that night (though later that sense of security would prove false). But I found myself feeling empty. My first instinct was to feel guilty for surviving the pandemic while my grandfather wasn’t able to. I constantly question why I’m able to enjoy the things that were stripped away from the victims of this virus and the families that it ran through, and it makes me sick that I can’t find an answer.

I write this piece with the newfound realization that my survivor’s guilt is undeserved. Society has failed our communities so badly that we’ve convinced ourselves that we are deserving of punishment even when we are at our most vulnerable states. This toxic notion pushes the idea that we, as humans, have the duty to continue pushing ourselves past awful situations in order to prove our worth by being “resilient” in the end. There is no finding beauty in this situation, because beauty doesn’t exist here. That’s why I found it so incredible when I witnessed the people around me create it even amidst the hell we were going through.

Before the pandemic, my life was filled with familiarity and structure within my community at school and my town — from my AP Chem lab table, the girl who held the door open for me at 7:35 a.m., the Starbucks baristas who knew to brew a tall salted caramel hot chocolate every time I stumbled in with my backpack to my four best friends who saw me every day after school. The pandemic put my personal issues into perspective as I heard stories about the 400,000 families who also lost a member to COVID-19, friends of mine whose parents had lost their jobs and those struggling with their mental health. I finally grasped the idea that every community member of my previously structured life, from my favorite Starbucks barista to my lab partner, was also forced to work with a blank canvas. Social media became a new place of unison for these members of my community; I witnessed them post updates on their health anxiety, how they implemented family walks into their daily routine or how they experimented with new hobbies. It was during this time that each of our individually complicated lives became the most similar as we all sought to “create art” amidst our personal struggles. 

My community showed me that in pressing times like this pandemic, humans have the same capacity to experience joy as we do pain. What surprised me, though, was how natural recovery seems to be. Watching many of the people around me being thrown into a realm of the unknown and still making the most of their situation showed me that while I am not obligated to find the silver lining in all of my losses, it’s pretty amazing that somehow I can. And discovering this ability is when we begin to create each of our own masterpieces.

I may have lost my grandfather, but the lessons he taught me — from what it means to be a compassionate person, the Telugu alphabet and numbers to the magic trick where his rings switched fingers — now serve as a palette that he left behind. I hold my paintbrush in memory of him as I carefully decide the color scheme and theme of my paintings, and I make the decision to continue the pieces of art that we started together. As I wake up to my wall of paintings every morning, I am not only reminded of my newfound duty to uphold my grandfather’s legacy, but I am also reminded of the decision my community and I made to make the most out of our new reality, pushing the boundaries of the circumstances that confine us. I still seem to discover new ways my trauma from this pandemic has impacted my life forever, but I know now that I am not alone. It’s not instinctual to search for a good outcome from the death of a grandfather. It is, rather, a decision. I choose to continue to put effort into becoming an empathetic and understanding person — someone who my grandfather always taught me to be. I will practice my Telugu even if it is not every day after school asking my grandfather what he did during his day. I will look at my beautiful friends and find comfort in the creases of their eyes as they smile under their masks. I will laugh at the Snapchat memories of our high school graduation and senior summer we had after our last two school years were cut short. We may never get closure from our sudden goodbyes, but I will always be cheering for them as they go forth and grow into amazing people. I will cheer for myself and the resilience I realized I had. I will cheer for the people who weren’t able to recover from the blows of this experience — for strength is not always something you find within, but may be received from the people around you. After all, it is we who create our art, not our paints.

MiC Columnist Sahana Nandigama can be reached at nsahana@umich.edu.