My dad just died from COVID-19. Here below is my chronicle of the last two days. Stay safe. Sending love.
April 5th, 2020, Evening:
The terror I’ve felt today is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, and I can only imagine how hard it has been for you, Dad. I’m so sorry you are going through this nightmare.
You went to the hospital after falling, and you were supposed to be discharged soon. But COVID spread, unsuspected, down the hall, before you had a chance.
On Saturday night I read that the test came back positive. I can’t describe the fear I felt in that moment, and I thought, “This cannot be happening to my family.” Somehow I was able to regain a sense of calm and went to bed hopeful, because the signs of your health were encouraging.
This morning, I got the call and your dire prognosis. “Aspiration… deterioration… suffering… not much time.” Your lungs got ravaged so fast. I couldn’t fully take in what the nurse was saying — it didn’t feel real. Then I heard myself say, ”How are you going to make sure this doesn’t happen to other families? Why did you all wait so long to wear masks, and why wasn’t there more testing? This never should have happened!” I caught myself and remembered that she was an innocent messenger working on the frontline of the pandemic, and I told her I was grateful for her.
What was done was done. The weight of this reality hit hard, the dam broke, and I sobbed, realizing I couldn’t go to be by your side. No visitors. COVID wing. Oh my God. I felt a huge rush of fear and then anguish. But I couldn’t stay stuck there. I needed to talk to you, Dad, as soon as possible.
The nurse offered to call me from your hospital phone and nestle it by your ear, so I could hear you breathe, and you could hear me talk. “I love you… Thank you… I’m sorry… I forgive you,” I said, as I heard you struggle to breathe and eject the ooze from your lungs. Hearing the retching sound of your cough, I knew you were suffering — and there I was, powerless, on the other end of the phone. But I was so thankful for the nurses. “Yes, Don, get that out,” they said. “You can do it, Don. That’s good.”
You settled down in between coughs, and I searched my heart for what to say. I hope you could hear me. I talked about our precious times at the lake. I remembered you playing your guitar around the campfire, and I clung to that image as if it were my saving grace. I hope you could hear through my tears as I sang our old campfire songs. Some of the lyrics seemed so fitting — “Milk and honey on the other side” and “He’s got the whole world in his hands.” I paced back and forth in my bathroom, trying to contain my crying, as I attempted to get the words out.
I worked hard to breathe — but not as hard as you.
After a half-hour or so, I realized I could join Tom, Carrie and Emily to the call. Over the next many hours, our conversation with you is one I will treasure for the rest of my life. Although we were each sitting in Dallas, Raleigh, Copenhagen or Rochester, we were together, unpacking memories we had stored away long ago. The lake, the Cape, and our Europe trip. Games, projects, and important conversations. We also sang more campfire songs. I pray that you could hear it all.
I had to break away from the call a few times to talk to doctors. I needed opinions. I needed data. Until today I’d actually forgotten I was your health-care proxy, and I was unprepared for the decision I had to make. An unthinkable decision.
The doctors shared information and context, and it was clear that they were clear on the hard call I needed to make. But I did not have that same clarity. You always have been so strong, Dad, and I wanted to grasp on to any shred of hope.
I read your living will, over and over, meditating on each life-and-death phrase. I tried to put myself in your shoes. I also checked in with my intuition, which I’ve learned over the years is almost always right. The clear voice inside was leading me to the same answer as the doctors. I hated that answer, but I knew it was right and that I couldn’t wait too long, because you were suffering. So I made the horrifying but loving decision. “Comfort care.” The doctor sounded relieved.
Through all of this, I want you to know, Dad, that I haven’t had the feeling that it’s too much too bear. I’ve known deep down, that as hard as this is, I could handle it. And I’m eternally grateful to your sister Robin, who helped me sort out the right course of action.
It’s now early evening, and I’ve been sitting at my desk writing while connected to our call. I’m glad to have documented what has happened up to this point. Now I’m trying to absorb this precious moment of being together virtually, giving thanks for you, Dad.
It feels so good to laugh and cry. To be connected on the phone with you and my brother and sisters. To bring the images of us from earlier years back to life.
It also feels good to hear you breathe. That rhythmic, white noise is the background music to our call. Although we’ve had a few excruciating periods of silence on your end — maybe a minute long each time. When you don’t breathe, I hold my own breath, afraid it’s the end. And we all chime in, “Breathe, Dad — we need to hear you breathe.” Then we finally hear you inhale. Then I let out a sigh of relief, grateful to know you’re still with us.
I have never loved and appreciated breath the way I love and appreciate breath right now.
April 6th, Morning:
Around midnight last night, I dozed off, with you still in my ear and all five phone lines connected. I don’t know how much sleep I got. Each nap was punctuated by our mantras, “We love you so much… We’re here for you… Your kids are all here, Dad.”
Today your breath is more sporadic and thick, like you’re straining to suck paste up a straw. All I can do is listen on the other end of the phone, and write this down. My own chest is feeling tight now, as I imagine your lungs filling, while the virus seeps in.
You just moaned softly, and I don’t know if you’re trying to say you love us, or if you’re in pain. We’re listening to you and loving you. I wish desperately we could be with you in person, and I hate picturing you in that room alone.
But I keep coming back to my faith, which tells me you’re surrounded by love. I pray you can see angels behind your closed eyes. That you can feel their love — and ours. That you can hear us on the other end of the phone. That you can sense the stirrings of your soul even while your body is becoming numb.
April 6th, Afternoon:
It’s been ten minutes since we last heard you, Dad. I know there’s likely just an issue with the phone, but I’m really scared. But I keep thinking, if you were gone, surely by now the nurses would have come in, and we’d hear them through the phone. Right? Please…Dear God.
You’re back! The phone had slipped. Thank you, God. Now we hear short, shallow breaths — each one a miracle. You’re here. We’re here. With obvious relief, we’re each telling you again how much we love you. Baby Skylar is hiccuping on Carrie’s line.
This is life, and this is death. The newborn baby on the phone with the grandfather she’ll never meet.
Then silence again. This one is a dark, harrowing silence…
Ok, here come faint, short flicks of white noise. I hope that’s you. Yes, it’s louder now. It’s you! Thank God.
I just said the Lord’s Prayer, in short bursts between my attempts at squelching my sobs so my kids can’t hear me. I feel the pressure of the wailing behind my eyes, as I whimper like a dog, and wipe the tears away. I feel it in my throat now too, the pressure.
Grief is a strange thing. It comes in unpredictable waves. At one point earlier, I felt slightly guilty because I actually felt ok. And now here I am, pushing back against a huge wave of pain as it crests and I try to breathe through it.
I’m breathing. You’re breathing. We’re ok.
…I’m back and feeling much better. While it was silent on the phone, I breathed in and out when you did for about 15 or 20 breaths — and it’s all I focused on. A breathing duet and a meditation. I felt so connected to you, and my mind calmed more than ever today. Thank you.
…We’re all getting tired. The cadence of our conversation continues to slow.
April 6th, Early Evening:
The pain just hit hard again. I exhaled out a sob for so long and so hard, I felt my stomach muscles seize up. These are quiet wails, with just the hiss of air escaping my wide-open mouth. Now that I’m on the other side of that release, I’m feeling much more peaceful.
This is lasting much longer than the doctor predicted yesterday. I start to question my decision until I speak with the with the new, kind doctor on the floor, who uses the phrase “terminally ill.” Yesterday’s doctor is “off for the week” — in quarantine, I assume. I also just read an article in the New York Times by an MD giving a gruesome account of intubation and the small chance of recovery it affords. I feel more at peace again with what’s happening.
I’m grateful Tom stopped telling you to keep fighting, Dad. But I grieve the loss of his hope — the hope I played a part in taking away, with the decision Tom is so reluctant to accept. The first-born — the only son. The one running for office, who needed his dad to last at least through November. His very proud father.
Tom just stepped away from the call, and Carrie and Emily say, “I love you, Dad.” Silence again. I realize now that some of the silent patches on your end of the line are due to your faint breaths that aren’t loud enough to cue the phone line to pick you up. So the line sounds almost dead, as we wait and listen hard. I miss the in-and-out sound of your breaths, but the silence isn’t as scary now. I even manage to eat a slice of pizza.
…You’re back! We hear you, Dad. The phone line picked you back up thanks to background noise in the COVID wing, as the nurses opened your door to reposition you. They are superheroes, putting themselves at risk so you can be as comfortable as possible. We hear one of the nurses with a kind, lilting voice narrate as they move your body. Before leaving, she said, “Goodnight, Don. I’ll see you tomorrow.” I can’t help but wonder if she’s right.
I feel the need to sing to you again, so here goes, with “Our Love is Here to Stay.” A bit more upbeat than yesterday’s “Amazing Grace.” And just now I played “Country Road” from YouTube, so you could hear one of your favorite John Denver songs.
…You’re now making a new sound! A gentle, guttural sigh. Is this a new phase? Are you having a sweet dream? Are you seeing something?
Now it’s gone silent again. How fleeting peace can be. I’m glad I reveled in it while it lasted. Now we wait, and listen, and pray again.
The flavor of tonight’s call is so different than last night’s. Only a few stories. Our tired grief is slowing our brains and wearing on our spirits.
The silence has been going on for several minutes now. But no nurses have come. Maybe the phone slipped again.
Eight-year-old Caroline just popped in to my room asking if Grandpa Don sounded better. I told her honestly that you have been sounding much more calm. “Yes!” she said, with a huge smile. “There have been a lot of recoveries,” and, as her smile faded away, she added, “…and a lot of deaths.”
I wonder how the coronavirus will shape my kids and their generation? I think now about what shaped you and your fellow Boomers. Vietnam….a war against communism in a distant land. Today it’s the coronavirus…a war waged against droplets in the air, all around us.
I hear you breathing again, Dad. So grateful for that sound.
Late Evening April 6th/Early Morning April 7th:
The four of us just agreed we need more sleep tonight, and that you’d want us to take care of ourselves. It could be hours or days, and there’s no way to know. We couldn’t stay as connected on the phone as we were last night.
I stayed muted on the line with you, as I tucked in the kids and got ready for bed. I journaled and fell asleep around 11. None of us hung up the line, in case we wanted to reconnect at any point during the night, but we agreed to step away from our phones and get some sleep.
Then came the call, just after midnight. I knew what I was going to hear, and braced myself.
Gone. You’re gone.
Cause of death: “Respiratory failure in the setting of aspiration and COVID-19.”
Time of death: 11:50 p.m.
If I’d stayed on the phone just one more hour, I could have been with you. We’d been on the line together for almost 36 hours. What are the chances you would pass within an hour of our break? Maybe you didn’t want us to hear you go. Or maybe you didn’t have the space to leave while we were hanging on your every breath. If I’m honest, maybe part of me didn’t want to hear your last gasps of air.
When I looked down at my phone, still connected to your hospital line, I wanted so badly to talk to you again, even though I knew you weren’t really there. I pictured your body lying on the bed and your spirit rising. “I love you, Dad,” I said into the phone. I paused for a few moments and pressed the red button to end the call.
Here comes the pain again, so heavy.
I cannot believe this is happening.
Dear God,Thank you for welcoming my dad.He is such a good soul.
Dad,I know we can still continue our conversation. Thank you so much. I love you forever.