HOW IT WILL FEEL AT THE END
Posted June 5, 2020
When it happened, I thought that he would make it. That his story would end well, and that, weeks from now, if the same thing happened to anyone I knew, I could be the calming voice of one who had been there before and whose story could give them hope.
If you told me today that your dad was diagnosed with coronavirus, I would tell you what others told me: that most people — even old people — who get this don’t have to go to the hospital. Most people who go to the hospital don’t have to go to the ICU. And many people who go to the ICU still get better.
But in my head, where you cannot hear me, I would say a prayer for you and tell you that, if your father is one of the unlucky not-so-few, even if I told you what was coming, you could never possibly be ready. That there will be fear and pain and sadness, all at a level you cannot possibly imagine. That every day your emotions will reach their limit, only to be dwarfed by what you will feel the day after.
I would tell you that you that on the afternoon you learn of your father’s diagnosis, you will call your dearest friend, and he will answer with a quick voice because he is in the middle of something and assumes you’re just there to say hello. Then your words won’t be able to come out, only sobs, and he will drop everything.
You will drive to Brooklyn because your sister is there alone, and you will pick her up and bring her back to Boston so you can be together. Because you are not allowed to visit your parents in their time of need, but you both still need to be close to them and to each other.
The two of you will go to your parents’ home as your now-also-infected mother takes your father to dialysis — the thrice-weekly trip outside the home that he still needs to make in order to live and that likely exposed him to the virus in the first place — and you will pull your car up beside theirs so through closed windows you can see him and he can see you. And hopefully you can give each other strength. It is an idea that will have brought a tear to his eye the night before when you proposed it, but when you arrive, he will be too tired, too loopy to even know you are there.
He will go to dialysis, but he will not come home. Instead, they will take him to the hospital, and for the next week, every day will hinge on that one mid-afternoon update call from the doctor. You will draw a calendar to mark off each passing day. Most patients who make it to day 14 without getting worse end up fine, so you will beg him through earth’s airwaves to just hang in there.
One basic metric you never knew before will now define your life: How many liters of oxygen they are giving him. High is bad, low is good, zero is the goal. The hospital will tell you not to worry if his current level of 2 becomes 2.5 or 2.5 becomes 3. That these are normal fluctuations, and the real concern is if the numbers start climbing too fast. Too dramatically. But you won’t listen. Every fraction they tick upward will give you fear, every decimal they dip down will give you comfort.
During each phone call, you will bombard the doctors and nurses with questions. When you have asked all you can, you’ll reach out to a friend in medicine and ask them all again. Having information will give you the illusion of control. But an illusion is what it is, and the only thing you will truly be able to do is pray that liter count holds steady.
Then somehow two weeks will pass and you will reach the 14th day, the one you have circled on your calendar, and you will start to breathe easy. Until the call from the hospital that afternoon telling you that his oxygen needs are rising fast. Six liters, then eight, then ten. He has likely developed a second infection, one made possible by increased vulnerability from the first. Soon he’ll be in the ICU, and they’ll be sliding a tube down his neck.
They will warn you that that the coming days will feel like a roller coaster, that there will be ups and downs, and the ups don’t mean you’re safe and the downs don’t mean it’s over, but again you won’t listen. On the good days you will be certain he has finally turned a corner, and on the bad days, the bottom will fall out from underneath your soul.
The hospital will start letting you call once a day on FaceTime. Semi-conscious and heavily medicated, your father may not be able to respond, may not even be able to hear you, but you will spew every word of encouragement you can think of. You will tell him how much you love him and inform him that a new season of his favorite TV show has just come out, so he better recover soon so he can come home and watch. You will read him letters from his friends around the world and sing him the song that he sang to you when you were sick as a child.
And then you will hang up the phone and cry all the tears of fear you did not dare show him and crumble to the floor.
But then, after two weeks, you will get the most amazing phone call you have ever received. “Your father is doing better,” they will tell you. He has improved enough on every metric they are monitoring, and he is finally ready to come off the breathing tube. And again you will cry, because after the two most excruciating weeks of your life, your father is going to live. There will still be more hurdles to clear, and even if he makes it past those, there will be months of rehab before he comes home, but it doesn’t matter. Your daddy is getting better.
You’ll get a call soon after from the hospital, then video will pop up on the screen, and you’ll see your father without a tube in his mouth, gulping up the air of the outside world. He will look so sweet, so lively, and from your tiny apartment, you will cheer him on like a ballplayer at Fenway.
The next few hours will be happy ones. Even as you tell yourself not to get too excited, you will rediscover joy and laughter, emotions you had packed away the day the first phone call came. You will watch a movie you haven’t seen before and feel bad because he would have liked it, but that’s okay, you’ll watch it again when he gets home.
But then the doctor will call back. Things aren’t going as planned. She’s worried that his time in the ICU left him too weak to survive without the tube, and now he only has a 50% chance of making it through the night. You’ll beg her to let you visit him, thinking maybe, just maybe, hearing your voice will give him strength and your being there can change 50 to 51. “With all the contagion risks from the virus, we only allow families to visit at end of life,” she will tell you with true regret in her voice.
“But this is end of life!” you will shout into the phone, and the doctor will concede.
When you walk into his room, your heart will empty onto the hospital floor. Breathing into an oxygen mask, needing a nurse to clear the saliva out of his mouth because he is too weak to swallow. He will look at you with cloudy eyes as you stand there in a mask and goggles and pray he recognizes you all the same. You will speak words colored positive and optimistic so he’ll keep pushing, but they will also be the things you hope he takes with him if this is your last moment together. He will blink with fervor, and you will know that he is talking to you through his eyelids, one of the few parts of his body he is strong enough to move. And he will look deep into your eyes with love.
Then the hospital will tell you it’s time to leave. That he needs his rest. And you will return to the apartment. The doctor will explain that if he makes it to tomorrow afternoon, he has likely gotten through the worst of it, but if things go badly, you’ll hear from them in the night. So you will resolve to stay awake, but eventually your eyelids will droop shut, and you’ll fall asleep, praying the phone won’t wake you.
At 4:45, your eyes will open, and for a moment you’ll think that means he made it. And that’s all he has to do. Just not die for a few more hours, then start getting better.
Then you will hear the phone, as the ringtone sears a spot of visceral anguish that will forever rest in your brain. They will tell you that he has taken a turn for the worse and has only hours left to live. You will stay on the line, as they put him on speaker, and you will tell him everything you wish you had told him when life was normal. How you love him. How dearly you love your life and how that is because of the person he made you and the guidance he gave. How he will live on through you and you will share with the world the qualities he has given you. How you cherish his warmth, his humor, his wisdom, and his love.
They will tell you they are giving him morphine so he cannot feel the pain, and you will keep speaking so he knows he’s not alone. And the nurse will hold his hand.
And then, three hours later, they will tell you that his heart has stopped, and he is gone.
The next days will be the greatest pain you have ever known. You heart will be torn in half, and your family’s will be, too. Everything will remind you of him. You will cry at your memories, at the vision of his favorite chair turning empty, and at moments provoked by nothing at all.
Your partner will see you cry, not the stoic handsome tears of a sensitive warrior, but the convulsing unrelenting sobs of a child who will never see his father again.
You will curse the virus, the dialysis center, the president, and the dispassionate blade of death. After hearing story after story of senior citizens not taking the threat seriously, going daily to the grocery store and still seeing friends when they should have kept to themselves, how could it be that they are all fine, and your father, who took every precaution possible, was the one who got sick?
The cemetery will tell you that with everything going on, you are not allowed more than a handful of people at the burial, and certainly no reception after. A man who lived a rich life full of friendships decades and decades old will not get the sendoff he deserves. That moment when you walk away from the grave, the tears drained from your body, and celebrate the good times with others who loved him just like you.
The Jewish tradition of sitting shiva and being surrounded by the people you need most right now will be denied to you too. Others will not be able to hug you, to hold your hand, and to cry into your shoulder as you cry into theirs. Instead you’ll do it on phone calls and in Zoom sessions.
Each day will bring new reasons for sorrow. The trip you take to the ocean he loved so much. The Friday Night Dinner that will forevermore be done without him.
You will remember the things he gave you. Your sense of humor. Your creativity. Your unconventional approach to life.
You will remember your weekend traditions, his acts of generosity, and the lessons he taught you. You will promise him you will pass those same things on to your children and through them he will live on. But he will never meet them.
You will have nightmares three times a week, and you will find yourself waking at 5AM every morning, the same time the hospital called to tell you he was going to die. And in that first waking moment of tired disorientation, you won’t fully know what is happening, you will only have the feeling that something is terribly wrong. And then the last few days will come flooding back into your brain, and you will remember that he is gone.
Then, after a period of unimaginable agony, you will find yourself starting to feel a bit better, and this will somehow make you sad too. You will worry that with each day of healing you forget him a little more. And the notion of a day when you are again happy and carefree seems only unfair to his wonderful memory.
And for now, this will be your life.
So, if you come to me and tell me your parents are sick, I will tell you that I wish for them two weeks of bed rest and catching up on Netflix shows. And that I hope with all my heart that they make it out the other side with immunity to this terrifying disease brewing in their blood.
But if the worst should happen, and everything should go wrong, I will tell you that amidst those days of unbearable grief, there will also be acts of staggering kindness. Overflowing gifts of condolence and warmth from people who loved him, from people who love you, and from people who know that to love you is to love him. They will make the most generous meals, they will send the kindest letters.
His friends will tell you stories from his life and show you sides of him you never knew existed. You will place these stories in your heart alongside the ones you already had, tales of a marvelous man you can’t believe is gone.
When everything breaks wrong with the funeral arrangements and you need to find solutions to problems you never expected, you will do it with the moxie and resourcefulness he gave you. When talking through your emotions, your sister will quote one of his favorite expressions and you’ll smile at the feeling that he is still there.
You will find the album you gave him on his 60th birthday— collections of memories and letters you solicited from his friends — and you will read them, and you will think back to how touched he was to read them too, and you will know that all these eloquent, heartfelt words people are sharing now, he heard them when he was alive.
You will talk to friends who have lost loved ones and they will tell you that the pain never goes away, but it does get better, and that is ultimately the way you will want it. Because it means you won’t always be this sad, but also that his memory will never vanish.
And if you can look through the tears and the resentment at the universe long enough, you will realize that every ounce of heartache corresponds to a gallon of love, joy and fulfillment he gave you when he was alive. So you will go to bed knowing that mighty as the pain may be, you wouldn’t give any of it back. It is the price we pay for what we were given. And what we were given is far greater than what we have lost.
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