My father passed away Friday, April 10 2020.
My faith has always sustained me through the hard times in my life. And I know it will sustain me through this moment in my life. But death and grief are inseparable companions and a pandemic brings a kind of grief I have never before experienced.
My mother and I are the only members of our family living in the United States. My sister and her family live Saudi Arabia and my extended family lives in Canada and no one can leave their homes because the international borders are closed. I buy a ticket to Denver the night I find out my dad has passed away and the next morning I am in Hector International Airport. I am the only person in the security line. There is one man sitting in the waiting area. Then two more arrive. The woman who checks our tickets announces that Colorado is a high risk state for COVID-19. She warns us if we board the plane and later return to North Dakota, we will be required to self quarantine for 14 days. For the first time in this pandemic I suddenly feel like I am no longer safe. I’m no longer safe holed up in my house baking cookies and fighting with my kids over virtual school. What does self quarantine look like when I get back home? I won’t be able to interact with J, W, or Steve for 14 days. What if I get COVID? Will I be able to get home? What if I’m separated from my family like my sister is separated from her husband because suddenly states decide to close their border?
I am the only person in my family who can get on a plane. I am nearly the only person on the plane. I start to cry because I am scared and I remember my dad has just died and I feel terribly selfish for being scared. I almost choke under the n95 mask I somehow miraculously was able to find In my house before I left. The tears just run along the sides of the mask. I can’t touch my face. You can’t touch your face in a pandemic.
I arrive in the Denver international airport and it is eerily dead. My phone starts sending me alerts: the Care 19 app I downloaded to help North Dakota tracing of COVID-19 starts freaking out and I get a message that Colorado is at high alert for COVID-19: over 6,000 cases in Colorado (North Dakota has 308). That fear for my safety is raging again. My sister FaceTimes me in the airport and she tells me I’ll be fine. I still have the n95 mask on with my homemade mask overtop. I’m practically suffocating. The mask is digging into my cheeks. My mom comes to pick me up and I can finally take my masks off. I have red welts on my cheeks.
My mom goes over the story of my dad’s last moments again with me. My dad had been struggling with his health for a few weeks. He’s had interstitial lung disease for a few years now. He had pneumonia in late November. His rheumatoid arthritis has been really painful the last few weeks. But he’s always moved through these things—until Friday when he told my mom to take him to the ER. He stopped breathing as he was checked in. The doctors tried to resuscitate him. He passed away sometime in that whirlwind. When the dr came out of the room, he started asking my mom questions about COVID. Did my dad have it? If my dad did have it, the doctors and his entire staff was now exposed and he was almost panicked about it. My mom tried to explain my dad’s medical history—that my dad had been to the doctor multiple times in the last 3 weeks and not once did his doctors think he had COVID. The er doctor told my mom that they had taken an X-ray postmortem and it showed my dad had pneumonia. They had also taken four other tests, including one for COVID. The doctor was so sure that my dad had COVID based on the xrays, that he told my mom he would write COVID on the death certificate even before the tests were in. The doctor was so terrified of COVID that he had my mom second guessing everything. Because of my dad’s lung issues, my parents have been self quarantining since February. My mom has only left the house to take my dad to doctor’s appointments and pick up his prescriptions. If my dad had COVID the only person he could have gotten it from was my mom. And even though my mom was 99% sure my dad didn’t have COVID, that ER doctor made her suddenly worried that she was an asymptotic carrier and had given it to my dad and she had to carry that fear with her until the test results came in.
As we pull into my parent’s garage I see the big Canadian flag hanging on the side of the wall. My dad’s golf clubs. One of his jackets hanging by the door. My dad is still everywhere but at the same time he’s not there and I’m about to burst into tears. But right now I have to shut that part of my brain off. We need to make arrangements for my dad.
At this point, it’s impossible to do anything because the funeral home won’t touch my dad until we get the COVID results back. Everyone in this process is terrified of COVID and to be honest it hurts that no one will take care of my dad until they know he doesn’t have it. It hurts because when you lose someone you want them to honour and respect them the way you do. Right now my dad is an “untouchable.”
The next day my mom gets an email that the er test results are in but when we click on the link, we can’t open it. Apparently when you die, the hospital system locks up your online medical account. So we call the online tech support, but no one is in the office because it’s Easter weekend. We call again, finally get a human on the other end, only to get kicked back to the answering machine telling us to call back Monday. The problem is, we need to know the results now, so the funeral home can attend to my dad. I call my dad’s primary care doctor. He’s not in, but I talk to the on call nurse. Before she can tell me to call back Monday about tech support, I tell nurse Katie to stop and listen because we have a unique situation that needs to he addressed immediately: my dad passed away the day before and we need to find out the results NOW so the funeral home can attend to him. She leaves a message for the on call doctor. 5 minutes later the on call doctor talks to my mom and explains the results of the 5 tests done on my dad. Yes, his X-ray showed the beginnings of pneumonia. Double pneumonia (bi lateral) at the top of his lungs. Which looks different than Covid pneumonia (a splattering across is the lungs). He had extremely elevated levels of reactive proteins, his d dimer test came back high, white blood cell count came back high.
Covid 19? Negative. My dad was really sick—sick from his interstitial lung disease, his RA, a new round of pneumonia. The on call doctor tells my mom he will change the death certificate to pneumonia and interstitial lung disease. He calls the funeral home to assure the director my dad tested negative for COVID. We can start talking arrangements for burial now and my mom now has peace of mind that she didn’t give COVID to my dad and isn’t a carrier who can infect me.
We go to the funeral home Monday, wearing surgical masks. The director takes our temperatures upon arrival, part of COVID protocol. There can only be two of us present to make arrangements (part of COVID protocol) but that’s okay because there’s only two of us to make the arrangements. I turn my brain off again when we’re picking out caskets and talk about flowers and Zoom meetings for the graveside service. I’ve learned if you cry when you’re wearing a mask, it becomes hard to breathe. If you cry when you’re wearing a surgical mask the moisture from your mouth makes the paper disintegrate and the mask deteriorates.
We go home feeling a little better. We’re making progress.
We pick out a plot at the cemetery Tuesday, again with COVID protocol. The man at the cemetery apologizes that we can’t meet in the office and pour over maps like they typically do with clients. He stands 6 feet from the car window and instructs me on a pamphlet map which sections are full and which are not. My mom and I drive around the cemetery as I point out open areas. We return back to speak with the man about our “finalist” areas and we both drive out to the spots, keeping six feet apart while we are out of our cars, masks on.
Once we pick a plot it all comes together faster, easier. The graveside service will be Wednesday. 10 people, no more. Steve and the kids drive down from Fargo and so now we have 5 people to attend the service. The other 5 will come from my parent’s church family. Steve, J, W, my mom and I attend the “viewing” Tuesday night. I FaceTime my sister from Saudi Arabia (it’s 2 am her time). Steve takes the kids in first. Then me and my mom and my sister say goodbye and cry. The funeral director is tearing up too. I’m sure we look like a sad sight, this small little gathering, my sister unable to be with us in person.
My dad’s graveside service on Wednesday is small. When we arrive the five other guests are standing 6 feet apart, all wearing masks. It’s a beautiful morning. The birds are singing. The funeral director and his assistant have the service on Zoom so my family in Canada, my sister in Saudi, and my dad’s friends can “watch and be there too.” I am to sing at the service and I ask the director if I can do it without the mask. He shakes his head, no, and so I sing “Abide with Me, ‘Tis Eventide” with my homemade cloth mask, trying to project the song as best I can through the mask so everyone on Zoom can hear. I can barely breathe as I sing and with each inhalation, the mask sucks back into my mouth. Somehow I make it to the end, and by some miracle, I don’t cry. Someone from my dad’s church family gives a eulogy. Steve says some words about my dad and faith. (We were told the service can’t last more than 40 min). My mom, my family, and I place a rose on my dad’s casket. J, in true J form, places his in the opposite direction of all the others which makes us all smile. Despite all of the COVID protocol strangeness, it was a beautiful service.
We return home with my mom and have lunch, just the 5 of us, thanks to food called in and delivered to the door by Canadian family members. An hour later, we have a big zoom meeting with family in Canada and all across the world and we each take a turn sharing memories about my dad for almost 2 hours. The healing starts.
This is never how I thought I would say goodbye to my dad. I thought it would be like every other funeral I’ve attended. A church full of friends and family, a cemetery gathering where we who are mourning and grieving can hold and embrace each other. Instead, we are grieving behind masks, isolated, anticipating the day where we will be allowed to embrace each other and grieve together.
There’s a sort of grief for the loss of an expected grieving experience. But despite the challenges we somehow made it our own. We still honoured my dad and we still had our own beautiful goodbye. In some ways the smaller service was more fitting.
Steve, J, W and I will return to Fargo together. We will have to self quarantine for 14 days, but at least it will be together. And then, I think I’ll be able to catch my breath—mask off, and start to heal and sort through everything.