“Don’t thank me, love. It’s just my job.” The nurse’s words were clear, firm, efficient. Just like her, in the two hours I had known her.
“He’s all right. He’s peaceful now.” That was the end of my conversation with the British National Health Service nurse in charge of the Covid-19 ward where my father was at the end of his life in England, half a world away from my home in California.
Hanging up the phone meant it was over. And so I stood, motionless, staring through now-blurry eyes into the vast expanse of what lay ahead. “All right” meant my father was dying; “peaceful” meant he was sedated. This was what I was supposed to hope for, just four days after his hospitalization with Covid-19. A peaceful death.
Her words echo still in my mind.
My father had always been a solitary soul, and yet here he was, forced into this final, unwilling form of solitude as the coronavirus overwhelmed his body in a rapid and irreparable takeover of his lungs. The work of the virus was complete, though his life was not.
The nurse had offered to arrange for a final goodbye with my father using the one donated iPad the hospital had for families of Covid patients to communicate with our loved ones — a piece of nonmedical equipment allowed into my father’s contaminated room.
I could see her blond hair and barely 30-something face, a ray of life beneath the long plastic face-mask that protected her from my father. Her arm, outstretched, was covered in her white translucent surgical gown, a thin veil keeping her in this world while ensuring that dad’s passage to what lay beyond was humane. The comfort she offered to him and to me put her in the proximity of this deadly virus.
By the time we said goodbye, my father was dying, preverbal once more, eyes sunken and searching. He labored on his outbreath, groaning in the slow, rhythmic soundtrack of a life ending.
But even when there are no words, there is goodbye.
He had always been a man of few words, at least through the humdrum of daily life. Dad loved the remote Scottish loch where I spent my childhood; more, it seemed, than me, or anyone in his life for that matter. Children were superfluous, an added track of daily spirit and motion atop the steady lap of the loch’s waters, the gray layers of mountain backdrop, the hauntings of the pub he ran for years.
He would, however, come to life with a bottle of gin and the ears of the local pub-goers. Daily, one of the regulars would make the trek miles along the one-lane, winding road down the loch to the pub, in full Scottish regalia — kilt, sporran and long, knee high kilt-socks with the red fleck of a garter peeking below the seam — and linger until the late-night hours, when I would hear the tenor of Gaelic expletives, a sure sign of a few too many drams.
In my preschool days I learned to count with the small five-pence tips I was given after delivering shots of whiskey to the regulars. I sat in the window sill, overlooking a view so breathtaking it makes me speechless to this day, counting my pennies, lulled by Dad’s presence and the singsong of a language now lost to me.
I marveled at how Dad would spin stories endlessly with the locals. I wanted to feature in these stories, or at least to understand them, but they remained elusive — a point of entry to worlds past, a space where he seemed that much more comfortable.
As I grew up and attended schooling of a more formal kind, Dad taught me how to drive — windows down, music blaring, my hand on his hand. Always a bit too fast on the winding, one-lane Scottish open road. He taught me how to cook — simple, slow foods, before it was a thing; to savor slowly the delights of the earth, to crack the pepper always a bit too generously, to keep the fat and the crisps close at hand too.
He taught me my manners and to be a rebel, all in one. Somehow these contradictions all made sense with him.
I took Dad’s rebel streak to heart one winter day at school when faced with the injustice of a headmistress who violently admonished me for stealing off with her son’s toboggan. When I dared speak back to tell her she was wrong, she yelled viciously.
I will never forget the gentle pride in Dad’s voice when he told me later that she had rung to say something just had to be done about my talking back. Of course, I did complete the 1,000 lines I was assigned — “I will not talk back” — as I was my father’s daughter, well-mannered and all. But I made sure my handwriting was unimpressive, barely legible; subversive in the only way I knew how.
I moved to Berkeley, Calif., in 1986 when I was 13, after my mother remarried. I would travel to spend summers with my Dad and his family in Scotland and — more recently since becoming a parent myself — had taken my partner and children to spend time. Scotland is still very much home for me, even though Dad moved to England a few years ago to retire.
In the final chapter of our life’s conversation, I spoke softly, calmly, tears streaming down my face as my Dad’s eyes revealed a distant place. His eyes gently lifted as I spoke, my voice shaking through the phone. “I love you, Dad.”
I had never told my father I loved him until he lay dying, body wrecked with coronavirus.
It had come so quickly, this window onto our life together. I said it again and again. In some ways, I was preverbal too.
The Coronavirus Outbreak ›
Frequently Asked Questions
Updated August 12, 2020
Can I travel within the United States?
- Many states have travel restrictions, and lots of them are taking active measures to enforce those restrictions, like issuing fines or asking visitors to quarantine for 14 days. Here’s an ever-updating list of statewide restrictions. In general, travel does increase your chance of getting and spreading the virus, as you are bound to encounter more people than if you remained at your house in your own “pod.” “Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from Covid-19,” the C.D.C. says. If you do travel, though, take precautions. If you can, drive. If you have to fly, be careful about picking your airline. But know that airlines are taking real steps to keep planes clean and limit your risk.
I have antibodies. Am I now immune?
- As of right now, that seems likely, for at least several months. There have been frightening accounts of people suffering what seems to be a second bout of Covid-19. But experts say these patients may have a drawn-out course of infection, with the virus taking a slow toll weeks to months after initial exposure. People infected with the coronavirus typically produce immune molecules called antibodies, which are protective proteins made in response to an infection. These antibodies may last in the body only two to three months, which may seem worrisome, but that’s perfectly normal after an acute infection subsides, said Dr. Michael Mina, an immunologist at Harvard University. It may be possible to get the coronavirus again, but it’s highly unlikely that it would be possible in a short window of time from initial infection or make people sicker the second time.
I’m a small-business owner. Can I get relief?
- The stimulus bills enacted in March offer help for the millions of American small businesses. Those eligible for aid are businesses and nonprofit organizations with fewer than 500 workers, including sole proprietorships, independent contractors and freelancers. Some larger companies in some industries are also eligible. The help being offered, which is being managed by the Small Business Administration, includes the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program. But lots of folks have not yet seen payouts. Even those who have received help are confused: The rules are draconian, and some are stuck sitting on money they don’t know how to use. Many small-business owners are getting less than they expected or not hearing anything at all.
What are my rights if I am worried about going back to work?
- Employers have to provide a safe workplace with policies that protect everyone equally. And if one of your co-workers tests positive for the coronavirus, the C.D.C. has said that employers should tell their employees — without giving you the sick employee’s name — that they may have been exposed to the virus.
What is school going to look like in September?
- It is unlikely that many schools will return to a normal schedule this fall, requiring the grind of online learning, makeshift child care and stunted workdays to continue. California’s two largest public school districts — Los Angeles and San Diego — said on July 13, that instruction will be remote-only in the fall, citing concerns that surging coronavirus infections in their areas pose too dire a risk for students and teachers. Together, the two districts enroll some 825,000 students. They are the largest in the country so far to abandon plans for even a partial physical return to classrooms when they reopen in August. For other districts, the solution won’t be an all-or-nothing approach. Many systems, including the nation’s largest, New York City, are devising hybrid plans that involve spending some days in classrooms and other days online. There’s no national policy on this yet, so check with your municipal school system regularly to see what is happening in your community.
Navigating the spoken and unspoken rules of a rigid society by finding ways to narrate and challenge its edges was something my father had demonstrated with deft wit and wisdom. Articulating love was not part of this. But it didn’t mean it was not there.
Now here I was, trying to narrate this closing chapter. He had given me the power of words, and now was the time to use them.
“You aren’t alone. We are with you.” There was nothing and a lifetime of unspoken words to say.
Pandemic death is particularly cruel. It preys on the vulnerable. We all hold a collective grief and loss in this pandemic.
But what happens when death comes? When the circles of Covid-19 close in so tightly that it wrings your heart?
The daily acts of service — “just work” — on the part of our nurses and doctors, janitors and funeral workers change the lives of those of us left behind even as they support dignity for our dying and dead. Those who make final words possible, even when there are no words.
Our rituals of grief are no more. These are now mediated through distance and must emerge in new forms as we feel the cut-me-to-the-core pain of grief in isolation, as we see masked coffin-bearers revealed over video livestream funerals.
We yearn for human comfort, yet we know all too well the excruciating cost that lifting distance too early could engender.
As we reconfigure meaning in our now-pandemic lives and dare to envision the necessity of a reconfigured post-pandemic world, perhaps we will understand anew what matters most.
I hope Dad has found a home for his gentle, rebel soul. Meanwhile, I will carry his spirit on as best I can. Perhaps by beginning with a story.
Sonja Mackenzie is an associate professor of public health at Santa Clara University and lives in Berkeley, Calif., with her partner and two children.