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My Dad Has Coronavirus. I Don’t Know if I Should Say Goodbye.

The New York Times logo The New York Times 2020-03-26 Amelia Nierenberg

Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not necessarily represent the views of MSN or Microsoft.

YONKERS, N.Y. — On Monday, around 5 a.m., I drove my father to Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey, where he works as an emergency room doctor. He sat in the back seat, just as I did when he used to drive me to school, and slept. The coronavirus is exhausting.

Since he developed a fever, muscle aches and a cough last week, we’ve spent time together, six feet apart, in the bedroom he usually shares with my mother. While he sleeps, I sit cross-legged on the floor, working. When he is awake, I read David Sedaris aloud, and we talk about some of our favorite family vacations. For dinner a few nights ago, we opened one of our nicest bottles of wine. We might as well, he joked.

We haven’t had a how-much-you-mean-to-me conversation, or a take-care-of-your-mother conversation. Then again, we don’t need to. He’s 68, and if he dies, that’s not the time I will want back.

Instead, I’ll miss the most everyday things imaginable: eating dinner, reading to each other, sharing silence. So this is how I am choosing to say what might be goodbye.

“It’s dawning on me that this is going to be more difficult than I thought,” he told me. “We have to prepare for that.”

He knows what he’s talking about. For weeks, he has been treating patients with the coronavirus. He has sent some home, knowing that they might come back. He has intubated others, easing breathing tubes down their throats and attaching those tubes to ventilators. He has watched people die as their liquid-filled lungs stop being able to absorb oxygen. A week ago, these patients were fine.

“This is a nasty disease,” he told me after he treated his first few patients. “It’s nothing like the flu.”

At the end of a 12-hour shift a few weeks ago, just as he was leaving, a patient went into cardiac arrest. As he has been trained to do, as he has done thousands of times before, my father bent close to the patient to try to save his life. He was wearing an eye-shield and a mask, but in the rush, they were not tightly secured. This, he thinks, is when he became infected. He tested positive on March 18.

Although I know that even for people of his age, chances are good that he will survive this, that doesn’t make me feel better. In the beginning, we were more optimistic. But this period, in the second week, is when patients either improve or get sicker. And his fever still remains stubbornly over 100 degrees.

“I’m not getting better,” he told me on Wednesday. “I’m not turning around.”

After an overnight stay at the hospital, we made the difficult decision that he should be at home. If he stayed at the hospital, he would be closer to help if he couldn’t breathe. The coronavirus acts fast, and he could go from a dry cough to drowning on dry land in a matter of hours.

But, as he wondered to me on the phone before I drove to get him, “Is it the best use of three relatively healthy days to be sitting alone in this room?”

I’ve never, ever seen my father admit that he is sick. He has no underlying health problems. But now, at home, he sleeps under two thick comforters, barely stirring when I come to collect laundry and dirty dishes. His normally too-loud-for-the-restaurant voice is muted. When he has the energy, I see him writing and rewriting a letter on a yellow legal pad. I hope I never have to read it.

We think loss looks the way it does at funerals, shivas and wakes, when the immediate slap still stings. Over rugelach and coffee, family and friends tell the remember-when stories and talk about achievements. There, on the immediate other side, death is baroque. This is what we call mourning.

And, in part, this social exegesis of a life is what death looks like. It’s a group activity, a ritual with a clearly defined order. If he dies, I will say Kaddish, the Jewish prayer repeated three times a day after a death. But after 10 months, as is tradition, I will stop.

Sometimes, I wonder if I should make some sort of declaration, to try to tell him all the things that don’t need telling. But anything I imagine saying seems forced and, somehow, unnecessary. He knows what he needs to know. We do not need to mourn together. That is not his job.

But, in a way, I am already grieving, squaring my shoulders to the possibility of an eternal not-there-ness that might become a new normal. Most bereavement therapists call this missing someone while they’re still alive “anticipatory grief,” the purgatorial wait before death.

That started when we went through the logistics driving home from the hospital on Tuesday. He told me that he does not want to be kept alive without hope for recovery. He told me how he would want me to hold memorial services in New York and Los Angeles, where he grew up, when it’s safe for people to come back together.

I know, I think, what grief will look like. In my reporting on food and death, I spoke to widows across the country who could barely eat, barely cook, because food was so integral to their memories of family life. Even years after their spouses died, dinnertime — that daily habit of sharing a meal — was where it hurt the most.

I’ll miss him drinking coffee in his favorite brown bear mug, his voice at the other end of the telephone. I’ll want to call him and then remember that I can’t anymore. He’s still very much alive, but I’m bracing for a future where he isn’t.

I know I have to be ready for another 5 a.m. drive back to the hospital, doing 40 in the right lane, windshield-wiping away silent tears. But no good musical ever ended on a ballad. And I don’t know how to say “I love you, Dad,” better than to do so often and simply. So for now, we’re just going to enjoy each other’s company, open another bottle of wine and hope for the best.

Amelia Nierenberg (@AJNierenberg) is the newsroom fellow for The Times’s Food section.

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