My father and coronavirus
’m sorry, there’s absolutely no visitors allowed. Yes, I understand it’s Father’s Day, but that’s our policy, I’m sorry.”
One week later: “I’m sorry, we’re still not allowing visitors. Sir, I understand that Tuesday is your father’s 80th birthday, but there’s nothing we can do. You can FaceTime him if you want?”
It’s been four treacherous, unimaginable months since I’ve seen my father. On March 23, he tested positive for COVID-19, which began a 100-day roller coaster ride through hell on a track that has spanned three hospitals and two rehabilitation facilities.
The first 42 days of his battle were fought against COVID-19 and the bilateral pneumonia that accompanied it. From a nasal cannula to a low-flow mask to a high-flow mask and back, he was able to overcome the severe oxygen deficiency and pull through.
For the last 58 days, his struggle has been against the after-effects of the virus. His challenges are substantial, but his strength has been extraordinary.
Before the pandemic, my father lived comfortably in an assisted-living facility on Long Island. I’d try to see him once a month; it didn’t always happen. What I wouldn’t pay now for five minutes with him, to see him eat vanilla ice cream with chocolate sprinkles, or “jimmies,” as he calls them.
This past week I almost got my wish: A nurse at his rehabilitation facility told me that my father was going to an imaging center for an MRI, and one person could assist him. The night before his appointment, I was so excited that I could not sleep. Over and over in my mind, I visualized the encounter and the smile on his face at first glance.
The next morning I got in my car, drove from Connecticut to the imaging center in Long Island, and waited outside the facility for the ambulance’s 11:30 arrival time.
It never came. At 11:45, I called his rehab facility to confirm that he was on his way. They told me the appointment had been canceled last minute due to insurance reasons. The ambulance could not drive to this location without being paid a $500 fee.
Dejected, I got back in my car, took off my mask and turned on the radio. Blasting at full volume was “Everybody Hurts” by R.E.M. Yes, sometimes God scores your life to perfection.
The only contact I have had with my father is through FaceTime, a godsend during this pandemic. While better than nothing, a FaceTime visit pales in comparison to the inperson variety; it’s the difference between seeing a picture of the Sistine Chapel ceiling and standing under it looking up. The screen freezes, his body language is unreadable, and most crippling, eye contact is absent. It is impossible to look someone in the eye on FaceTime because they are staring at a screen, not your face. The little square in the bottom right corner of your own visage further dulls the connection, because like a mirror, we are drawn to our own image.
I know I’m one of the lucky ones. Thousands of people with mothers and fathers and grandmothers and grandfathers in nursing homes have lost them to this virus. They haven’t been able to hold their hands in their final moments, a pain I cannot imagine.
Today is dad’s big day. I fantasize scaling the facility walls like Spider-Man and sneaking into his room. Giving him a cupcake with a candle that he can blow out with his recovered lungs.
Then reality sets in and reminds me that I cannot be selfish and put all of the other residents in jeopardy; my delusive ability to scale walls is also resolved.
And so, today, we will celebrate dad’s birthday on a screen. I will remind myself that while I’d want nothing more than to be sitting there with him, I have learned that no day is guaranteed, and to be able to rejoice with him in any way is the greatest gift.
Ginsburg is author of “Pumping Irony: How to Build Muscle, Lose Weight, and Have the Last Laugh.”