On January 18th, 2021 I lost my dad. This happened only six months after I had suffered the loss of my mother. When it became clear his final days were upon us, I remember thinking I wasn’t ready to face another huge loss so soon. But this was never going to be a choice. This was going to be one of those moments when the universe put me in my place, showing me quite plainly that nothing at all was under my control.
My Dad’s passing was a gradual winding down beginning in mid October when he fell and cracked a vertebrae, that ultimately ended him up in the hospital. This accident happened as the COVID-19 pandemic was gaining momentum throughout the western United States, where my family lives. The hospital protocols for COVID allowed for only one visitor in the room at a time, and once you left the room you could not return for 24 hours. The policy ratcheted up the level of stress and exhaustion for my dad, my step mom, Judy, and my sisters, bringing it to a worrisome level.
My dad was in the hospital for a few days, when the doctors began to talk about discharging him. He was still very weak, in need of a lot of assistance, and his level of care was definitely more than my family could handle on their own, but space was at a premium in the hospital, so the doctors arranged to transfer him to a rehab facility. Given how hard COVID-19 had hit rehab and nursing home facilities, their pandemic policies were even stricter. There were no visitations allowed at all. We could call him, but the closest anyone could get to seeing my dad was to stand outside the facility in the November cold, just below his window, and call up to him. My dad suffered from Alzheimer’s, and this separation from family was traumatizing and impossible for him to understand. He wasn’t aware there was a pandemic, he didn’t even believe he’d broken a vertebrae. He kept insisting that they had confused him with another elderly doctor. He was fine. A terrible mistake had been made. Whenever we would call he would beg for us to get him out of there and bring him home. He gave his phone number to anyone who came to his room to care for him, pleading with them to just call his family so they could come rescue him from this horrible mistake that had been made.
What else could we do? We rescued him. We arranged for 24/7 care at home, and Mark and I flew out in early November wanting to help the family navigate all the chaos of these unchartered waters. It took my dad a few days to realize he was safe again. In his bad moments, when he couldn’t remember, and his anxiety levels would climb, he would recite his phone number and ask us to call his family. We kept reassuring him that he was exactly where he wanted to be, safe and at home.
By the time Mark and I had to fly back, it was clear the ordeal of the hospital and rehab was receding. He knew where he was and who he was with. He was really happy to be home, but he barely ate or drank, and he refused to work with the physical therapist. He just wanted to lie in bed or sit in his chair by the fire, with his little dog, Sam, perched atop the back cushion (as was Sam’s habit). He got on well with the caretakers, and as long as he could see and hear Judy nearby his world felt safe and complete. By early December, the physical therapist declared it was time to stop services, it was clear there was not going to be a recovery. My dad had come home to die. Hospice was brought in and we began our final vigil as each day he ate, drank and moved around less and less.
Around this time, COVID-19 made a much more dramatic entrance into my family’s life. It began at first by striking a couple of the aides who had been helping us. At first we all believed the family had dodged a bullet as everyone came back with a negative test result. The aides recovered and were soon able to return to work. But the pandemic was now spreading dramatically all through the Denver area, and one cold December day I got the call that Judy had tested positive. In my life, I have been blessed by three very different mothers; my mom, my step mom, and my mother-in-law. I have been loved and shaped by each of them, and I have loved them all deeply in return. Judy is the last of that triad left to me now. The thought of losing her too had me clenching my jaw and pacing the floors. She isolated herself in the guest bedroom, and we all began a second vigil closely tracking the course of the illness through Judy’s body. My dad valiantly tried to storm the ramparts, uncertain why Judy was being locked away from him, but the aides were able to dissuade him, and Judy was able to talk to him through the door trying to help him see why this was for his own safety. Eventually he settled down waiting for her to get well and come back to him. As for my sisters and I, we watched. At day ten we all allowed ourselves to breathe a sigh of relief and began to wonder when it would be safe for Judy to reunite with my dad. Dad made that decision for us. He took a turn for the worse, becoming so weak that the aides needed Judy’s help to adequately care for him.
A hospital bed was brought in, and my dad no longer tried to get up. I would sit with Judy, and an ever changing scene of my sisters, their husbands and their children as we all gathered around his bedside for hours each day. I say I sat, but in reality I was held, in someone’s phone or ipad, all of us joined together by an app that had become a life line called Houseparty. The app worked so well that even my Dad thought I was there in the room with him. I sang to him, I visited with family, I met the visiting nurses and home care professionals.
As the days went on I kept my phone always close, never knowing when I would get the call to say he was gone. At one point, my family called to say that Dad was asking for me, wanting me to sing some more for him. It struck me just how long it had been since he’d asked for me by name. Over the past year, I had taken to starting each phone call with him by announcing I was his daughter, Ilana, calling from Connecticut. I did it to spare him any embarrassment or anxiety in exposing the degree of his memory loss. To know he had asked for me by name touched my heart so deeply. It indicated a level of awareness that we hadn’t had clear evidence of for a while. And indeed, as his body shut down more and more it seemed as if his mind became clearer, and that he often was aware of who we were, where he was, and comforted by our presence.
On the last night of his life, I sang to him again. At that point I didn’t realize this would be the last song I would sing to him in this life. When the song was done, however, our eyes met and we held each other’s gaze for what felt like a long time, maybe it was only seconds. He was too weak to speak, but when I told him I loved him, I saw his lips move, and I’m certain he was saying that he loved me too. The next day, my family called to tell me they thought he had taken his last breath. While we were on the phone, Judy exclaimed that there was another breath, and then finally it was done, the clock had run out, he was really gone.
That was over a month ago now. We held a zoom service that was lovely and family centered, where we honored his memory and told his story. I opened the service singing the song “You Raise Me Up.” As I sang, my grandson, Avery, (who was watching the service from my house alongside his mom and dad) got up and came over to me. I thought he wanted me to pick him up, so I did, even as I continued to sing. I was so focused on the song that I never realized until the end that his main purpose had been to give me a cracker from his snack plate. I think he wanted me to feel less sad and had determined that a cracker ought to do it. All my siblings took part in the service. Adi, Ron and Dan all gave heartfelt eulogies, Ann began to read “The Lord is My Shepherd,” but she broke down in tears. Then her son, Xavier, tried to read a beautiful poem about love and loss He also broke into tears. Ann stepped in and did for him what she hadn’t been able to do for herself, she read the words with strength and clarity until he was able to join back in. In a more formal setting neither of them would have dared to speak, but in this familiar setting, my Dad’s living room, they took a chance and gave us one of the sweetest moments of the service. Mark read some Hebrew prayers, we lit our memorial candles, and then concluded the zoom service by letting family and friends talk about their memories of my dad. All the stories made one thing very clear. My Dad was the kind of person who always ran toward those who were in need. He truly had healing hands. He didn’t need to know you, he didn’t even need to like you. It didn’t matter if you were so important to him that the fear of losing you might cripple him. Whenever faced with the choice, he never hesitated to use those hands to stop the pain, to save a life. After his long decline with Alzheimers, it felt so good to remember and reconnect with the man he had once been, the man he had chosen to be.
Three days after our memorial service we buried my dad with full military honors. We had been lucky finding a burial slot just a little over a week out after my dad’s passing. COVID had bereft so many families, and we knew of others who had needed to wait for weeks to bury their loved ones. Again, I was present at the service via zoom along with my husband and children and grandchildren. My brother in law did a great job helping us feel like we were there making sure we saw everything from the long drive in, which included a lengthy wait inside the car until it was safe for us to proceed to the pavilion assigned for our service. This wait was necessary because of the steady stream of funerals that carried on non-stop all through the day. Through the ipad’s camera, I saw the small gathering of my family around the flag draped casket; I heard the lone trumpet playing taps followed by the 21 gun salute; I sang to my family a prayer of healing for the living; I saw the honor guard fold up the flag and hand it to Judy; I went with everyone to the graveside where Mark recited more Hebrew prayers and the family threw flowers and sand from Israel on top of the casket. And then it was done, my dad was in his final resting place, and we were all left behind to navigate our grief.
That was late January, it is now early March. After 8 months and two painful losses I know some things about death that I didn’t know before. I learned that each loss feels different, it is as individual as each loved one who has departed. I had assumed that what helped me mourn my mom would help me mourn my dad. That was true up to a point, but each grief had to unfold in its own way and in its own time. Ultimately, what I had to face with both my parents was the need to just accept them as they were. They had made mistakes in their lives, but so have I, so have we all. None of us are meant to be perfect. When all the messy emotions were dredged up and held to the light of day, I discovered that none of what once had wounded me mattered anymore. The experience of what we’d shared together showed me the true measure of what we were to each other. All I felt now was an immense gratitude for their love, and for the chance I had been given to love them and share in their life’s journey.