Just a few days before we all were ordered to stay home, my dad died. Congenital heart failure was listed as the cause of death, not COVID-19, but the coronavirus would still impact us in a multitude of ways in the following weeks.
Before he passed, as the country started seeing more coronavirus cases in mid-March, I had urged Dad to stay inside until all the craziness could blow over. He thought I was overreacting, but quickly submitted to the comfort of his recliner and old Westerns on TV. That’s where I would find him about 10 days later. At times, I think he purposely passed away when he did so he wouldn’t be bombarded by my daily texts pestering him about his health.
Dad had a host of health issues—most pharmacies have fewer bottles of pills than the rows neatly arranged on his kitchen counter—and so he had planned his own funeral years ago. Whenever my dad would give me a ride to the airport, we would pass Stevens Mortuary, and he’d remind me that was his funeral home, as if I’d forgotten from the last time we drove by a month ago. Dad, who over the years I saw wear a suit maybe five times, was always dropping little hints about his funeral wishes, like how he wanted to be shown wearing his typical uniform of a work shirt and blue jeans. Or that he wanted the music of The Beatles to be played, although he didn’t need to tell me; he had been obsessed with the band before I was born.
The staff at Stevens was great, even if we had to reschedule the funeral at least once to make sure the service strictly followed the state’s newly implemented stay-at-home order and recommended social distancing standards. Unfortunately that meant there would have to be some changes to the service.
The viewing and funeral were combined into a lone three-hour session. The room could hold dozens of people, but at any given time we had no more than five. Besides the immediate family, only two other mourners showed up—the son of one of my dad’s neighbors and a friend of my sister’s who had never met my dad.
Dad was proud of his time in the Army, serving two tours of duty in Vietnam. He wanted a full military burial, and while two soldiers came to the service, folded the flag, and presented it to my sister Dianne, there was no soldier playing “Taps” or a 21-gun salute. We weren’t even allowed to attend the actual burial at Marion National Cemetery. It was tough; I wanted to be there, both for peace of mind and that final piece of closure. We eventually got a phone call, assuring us that everything went smoothly, but it’s not the same. We were later given a map to his gravesite, which we’ll visit after his headstone is in place and things begin to return to normal.
A few days before the service, I chatted for nearly an hour on the phone with the pastor who presided over the funeral. We were appreciative that despite the meager attendance, he performed the eulogy as if he were before a standing-room-only crowd. It may have been the only traditional part of the experience that remained unaltered. Hearing the stories about my dad from the podium, even if they were echoes of what I told the pastor earlier, was comforting.
We expected most people would stay away, especially considering we had told family and friends we would have a “celebration of life” event after everything calms down and the world begins to reopen. Still, we thought we’d get a handful more. He was always a bit of a loner, so the lack of turnout wouldn’t have bothered him too much. We meanwhile alternated between relief and disappointment. We were glad the low turnout meant we were doing our part to flatten the curve, but he deserved a bigger sendoff into the great unknown.
Instead of reliving memories with friends and relatives after the service, I eventually connected with some of Dad’s old Army buddies on Facebook. They were nice enough to share stories of their days serving in the 69th Engineer Battalion together, most of which I’d never heard before. Dad loved to talk about the inconveniences and hilarious disagreements with his commanding officers, but he rarely opened up about the scarier times, like the night more than 100 Viet Cong soldiers raided their base to destroy their Huey helicopters. I imagined being 20 years old in that situation, and it gave me a new appreciation and understanding for my dad that I wish I could have shared with him while he was still alive.
I have other regrets. Until the funeral, I hadn’t realized how touch and community is such an integral part of the grieving process. At times, the service felt more like a work function than a funeral. Except between my wife Dee and me, and Dianne and her husband Jim, there were no breaches of social-distancing rules; I was even hesitant to give my own sister a hug, instead defaulting to a quick pat on her shoulder.
Why? The last time I’d seen my dad in person was when he picked me up from the airport, on a trip with a layover in Seattle, one of the coronavirus hotspots. Even though the death certificate deemed the cause of death congenital heart failure, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was actually responsible for my dad’s death. Intellectually I knew it probably wasn’t true—there was no evidence of any kind of respiratory distress—but it didn’t stop me from blaming myself for weeks. The guilt and grief was a potent cocktail, which I combated with copious amounts of bourbon and silence.
I’d never give much thought to navigating grief in the middle of a pandemic. Why would I? After all, we’re Americans; things like this just don’t happen here. In normal times, your friends are there to buoy you from your sorrow. But with this virus, I’ve felt guilty leaning on others, weighing them down with my heartache when they’re dealing with their own sadness. Life right now seems like one huge ocean of sorrow, and many of us are drowning.