“I’m being punked.”
“I’m being punked. I’m on that prank show. This is not a hospital, this is a hotel room.”
My father’s cancer had progressed to his brain by the time he, too weak to sit up by himself in bed, had said this to his nurse at Hackensack Hospital. The series of drugs he was on at the time made him especially disoriented, to the point where he couldn’t recall who the president of the United States was or some of his grandchildren’s names. Only one month prior, he had been the picture of health: he lifted weights before 6:00 a.m. every morning, he cycled for miles on sunny afternoons, and he went out late to drink with friends on weekends. He was an extremely active and social 66 year old, and in a matter of weeks, all of that was gone. My father had been diagnosed with stage four renal cancer six weeks before he died. He had initially gone to see an orthopedist for a backache, only to find out that the source of it was a tumor on his spine that was bigger than his kidney. What was meant to be a day visit to the doctor became a month-long stay in the cancer ward. We had only been in quarantine a little over 30 days.
By the time my dad was diagnosed, my world had already changed so much from the way I knew it. My family was never one that liked to stay inside. We went to the movies, we went to restaurants, we took the subway to museums, parks and friends’ houses, we threw barbecues and hosted holidays, and we flew to places we’d never been before every summer.
Typically, these were the activities that made me happy even on my worst days, and in isolation, none of it was possible. It had been instilled in me growing up that when someone we care about is in crisis, we show up for them with ice cream and a tissue box. Suddenly, seeing someone in person, or even going to the grocery store to get them something like ice cream, presented risk.
Not only was my dad missing, but so were all the ways I knew how to make myself feel better. I didn’t tell many people when my dad got sick. Delivering that kind of news over a text or phone call felt wrong. Saying those words out loud without holding someone’s hand or looking into someone’s eyes felt detached and useless. Only a select few family friends knew when he was diagnosed and this made the experience all the more lonely amidst the mandated isolation holding America at a standstill.
To make matters worse, hospital visits were non-existent in quarantine. It was far too dangerous to let outsiders see people as immunocompromised as cancer patients.
I spent a lot of quarantine alone in my room as a result. I buoyed between long naps, long showers and long stretches of time dedicated to rewatching movies that hurt my feelings: “The Farewell,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri.” When none of that worked, I resigned to trying as hard as I could to make sure my 13 year old sister could not hear me crying through the wall.
We drove my dad to the hospital on April 24 and when he came back on June 2, he was an entirely different person. Sent away as a man with a bad back ache, he returned to the house as a skeleton who could barely speak above a whisper. The person who took me on my first bike ride, who had been there for two decades worth of birthdays, who picked me up from school for 14 years, who cooked me dinner every night, was unrecognizable. This made his sickness even more difficult to come to terms with.
My dad was deathly afraid of needles. When he had to get his flu shot or blood work done during check-ups, his reaction was always the same: sweaty palms, shaking fingers, and a need to look away. He was not cut out for a life of chemotherapy, surgery or the cocktail of pharmaceuticals that made him wake up wondering where he was and why his family had left him alone. I can only imagine how terrifying that must have been for him.
On June 5, we rushed him back to the hospital and on June 7, the hospital called my mom to say they weren’t sure he would make it through the year. Within the hour, it shortened to the summer, then a week, and by dinner time, they had called to tell us we should drive over as soon as possible to say goodbye. When we arrived at the hospital, they had explained only one of us could go into his room at a time to follow the hospital’s COVID-19 restrictions. When I walked in, he was in far worse condition than he had been in only days before. He couldn’t see me, he could barely hear me and his entire body fought to breathe. I remember grasping his hand tightly and bursting into tears. The last time I would ever see my dad would be in this much pain. When it was my little sister’s turn to say goodbye, I let go of his hand to open the door for her and as soon as our fingers disconnected he let out a suffocated and exasperated gasp. He was scared. He didn’t want to be abandoned. Not like this.
“I’m not leaving you, I promise,” I said.
I’ll never know if he heard me.
I found out my father died through a series of text messages. When I leaned over the side of my bed to turn off my alarm on the morning of June 8, my phone was flooded with “I’m sorry for your loss” texts from estranged family members. It didn’t feel real.
Within the week, my house was flooded with flowers and edible arrangements, but no number of orchids, roses, baked goods or condolence cards could make up for the fact there was an empty seat at my kitchen table. Not wanting to bring together a large group of people in the middle of a pandemic, no funeral was held. Our final goodbye was not one in the arms of family and friends, but deep in the loneliness of standing in a room with a man whose heart was struggling to beat.
I tried rationalizing it to myself. My dad loved the outdoors and he loved people. He talked to strangers like he had known them for years, he stayed at a ski lodge every winter to slope down black diamonds with his friends, and on our summer trips to Six Flags, he only agreed to get on rollercoasters with me under the condition that we sat in the very first car. Giving up the lifestyle he loved would’ve meant sacrificing the parts of himself people liked most, and in quarantine, he would’ve been miserable. In all honesty, there never would have been a better time for him to go. My family and I can look back on his life and know he did what made him happy right up until his very last days. He never had to learn to live in a world where he couldn’t do what he was passionate about and for that, he is lucky. But having to go through this during a national quarantine felt unfair. I was angry about the way I had to lose my father. No one should have to say goodbye through a mask.
The only upside of quarantine was that it placed a new significance upon the moments when people do show up for you. Friends dropped homemade meals off at our doorstep, stood in our backyard in cold, windy rain just to exchange comforting words with genuine eye contact, drove across miles and miles of state lines after testing negative to avoid public transportation and give us risk-free bear hugs. When it mattered most, the people we loved went out of their way to be there for us as physically as they could be. In this new reality, the best way to show others that you care about them is to distance yourself from them, but dealing with a loss this heavy proved that there are ways to comfort people without threatening their health and safety. Testing, self-isolating and going to be by someone’s side when they need you had become a selfless and honorable act. By the end of quarantine, a hug meant so much more to me than it ever had before. It hurt that so much of the comfort I needed from others would have to take place through Zoom, FaceTime, texts or phone calls. Nonetheless, the hours of screen time my closest friends put into listening to me cry, cheering me up, and making me laugh did make all the difference.
The last thing I said to my father was an apology for not saying “I love you” nearly as much as I should have. Fortunately for me, the best thing about telling someone “I love you” is that it can be just as heartfelt over the phone.
Kalli Jackson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.