I’m not going to tell you another COVID story (enough already) other than to tell you that my Dad has it.
But I am going to tell you about all the people who told me, in one way or another, that it’s our fault. Our family did it all wrong. And now we feel embarrassed, ashamed.
There was the nurse who works for my Dad’s neurologist: she told me that I should never have put him in assisted living — never mind that his Parkinson’s disease was making him fall in the shower, and we didn’t want to see his head cracked open on the bathroom floor.
There’s the childhood friend, one I’ve known since kindergarten, who brags that she’s hermetically sealed her elderly parents into a tight bubble. After she fake-complains about having grocery shopped for them for months — not even trusting the random delivery person — she’ll ask how my father is, knowing full well he’s not well. She knows he’s suffering. She knows I wish I could have sealed him up tight too. The undercurrent of it all: I did right by my parents. You didn’t.
There’s the physical therapist who, when I asked if he wore a mask through the whole session, lectured me on his strong immunity “because he takes care of himself” — the implication being that everyone else doesn’t, in fact, take care of themselves.
And then there’s everyone else — the close friends, the acquaintances, the repair people, the customer service people — who try to distance themselves from the terror: Well, I always wear a mask. I get tested once a week. I’m taking zinc. I only surround myself with people who are careful. I haven’t left the house in nine months. Somehow a conversation about my Dad possibly dying suddenly becomes a conversation about whether they will die. (It used to be fun to remind them that they most certainly, definitely will die, someday. It’s less fun as time goes on).
The end result is that I’m embarrassed by it all. I’m embarrassed that my Dad might die of COVID. I pray for a stroke, or a heart attack, anything so that I don’t have to explain that we miscalculated. There’s a distant, logical, healthy part of my brain desperately knocking a locked door somewhere deep inside me, yelling That’s insane. That’s ridiculous. You did the best you could.
But I don’t pay attention to that voice. Enough people have said enough things that the shame is here to stay, I think. Of course, I could be imagining it all. Am I imagining the subtle ways that people say, That’s you, but not me? That’s you because you miscalculated. But not me.
If I didn’t have to announce it, I’d be okay with Dad dying. He’s told me for months how much he hates what Parkinson’s has done to him. Have you ever tried to pep talk to a guy who used to hike the Sierras and swim 1500 meters every day, who is now confined to a wheelchair? Not easy. So if COVID gave him an exit ramp — I mean what the hell, why not? It’s as good a death as any.
But of course, I would have to announce it, and that unshakeable shame is there, lurking. I try to imagine myself explaining to everyone — that nurse, that childhood friend, that physical therapist — that there is no perfect death, that it’s all a wild mess. That we can’t choose what takes us unless we commit suicide, which is embarrassing in a whole different way.
I’ve talked to enough friends who have watched their parents die to know that the end of life is utter chaos. There’s screaming and yelling until there is sedation, there’s bitching out nurses and doctors, with subsequent apologies in the form of cupcake deliveries for hospital staff. There’s physical pain, there’s denial, there’s regret, there’s terror and tremors and there’s just no easy way to do this.
I know all this, and yet here I am worrying about how it will all look. Imagining how I will announce it, how I’ll dance around the elephant in the room: that we put Dad in “a home” when we knew those places were dangerous. No matter that everywhere is dangerous at the moment. We screwed up.
When Dad first got his diagnosis and was still feeling pretty good, I told him that he could die of anything he wanted, just not COVID. I told him it was the Pumpkin Spiced Latte of death. I told him it was the Basic Bitch way to go. He smiled and played along. He didn’t understand, but in a way of course he did: you can feel the shame of it all, swirling around, even if you don’t know how basic pumpkin spice actually is.
But long before all that, before the diagnosis, before the move to assisted living but after I figured out what Parkinson’s had done to my once very vibrant Dad, I had a dream: I was burying my father in an afternoon light, the kind of light only Los Angeles can deliver. The kind of light that reminds you of hot desert winds and beach days, and holding a beer up to sunlight. In that glow, I saw my Dad’s coffin go into the ground, and I felt…fine. I woke up thinking that this exact scenario would unfold this fall and it felt right.
But Dad didn’t die this fall. He made friends and started playing cards and Monopoly and started going to exercise class and I realized the dream was silly, was nothing at all, was meaningless, was just the flotsam of my brain being cleaned up.
But now, looking back, maybe the dream was the epitome of a dream, a dream with a capital D, in that showed what is perhaps unattainable: a peaceful death, a gentle death, a win, if you will.
You know, the kind of death you can brag about. One I can describe to my childhood friend by saying Yeah, it was from COVID, but it was so peaceful and gentle, the subtext of course being, Let’s see you guide your parents to such a chill death. Perhaps I’d call up that nurse and say, Remember when you said my Dad shouldn’t be in a home? Well his death from COVID was way better than some of those end-stage Parkinson’s deaths I’ve heard about.
These semi-revenge fantasies, in which I have the perfect retort to everyone who made me feel like I did it all wrong, shows how ingrained the shame of it all is. The shame is here to stay, but there’s nothing to do about it. I’m going to be embarrassed if he dies of COVID, and then I’ll be embarrassed that I’m embarrassed in the first place, because logically it’s all so ridiculous. I’m embarrassed now, writing this.
Is this normal? Or have I just admitted something so completely far off the rails that men with butterfly nets should be knocking at my door to haul me away? Is it just me, someone who grits her teeth and tries to control everything, at all times, finding the inability to do so now is more than I can bear? Or does everyone feel a twinge of it, a moment of shame when they have to explain that a loved one’s death, or even their own imminent death, was caused by human imperfection: too many cigarettes, cocktail parties, driving a little too fast, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, too much sugar, or just the temerity to stick around a little too long. Perhaps death is embarrassing because it’s the ultimate loss of control. The ultimate fail. The ultimate stupid human trick.
I don’t know, of course. I do know that the embarrassment and shame will be part of how I handle it all. I won’t mention the elemental, hard parts of my Dad’s sickness. I’ll send group emails with information and when the responses flood in, reply to no one. I’ll announce it on Instagram and turn off comments.
I’ll put the phone on do not disturb, and pick it up a year or so later, when everyone has forgotten and moved on. I’ll reconnect when I don’t have to explain the details or talk about how he was scared, and in pain, and how we couldn’t do anything right like get him hydrated enough and how we couldn’t say anything to make him less scared.
You know, I’ll try to control it all. Make it a win. Because that’s less embarrassing.