“The empty house felt both familiar and foreign. I was overwhelmed with grief. The Long Goodbye: Burying My Dad During COVID-19

By James Rogers

“A busy transatlantic phone call launched a series of transatlantic trips and a long search for closure, amid the ongoing pandemic”

When my 74-year-old father passed away in February 2020, the pandemic was beginning to make its deadly path across the world. In a world ravaged by COVID-19, I had no idea it would take more than two years to say my final goodbye.

Here is a log of the events that took place:

November 2019

During our weekly Skype session, which was marked as usual by my father chatting with the grandchildren before he and I returned to discussing football, he mentioned that he didn’t want me to be alarmed when we would see him at Christmas, but he had lost a lot of weight quite quickly. He didn’t feel sick, he said, but it was a concern.

Christmas 2019

I was shocked by my father’s appearance. He said he had no appetite. We couldn’t convince him to eat. We begged him to seek medical help and he finally agreed to do so.

January 2020

I returned to the UK for a week, ferrying my dad to and from medical tests. During that week, I planned to take him out for a drink, but he didn’t leave the house except for doctor’s appointments.

February 24, 2020

I was at my office in midtown Manhattan thinking about having lunch when my cell phone rang. Looking down, I was surprised by the caller ID, which showed that my father, who lived in Liverpool, England, was calling me on his cell phone. Strange, I thought. My dad, a creature of habit, always called me on his landline.

I had spoken to Dad the day before and was due to return to Liverpool in a few days to check on him and take him to the doctor.

I took my phone. “Father?” I say, moving from my office to a small office nearby. But it wasn’t my father; it was Brenda, one of her oldest friends, who had been my kindergarten teacher. Like many of his friends, she had watched him regularly since his health had deteriorated. He was a diabetic living alone, and everyone was worried. It was late afternoon in the UK, and Brenda’s daughter, Justine, had noticed that the bedroom curtains were still drawn. The doorbell had no answer.

Brenda said the police broke into my dad’s front door and found him upstairs in his bed. He was insensitive. I could hear voices and activity in the background. “I’ll put the paramedic on,” she said.

As the panic mounted, I had to fight the urge to vomit into the nearest trash can.

The paramedic asked me who I was. I have confirmed that I am my father’s son. “Your father’s blood sugar is in his boots,” he said, pausing. “Listen…he’s going to die.

But he was still alive. “Are you taking him to Whiston?” I asked, my voice cracking. The paramedic said yes, they were taking him to Whiston, the local hospital.

My dad was a social worker at Whiston Hospital until he retired. My mother was also rushed there before her death in 2004.

My hands shaking, I started frantically texting my family in the UK, telling them what had happened and that I would be home as soon as possible. I needed to find a flight.

My head was spinning, I called a travel site – the music on hold was “Homeward Bound” by Simon and Garfunkel, a song I had always loved but now hurt. Juggling between texts and calls from my family, I booked a flight to Manchester, via Dublin, which left JFK in a few hours. I would return to the UK early the next day.

My cousin Elaine, a nurse, called to tell me that my father had not been admitted to the hospital. That could mean he died in the ambulance, she explained. Heart pounding, I called the hospital and asked if he had been admitted. “No,” replied the person who picked up. My heart sank. “Oh wait – they just brought it.”

Suddenly, there was a glimmer of hope. “How is he?” I asked. “They’re working on him now,” she replied.

I ran to the subway — I needed to grab my passport and some clothes from our apartment in Brooklyn and go to JFK. I went home and opened my wardrobe. Should I take my costume? The sickening thought of a funeral. But maybe, by some miracle, the hospital staff could save him. Could I come back to Liverpool to say goodbye?

My phone rang. It was Elaine. “I’m sorry,” she said. “He is dead.” I went on autopilot and thanked her for telling me – it wasn’t an easy call for her to make. Dazed, I left the apartment and headed for JFK. I don’t remember much from the trip – I couldn’t sleep so I watched a few movies, but I have no idea what they were.

February 25, 2020

My uncle Joe met me at Manchester airport. I could see the pain etched into his face. We walked to his car and I realized I was still wearing the clothes I wore to work the night before. As we drove towards Liverpool, I also realized that I was alone – my wife and children were in New York. I am an only child. I had no idea what I was going to do.

I came back to the present as we drove away from the airport. “There might be police tape on the front door,” my uncle told me.

We arrived at my father’s house – my childhood home, full of so many fond memories. There was no police tape. The door was intact – it was snagged on the chain when the police broke it down – but it was not locked. I took a deep breath and went inside. The first thing I saw were the multiple framed photos of my children adorning the living room. Two cute smiling Americans. The empty house seemed both familiar and foreign. I was overwhelmed with grief.

I walked around. There were unwashed teacups here and there and yesterday’s newspapers. I could see scuff marks on the floor left by police and paramedic boots. On the dining table was a poem I had written when I was 9 or 10 called “My Home” – it was about home and my parents. I had long since forgotten the poem, but it was obviously important to my father. Perhaps sensing that he was nearing the end, did he leave it to me to find him?

Upstairs, in his room, there were abandoned packages of paramedic equipment.

My uncle gave me the number for the hospital’s Bereavement Center. With a lump in my throat, I made an appointment to view my father’s remains that afternoon. When I arrived a member of staff brought me a bottle of water and sat with me for a while before seeing him. She was calm and kind.

February 26 to March 5, 2020

A letter arrived containing the results of my father’s recent medical tests. Nothing of concern had been found.

In the days that followed, I used funeral planning as a coping mechanism. Several years earlier, my father had written a letter explaining what he wanted in the event of his death. From his undertaker and stonemason to the hymns of his requiem mass, it was all there.

The morning after returning to the UK, I took a short walk in the February chill to the funeral director’s office and went through the eerily commonplace process of choosing a coffin and tentatively arranging his funeral. , the date to be set once we have the death certificate.

I was in limbo, sitting in the empty house, trying to grasp what had happened. A steady stream of family and friends passed by, many with food and cards stacked next to the front door. “When is the funeral?” I have been asked over and over again.

At night, when everyone was gone, I sat in my father’s favorite chair watching TV. The coronavirus was appearing on the news more frequently, but it was still an abstraction to me.

Falling asleep was difficult. The first night, I dreamed that my father was in the next room calling me for help. I woke up with a start and the terrible realization that I couldn’t help it. Rain and sleet were pounding on the window next to my bed.

I started to deal with the bureaucracy of notifying banks, insurance companies and pension companies.

The wait for the death certificate continued as authorities tried to establish the cause of my father’s death.

I kept planning. I visited our parish church and attended its requiem mass. I made lists of readers and carriers. There were more conversations about the coronavirus, as people talked about possible cases in parts of Liverpool. It always seemed unreal.

After a week, there was no sign of a death certificate. I should come back to Liverpool to bury my father. Early in the morning of March 5, I flew to the United States via Dusseldorf. At immigration, I was asked if I had been to Italy or China.

I was relieved to find my wife and children. When we could, we would set a date for the funeral and come back together for it. I would no longer be alone.

March 13, 2020

About a week after I returned to the United States, the coroner’s office issued a provisional death certificate. There was going to be a death inquest, but with the provisional certificate, we could proceed with the funeral and bury my father with my mother, as he wished. A date has been set for March 26.

But the pandemic was making its way across the world. Restrictions on travel and public gatherings soon followed. I postponed the funeral, in limbo again.

Family and friends, like Joey, my dad’s neighbor, stepped up to take care of the house.

April 2020

The funeral director, very aware of the reality of the pandemic, urged me to act. Realizing now that it would be a long time before normal life resumed, I scheduled a funeral for May 7. With funerals in churches suspended, there would be a small funeral service with only 10 people present, a far cry from the crowded church funerals I had envisioned. Although anxious about the risks of the trip, I felt I had to be there.

May 5, 2020

I left alone, arriving at a strangely deserted JFK. There were only a handful of flights on the arrivals and departures boards. On check in I was told that my connection from Dublin to Manchester had been cancelled. “There will be another on Sunday,” the person at the reception told me. “But I’m burying my father on Thursday!” I replied, panic rising.

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08-27-22 1423ET

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