Genuine Love in the Time of COVID
The last six months of my father’s life were spent in isolation from our family and his friends, but not, as I was to learn, from a new, adhoc family that embraced him.
Like millions across the U.S., the COVID lockdowns kept me, my mother, and my siblings completely apart from my 80-year-old father. But, in our case, the separation was even more pronounced because my father was in the fifth year of his struggle with Alzheimer’s.
He was living in a memory care center south of San Francisco. Even as his cognitive skills faded, he remained social and amiable. He made friends with fellow residents and could often be found sitting or playing games with them. My mom, my siblings, and I struggled to understand what he had to say, but not so for his care center friends. They seemed to follow right along.
But COVID took this connection from my father. He was now confined to his room. The only human contact he had was with the facility’s caregivers, who dressed and fed him and saw to his most basic human needs. Although we tried FaceTime, the sights and sounds of us on a device only seem to confuse and stress my father more.
Those nearly six months were the longest my parents had been apart since they found each other at ages 16 and 15. In August 2020, the center’s director called to let us know that my father’s health was in serious decline. My mother was allowed several brief compassionate visits, after being COVID tested and donning PPE to walk a long sterile hallway and up a back stairway to my father’s floor. By then, my father no longer recognized her.
Just before my mother’s birthday in mid-September, my father spiked a fever. Fortunately, some family visiting restrictions had been relaxed, and my mother, my brother, sister, and I were able to stay with my father during his final days. We took shifts, never leaving his side. On the morning of September 22, it was clear that my father’s passing was imminent. Our nuclear family gathered for what the last time on this earth.
After he took his final breath, my exhausted mother and siblings departed, but I felt compelled to stay a few more minutes with his body. The room that had just moments before been full and thick with human presences now felt empty. Yet, I sensed that in some way, my departed father was still present.
Unexpectedly, I heard a knock on the door. Six staff members were outside, asking if they might come in and pay their final respects. I nodded yes but was shocked. My father had advanced Alzheimer’s, how could he have made any impact on these men and women? Yet, in those few minutes, my father’s caregivers, who came from around the globe — the Philippines, Mexico, Romania, India, and Guatemala — told me how much they loved and appreciated my dad. One woman, Brenda, who was pregnant, placed her hands on her belly and said, “I would see your dad, in the morning he would gently put his hands on my belly and say, ‘Baby.’” Brenda wept as she shared my father’s kind and tender way with her.
Eva shared that every afternoon she offered him ice cream, and he delighted in this daily ritual.
“He was,” she told me, “always happy and playful… a joy to be around.”
Jose, who often groomed my dad and cut his hair in a perfect twenty-something style fade, spoke of my father’s warmth and good nature. Finally, Kimberly, a supervisor, said, “Your dad was always willing to help us. He would start laughing and was always cheerful. He was always very loving and very fun. We were blessed to have him.”
Then she looked at me with a tender, sincere gaze and said, “Thank you for sharing him with us. He was a treasure.”
I’m a family therapist by training, and I have never seen a more beautiful expression of family than the bonds that these disparate caregivers, whom COVID had almost certainly separated from their own loved ones, had forged with my father, and he also with them. Months of my own guilt melted away as I realized that my dad had indeed been cared for and loved by his adopted “family.”
As Thanksgiving approaches, my deepest gratitude goes to the legions of caregivers, who have risked their own health and well-being to care for our most vulnerable, who are our parents, our grandparents, and beloveds. And after months of lockdowns, suffering, and death, I will never forget the life-affirming beauty of that simple knock at the door.