“I’m not getting better,” he told me on Wednesday. “I’m not turning around.”
After an overnight stay at the hospital, we made the difficult decision that he should be at home. If he stayed at the hospital, he would be closer to help if he couldn’t breathe. The coronavirus acts fast, and he could go from a dry cough to drowning on dry land in a matter of hours.
But, as he wondered to me on the phone before I drove to get him, “Is it the best use of three relatively healthy days to be sitting alone in this room?”
I’ve never, ever seen my father admit that he is sick. He has no underlying health problems. But now, at home, he sleeps under two thick comforters, barely stirring when I come to collect laundry and dirty dishes. His normally too-loud-for-the-restaurant voice is muted. When he has the energy, I see him writing and rewriting a letter on a yellow legal pad. I hope I never have to read it.
We think loss looks the way it does at funerals, shivas and wakes, when the immediate slap still stings. Over rugelach and coffee, family and friends tell the remember-when stories and talk about achievements. There, on the immediate other side, death is baroque. This is what we call mourning.
And, in part, this social exegesis of a life is what death looks like. It’s a group activity, a ritual with a clearly defined order. If he dies, I will say Kaddish, the Jewish prayer repeated three times a day after a death. But after 10 months, as is tradition, I will stop.
Sometimes, I wonder if I should make some sort of declaration, to try to tell him all the things that don’t need telling. But anything I imagine saying seems forced and, somehow, unnecessary. He knows what he needs to know. We do not need to mourn together. That is not his job.
But, in a way, I am already grieving, squaring my shoulders to the possibility of an eternal not-there-ness that might become a new normal. Most bereavement therapists call this missing someone while they’re still alive “anticipatory grief,” the purgatorial wait before death.