They were nursing home residents in northwest Indiana. My mother was in long-term care, and my sisters and I placed our father in the same facility to receive hospice care so they could see each other while his terminal illness progressed. They were married for 49 years: My father was loquacious but wounded by life and a challenge to love; my mother, a world-class hugger, was humble and a closet philosopher.

A patient is treated Dec. 23 at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton, Calif. The 456-bed facility has run out of ICU space amid an onslaught of COVID cases across Southern California. Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via TNS

He slowly suffocated to death over four months as the severe scarring in his lungs starved his body of oxygen. He had inhaled asbestos while working in the steel industry, a workplace that allowed him to rise to the level of supervisor but also hardened him.

She coughed to the point of agony, while her body desperately tried to deal with the backup of fluid in her chest from a failing heart. She had a port put in to drain the fluid and ease the burden, but it became infected and it had to be removed.

I didn’t lose my parents to COVID-19. But I feel rage when I hear how easy it is for some people to dismiss the seriousness and the severity of the pandemic, to distance themselves from it, by saying that it’s largely the elderly who are dying. “See? Look at the numbers. The virus is mainly killing people 65 and older. We need to stop living in fear and get on with our lives.”

More than 400,000 Americans have died of COVID-19. Numbers and the value of life aside, are those deaths painless? Is the suffering over in minutes? I suspect not. Read the reporting.

I’m not going to ask you to imagine what it’s like to hopelessly gasp for breath. But I would like you to imagine what it’s like to be the one who watches as someone you love fights to breathe in a failing body. As her suffering gets drawn out. As the terror grows in his eyes.

My sisters and I couldn’t stop our parents’ pain, but we watched and listened and held their hands. We gave them what we could. We offered them the love of daughters and the reverence of witnesses.

But I imagine what it would have been like to not be a witness for them. To be kept from my parents while they faced the most terrifying time of their lives because strict and necessary infection protocols for a deadly virus would not allow family to be near.

My father went into a coma while I was at work. I got the message from the nursing home after I’d gotten home. I drove to Indiana, fighting the urge to speed, knowing that I was distracted, forcing myself to be careful.

He died a few minutes before I turned into the parking lot. He was surrounded by my mother and my sisters, but I hate myself still for not speeding, for not getting there sooner. Because it mattered to me to be there before he passed. It mattered so much.

Imagine the anguish of dying, as weak and vulnerable as a child, with no comfort of family. And imagine the horror of being forced to stay away from your loved one as he or she faces a torturous death.

It really isn’t so easy to dismiss so many deaths when you imagine those things.


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