On Tuesday, May 5, around 8:30 p.m., my phone rang. The caller ID showed it was my dad.
“Randy,” he said, with his voice cracking. “Mom just died.”
As my father began to cry, my brain immediately kicked into a weird, calm taking-care-of-business crisis mode that I’ve experienced before in times of stress. I gathered the facts, and I tried to calm my father. The pastor from his church was with him. No, he had not called 911 yet, just the pastor. He was sure my mom was dead. She had been feeling especially weak and lethargic for several days and needed help standing up. He tried to help her, and she took a gasp for breath and died in his arms.
I told him to call 911 and call me back. I stayed on the phone with him as paramedics arrived and confirmed my mother was dead. While I talked with my dad and reassured him, the question was already in my mind: Could this be COVID-19?
When my mother began sliding into dementia around 2010 (right around the time of my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary and my mother’s 80th birthday) my father was resolute on three points: (1) avoid a nursing home for my mom and himself at all costs (2) he would be my mother’s primary caregiver, and (3) his main goal, as he often said, was to “live one day longer than my Ruby.”
In late March, shortly after the COVID-19 lockdown began, my mother broke her hip. After hip replacement surgery, she was moved to a nursing and rehab center in Russellville, Kentucky, just 17 miles from my parents’ home. The facility was under strict lockdown, and Dad could only see my mother through the lobby window and talk to her on his phone. I knew he was lonely, cut off from my mother, church activities, and the local Saturday night karaoke sessions where he loved to sing Eddy Arnold and bluegrass songs. I also felt slightly hopeful that the current situation might keep them both safe.
On April 30, I’d planned to call my father in the evening, after he visited mom. It was my parents’ 60th wedding anniversary, and I knew the day would be hard for him. That afternoon, I got a call from the nursing home about my father checking my mother out of the facility against her doctor’s advice. Calling him immediately, I confirmed she was home. He wanted her home for their anniversary, and with the help of the caregiver who helped him out around the house, they had brought her home. As our conversation wound on, I found my initial surprise and frustration mixing with compassion. I didn’t think it was a wise decision, but I hoped I was wrong.
Five days later, my mother died.
The next morning my sense of dread grew. My father called about the funeral arrangements and began by saying he didn’t want me or my brother to attend the service. It was going to be a simple graveside service with no attendees, but there was a chance Mom might have had, as he worded it, “that terrible virus.” I also discovered that the nursing home my mother was in already had several confirmed cases of COVID-19 (and they would eventually tally over 50
Over the next few days, I talked to my father every day, checking on his physical and emotional condition. On Friday, May 8, we had a long conversation. He’d just finished riding the exercise bike in his living room, his preferred form of workout since he now needed a cane or a walker, and because it allowed him to keep watching Westerns on MeTV.
We talked about Mom, and even though he was still deeply grieving, there was a note of hope. “It’s going to be really hard without Mom,” he said. “But I think I’ll be okay. I’m pretty good at adapting.”
A little over 48 hours later, my dad was in the hospital. Sunday night, after he’d gone to bed he began having trouble breathing. Shortly after midnight, he called his brother, and my aunt and uncle drove him to Logan County Memorial Hospital in Russellville, where he was admitted.
“Can I go be with Ruby now?”
The next day, when I spoke with him, he was receiving oxygen and was still short of breath but otherwise alert. The following morning he seemed in an even better mood — more concerned about the soggy bacon with his breakfast than worried about his health. I joked that as long as he had his appetite, he could beat anything.
That night I got a call from the hospital confirming he had COVID-19. He was doing well but required 15 liters of oxygen per minute to keep his blood oxygenation at an acceptable level. To put that in perspective, he now needed air that was 80 percent oxygen, compared to the 21 percent oxygen in the atmosphere.
The next morning he had no interest in food and was even weaker. I told him to get as much rest as possible. “If there’s anybody that can beat this in their nineties, it’s you,” I said.
“I sure hope so,” my dad replied with little enthusiasm.
Over the next few days, I could hear a precipitous decline in my father’s energy and focus. On Sunday, I headed north to visit him and secure some paperwork at his house to pay his bills. It was becoming apparent he wasn’t going home anytime soon.
At the hospital, I walked through the grass at the back of the building and peered into the window of his room. The nurse spotted me first, and my dad looked excited to see me. We spoke briefly on the phone. His frailty was shocking. My dad was not a big man, but he’d always been solid, like a bull terrier, stubborn to a fault at times but with a hearty appetite for work and play. Just 10 days earlier he’d been cranking away on his exercise bike while Marshall Matt Dillon tracked down outlaws.
But by the next day, my dad had taken a dramatic decline. He was regularly coughing up dark brown phlegm, and they were trying to stay ahead of pneumonia. One of the nurses arranged a Zoom call via a tablet she held for him. He was hard to understand unless he pulled off his oxygen mask, which made him out of breath within seconds.
The same day, I received the call I’d been dreading. His doctor spelled out the facts compassionately but in detail. The virus had ravaged my father’s lungs; there was no real hope of recovery. It was just a matter of time.
May 20, 2020, the day after my 57th birthday was the last time I spoke to my father. The nurse held the tablet for him but he never seemed to fully comprehend it was me on the screen. With his oxygen mask on, he was hard to understand. He seemed to be repeating something. The nurse removed the mask and, with his speech slurred, he said, “When am I going to be with Mom? Can I go be with Ruby now?”
Over the next 12 days, I continued calling the hospital daily. The nurses I spoke with were first-rate — compassionate and thorough. Each time, I received a report on his condition, but it was always the same. He was mostly incoherent; speaking just agitated him.
On Monday, June 1, 2020, at 10:59 a.m. CDT, my father, Frank Jewell Fox, died at the age of 92, just 27 days after my mother, Ruby Jeanette Fox, died at the age of 90. My father was killed by a virus that was allowed to run rampant in the United States through incompetence, ignorance, neglect, and greed. An enemy is still being given aid and comfort by people too selfish or shortsighted to take the simplest and most basic precautions to slow its spread. Although my mother was never tested for the virus, in all likelihood, it was the cause of her sudden heart failure, making her one of possibly thousands of unrecorded COVID-19 fatalities.
Even under the best circumstances, my mother and father may have still been victims of the virus. While it would not eliminate the grief, knowing that the unifying American spirit of community, shared sacrifice, and compassion that rose to meet past challenges faced by our country would provide solace. Instead, we live in an era where the concept of “government of the people, by the people, [and] for the people,” was usurped four decades ago by: “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” Once again, we are reaping the bitter fruit of that foolish and insidious mantra.