Family Grief


At this point in the pandemic, daytime brings hope. Pictures of friends getting vaccines, talk of summer travel, and, at work, I am not responding to crisis. But the nights are for grief, and grief has its own habits. I leash up our dog, check for deer and raccoons lest said dog go berserk, and together we walk into the dark. Orion, the Hunter greets us over the house across the street. He’s accompanied by the Gemini aka, Castor and Pollux. As we turn the corner, The Big Dipper comes into view with Cassiopeia rising over the bike path. The stars in our neighborhood seem so much brighter these days. Maybe less pollution or ambient light or perhaps they shine brighter as a reminder of what remains when the world goes sideways. 

Tomorrow will be the anniversary of the last day I spent with my dad. I’ve tried to remember all of it. But I can’t. Just the terrible moment when I returned after running a few errands and the door to his assisted living facility was locked. The tears, the hyperventilation, banging on the door, the relief when his hospice nurse walked up and said she’d work something out, splashing water on my face so I wouldn’t alarm him before I returned to his room. I pretended there was no problem and we picked up reading our latest Sherlock Holmes tale. As evening came, the story ended, and it was time to leave. I kissed his head as if everything was normal, saying I was flying home, but would be back in a month, maybe a little longer this time… “Okay, Mimi V.” he said. “Tell the boys hello for me. Pat the good black dog. You be so careful. And come back as quick as you can.” Now, I can’t remember that morning’s activities or even what we did during the preceding five days of that visit. Did I take him walking in his wheelchair on the path he so enjoyed? Did we go out to lunch with friends? Was I there for bingo day?  Those memories are lost to the trauma of that awful afternoon. 

My dad found wonder in the stars, even if he had learned about them quite literally under fire during World War II. My favorite childhood memories put me in the back yard with him as evening turned to night. He would’ve been gardening and I would have been playing or just home from an after-dinner bike ride. We’d sit in big redwood chairs — me on his lap when I was little — then side-by-side as I grew up.  He would enjoy a cigar, blowing smoke on me in summer to keep the mosquitoes at bay.  As sunset gave way to starlight, he’d start with Venus on the horizon, the great dipper, as he called it, which points to Polaris. Then he’d go on to whatever was on view that time of year. Pegasus, the winged horse. Taurus, the bull. The Winter Triangle. Jupiter. He could name them and tell the ancient stories behind them. He could show me how one star pointed to the next, which led to a group of others creating maps that helped lost sailors find their way home.  I suppose it is natural then, that on my nighttime rambles, I look for him among those twinkling friends he introduced me to in childhood. And as I walk I tell him over and over how sorry I am for how our time together ended.  

He doesn’t talk back. I’ve yet to hear from him in a dream or feel a chill that signals he might be about. Not a surprise, really. He was not a ghostly person. He appreciated the good earth, the here and now, the ordinary miracles: the growing garden, the deep green forest, the night sky. He had the gift, or perhaps the discipline, of finding contentment with what came his way, not longing for a past he couldn’t change or a future over which he had little control. When my mother died and I was second guessing my decisions, he told me “That’s a cat you can’t put back in the bag. Let that one go.” There is a lot to be said for such a perspective. Even as I walk with my sorrow each night, his example helps me live my pandemic days with considerably more grace than I’d be able to without it.  

I read something yesterday – I’m sorry I don’t remember where – that talked about the relationship between light and darkness, how light was needed to fix things in the material world, but the spirit needs the dark to heal and find its voice. Maybe that’s what is happening to me as I walk each night with my good, if sometimes overprotective dog. (A possum in the drain can be a threat, after all.) Everything in the day-time world is improving. Cautious optimism lets me think about dinner parties, visits with family, maybe a weekend with friends at the beach. Anxiety is giving way to reflection about what should be kept and discarded from this pandemic year. But there is still mourning to be done and finding a place, both physically and psychologically, to do it is complicated when life starts to move on. My dad is not yet buried, anathema for a boy raised on a farm. I will feel more settled when he is finally laid to rest. But I don’t know whether I will ever stop looking for him on my nighttime walks. Perhaps, just as I walk with my dog, my dad walks with Canis Major, the great dog in Latin, who trails Orion according to legend. If so, he must be right there over our neighbor’s house. I’ll look again tonight. 

Drawing: The Navigator by Skylar Chapman Searing in memory of James F. Chapman, Captain USN-R, Judge, Husband, Father, Grandpa

Faculty Life Family

Navigation Lessons: 1

On the wall in my home office is a frame approximately 4 feet by 3 feet that contains yellowed paper. From a distance, most assume it is a map, but the crinkled chart shows no countries or continents, no North and South Poles, only points drawn and connected by compass and ruler. It’s a navigation plot my dad made when he and his ship were literally lost at sea during World War II. The encouraging inscriptions from his shipmates are now faded and almost indecipherable, but the chart reassures me. And although it isn’t beautiful and doesn’t really go with my office decor, I keep it as a reminder of how to get back on course when I feel somehow “off the map.”  

Our University has been in uncharted waters for almost a year now, sometimes straight on course and sometimes seemingly adrift. I think frequently of a book called “Canoeing the Mountains,” which explores the Lewis and Clark journey as a metaphor of what it takes to move through an unimagined landscape. That expedition relied on canoes to find a water route to the Pacific Ocean. But when the expedition approached the Rocky Mountains, their canoes did them no good, and they were forced to use other tools and training. In many ways, life at UNC has been like that. In my roles on this campus, I have had to learn what skills and tools are useful and which to leave on the shelf. 

In my first internship, still a “baby” social worker (I was 22), I began learning what it meant to really listen. Like most lessons that actually stick, it was born out of a mistake. A second-grade teacher in the elementary school I was working in was frustrated by a child in her class who would not stop crying. I desperately wanted to prove that I was useful and could help her bring her class back to a steady state. 

The student, all of seven years old, accepted the puppet I offered her. After a little warm up, I asked good open-ended questions: What is the classroom like? Tell me about crying in school. Can you tell me what has made you unhappy in school? I was expecting to hear about bullying classmates or difficulty with the teacher. So focused was I on my own assumptions that I completely missed what she was talking about: a missing bed and a dog puppet that needed a doghouse. She kept on with the dog and his missing furniture, but by the end of our time together, I still had no clarity, no strategy to fix the situation and was as frustrated as the teacher. Several days later, when the child had not come back to school, I learned her family had been evicted and dispersed to who knows where. The dog actually had no doghouse. The bed was actually missing. I was devastated and ashamed when I realized I had missed her message completely, listening only for the literal, looking for a quick fix answer to give her teacher.  

In addition to missing the symbolism of the child’s play, I failed to see myself as working for the student; I saw myself as working for the teacher. The teacher’s concerns about classroom management were foremost in my mind, and though I remember being moved by the child’s tears and concerned for her, the real empathy that undergirds deep listening was not there. She was a problem to be solved, not a person to be heard. 

After that, I began to listen differently, to discern more than one layer of meaning at a time. I got clear on who I was serving and comfortable pushing back against those who thought I should be working for them instead. Little by little, I also learned to notice when I was missing something, some message that because of my personal blind spots or other challenges eluded me. Another lesson, this time in the form of a teenage girl, taught me to pay attention to any gnawing sense that something didn’t connect and to take action to find the missing link. 

About four years after the puppets, I was working with teenagers in Baltimore, many of whom pregnant. I remember a young woman, maybe 16, who wanted to continue her pregnancy. She lived with her brothers and her grandmother, who had accompanied her to the clinic and were affectionate and supportive. I helped get her to a prenatal clinic and thought that was that. Except that she came back – not once, not twice, but three times to sit my office and say virtually nothing. By this time, I was not such a baby social worker. I knew exactly who I worked for; I was not trying to please her family or the medical team. She was the center and I paid attention.  

“What have you been thinking about since you last came in?”    Nothing.  

“Still feeling like you made the right decision?”         Yes.

“Want to tell me about the father?”             No, just a boy I know.

I made statements hoping she might have a reaction to them. 

“Some girls make a decision that they think they’re happy with but then they change their mind and they don’t know what to do.”           No response.

I asked questions that were completely leading. 

“Did someone do something that you didn’t want them to do?”  Absolutely not.

I told her I was here for her and to call or come back whenever she wanted.   Thank you.

She would leave, only to return a day or two after that. 

I knew I was asking the wrong questions but couldn’t think of what else to ask. I called in reinforcements – a psychiatrist who had 20-some years of experience to my two or three. She went back to the beginning as I listened. Who did the young woman live with? Grandmother and brothers. Where was her mother? (I’d never asked that question.) Dead. How long? 18 months. How did the young woman feel? Terrible. She wanted to be with her mother. How could she do that? By killing herself. With what? The gun on her grandmother’s closet shelf.  We hospitalized her that afternoon. 

I was wracked with guilt that I’d missed a basic and critical question. In the community where I was working, many children and teens were living with their grandparents, their parents lost to the crack epidemic. It was so common that, as long as the grandparents were involved and caring, I sometimes didn’t ask about the actual parents because I thought I knew the answer and because I wanted to spare people having to discuss something many considered shameful. This young woman, who went on to have a successful pregnancy and birth and later brought her little girl to visit me often, might have lost her life to the grief and depression that enveloped her because of the assumptions I made and the questions I failed to ask.

As I second guessed my abilities, my colleague was gentle and understanding. She trusted you. She knew you’d find a way to help her if she kept coming back and you did. You learned something. Next time, you’ll know something that you didn’t know this time. This is what happens to those of us who “practice on people” as we develop in our careers. You were right to ask for help.  

I’ve learned a lot since I was a 22-year-old MSW student. It has taken many years and mistakes—fortunately most of them less dramatic than these examples—to learn how to connect, listen, seek help, and stay focused on who or what really matters in any given situation. I still stumble and seek out guidance and encouragement when I feel challenged. But now I know that when I am in deep water and off the map, there are no leadership tricks or gimmicks that will truly illuminate the way. When crisis comes, I will, as the saying goes, default to my training, leaning hard into those formative moments, remembering those early teachers and tough lessons. When I do this, my own version of rulers and compass emerge, the tools I need to chart the right course.

My boys covet my father’s navigation chart, seeing it as a relic of war, adventure, and heroism. Some day they will decide where it should hang, but for now it belongs with me. Like my sons, I think of my dad as a hero too. He saved his ship when it was lost at sea. It seemed miraculous, but it was the product of preparation; he had taken his training seriously, not knowing exactly when he would need it most. He had practiced those calculations, learned every constellation in the night sky, aimed the sextant at the horizon day after day. When it became clear that his superiors did not know what they were doing and the ship was in peril, his actions were not extraordinary, although his grace under pressure probably was. He simply defaulted to his training, used the tools that had been with him all along, and found his way.  

Photo Credit: Mimi V. Chapman


Secret Ingredients

I am perhaps one of the few people on the planet who still has a recipe box. In fact, I have three: my mothers’, a metal multicolored 1950’s affair; a yellow, plastic one that I had to put together for 8th grade home economics, filled with recipes for sweets and white food, not a vegetable dish to be found; and my own recipe box, blond wood, vaguely Scandinavian in design, the only one I open with any regularity. I do have an online recipe organizer app, but I haven’t transferred any paper recipes there, meaning that my recipe box is essential rather obsolete. In fact, it is a treasure box, containing the gold of my mother’s Christmas cookie dough recipe.  

Truly, this cookie dough recipe is the best, not complicated in any way, though it has a few secret ingredients that my son says makes it “taste like Christmas.” He asks for it every year. We keep it wrapped in the fridge, sometimes with an eye to actually rolling it out and making cut-out cookies to decorate, but mostly we just slice off a piece and enjoy it raw, salmonella be damned. Unfortunately, the last two years were jampacked leading up to Christmas travel and I never got around to the dough. Not so this year, that’s for sure. My oldest son was coming to dinner this week, so I decided to surprise him with dough made and perfectly chilled for slicing. 

But where was the recipe? Once through the recipe box. No cookie dough. The second time I landed on the “drunken meatball” recipe, a staple at my parents’ Christmas parties, but still no cookie dough. With rising panic, I spread the box’s contents on the kitchen table. If it wasn’t there, it was gone. My mother died nearly four years ago, so there was no chance to call and ask for it again. Nor did I have any idea of the original source. On the third time through, I found it. Misfiled. With relief, I vowed to get those recipes in the cloud and busied myself laying out the ingredients for the delicious dough.

My mother used her cursive Smith-Corona typewriter to type up her recipes or wrote them out in an impeccable hand, always with detailed instructions. The cookie dough recipe was typed, with the ingredients listed along with guidelines and directions. It includes suggested cookie cutter shapes, decorations to add, and methods of storage. Wrap in wax paper, put in a plastic bag, and secure with a twist tie–Mom was big on directions. Each recipe was dated, attributed if it came from someone else, and signed like a letter. The cookie dough recipe ends with Love, Mom before a critical P.S. on baking times. It is dated December, 1988. That must have been the year I started throwing my own Christmas parties which prompted her to send this one along. Years later, when answering machines came into vogue, she ended her messages the same way: Love, Mom. I found her habits a little silly, but this year her closing message hit differently, and I was grateful to hear from her. 

My son was delighted when I told him to look in the refrigerator. My younger son, on a health kick at the moment, agonized for a few seconds, and then all three of us enjoyed a slice of dough as my husband looked on slightly aghast. Raw cookie dough is not his thing. Then my eldest asked, “Could you come to my apartment and help me? I have to wrap presents and I don’t know how.” 

A memory flashed through my head of my mother teaching me to wrap presents–the light in our house, the scissors, and the paper, a bag of bows and ribbons to choose from. I don’t remember what we talked about or who we were wrapping the presents for, only the feeling of being guided in a holiday task I do every year, sometimes just plowing through and checking “present wrapping” off the list, other times taking pleasure in getting the gift looking just right. 

I don’t remember many of the physical Christmas gifts my mother gave me over the years and I don’t know what gifts my own children will recall. For me, what remains is the cookie dough, the annual mother-daughter Christmas lunch at a long-gone San Antonio landmark called Scrivener’s, advice for throwing the holiday party, favorite carols, her opinions about ornament placement on the tree (the star goes on last). And maybe it’s laziness, but I’m not sure I want to exit my recipe boxes and the paper they contain to move into the 21st century cloud version. Though stained and easy to misplace, they are infused with memories and messages, maybe the true secret ingredients that make things “taste like Christmas.” 

Faith Family Grief

Sympathetic Ink

On October 23rd, my father would have been 100 years old. Last year for his 99th, I flew to San Antonio with a suitcase full of pictures and mementos to give him a special birthday lunch. I spread photographs across the floor of the apartment I’d rented, choosing which ones to take to make into posters to display. One poster focused on his time in the war, one on his life with my mother, and one captured my relationship with him. The last was an intergenerational collage that showed him with his brothers on barren prairie and then with my children. At the party, I set up a table with telegrams he sent to my mother when he passed the bar exam, graduation programs, and other keepsakes of a lifetime. Toward the end of the event, he toasted the group saying, “Let’s do it again next year!”  Little did we know…

In late February or March, as I read and listened to news stories like this, I broke down in my kitchen, consumed by dread. I had envisioned his 100th with a great slideshow, a menu with everything he loved to eat, and even his favorite pianist playing “Stardust” and “As Time Goes By” as people raised a glass to toast his long and interesting life. Looking back, I knew we would not get through to the other side of the pandemic, that somehow my father and I would have a front row seat to the tragedy of this virus and would likely be called to take the stage. In a novel, this experience would be foreshadowing, my response a kind of premonition. 

My father’s family was populated with deeply devout churchgoers. His mother played the piano and the organ every Sunday in their small Baptist church. His father never “took a drink” in his 102 years. My father’s grandfather knitted his deeply divided community back together through public service and the church after the civil war. His great-grandfather was inclined to visions, one of which warned him of imminent capture by the Kansas Jayhawks. (He woke up and made an exit to Texas; the Jayhawks were, as it turns out, in hot pursuit.) Among the men on that side of the family, at least in hindsight, there was a clarity about how to handle uncertainty and hardship. Use both your faith and your education as a guide, take decisive action, do your duty however hard, and don’t give up on your community. 

My mother’s family held a few more secrets. Many years ago, I found my maternal great grandmother’s book of spells, with a red, faded cover, entitled “The Secrets of Life Unveiled.” In it are instructions for reading tea leaves and coffee grounds, along with the intricacies of palmistry. The book provides incantations to perform in the light of the three-quarter moon to attract a new love. There are herbal potions to ward off a cough or improve the skin. One chapter is called “Sympathetic Inks” and provides options for writing letters that cannot be read unless some sort of chemical treatment is used to make the writing appear. You can even choose your color!  

Once my father went into lockdown, I felt like I was reading tea leaves myself, scouring the Texas press, various state government websites, and the communications that came out from his assisted living facility to see if there were policies, procedures, or updates that would facilitate a visit. Perhaps in another month something would change? Maybe, because of his age, I could sneak in under the guise of an end-of-life visit, even if he wasn’t imminently at life’s end? Perhaps there was some way of writing to the Texas Governor that might indeed induce his sympathy and convince him that a World War II veteran should be able to see his only daughter? Full moon, half moon, crescent moon–for months I tried them all to no avail. I created my own ritual with the nightly phone call, modern day amulets of flowers, candy, new shirts or slippers, whatever tokens or talisman I could send to keep his spirits up. His friends and caregivers did too. Tomatoes from a garden, cans of popcorn, and fresh peaches, looking for the alchemy that would keep him going.  

Although no believer in the occult, my dad, in his own way, was full of a whimsical magic. He was the one who first introduced me to his version of sympathetic ink during Saturday treasure hunts. He could always find a nickel behind my sons’ ears and utter a few magic words to make a stoplight change. He could find common ground with anyone and was a spellbinding storyteller. But as the months wore on, I think he knew there was no magic that could save us. He let that 100th birthday go; he knew, or at least believed, there could be no celebration with his family and friends, no holidays together, just ongoing isolation. And, although he could not give it voice, surely he knew the awful toll not being able to see him was taking on me. I believe he decided that his duty was to let go, to give up the ghost, and head to new land.  

I’m still working on knowing what my duty was and whether I executed it as I should. The peace I seek is complicated by guilt, anger, wishes, and love. Joan Didion wrote about the first year after a death as “The Year of Magical Thinking.” And, indeed, for the last four months I’ve kept a sort of altar in our house that has kept my dad alive, including the three hats he wore regularly, one for winter, one for summer, and one that was part of his Navy uniform. When I came home from attending to his death, I hung two of them in my closet and kept one sitting with his picture on a chest in our living room. After his 100th birthday had passed, my husband added a nail and we hung up his last hat. 

This weekend, the President-Elect quoted from a hymn we sang at my father’s funeral. As I listened, I thought perhaps the terrible spell will soon be broken and that once again through faith and science, decisive action, devotion to duty, and hard work, we will get to the other side of this pandemic. It is too late for my father and me, but I write this in “sympathetic ink” for other families that still wait to reunite. 

Family Grief

HI Mom

After I raced to my father’s deathbed and but didn’t make it in time, my closest friend, whom I met when I was 15, brought me to her home. We poured some drinks and began to walk the neighborhood. The San Antonio summer heat had abated, and the soothing night breezes washed over us as we walked and talked for hours. The conversation ranged from my dad to the neighbor’s renovation to high school memories. The specifics completely escape me even though the walk happened less than two months ago. I only recall the feeling of being outside of regular time and the impulse to be outdoors in the dark, as I so often was with my father as a child, looking at the stars and breathing in the night air. 

Now it is my friend’s turn. Her mother has died overseas, and because of the situation, my friend also did not arrive in time. Even as I sort out my father’s death, my mind is returning to what we lose and what we gain when we say goodbye to our mothers. Both my mother and my friend’s mother were loving and devoted as well as critical and demanding. Although different in their styles and temperaments, there is a reason their daughters became and stayed friends. We both know what it means to harbor the twin desire to meet our mothers’ high standards and to break free of their influence and make our own choices.

When my mother died, I was able to be with her and have a few important last conversations. I was able to tell her I was sorry for times that I was cruel in the way only a daughter can be toward her mother. I was able to seek her counsel about a painful, long-ago incident that had been brought to mind at recent school reunion. I was able to care for her. Even in death she was completely herself and so was I. I found myself apologizing when she was impatient with the nursing staff, fighting back frustration when she told me how to arrange something in her room. I am haunted by a last encounter in which she became agitated and a nurse came in to administer Ativan to help with the anxiety that often accompanies the dying process. When she asked what she was being given and I explained, the look she gave me was a mixture of resignation and anger. I couldn’t help feeling that I’d done something wrong. She did not open her eyes after that.

But there were ways in which I knew I had pleased her. I felt secretly proud of “doing everything right” at her funeral and the lunch that followed. I remembered to put a pretty plant by the door. I set a proper table. I used the right tablecloth and found the right dishes, even though she had already sent many of her favorites to me. With the help of friends, the spread was nourishing and delicious. For a final time, her social circle enjoyed themselves in her home. 

Later, I sorted through her belongings and found poems she had written about some left-behind love interest. I found papers from her graduate school days and contemplated her secrets and unfulfilled ambitions. The housekeeper that helped my parents told me a story of finding my mother, sitting just as I was, reading old love letters one by one and then systematically ripping them up and throwing them away. When my mother realized she’d been seen, she put a finger to her lips – shhh, don’t tell

I found pictures that were taken long before I was born in which she looked ready for anything, excited to be seeing the world beyond the small town where she grew up. She looked like someone I wanted to know. In her death she became whole, a person to be understood and forgiven her foibles and even her faults. It is sad and curious that I find such forgiveness easy to extend to friends but found it so difficult to extend to her during her life. 

What I’ve learned since my mother’s death is that death as an ending is not real. My relationship with my mother has changed, become purer, than it was. That summer when she died, three years ago now, I had planted morning glories as I had done many times, though never very successfully. But that year, they climbed our house and bloomed in an amazing profusion of pink and blue and purple. The vines were as strong as rope when they finally died. Now they flower every year. Once in a while, a blossom will turn, as if to peek in our front door to check on us. Who else would that be but my beautiful, demanding mother wanting to know about every detail of my life and making sure we are all okay? Hi Mom, I say as little shiver envelops me.

What I think my mom knew, but we never discussed directly, is that it’s not what is in place when our parents leave us, but who. Friends, partners, siblings, colleagues – people we care about who will walk with us in the darkness, who can stand beside us, sometimes literally, sometimes through the imperfect means of texts or phone calls when a virus keeps us from being physically together. Tomorrow morning perhaps I’ll take a minute with my coffee to sit with the morning glories and ask my mom to walk with my friend as she travels across the sea to say goodbye to her own mother. I’ll ask my mom to be where I cannot, so that my friend will know that a mother’s love goes on forever.  

Faith Family Grief

Virus Diary Number 5: Reunion, Robbery, Requiem?

Today my house is full of flowers and cards, remembrances of my dad, and messages of comfort to me. His possessions are gradually accumulating. The black lacquer box with his initials that sat on his dresser for as long as I can remember holding cuff links, belt buckles, stray keys, and war medals. Others are en route: his favorite red blanket, his summer and winter hats, the paintings he wanted to surround him, a few pieces of furniture, some books and other small treasures.

Two weeks ago, my father died alone moments before I was able to get to him. I have gone over and over the time frame, looking at phone logs and text messages, wondering how I could’ve gotten to him sooner, whether my decisions were the right ones, believing both what others tell me– that I did the best I could with the information I was given– and admonishing myself for not acting on the choices I thought of making, but didn’t, choices that might have allowed us at least a brief good-bye.

There are questions that will never be answered. He was presumed to have COVID-19. His symptoms: first diarrhea, fever, aches, and chills, and later a cough and trouble breathing were all consistent with the virus. He had been tested the day before his symptoms started as part of a routine screening. The test result, returned seven days later, a full three days after his death, came back negative. I have no idea whether to trust it or not.

Of course, it is good that the test was negative. Good for his lovely friends and caregivers and good for the reputation of the place where he lived.  The negative test provides validation that the procedures in place to prevent spread to frail elders worked. But what about the choices that were made in service of the presumptive positive status?  He was kept in isolation from the onset of symptoms. I had planned a trip because, at last, there was going to be some minimal form of visiting, a chance for a reunion however limited.  When I called him upon arrival, I knew he was still in isolation.  Even though he was coughing and seemed to be struggling to breathe, I didn’t tell him I was in town because I didn’t want to upset him without knowing whether I’d be allowed to see him. If had told him, would he have told me to come right away, that he knew he was dying?  Would the nurse with whom I spoke immediately after I got off the phone have gone to check on him and told me to come sooner if the concern of infection had not been so great? An hour or so later, when my messages were finally answered by the director, I believe he was checked and, at that point, the staff realized how dire the situation was and called me.  I arrived moments too late and instead of sitting with him until the funeral home staff arrived, I was advised to leave, to not spend too much time in his room because I would be exposing myself to infection. I remained with him for perhaps 30 minutes after gingerly moving his special, red, potentially infectious blanket, in which I much would’ve much preferred to wrap myself, so that I had a place to sit. He looked like he might wake up any minute except that he was too still for this world.

Even so, I was able to give him a proper, if unorthodox, memorial service more intimate and beautiful because of the painful time in which we live. Fifteen people gathered outside at a lovely spot in San Antonio. My husband and sons at home in North Carolina, along with friends and family in other places joined in by livestream. The experience of listening to a pastor who has come to mean so much in my family, contextualize my father’s long life, and indeed his death, as one that teaches us how to adapt and accept difficult circumstances has been deeply comforting. Likewise, listening to my husband and friends describe my dad so fondly let me know surely that he knew how much he was loved even in the isolation of his last days and months. At the memorial, the minister told those gathered and specifically me, that “we would not ask for another day for him.”  At 99, he had led a long and fruitful life. And I know that those words are right.  But, it is also true, that we were robbed – by circumstance, by uncertainty, by choice, and by chance –  and I would give anything to live that last day over, to try it different ways, and see if there was a path that might have led me to his bedside a day, an hour, or even ten minutes sooner.

Some would say that what God asks now is for me to focus on all the good of his life, and to the gifts he gave to me, to be thankful for all that he was and will remain. But in the Christian tradition there is a place for righteous anger and Jesus most expressed his fury at the money changers in the temple, saying that his house of prayer had been turned into a den of robbers. That is where I am right now. The pure grief I might feel is blunted by a deep outrage that drowns out any requiem I might wish to sing. My anger is not for individual missteps, mine and others; those can be seen only in hindsight. Rather, it is reserved for the policies enacted, espoused, and exploited by politicians that sacrificed frail elders to create a perception that we are a caring society, isolating elders while feeding our economic engine. To wit, the day after my father’s death, I asked what I should do about his belongings. I was told to get a rapid COVID test, which took about 30 minutes total, and then I was allowed into his facility to organize his things. While there, I spent a good hour talking with two of his close friends who are also unable to see their children. What sense does that make? A lot, if the concern is the economic health of the elder care “industry” versus the emotional health of those elders and their families. Keeping elders from their families was never really about safety. It was about liability and about perpetuating a false belief that society could move on economically by “protecting the vulnerable.” Just a talking point. It was no more safe for me to enter his facility the day I did than it would have been two days before following a rapid test with 80% accuracy. But, if my dad’s belongings are sorted, the room can be prepared for someone else; there is more money to be made. State law and policy supports this practice, a cynical reality laid bare.

The memory of all he was and is to me are already well documented in his obituary, in the remarks I made at his memorial, and in the many previous posts I have written about him. So, there will be no requiem for him here. His life began just as a deadly pandemic had subsided and it ends with another that, to date, has no end in sight. My father’s virus diary concludes, but for me it is not over, and I find myself wondering what entries will come next.

Family Grief

Virus Diaries 4: The Lies We Tell

Psychologists tell us that we all tell lies even as we aspire to honesty. Lately, I’ve been reflecting on the lies we are living by each day in this pandemic. Here are a few, surely not an exhaustive list…

Number 1: A Lie Others Tell Me

We can keep frail elders in congregate care safe even as staff members fall ill. As of this week, four staff members have tested positive in the facility where my dad lives in Texas. I fully expect that next week the number will jump to six, maybe with a resident or two thrown in by then, and to 12 the week after that. We know how this virus works. He and others in his situation are sitting ducks waiting for the virus itself or its side effects of loneliness and isolation to come for them.  The facility is honest with its numbers, even as its leaders participate in an implicit lie of safety, a lie that I and every other family member in this situation want desperately to believe.  The current truth is really too terrible. Our elders are not safe; they cannot be kept safe; and our vigilant attempts to keep them physically safe put them in psychological and emotional peril deprived of the physical presence of family and friends.

Number 2: A Lie I tell my Father

I will be able to see him soon. I’ve reserved a place to stay later in the month in hopes that maybe I’ll be allowed to visit. And when he asks when I’m coming, I tell him late July. Earlier in the crisis I told him late April, then late May, maybe June… I promised him, and I promised myself, when I moved him from his home that I’d visit at least every month, a promise I kept until the virus changed everything. He needs those visits as much as he needs air. What I’m learning is that I need them too. I know I will lose him to death sometime in the near future. He is almost 100 after all. But it shouldn’t be like this. Strange as it may sound, to be with the dying is sacred and I do not want to miss those last precious moments with him. And while there is still time, we should be able to share another meal or two, read a bit more Sherlock Holmes or Huckleberry Finn. Surely, he could have one more walk in his wheelchair down the Salado Creek trail where he says hello to everyone he sees, comments on the creek’s water level, looks for the deer that hide there, and listens intently to the gentle birdsong. I love the natural world because of him. It is a great pleasure to take him back to it as he declines. As it is, four months have passed since I last saw him. Daily I stare down my broken promises, gulp, and lie telling him I’m coming soon. Three weeks, two weeks, one week and then my cover will be blown. At that point, I’ll start over. Maybe I can come in late August, maybe Labor Day.

Number 3: A Lie We Tell Ourselves

We can protect the vulnerable while living just as we wish. This is probably the most interesting untruth. It sounds so good on the surface. Just keep all those folks with underlying conditions and frail elders protected somewhere and the rest of us can head to Mount Rushmore sans masks with abandon or ‘get back to work” to keep the wheels of commerce turning. But this lie is sits atop the most American of myths, the Lone Ranger, dependent on no one, self-reliant, ruggedly healthy, a man who lives and dies by his own rules. Even the myth is a myth; what would’ve happened to him without Tonto or even trusty Silver? The truth is that every aspect of our lives is part of a web of interdependence – a beautiful web, but so complicated in the time of COVID-19.

Well over half of American adults have at least one chronic condition such as obesity, diabetes, cardiac issues, asthma, or auto-immune disorders like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis. Most all of these conditions make adults vulnerable to worse outcomes if they contract the COVID-19 virus. Many of these folks are working, meaning that the economic wheel that everyone is worried about can’t turn if those of us with chronic conditions aren’t there to turn it. Rather than confront this complexity, we tell ourselves that it’s just people like my dad, very old and very frail, that need “protection.”  But “the vulnerable” include so many more who are “essential” to keeping economic progress humming along.

Next, unlike the lone ranger, we are not at home on the range. Rather, we interact with all sorts of people, in so many ways every day. Let’s start with someone who believes it is his or her fundamental right not to wear a mask in public. I’ll name him/her “Anti-Masker.”  On Wednesday, Anti-Masker goes to community choir practice where (s)he belts out hits of the seventies or their favorite hymn. The alto sitting in the next chair is an asymptomatic carrier who unwittingly sings the virus to our friend,  Anti-Mask. Anti-Mask won’t have symptoms for several days to two weeks, if at all, during which time (s)he’ll head to a family reunion, grab beer at the tavern down the street, and somewhere along the way transmit virus to someone else who rides the bus to work, and sits next to the person who helps my dad with his bath, or getting dressed, or brushing his teeth. And, statistically, at least one person in that series of connections will have chronic illness. Add a few masks into that chain and you begin to cut transmission. No masks, further transmission and illness at best, curtains at worst. We are interconnected, across class and circumstance, a truth this virus lays bare.

Now that hospitals are overflowing in Houston and San Antonio, freezer trucks are en route to Corpus Christi to hold the dead, and a field hospital is being erected in the Rio Grande Valley, Governor Abbot finally decided to require folks to wear masks or face a fine. There are competing rumors that he will shut down the bars or even, God forbid, the water parks. I don’t even know what to say. I guess we have to be thankful for any showing of leadership that deals in science and reality at this point.

The Truth: What I Must Accept

If, in the end, my father survives until 100th birthday, just a few months away, it will be a function of good PPE, luck, and divine intervention. There is no testing strategy or staff rotation scheme that can protect elders in congregate facilities when the rest of society is chooses to live the lie that the virus is no longer relevant, wearing a mask and refraining from mass gatherings are infringements on our fundamental rights. But where does that leave me as I daily stare at my plate of broken promises, swallowing the heartbreak I feel with each phone call?

Two weeks ago, I finished a book called The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai. Nominated for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, the story focuses on two characters, a man and a woman, linked over time by their friendship during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980’s. The male protagonist dies alone even though the young woman tries so hard to stay with him. The abandonment is not her fault even though she lives a portion of her life believing that it is. Yet, inside the dying character’s consciousness, the reader can see that the dying person, travelling to what comes next, enters a realm where those still of this earth can’t follow – whether we are physically present or not. Likewise, the novel ends with a recognition that some periods of life – whether  the AIDS or the Corona virus crisis – are so beyond our imagination that we  are left only to navigate them as best we can.  The decisions I made last summer on my father’s behalf were made not knowing that our society would collectively lie to itself to such a degree that it would impact my ability to care for my father. The only way out of this terrible situation is for all of us to quit lying; it is the truth, after all, that sets us free. When we take this virus seriously by everyone doing their part to stop it, we won’t have to lock up frail elders in an act of collective delusion. Then, perhaps, I could, together with my father’s caregivers, find ways to provide him the visits and connections he needs. Until then, my only choice is to trust that my father is strong in spirit if not in body, that he knows that I am with him, even as I am not, and that somehow and somewhere we will meet again.



Current Events Faculty Life Family

Hey 19

Road maps, off ramps, anxiety, hope, trust, and distrust in equal measure characterize the current mood at UNC. Even as we believe our colleagues in epidemiology, virology, and infectious disease, when they tell us that strict masking, distancing, and hand hygiene can allow for a residential semester on campus, we are deeply distrustful of 19, my shortcut for describing our undergraduate students, most between 18 and 21. They come from all over the country, not merely to get a degree, but to transform and, in so doing, to transform us.  What happens on a college campus is a sort of magical alchemy when the classroom combines with other active elements: the dorm room conversation, dinner with friends in the dining hall, the walk across campus with a classmate, the after class conversation with a professor, or a late-night talk under a starry sky. I well remember 19.

Passport photos, when you were still allowed to smile!

At nineteen I saw my first glimpses of who I would become. I was a sophomore in college and on a lark volunteered for an afterschool program for kids living in nearby housing projects. It was my first recognition of systemic racism, although it would be years before I knew or understood that term. The experience interacted with a sociology class I was taking about social stratification. Because of the classroom, I saw my volunteer experience differently. The head and the heart began to intersect in ways that would lead me to my later career path. That same year, I fell in love and when I took that young man home to meet my parents at a special restaurant for dinner, I had glimpse, although fleeting, of what it would feel like to be part of a grown-up couple equal with my parents, friends instead of subordinates.  By that summer, still 19, I studied abroad, after a heart break from which I thought I’d never recover. I had no enthusiasm for the trip wanting only to wallow in my misery. Yet, as I headed toward the gate, luggage checked, passport at the ready, my mother told me I’d never be the same. She was right. That summer I learned that the world is big, wonderful, and curious. My professors, ostensibly teaching me Spanish, taught me that I was following a “good girls’ script” when I regularly deferred to my male classmates in class discussion. They urged me to find my voice and use it. I’m still working on the Spanish, but the other lesson, I’ve learned pretty well.

James Chapman, Officer of the Deck, LST 222

My father was 19 when he went to war. Upon receipt of his draft letter, he requested and was admitted into the V-7 program that allowed him to finish college as long as he took courses that the Navy required of him. At 19, my dad had never left his home state of Missouri except to cross the Arkansas or Oklahoma border on occasion for a basketball game. His family meals consisted of whatever was fresh on the farm and the catch from the nearby river where he and his brothers loved to fish. At midshipman’s school at Columbia University, he met a fellow 19 in his barracks. An Italian, Catholic boy from Brooklyn whose family invited my father home for a meal so foreign, yet delicious he remembers it to this day. After a send-off at Riverside Church, he marched down 5th Avenue and was sent on to join the Pacific fleet.  He and his shipmates and the Marines they carried, would secure the Marshal Islands while under fire for two years. They would repair their bombed ship with whatever they had at hand.  As 19 turned to 20, my father took full responsibility for navigation when it became clear that the ship was dreadfully off course and that the head navigator could not do the necessary calculations to figure out, quite literally, where in the world they were. Together with so many other 19’s, 17’s, 18’s, and 20’s, they secured your freedom and mine.

Then there is the 19 that currently lives in my house. When we all came home in March for the lock down, he spent the first few days irritable, hard to be around. I remember breathing deeply and contemplating what a long quarantine it was going to be. I should know by now that these moods in my 19 generally mask a deep worry. Finally, he spoke. “Mom, if you and dad get sick and are in the hospital, how do I take care of C… [referring to his younger brother.]” My moody 19 was not grousing about the days lost with his friends on campus. He feared his ability to meet the moment if he had to. A few weeks ago, he announced his intention to protest the murders of George Floyd, Ahmad Aubry, and Breonna Taylor. My husband, who has taken our son to marches since he was 5, was livid. How could our 19 choose to risk our safety this way in a pandemic? Let’s take his car. Drain his bank account. Make him sleep in a tent in the backyard. As mothers do, I stopped my own yelling and jumped, figuratively, between son and father. Remember 19, I said to my husband. He only sees the need for justice. He can’t see your fear. He knows this is his generation’s moment to stand up and be counted. Try to be compassionate toward him.  He’s just 19.

In some ways what I’ve written makes the case that so many of my contemporaries have put forward. We cannot rely on 19 to understand risk and to behave in ways that mitigate it, wear their masks, social distance, and skip the big party. But in other ways, 19 sees what 45, 55, 65 plus cannot. Nineteen sees the future that should be, nineteen sees that the generations behind them have missed the mark. Nineteen sees that unless they carry the torch no one else will and it is then that 19 steps up, in protest to tell us we must be better than we’ve been, in kindness and concern for the responsibilities they may have to carry before their time, and to use the knowledge we give them on campus perhaps to save us all.  Two nights ago, at dinner, my almost 14 said something silly about wearing a mask.  It was 19 that piped up and told him, “Wearing a mask is an act of altruism. You do it because you care about other people.”

Well said, 19. See you on campus.

Family Grief

Virus Diaries: Water Park Lament

Every night in my kitchen my throat catches and my eyes water.  Every night this happens when I talk to my dad and he asks me when I am coming to visit him. Every night I explain that I don’t know, that I’m waiting for news of when I’ll be allowed to see him, that the virus is still a threat. Every night he says, “maybe we’ll know something tomorrow and you’ll call me every day.”  And every night I answer, “Yes. I hope so Daddy, I will.”

Monday was Memorial Day. There were fly overs, people playing Taps, laying wreaths, and extolling the virtues of veterans who died in battle and those who are still with us.  Tuesday, in Texas where my father lives,  Governor Abbot opened water parks. It’s hot in Texas and no doubt it will be a great relief to families and children to head down the twisting slides into the cool water this weekend. Sounds like fun. But, for my dad and his fellows, who live in assisted living and skilled nursing facilities, ostensibly so honored on Memorial Day, where is their fun? They are locked in with no end in sight. No bingo games, no outings, no visits from family, no walks on the trail, no reading Sherlock Holmes, no eating with their friends. They are sitting alone at a table in the dining room or in their rooms napping and watching TV on an endless loop. If it’s safe enough for everyone to go to the water park, shouldn’t it be safe enough for me to visit my 99-year-old father or for him to play bingo with his friends? Don’t answer that. It’s not a real question. Neither activity is safe.

My father and others like him are symbols, not people. They are referenced on Memorial Day or Veterans Day complete with black and white photographs of Normandy or the Pacific, Korea or Saigon. On those days, they are “thanked for their service” as we all belly up to the bars that just cannot possibly stay closed another day. The juxtaposition between “opening up” and “returning to normal” while I am told it will be at least July before there is any possibility of a visit with my father exposes the hypocrisy of the decision-making. If anyone cared about his service to this country, there is no way he’d be locked away from those who love him while everyone else is frolicking at the water park. I am disgusted and so very sad.

It was the most difficult decision I ever made to encourage my father to leave my childhood home last summer. And I never imagined that I would have to physically abandon him just because he needed so much more care than I could provide in my home or his. Now he and so many others are all but forgotten because their suffering and isolation have no impact on the economy. From Governor Abbot’s perspective, assisted living facilities will make money whether families can visit or not. Elders’ needs are not part of the economic calculus. The water park, on the other hand, only makes money if we pretend the pandemic is over. And so, as a society, we delude ourselves thereby punishing those we say we honor.

Every week a letter, transparent and completely honest, comes out from the director where my dad lives. I so appreciate it. The staff is conscientious, and I am sure they will not be enjoying the water parks this weekend as they try so hard to keep those they care for safe. They are also forgotten. They call me and help my father FaceTime, they tell me everything that’s happening, and I send them cupcakes every few weeks to show appreciation. What more can I do?

And truly, I don’t really begrudge the opening of the water parks. I have kids. I know parents are losing their minds after months of home schooling. But if the Governor really believes it’s time to open Texas and that it’s safe to do so, then do it. Open the whole thing and let me see my father. That won’t happen because the virus is still active and a grave threat to elders and those who care for them. No public official wants to take responsibility for killing them, but they’re fine to leave our elders, indeed our heroes, isolated and alone.

The clock is ticking.  Time for me to make my nightly phone call and for my father and I to repeat our quietly desperate daily mantra. I don’t know, Daddy.  Yes, maybe tomorrow. I miss you. I love you. I’ll call you every day. I will.






Current Events Family

Virus Diaries 2: Texas’ Two Step Reopening and My Father

On April 13th a friend posted that his father, who lives in a New Jersey retirement community, was moving in with a friend. The community had 13 COVID-19 positive staff members and there had been multiple deaths among residents.  He described his gratefulness that his father’s friend had opened his home and lamented our national response: “This is a nightmare.”

Yesterday, a mere two weeks later in a different part of the country, the Texas governor began promoting a two-step plan for reopening the state. It begins this week with retail and restaurants. He didn’t call it the Texas Two Step, but from my vantage point it sounds like a dance with the devil.  Okay, maybe you’re right. Compared to some plans for re-opening, aka Georgia’s, I suppose it could be worse.  In Texas, not everything opens all at once. There are limitations for how many individuals can be in a retail store; there is guidance on being six feet apart, and using hand sanitizer. (Masks are only mentioned for those working with elders.) What’s not to like. People are cheering Governor Abbot as a hero…except for those that aren’t. ( In reality, his “plan” passes the buck to business owners and individual employees. Open and go to work or stay closed at the peril of your livelihood. Neither your state nor federal government will back you up to do what is best for public health. Without clear guidance, all those Texans longing for a beer at the corner bar or an enchilada they don’t have to cook will be back in circulation.  Haircuts and manicures are just a week or so away. Hang in there, ladies! With this guidance, it is up to individual business owners to decide whether to stick to their social distancing guns or cave to hurried, entitled customers who may defect to a not-so-strict competitor. 

Even on April 13th, well before anyone was discussing the Texas plan, my friend’s post brought up the grief that I have carried throughout this pandemic. It is the loss of certainty in the decisions I made for my father last summer. Finally at age 98, after a series of small strokes and blood clots, my father reluctantly moved into an assisted living facility.  After he had agreed, he started revisiting the decision. With the endorsement of everyone I know, I took the reins and told him, “Daddy, that horse is out of the barn. No going back now.” He knows about barns and horses and accepted the new reality. He’s become beloved in his community, made friends, and has created a little life that consists of bingo, cocktail parties with very weak cocktails, and other small pleasures that are punctuated by my monthly visits. Those visits ended abruptly in March. Now six weeks later, my father asks every day when I am coming. Every day I tell him I don’t know and explain why. Then, he says, “Maybe you’ll know when you call tomorrow.”  I reply, “Maybe I will, Daddy. I hope so.”  It is the best we can do. 

On-line, I see people debating back and forth about the merits of Governor Abbot’s plan. “We can’t stay home forever. We’ll develop herd immunity.” Or the converse, “Re-opening is too big a risk. The models show what happens with 20 percent opening, 50 percent opening, and none of it looks good.” Thus far, nobody is talking about my dad or others like him. Nobody talks about the fact that the Governor’s Two Step, and other re-opening schemes, only make his and other elders’ lives worse. Not even the most rabid proponents of reopening would suggest reinstating visits in assisted living, skilled nursing facilities, VA centers, or hospitals. Yet, those wonderful staff to whom I am indebted for their tender, daily care of my father will, within days, be going out to dinner or shopping on their days off as will their friends and family with whom they will certainly gather. Who could blame them? Yet, with each human interaction his caregivers have with others, my father’s risk of contracting the virus, dying alone, and, as of this morning, not even getting a proper military burial increases. To what benefit? His portfolio may improve, but his loneliness extends.

On Easter Sunday, my husband and I talked about what would happen if my father became ill. Unbeknownst to my husband, I had a plan. I found an apartment rental service that operates remotely. I decided I could ask a friend to stock one of those apartments with groceries and other necessities before I arrived. Maybe I could get some PPE from medical friends here to take with me and then I could be with him while he died even if I had to get a step ladder and surreptitiously crawl through his window.  After that, I’d quarantine for 14 days before returning to my family in North Carolina. My husband listened, then said, “And if you get sick? Our family can’t lose you.” I had no plan for that possibility. We tabled the conversation and ate our Easter Sunday cinnamon rolls. But as Texas dances into this next phase of the pandemic, perhaps we have to have the conversation again.