Unprecedented times

Chris Girard, Emily Girard and Kim Girard during Emily’s 2019 high school graduation

Emily Girard

Author’s Note: In March, when the COVID-19 pandemic was nearing its peak, I wrote an opinion piece reflecting on the pandemic in relation to my father’s battle with leukemia. Unfortunately, on August 6, 2020, my father lost this battle, yet the pandemic persisted. This piece documents the following days.

COVID-19 did not kill my father.

My father battled Acute Myeloid Leukemia for 14 months. He made countless trips up to Jewish Hospital in Kenwood, Ohio, touted as the best blood cancer hospital in our area. He experienced several remissions and several relapses. He was believed to be in remission when he began experiencing stomach pain. His doctors removed his appendix and found it full of cancer. They told us there was nothing they could do and sent him home on hospice. He died the next day.

Just like that, my family’s world stopped. And outside, the world was moving faster than it had ever moved before. Nobody tells you how to move forward after a loss during a global pandemic. But there we were.

This is a story about loss, about love. This is a story of change, and of people’s desire to preserve normalcy as much as possible. It is one family’s fight in the midst of thousands, but hopefully, it can reach someone else as well.

The Beginning

I went into COVID thinking about my dad. Before February, when he had to go back into the hospital, we would sit together and watch TV. Often, a public service announcement would come on explaining who was most at risk for coronavirus. To us, jokingly, it was a checklist for my dad. 45 or over? Check. Immunocompromised? Check. Undergoing cancer treatment? Check.

We joked, but at the start of the pandemic, I was terrified to be around him. Ever since I first received the news of coronavirus cases in Lexington, I believed I was tracking the disease everywhere I went. I had no contact with any confirmed cases, and yet I imagined a shimmering cloud of disease slipping out with my breath and into my father, restricting his breathing and making him feel as if his lungs, like mine, were full of wet towels.

(Those were not actually wet towels. Those were panic attacks.)

Dad had to go back into the hospital in February. I had come home for the weekend, and he believed he was well enough to return home and meet me. The weekend ended with him too weak to move from the couch to his wheelchair, his legs in agonizing pain. He had come home too early. After that night, when we nearly had to call him an ambulance, we understood that it was not always beneficial for him to be home. His doctors and nurses could take care of him better than we ever could.

His hospital went into lockdown on March 13. We were able to rush up to Kenwood and see him one last time. We told him to stay strong, and that we would call him every day.

And we did. Google Duo was our lifeline. At one point, he began to shut down psychologically—we believe it was caused by the combined stress of quarantine and his body fighting illness. He was agitated at his nurses for supposedly holding him against his will. He had lucid memories of a trip to Nashville that did not exist. We still called every day.

We turned to his doctors for comfort. We knew that they wouldn’t send him home until they knew he would be absolutely safe. We had a reason to follow CDC guidelines.

He returned from the hospital on June 16, bone marrow clear of cancer. All that was left was for him to get his strength back. That day, I wrote in my journal: “Dad’s home! Dad’s home and I don’t have to feel alone anymore ever!”

My dad was still my dad. Even if I was a walking plague spreader, I could still sit with him and watch wrestling. We would be like every other family, and we would get through the pandemic like every other family.

Then he was gone. And COVID wasn’t.

The Aftermath

When someone close to you dies, your whole universe shrinks. You have a tiny bubble of awareness, and you only feel emotions relevant to the things in the bubble. It doesn’t matter if something was once your favorite thing in the world—if it’s outside the bubble, you couldn’t care less about it.

Sometimes, you want things to be in the bubble. Let’s say, for instance, you really want some Chick-fil-A. There’s no Chick-fil-A where you live and you’ve been dealing with spicy chicken sandwich withdrawal for months. Then you get word that there will be not one, but two Chick-fil-A’s on campus when you return, and it feels like your birthday.

But when you do return, you’re in a bubble, and Chick-fil-A is not in the bubble. When go you get the spicy chicken sandwich you’ve been dreaming about for months, there’s nothing.  You eat it, and it tastes just like you remember, but somehow you don’t like it as much. It doesn’t feel right. You know you’re sad, but this is supposed to bring you joy. Everyone told you to find joy in the small things, to cling to the things that stayed the same even after your life was uprooted.

But Chick-fil-A is not in the bubble. So you don’t care.

Many of my friends, whom I loved dearly, were not in the bubble. I had to figure out how to let them down gently when they wanted to chat or come over. The Kentucky Kernel, despite being my single biggest passion, was not in the bubble. I had to mute the group chat for the news staff because it was bombarding me with notifications about news I did not want to cover. And COVID-19 was definitely not in the bubble.

At first, I thought this was great. After all, it had been slowly eating away at my mental health for months now. I could finally set it aside and focus on more important things. This would be the COVID reprieve I always longed for.

So why were people still talking about it?

Whenever anyone talked about arrangements, about moving forward, it was always about family…and then COVID. Dad…and then COVID. COVID was like an annoying little brother that everyone else in the family felt obligated to take on vacation, even though you secretly want to get a sitter and leave him at home.

Simon Kenton High School, where my dad had dedicated 22 years of his life and taught generations of students, made a post on their website announcing his death.

“Grief counselors will be available to students and staff on Monday, August 10 in the Simon Kenton cafeteria from 9:00-3:00,” the post said. “Those who choose to take part will be required to wear masks and follow all social distancing guidelines.”

At the funeral home, I watched as my family decided to not give my father a visitation. The funeral would only be limited to family and close friends. Only 45 people would be allowed in the room where his casket was displayed. The people outside his family—his students, his classmates, his fellow teachers—who loved him just as much as we did, who wanted to mourn with us, would have to wait. We would throw a larger celebration of life, my family said. They can come remember him then. Later.

When my mom and I got home, I asked her why she agreed to this.

“I didn’t want to deal with the danger,” she said.

I wondered, had people lost their minds? This was my father we were talking about. My father, who once said he would run headlong into a burning car for his family. My father, who had his nurses look for every possible loophole in policy in order to rush me and my mom into his hospital room one last time before visitors were banned indefinitely. Now my father was dead, and he wasn’t the priority?

I didn’t say that at the funeral home. I don’t remember all of what I said. I remember my mom making some comment about safety. I remember looking at my mom’s mask, looking at my relatives’ masks, and saying, “I don’t care.”

I remember accepting that it was the most selfish thing that had ever come out of my mouth.

I also remember that no one got angry.

The Funeral

We had the service at a funeral home just down the road from where my dad worked. My father’s uncle, officiated. He said he had officiated dozens, but none, not even his own father’s, had been like this.

The chairs were spaced apart in small groups. Bottles of hand sanitizer, along with boxes of tissues, were placed strategically around the room. Everyone wore masks, mostly black. They made my father’s friends hard to recognize, but it wasn’t like I was looking at people’s faces anyway. In a sense, I was grateful for my mask. Given that I was not used to people coming up to me and offering sympathy, the more panic it hid, the better. After all, I was barely able to enter the casket room alone, much less with people’s eyes on me. The last thing I wanted to do was make people upset.

Family members strategically placed themselves in their chair groups: parents with children, husbands with wives, friends with each other. They paid attention, no matter how far back they sat. Their focus was on the front of the room, where my father lay.

I sat in the front, in a chair next to my mom. There was no one else within a six-foot radius of us. In a sense, everyone was on their little island of mourning. For me, this provided a great opportunity to escape from the social pressure of the whole occasion and zone out for an hour.

At one point, Mark opened up the microphone to friends and family who wanted to speak about my dad. My grandfather took the opportunity, talking about how young my dad was, how much he impacted the community and how much he would be missed.

I took the microphone after him. I had no plan. I had not rehearsed anything. I just knew that I had one opportunity to speak, and I took it. I was initially going to talk about the same thing as my grandfather. After all, these were things people thought about when they mourned. Or so I’d heard.

Standing up at the podium, though, I found myself noticing the large gaps between the chairs. I noticed the bottles of hand sanitizer everywhere. I saw people’s eyes under their masks, and I felt compelled to talk about something else.

I talked about normalcy. I talked about the last night he was alive. I told people how we sat at home and watched wrestling—the gnarly kind, where people got cut up. I said that we talked about politics, and that he had a nosebleed from his oxygen tube. I told everyone that even when he was half-lucid, my dad, a lifelong UK basketball fan, dreamed about making free throws. I told them that even at the end, throughout the whole fight, he was still Dad, and nothing, internal or external, would ever change that. Apparently, that was what people wanted to hear. After the funeral, my tears-eyed relatives descended on me with hugs and compliments.

There were signs up at the funeral home asking guests to follow social distancing guidelines. Specifically, they asked guests to refrain from handshakes and embracing.

We did not.

The Future

In the days and weeks following the funeral, as my awareness began to widen, I started preparing to return to campus. It was a slow process. I was able to think a day in the future, then two, then three. I thought about my new dorm room. I thought about the first day of classes. I thought about all of the sympathy cookies I was going to take down to school, because my mom couldn’t eat the whole metric ton in our kitchen. It took me a while to even think about how campus was going to change for COVID. But as the future became easier to picture, the past became easily remembered. Soon, a week separated me from the day my dad died, a definite boundary that allowed me to look back and remember, objectively. In doing so, I saw things I never noticed while lost in my grief and confusion.

I remembered standing next to my father at the funeral, looking out at the crowd, and realizing how many people loved him. These were people that were given an opportunity, if a unique one, to come celebrate my father. They didn’t contemplate the injustice of masks or social distancing. They didn’t question the attendant at the door screening temperatures. They saw an opportunity to be there, and they took it, changes and all.

COVID-19 did not ruin my father’s funeral. It altered it, yes. It was an inconvenience. A roadblock. But it was no different than my uncle from Florida, who could not make the trip to Kentucky in time to attend the service. It was no different than the weather, or the several times my grandfather got lost on the way to the cemetery. It was like my second cousin, who, at seventeen months old, did not have a solid grasp on the solemnity of death and ran screaming around the funeral home while other relatives shared tearful embraces. It provided time away from our individual suffering. It prompted be to rewrite a verse from the service.

To everything, there is a season. A time to be born, and a time to die. A time to weep, and a time to laugh. A time to mourn, and a time to wrangle children. A time to worry about statewide mask orders, and a time to eat a spicy chicken sandwich.

COVID-19 did not ruin my father’s life, and it wasn’t going to ruin my life, either. This whole experience taught me that, even while experiencing a “new normal,” it is possible—painfully, arduously possible—to think about something other than the coronavirus.

I arrived on campus on Aug. 15, with coronavirus very much present. I could still feel the presence of the cloud of disease I pictured looming over the campus in March. But, like most everyone else, I moved in. I walked around campus.  The sun still rose over the library, and this year I could see it. Champions Kitchen still had the nacho cheese that was so good I could inject it directly into my bloodstream. I could still get a spicy chicken sandwich.

I’m still unmotivated and a little lost. My mental health is definitely worse for wear. But then again, whose isn’t? Who hasn’t lost something, big or small, during quarantine? Who hasn’t felt overwhelmed or frustrated by something they can’t control?

I know that by saying this, I run the risk of sounding like every commercial from the past six months, but we really are in this together. No one is completely okay. Everyone is weighted down by something. Some of us have a lot of weight on our shoulders, and those people may need a little more help staying upright. And though sometimes we may feel like we are being run over by a car, we must recognize the silent times and remember that the open road exists. We don’t know where it goes, but we know it is there.