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VIRUS DIARY: As time ran short, a son rushed to say goodbye

September 22, 2020 GMT
David Biller holds a photo of himself and his father on Friday, Sept. 18, 2020, at his apartment in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The photo is from when they watched the Red Sox beat the Yankees in the bottom of the ninth inning on Sept. 11, 2012, at Fenway Park, in Boston. One month later, the author moved to Brazil. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)
David Biller holds a photo of himself and his father on Friday, Sept. 18, 2020, at his apartment in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The photo is from when they watched the Red Sox beat the Yankees in the bottom of the ninth inning on Sept. 11, 2012, at Fenway Park, in Boston. One month later, the author moved to Brazil. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — No man is an island, the poem says. But amid pandemic quarantine, when my dad started having episodes of feeling faint, he seemed so isolated.

Coronavirus protocols meant consulting a doctor by video who told him his symptoms weren’t worrisome, and he only needed to be careful about falling.

Then he fainted and went into a coma.

My mom wasn’t sure that my dad, a physician, would want me or my three brothers risking infection to travel home to Massachusetts. But final farewells seemed near. So after five months of avoiding airplanes and hospitals, I rushed headlong toward both.

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We spent days in the critical care unit, hearing worsening prognoses. They allowed us all into his room, and one night we huddled to watch a last Red Sox game together with a team blanket draped over Dad’s legs. As the Sox clobbered the Orioles, we muffled cheers. His late-game snoring made it seem he’d dozed off, per usual.

The next day, we each spent time alone with him. I told him I knew I’d hear his voice when questions about fatherhood eventually arise. Then we all gathered around him and held hands. My mom prayed, and he slipped away.

“Your father had a beautiful death,” she said to me a few nights later.

My dad was at college when his father passed. My grandfather had a watch repair shop in Rhode Island. He suffered a heart attack just after retirement while awaiting an airport taxi for his first-ever vacation, to Bermuda. I believe that taught my dad how time can suddenly run short. It could explain why he had an uncanny ability to distill joy from small moments.

I keep coming back to the family vacation we’d planned for July, and how it would’ve been more than just another trip. The purpose had been to commemorate him surviving open-heart surgery in March. He wanted a blowout after his recovery — an unsurprising wish from the man who, since retiring last year, had made clear that time spent with his far-flung sons was top priority.

We reserved a house on an island off Massachusetts for our first family trip there in almost 20 years. We’d listen to James Taylor, play Scrabble and buy boiled lobsters to eat on the beach while watching the sunset. It was a reunion to anticipate, and to motivate his recovery.

Then COVID-19 surged. We held out hope, but as weeks dragged on it became clear that the U.S. hadn’t gotten a handle on the virus. We canceled the house.

We’d all known Dad was living on borrowed time. That precious time was squandered by the actions of so many who disregarded experts’ recommendations — actions that prolonged the pandemic and stole 2020 from us all.

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So the memory that will stand as my last visit with my dad was when I came home from Brazil in 2019 for his surprise retirement party. As he laid eyes on a houseful of friends, you could watch it dawn on him that he was finally in the clear.

I can hear his booming call when he caught sight of me, feel his hug. We toasted his career and honored him all night with raised glasses. I recounted a Sox game where I heard him explain how he watches out for his boys above everyone, no matter what. That was my first glimpse of what fatherhood was all about.

That party was the unintended prelude for an event my family arranged Aug. 28 on a sunny spot of lawn next to a pond outside the colonial Wayside Inn, where my parents held their wedding reception 40 years ago.

We organized two groups of invitees to keep attendance beneath the state-mandated limit. Several dozen more Zoomed in. Everyone wore masks and kept their distances. Family and close friends shared joyful stories beneath a weeping willow.

It wasn’t the post-surgery celebration of life Dad had envisioned, but it will have to do until we can gather again.

We’ll make that time.

___

Virus Diary, an occasional feature, showcases the coronavirus pandemic through the eyes of Associated Press journalists around the world. Follow AP’s Brazil news director, David Biller, on Twitter at http://twitter.com/DLBiller