Years ago, I gave my father the flu. Six weeks later, he died of it.
I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. The COVID-19 virus is spreading through families like wildfire. There are still without a doubt children who have given it to their parents, as I did. Everyone’s hunkered down in their hermetically sealed houses waiting to see how bad this is going to be. We’ve seen the movie Contagion. We’re waiting for dead bodies in the streets. We’re waiting for loved ones taking their last breaths. Or, more optimistically, we’re waiting for Fauci’s Curve to bend and for everybody to pour into the streets and hold up their hands to the strains of “Hallelujah” and ticker tape.
My father’s story began in the late 1940s, when he was a teenager. I don’t know the exact decisive moment when he started smoking, but he did mention a type of conversation.
“Come on, just take one puff.”
By the time Dad entered the Marines in 1950, his medical intake exam noted that his lungs exhibited “rales,” which are defined medically as “an abnormal rattling sound heard when examining unhealthy lungs with a stethoscope.”
By the 1960s, I remember Dad smoking a lot. The smell of it didn’t disgust me, but simply reminded me of him with fondness. He smoked Kents, which tagged him as intelligent and professional. Mom smoked Salems, a feminine and breezy brand, something a pretty lady would smoke on a sailboat. He never smoked as much as John Wayne, who bragged that he smoked two packs a day; he smoked half of that. He was a construction engineer and a strong and silent 1950s Dad, and the smoking seemed to go along with it. Decency was part of the profile, too. He went to work in the morning at a big corporation and came home at night. He never drank. He wasn’t loud or obnoxious. He coached my Little League baseball team.
One day when I was 16, I was in our house when I envisioned a moment that merited documentation with a camera. Dad was sitting in the living room relaxing in his favorite dark blue velvet chair, a bright wall of curtained light behind him, having a cigarette and staring into space. I snuck up behind him with my Rolleiflex and shot the photo before he even knew what was happening.
“Hey, what are you doing?!” he said when he heard the click.
“Taking your picture,” I said.
“Because that’s your favorite spot to sit,” I said. “It’s a good picture.”
He was a tad pissed off, I must confess, but I was glad I caught it. To me, that photograph perfectly defined my father, like Carly Simon’s song: “…My father sits at night with no lights on/His cigarette glows in the dark….”
By 1985, I had graduated from UCLA and was writing freelance health & fitness articles for magazines and newspapers all over the world. One day, I visited my parents at their home in Diamond Bar, California, and Dad was sitting on the carpeted stairway with his shirt off. I was alarmed at how skinny he had gotten, although I didn’t immediately say anything. The family was sharing time together, which didn’t happen all that often anymore, now that we were adults, and I didn’t want to dampen the mood. However, I eventually just came out with it.
“Dad, you’ve lost some weight,” I said.
“Oh, I stopped eating donuts in the morning at work,” he said cheerfully. “You know, the boss brings in a big box of donuts and they’re free. When I stopped eating those, I lost weight.”
“You know, the doctors that I interview say that a weight loss can also mean that there’s something medically wrong with you. Have you gone to the doctor?”
“But I’m just asking if you’ve gone to the doctor.”
“I’m okay and I don’t want to talk about this.”
“But Dad, what if you’re sick?”
“I told you I’m not going to talk about this,” he said, and stood up and walked up the stairs and into his bedroom, shutting the door behind him.
After he left, my mother, sister, and I discussed what had happened. Whatever the cause of the weight loss might be, it was worth checking out. We all agreed that something might indeed be medically wrong with him.
“He should definitely go to the doctor, Mom,” I said.
“Leave it to me,” she said with a wink.
So I left it to her. Mom said that she had “ways” of getting him to do things.
“I’ve been married to him for 34 years, after all,” she said.
So Mom started a campaign. She discussed and cajoled. She used reverse and double-reverse psychology. She tried every trick in the book. After several months of trying, however, he still refused to go to the doctor.
So my sister decided to give it a try. She and Dad had a special relationship, like England and America. She asked Dad if he would take her to the doctor.
“Okay,” he said.
So my sister made an appointment with Dr. Arnold Bergman in Montebello. Dad drove her to the appointment, and they both waited in the examination room for the doctor. When the doctor came in, he looked at the chart.
“So I’m here to see…Mr. Groves?” he said.
“No,” he said. “It’s my daughter’s appointment.”
“No it isn’t, Dad,” Diane said. “I want you to get examined.”
“Dad, we’re already here….”
“I said no.”
Dad walked out of that appointment, refusing to be seen. His denial reaction, it seems, was quite virulent. And all the time, he kept getting skinnier and looking more unhealthy. His skin was prematurely dried out, his wrinkles deeper than they should be.
“I worry about you,” I told my father. “You could be very sick.”
“I’m not sick,” he said, “I’m just getting old.”
“You’re only 57 years old,” I said. “You shouldn’t be this frail.”
“I’m not frail. And besides, I get all the health care I need on the radio. I listen to Dr. Dean Edell every day on the radio.”
I’m sure Dad knew he was in bad health. In the middle of the night, Mom would wake up and find him sleeping in strange positions, which is a common compensatory behavior when people find breathing difficult: Their body searches desperately for a position that makes it easier for their lungs to pull in oxygen, sometimes twisting itself in pretzels. Sometimes, my mother would wake up in the middle of the night and find him sleeping with his butt shoved into the air. Not only that, but he was getting down to an alarmingly low weight, partly because people with bad lungs find it difficult to eat; the time that the mouth is closed and chewing seriously interrupts their desperate efforts to breathe. The body needs air more than it needs food, after all.
I was still writing health & fitness articles for all the major women’s magazines–Harper’s Bazaar, Mademoiselle, McCall’s, Good Housekeeping, Self, Shape, and the like–and was writing sagely about good health. I was the man who told everybody how to live forever. At the same time, however, I was full of heartache about the man I loved who refused to take care of his own health. It was the heartache that we all carried around during that period, and we turned it this way and that in the light.
What occurred to all of us, quite as a surprise, I might add, that you just can’t force anybody to do anything. It seemed ridiculous, but it was true. We couldn’t make him save himself. We couldn’t arrest him. We couldn’t drag him bodily. We couldn’t trick him. It was our one great lesson in the mighty power of denial.
In January, 1989, four years after I first spotted Dad’s weight loss, Mom was on a trip to Europe and Dad was all alone in that big house. He didn’t like being alone, but he didn’t like to admit it. He thought of himself as a lone wolf like Bogart in The Big Sleep or Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief, but deep down, he really craved the warmth of the family. During family parties, he loved to stand around the periphery, leaning on a railing, watching everybody enjoy themselves. That spot on the railing was his querencia, which is a bullfighting term for the spot where a bull stubbornly stands in the ring where he feels he cannot be killed. Dad never quite felt comfortable participating in family life, but he loved watching. He wouldn’t have used the word love, but that’s what he enjoyed being in the middle of.
That winter, I had been sick with a particularly nasty flu. For weeks, I would suffer its symptoms, fight it back with rest and medicine, and then it would claw its way back into my life. I don’t know how many times I relapsed, but it was a few. I remember sweating mightily in my sprawling two-bedroom apartment in Culver City, watching television while my head pounded and my sinuses filled with congestion. The trash bins were filled with Kleenex. But at some point, I had improved enough that I thought I was past the point of contagion.
“By the time you’re showing symptoms,” a gorgeous nurse friend of mine had said, “you’re no longer contagious.”
So I visited Dad in that big house. It was a two-story house in suburbia with four bedrooms and a great hillside view of suburbia. I hugged him, which he always bristled at. I spent time with him. We went to a video store to rent a movie, but ended up not being able to decide on what to watch. He wanted to watch Conan the Barbarian or Sheena of the Jungle, while I wanted something literary or even Shakespearean. To this day, I’m still not a fun dude.
We went back home, having disagreed for about the millionth time in our lives, and before I left, had a conversation about Dad’s father. I talked about how extremely strong and silent Grandpa Roy had been, and how I had given up trying to get him to talk, how it was impossible to get anything of meaning out of the guy.
“Wow, you noticed that, too?” Dad said. “Wow, I thought it was me.”
Dad’s sudden interest in family dynamics surprised me. He had never seemed that interested in the past, or even more so, psychological explanations for anything. Thinking back, though, it occurs to me that Dad knew that he was quite sick, and that his life was flashing before his eyes. He was gasping for air. He was panicking. His world was changing. He was running out of time.
On February 9, my mother left a message on my machine.
“Dad has gone into the hospital,” she said. “You better come today. It’s serious.”
Dad had been diagnosed with a flu laid on top of the worst case of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and emphysema that the doctor had ever seen. I pretty much stopped working. The family spent all of our time at the hospital. Mom slept there. Dad was in ICU for two weeks, and then transferred to a Kaiser Hospital in Downey, just down the street from our very first house, back when I was 5.
There were many ups and downs that I could document, but suffice it say that after a month, Dad succumbed. Early on the morning of March 9, while I was sleeping in my apartment, Dad suffered a series of heart attacks and strokes. By the time I arrived around 8 am, Dad was brain-dead. He laid on his ICU bed with blank eyes, staring straight at the ceiling. We came in and said our goodbyes individually. I looked at his body, with the same arms, the same chest, the same shape of face, and I saw myself. In some strange way, I said goodbye to myself. Soon afterwards, we pulled the plug.
I don’t know if I gave Dad the flu. Truth be told, I’ve never worried much about it. After all, I didn’t intend to give him the flu. Not only that, but he could have caught it anywhere–at the grocery store, from a coworker, from the surface of a pack of cigarettes. In addition, it was the severe risk factors that made that flu deadly, and I had no responsibility at all for that. Hell, I had even asked him to quit a few times.
“I’ve tried to quit 150,000 times,” he said when he was first hospitalized.
Perhaps it was his fault. Perhaps it was RJ Reynolds’. When we went through his effects, we found a whole cache or RJ Reynolds promotional material that minimized the risks of smoking and complained about smokers’ civil rights, evil libertarian screeds that still make me angry. But as for responsibility, I’ve never worried that it rested on my shoulders. I don’t tend to worry much about things that are not my fault.
As of today, there have been over 162,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and nearly 3,000 deaths. Many more may die, we’re not sure exactly how many. It looms above us like a black cloud. But hey, I’ve been there. My father died at 59, but he should have had more years on this earth. I would have liked him to see me get booked as a performer at the world-famous Magic Castle in Hollywood, as I did in 1997, or to meet the woman of my dreams, whom I got together with in 2001, or to read my novel, What Happens to Us, which I published in 2014. I would have liked him to read the passages in the novel about him. I would have liked him to read what I had learned about life, so much of which I packed into that book. But he only made it to 1989.
That very month, he had just fully paid off his home mortgage. It’s ironic that he never had time to enjoy the payoff and his golden years.
Now, my mother is 89, and still misses Dad.
“I think about him every day,” she says. “He would have had to wear an oxygen tank around everywhere he went, but I wouldn’t care.”
Sometimes, I catch her crying.
“I’m just thinking about your father,” she says.
Like a nightmare, it’s happening again. Mom also started smoking in the 1940s. She stopped around 1990, but not before she damaged her lungs. Now, she too has COPD. She cannot walk half a flight of stairs without getting severely winded. She cannot sleep through the night without wearing a tube that supplies her oxygen. All of that makes her at high risk for COVID.
“If I get the coronavirus,” she told me recently, “I’m dead.”
She’s right. As a result, she has holed herself up in her 4-bedroom house in Diamond Bar. She doesn’t let anyone in, even me. She lives there with her little Shih Tzu Phoebe and her five television sets. She’s happy to watch her Columbo and Everybody Loves Raymond and documentaries on history and civilization. When she needs help on her computer, as she often does, I take control of it from my house with Team Viewer, a program that allows remote computer control.
The way it’s going, it looks like she’s going to turn 90 alone in that house. Her birthday is in May.
When Mom needs food, I shop for her. Then I drive into her driveway and call her on the cell phone. She opens the garage door remotely and I bring the groceries into the middle of the garage and walk out. Then she carries the groceries inside. She washes each package with rubbing alcohol. Then she washes the bags, even the handles, with bleach. She can’t be too careful. She loves life. She still finds it sweet, indeed.
This week, I read the statistics. Dr. Fauci says that up to 200,000 Americans may die of this COVID. Other estimates say that up to 2.2 million may die. Then on Facebook, Trump is afraid, not of the disease, but of losing money in the stock market. He wants the country “opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” he said. Republicans argue that we have to get back to the economy and not be afraid to live our lives. It’s worth the lives we lose. After all, they’re just old people who are going to die soon, anyway.
I just think of my father. I would have liked another 30 years with him. I would have liked to get to know him better. I would have asked him about the Korean War, which he never talked about, but now, I realize, fought heroically in. Hell, he fought at Chosin Reservoir, a bloody battle in which we sustained 25,000 casualties within two weeks, and I didn’t know that till after he was gone. I would have asked him about his mother, a beautiful but schizophrenic woman whom I hardly knew. His whole miserable childhood growing up in the Great Depression is a supreme mystery to me.
And then there’s his soul. I would have liked to just sit around it for a few more years and warmed myself by its fire. He was a man of good intentions, which I now realize is quite rare in this world. He had no ulterior motives. I know I could have found his center, even though he tried to hide it. I would have located it, sat with it, and cherished it.