'We hear you, Dad': A daughter stays on the phone for hours and hours as her father dies alone from coronavirus
Abby Adair Reinhard pressed her iPhone tighter to her ear, straining to hear the soft rhythm of her father's breath.
In. Out. In. Out.
Five miles away, in a hospital bed in Rochester, New York, her father lay dying.
At first, his breaths were steady white noise that any other day would fade into the background. As the hours passed, his breathing became harder. Tortured. Heavy with mucus.
Reinhard – a mom, a wife and a daughter – spent the next day and a half listening to her father die, praying he could hear her voice. Moment by moment, she detailed those agonizing hours in a wrenching Facebook post.
The terror I’ve felt today is unlike anything I've ever experienced, and I can only imagine how hard it has been for you, Dad. I’m so sorry you are going through this nightmare.
Don Adair, 76, was a father of four and a grandfather of five. A retired attorney who doted on his family, he'd traveled with them to Europe, sat on the floor to open Christmas presents, grinned wide at their graduations and bounced them on his knee.
Now, he lay alone in a bed, isolated from other patients at Highland Hospital. He'd fallen at home a few days earlier, and hospital staffers were helping him fight a minor infection.
Not a problem, Reinhard thought at first. Her dad, her rock, never got sick.
Then he developed a fever and a cough – coronavirus.
Reinhard, 41, called her brother, Tom, in Texas. It was late on April 4. They wondered whether an asymptomatic patient in the hospital had passed along the infection. They talked about how the prognosis was good, how his symptoms were minor.
It's a conversation so many Americans are having, fretting late at night, consulting doctors and scouring the internet for signs of hope, looking at the statistics that say most people will never get really sick.
"He was very strong, physically. I'm sure he'll be fine, is what I told myself," she said. "We went to bed thinking, chances are he's going to be OK."
Her husband made the kids french toast. They watched online Palm Sunday services, in which the pastor urged them to approach uncertainty with faith, not with fear.
Then came the call. A Highland nurse said things Reinhard tried to understand: "Aspiration ... deterioration ... suffering ... not much time.”
The nurse put the phone to Adair's ear. He couldn't talk, but he could listen.
Pacing in her bathroom, Reinhard struggled to catch her own breath, to hide her sobs from her three kids. To listen. To speak.
"I love you," she said.
"I forgive you."
You settled down in between coughs, and I searched my heart for what to say.
I talked about our precious times at the lake. I remembered you playing your guitar around the campfire, and I clung to that image as if it were my saving grace.
The lyrics of those old campfire songs seemed so fitting now – “Milk and honey on the other side” and “He’s got the whole world in his hands.”
Laundry overflowed the basket in the corner. She talked, listened, prayed. She felt like part of her was outside her own body. It was too much to take in.
After half an hour, she realized she could conference in her siblings – Tom, Carrie in North Carolina and Emily in Denmark. They stayed on the phone for hours, singing more campfire songs, telling stories, remembering their childhood.
Over the next many hours, our conversation with you is one I will treasure for the rest of my life. Although we were each sitting in Dallas, Raleigh, Copenhagen or Rochester, we were together, unpacking memories we had stored away long ago. The lake, the Cape, and our Europe trip. Games, projects and important conversations. We also sang more campfire songs. I pray that you could hear it all.
Reinhard broke away from the call to talk to the doctors. She threw a winter coat over her yoga pants and sweatshirt and headed outside.
It wasn't cold, but she wasn't warm.
Walking her neighborhood, sobbing, she listened through her headphones as the doctors laid out his prognosis: He was so far gone, they told her, putting him on a ventilator would only prolong the inevitable. His lungs, destroyed by the infection, would probably never recover.
She read and reread her father's living will. He was so strong, and she wanted to hope. But she knew what he would want: Pain relief only. No ventilator. No dialysis. No CPR. When she made the decision, the doctor sounded relieved.
She saw her neighbors, and her neighbors saw her, crying on the side of the road. Their first instinct was to hug. They didn't. They couldn't.
Her decision made, Reinhard returned home and dialed back into her father's room. The nurses propped the phone on his pillow, so his children could hear him breathe.
As she listened to his breath, Reinhard settled at a desk and began to type. She wanted to capture the experience, absorb it.
It feels so good to laugh and cry. To be connected on the phone with you and my brother and sisters. To bring the images of us from earlier years back to life. It also feels good to hear you breathe. That rhythmic, white noise is the background music to our call.
At times, his breathing fell silent. Long seconds, a minute. She held her own breath, fearing what silence meant.
Breathe, Dad. We need to hear you breathe.
Then, finally, he would inhale, and she let out a long, grateful sigh.
I have never loved and appreciated breath the way I love and appreciate breath right now.
Evening fell, and Reinhard and her husband put their kids to bed. She typed out her feelings during the long hours and fell asleep to her father's breath.
Monday came. Adair was still hanging on. His breathing became harder, his lungs thick with the mucus that has come to define many coronavirus cases. Reinhard likened the sound to someone using a straw in a cup of paste. She wondered: Should she have pushed the doctors to put him on a ventilator?
My own chest is feeling tight now, as I imagine your lungs filling, while the virus seeps in. You just moaned softly, and I don’t know if you’re trying to say you love us, or if you’re in pain.
I pray you can see angels behind your closed eyes. That you can feel their love – and ours. That you can hear us on the other end of the phone. That you can sense the stirrings of your soul even while your body is becoming numb.
OK, here come faint, short flicks of white noise. Thank God. I just said the Lord’s Prayer, in short bursts between my attempts at squelching my sobs so my kids can’t hear me. I feel the pressure of the wailing behind my eyes, as I whimper like a dog, and wipe the tears away. I feel it in my throat now too, the pressure.
Grief is a strange thing. It comes in unpredictable waves. At one point earlier, I felt slightly guilty because I actually felt OK. And now here I am, pushing back against a huge wave of pain as it crests and I try to breathe through it. I’m breathing. You're breathing. We’re OK.
The phone went silent. Ten minutes without a sound.
You’re back! The phone had slipped. Thank you, God. Now we hear short, shallow breaths – each one a miracle. You’re here. We’re here. With obvious relief, we're each telling you again how much we love you. Baby Skylar is hiccuping on Carrie’s line. This is life, and this is death. The newborn baby on the phone with the grandfather she’ll never meet.
We hear you, Dad.
She could hear the nurses repositioning him. They were heroes, she thought, risking their lives for his comfort. “Goodnight, Don," she heard one say. "I’ll see you tomorrow.”
The siblings tired. The stories slowed. Reinhard ate a slice of pizza. Her 8-year-old daughter, Caroline, popped in to ask if Grandpa Don sounded better. Reinhard told her, truthfully, that he sounded more calm.
"Yes!" Caroline said. "There have been a lot of recoveries." Then her smile faded. "And a lot of deaths."
I wonder how the coronavirus will shape my kids and their generation? I think now about what shaped you and your fellow Boomers. Vietnam... a war against communism in a distant land. Today it’s the coronavirus ... a war waged against droplets in the air, all around us.
Reinhard and her siblings agreed to take a break. They needed to care for themselves, as their father would have wanted. They went to sleep, but no one hung up.
Just after midnight, another call came in. She knew what it was. She braced for it.
Gone. You’re gone.
She'd been on the line with him almost 36 hours. If she'd stayed on just one more hour, she could have been with him when he died. Maybe he didn't want his kids to hear him go.
If I'm honest, maybe part of me didn't want to hear your last gasps of air.
She looked down at her iPhone, still connected to his hospital line.
"I love you, Dad," she said in to the phone.
She paused for a few moments. She pressed the red button to end the call.
Here comes the pain again. So heavy.
First, she emailed her writing to friends and family. They shared it with others. It inspired her husband's colleague to reach out to his estranged father. Moved by their reconciliation, Reinhard posted her writing publicly to Facebook. She wanted people to understand the toll of the virus.
As a business owner, she understands why people are aching to get back to work. She has 36 employees, and she worries about them, too.
Reinhard hopes her words can help other Americans understand that coronavirus isn't an abstract threat affecting only big cities. It's everywhere. It takes loved ones who should have lived healthy lives for years to come.
"To experience that threat on an emotional level makes it more real," she said. "To be 6 feet apart from your mom when you're crying? I haven't been able to hug my mom."
They buried Adair in the lonely new way – a few words, the Lord's Prayer and "Amazing Grace." Nine people and five minutes at a graveside at the family plot 10 miles from where he died. Her siblings couldn't be there. She sent them a video.
"Can you imagine? Seeing a video of your dad's burial?"
Easter came, and her son turned 7.
She still talks to her father. She can still hear him breathing on the other end of the line.
I hear myself gasping as well. He, no longer in his body. And I, not quite in mine.
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