The last conversation he had with his dad lasted about 10 minutes. Jeremy tried to interpret what he could from the sound of his dad’s voice, even if they couldn’t talk much. He was going to ask him how things were looking and what drugs they had him on, but his dad sounded like he had just run a race and was trying to talk through it.
“He was like, ‘I’ll call you back in about 10 minutes.’ And that’s it,” said Jeremy.
His dad never improved once he went on the ventilator. Doctors gave him the maximum amount of oxygen they could, but he didn’t respond. For two weeks, Jeremy never turned his phone off. He got 3 a.m. calls with questions about procedures like kidney dialysis.
“For me it was worse knowing all of the updates, that every time my phone would ring from the hospital, it was like—is this the call?” he said.
While he waited for more information, he worked on business details, like figuring out if his dad had paid rent. He knew where to find important documents. He compiled a two-page to-do list, including what to do in case of his father’s death. He tried to update family from Belize to Brooklyn every day on his father’s status.
The day before his dad died Jeremy got “the longest 30-minute phone call that you’re going to get from the hospital.” He and hospital staff discussed a do-not-resuscitate order. On April 3, a doctor called to tell Jeremy his dad had died. He shared the time of death. He said they were sorry for Jeremy’s loss.
The news jarred him: “If my dad died of cancer last year, my house would have been filled with my mother and my aunts and my cousins, and politics about who gets to take what out of his house, and a party and smoking and whatever else. And now in these times, you have to just sit with it by yourself. Because he’s just dead.”
That started another process the pandemic had upended: How to handle the logistics of a family member’s death. The week Jerome died, the Federal Emergency Management Agency brought 85 trucks to the city to serve as refrigerated morgues—city morgues were full. Funeral homes and crematories were so overwhelmed, Jeremy couldn’t get a date to cremate his father’s remains until a month after his death.
When we talked in late April he wasn’t sure where his father’s remains were: “I imagine that my dad is either in the morgue or in one of those coolers that I saw when I drove past the hospital where he died.”
The New York City office that issues death certificates reduced its hours, then only operated remotely, which created more delays. Death certificates allow family members to do things like close financial accounts. Jeremy still hadn’t gotten a certificate in late April.
He could begin one normal part of losing a family member: sorting through his dad’s possessions. He found pictures, his dad’s citizenship papers, and documents from his dad’s military career. In that process he learned a lot about who his dad was before he had a child: an immigrant from Central America who was “a very, very private person.”