By Grechen Wingerter, President of the Board of Trustees
It’s 2022. A new year, a new start. And yet, some — okay, many — things remain the same. But then again, so many things have changed.
The title of this blog is borrowed heavily from a play and book titled Love, Loss, and What I Wore. The play version was written by Delia and Nora Ephron and tells the story of several different women who connect their clothes with significant moments in their lives — or connect significant moments in their lives with their choices of wardrobe. I don’t have that same kind of connection to my clothes. I barely remember what I wore yesterday. And while there are some moments I can recall that do include my choice of garment, for the most part, that’s the last detail I focus on. I focus on the moment — or at least I try to do that. Not always easy. But I do understand how and why that kind of connection is made.
As some of you know, I lost my father somewhat unexpectedly, just after Thanksgiving. He was in the hospital after taking a fall that resulted in emergency surgery and was subsequently simultaneously diagnosed with Covid. He was vaccinated, but had not yet had the booster. The fall was serious and the surgery risky, but necessary. His recovery from those two things, was actually quite remarkable, given his age and other health issues. He was, however, going to be looking at months of physical and occupational therapy.
I went up to Ohio to be with him just after the surgery. I was still in the middle of classes at Pellissippi and it took me a couple of days to sort out my schedule so that I could go up there to be with him. He was doing well and they were very pleased with his overall recovery from the surgery. They had placed him on oxygen to help him with his breathing due to the Covid. But despite the oxygen need, he was making progress. We spent Thanksgiving together, albeit in the hospital. I made a vegan meal for us, although I did give my dad real Turkey with his. I took it to the hospital, donned the full protective gear required, and helped him eat his dinner. I ate mine. We talked for a little while and then I went back to his apartment so he could rest. Despite being in the hospital, it was good to be able to spend that time with my dad. And thanks to pictures, I know that underneath that yellow paper gown I had to put on, I was wearing a burgundy sweater and my multi-color plaid pants and Doc Martens.
The next day things took a turn. My dad’s cough got worse, and he was really struggling to breathe — even with the oxygen. They bumped him up to a CPAP machine to give him more help. Our visit that day was quite short. It was clear he needed rest as he was restless and agitated. I told him I loved him and once again went back to his apartment.
It was odd being in his apartment without him there. It felt empty, and yet, oddly full at the same time. My dad’s presence and his entire life was in that tiny space with beautiful views of Lake Erie. I could feel him all around me. I missed him. I did not sleep well that night.
When your phone rings at 2:00 AM, you panic at the best of times. When the caller ID says it’s the hospital, you fear the worst. The news wasn’t the worst, but it was not good either. Throughout the course of the evening, my dad’s breathing had gotten steadily worse. The doctors decided he needed to be transferred to the ICU. There was talk of intubation as well. They were going to monitor him overnight, would call me when they got him settled in the ICU, and discuss the next course of action in the morning.
Later that morning when I arrived at the hospital I met with the doctor to discuss the plan. The plan was to intubate. The goal was to give my dad time to rest to allow his lungs to heal. And so that’s what we did. I talked through everything with my dad, stayed with him throughout the procedure, and for a little bit afterwards. The visiting rules were more strict in the ICU, so I couldn’t stay for long. So, I told my dad I loved him and once again headed back to his apartment to wait. I had originally planned to go back to Knoxville that day. It was clear that wasn’t going to happen, so I had to make some alterations to my schedule and arrange for my classes to be covered. I checked in on my dad throughout the day. He was remaining steady. That Saturday was a lonely day.
When I called the hospital the next morning, he was still in stable condition. 20 minutes later, everything changed. The nurse called me back and said his oxygen levels, blood pressure, and heart rate had all dropped. He had coded briefly. She said I needed to come in. When I asked if I had time to shower or if I should just come in, she said, “Come in”.
So I got dressed. I have no recollection of what I wore. Probably jeans and my hoodie. It wouldn’t matter anyway as I’d have to put on a gown, mask, and gloves when I got to the hospital anyway — as I had been at every visit.
I was trying not to panic as I drove the five minutes from my dad’s apartment to the hospital. When I got there my dad was relatively calm, but it was clear he was struggling. His kidneys were failing and his breathing was labored at best. His heart rate and blood pressure were all over the place. The doctor told me it was time.
My father didn’t want heroic measures to save his life. I honored those wishes— as hard as it was to do — to let go when I wasn’t ready — I did just that. I made phone calls and sent text messages to let our nearest and dearest know what was happening. They sent wishes of love and peace. My girls sent texts back telling their Bapa they loved him. I read them to him and showed him their pictures. I spent the next two hours sitting with my dad, holding his hand, talking to him, recounting memories, telling him about future plans, telling him I loved him, and hoped he was proud of me. And then, I let him go. I was with him to the very end. I can say, without a doubt, it was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. I felt his loss immediately. I feel it every day.
Most of the “business” of dealing with the death of a loved one has been taken care of. There are still a few loose ends, but the technical closure is almost there. But, the loss. The hole. That remains. It always will.
Covid has taken a lot of things from us. Over the course of the past nearly two years, we have been collectively dealing with that loss. Loss of loved ones, loss of jobs, loss of social interaction, loss of education, loss of security and certainty, loss of direction, loss of a sense of normalcy. As a result, we are collectively experiencing grief in its many forms, too. Grief is a beast. It comes and goes and comes back when you least expect it — in the little things. And we all experience it differently— even when we are experiencing it together.
Covid took my father, and for that, I will never forgive this virus. Nor will I forget all the other things it has taken from us as a society. We will move forward, sure. We are resilient. But maybe, just maybe, instead of trying to go back to “normal”, we should consider thinking more about what we wore, and what we wear — not in the narcissistic sense, but in the sense of the connections we make to those memories and to the people in our lives. Preserve those memories. Tell the people in your life you love them. Live life. Love hard.
Grechen Lynne Wingerter
President, WUUC Board of Trustees