‘My dad died alone and afraid from something that, by all rights, shouldn’t have killed him’

It’s the end of June, and here we are, still dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. By now, many of us have been touched by the novel coronavirus in personal ways. So far, I’ve had a family member test positive, and a couple I’ve been friends with for a long time found out their baby had covid-19 and Kawasaki disease. I am beyond thankful that they are all doing fine now, but not everyone is so lucky.

Photographer Lila Barth recently shared a project she had been working on with a friend. Together, they’ve created an extraordinarily personal and heart-rending account of how covid-19 has affected their lives. Barth’s friend Chloe Weber lost her father, Richard, to the virus just as cases in New York City began to spike.

Richard’s death shocked his family and friends. According to Chloe, he was only 57 and was healthy.

Months into this pandemic, and there are still so many things a that we do not know. Our understanding is constantly changing. At first, we thought it posed the greatest risk to older people and people with underlying health problems, but we’ve seen so many cases that contradict that. Indeed, we are now seeing evidence that cases among young people are skyrocketing.

Covid-19 continues to be a perilous disease, and Lila and Chloe’s project underscores that in an extremely emotional, fragile and intimate way. While Lila’s photos explore the themes of the virus’s outbreak in New York City and the place where Lila and Chloe grew up, Metuchen, N.J., Chloe’s words about the loss of her father provide a harrowing and sorrowful portrayal of what it is like losing a loved one during this time. Chloe’s words are a moving tribute to the love of a father and a cautionary tale for all of us as we move forward.

Here are Chloe’s words:

Looking back is something I do often now.

I remember when my grandmother died in 2015, my cousin said, “My memories of her have become so much clearer.” My mom replied, “It’s because they’re the only things we have left.”

Now, that’s all I have left of my dad — photos, furniture, old clothes, a box of ashes, memories. He died just after midnight on March 19, joining 230 others in New York City who died of covid-19. He made 231.

His death was an improbability, such a slim chance that I hadn’t even thought it a possibility when he first went to the hospital 10 days earlier. He was 57 and healthy as a horse. Coronavirus was only killing the elderly or infirm, and neither word could be used to describe my dad, who was so vibrant and full of life.

When he first got sick in early March, he told me it must be the flu — he had a fever that wouldn’t let up and felt terribly weak. We joked that it might be coronavirus, but at the time, the virus had only just spread to the west coast — a million miles away, a problem for someone else. The city might be packed full of tourists and travelers, but we were safe for now, I thought. Coronavirus is something that’s happening on the news, but it couldn’t be a risk to us.

His texts to me became more worried, though, as his week-long bout of the “flu” turned into two weeks with no break in his fever and a troublesome shortness of breath. I told him to see a doctor. He said the doctor told him not to come in or the entire medical staff would have to go into quarantine. I told him to try to get a blood oximeter at least — he was getting winded walking to the bathroom in his studio apartment. He called his doctor with the results and she instructed him to go to the nearest ER.

I still didn’t think it was that serious. Coronavirus fatality is only 2 percent, probably less given untested and asymptomatic cases. My dad would get treatment for his symptoms and then have a story to tell about how he survived the Pandemic of 2020.

He spent 10 days in the hospital stuck in isolation. The doctors and nurses barely spoke to him, he told me, donning layers of protective equipment and rushing to get out of the room. I found out his test came back positive before he did, but when the doctor called to tell me, I was calm. It wasn’t much of a surprise, given his respiratory symptoms, but I had faith he would start to feel better in a few days. It’s not like we were in Italy, where ventilators were being rationed. He’s in one of the best hospitals in the country. He is strong. We will get through this.

I encouraged him when he started to sound panicked, but hearing his fear made me scared. I was sure it was due to the isolation. Being alone with nothing but the news for company will mess with anyone’s head. In the evening of March 18, he received off-label malaria medicine that was supposed to help with the plaque developing in his lungs. He said it felt like someone punched him in the chest; it hurt to talk, to breathe. At 8:30 p.m., he said, “It may be a placebo, but I think I feel better after the medicine.” I said that was great news, that he would be coming home in a matter of days.

That was the last thing I ever said to my dad.

My phone woke me just past 1 a.m. It was the hospital calling, and would I please call the doctor back right away? Spoiler alert: It’s never good news when someone calls in the middle of the night.

My dad died alone and afraid from something that, by all rights, shouldn’t have killed him. Because doctors don’t know how to treat it, because someone didn’t wash their hands, because someone didn’t self-isolate, because because because. None of the reasons feel good enough. None of this should have happened, to me and my family or to the hundreds of thousands of others who have lost a loved one.

New York City has just recently passed the milestones for the first phase of reopening, something that I daydreamed of weeks ago when the virus was at its peak and things looked grim. But with this nascent reopening it seems society is ready to put the virus behind it. It’s sad so many people died, sure, but now we can get our haircut! I recognize that excitement, and hell, I feel it too, but it seems in the midst of it, people are being forgotten. People that had no one at their bedsides, that languished in refrigerated trucks, that couldn’t even have proper funerals.

I look forward to the future, to a time when my family can hold a memorial service for my father for the hundreds of people who knew and loved him, and I can peruse the city’s flea markets in his honor. But I also know that we must continue to look back, not only in remembrance of the more than 123,000 of our nation’s dead, but also to see the warning signs, to learn from them, and to prevent a disastrous second wave from claiming any more.

You can see more of Barth’s work on her website, here.

In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff members and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.

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