He had been on a ventilator for 11 days. The attending physician at the intensive care unit had called that morning and asked whether they should include a Do Not Resuscitate order in my dad's chart. They had asked before. I had been indecisive. A successful resuscitation would extend his life. But it might also lead to brain damage.
Now multiple organ systems were failing. They needed an answer.
"What are the odds he survives?" It was the first time I allowed myself that question.
"If it continues in this direction," he told me, "we're talking about a single-digit chance of survival."
I was in the backyard of my mother's house in the Bronx, New York. She had rushed him to the hospital after his mild Covid-19 symptoms quickly developed into breathing problems. Since then she was in quarantine with her own mild symptoms; she couldn't smell or taste. My brother, uncle and I sat on her back porch every day and kept her company through the window. We avoided contact, wore masks, and went through bottles of hand sanitizer. No one had entered the house since her quarantine began.
I suspected that my father had a will and a health care directive inside the house. I put on my mask but couldn't find a clean pair of latex gloves in my duffel bag. It was cold in the backyard. I had a pair of leather gloves. I put those on and entered my childhood home for the first time in weeks. My mother barely registered my presence. She was crying on the couch.
I entered my father's home office and opened his filing cabinet. It was alphabetized. I found a file labeled "Will." There were several documents inside. I learned that my father was planning to bequeath me his law school ring. I had steeled myself for this grim search -- for this whole weekslong nightmare -- but that revelation blew away my composure. I kept searching. I found the health care directive. It was clear. Do Not Resuscitate.
I was relieved -- we wouldn't have to make what felt like an impossible decision -- but then I kept reading. My father had noted that he did not want to be supported by a ventilator or hooked up to a feeding tube for any length of time. He had been connected to both for nearly two weeks. I had been the point of contact with the hospital and approved each element of his medical care. I was overcome with guilt. I started sobbing.
My outburst drew my mother into the home office. There was grief on her face, but also curiosity. What had finally gotten to her younger son, the one who so rarely showed emotion during his father's hospitalization? I couldn't form the words. She began crying. We couldn't touch each other. We couldn't embrace.
I took a deep breath and continued flipping through the file. There was a copy of my dad's resume and a five-page summary of his career. I laughed. Just like my dad. He wanted me to have the correct materials to write his obituary.
I called the hospital and approved the DNR. They told me his status was still dire. I called my dad's closest friends and started preparing them for the worst. It was like reliving the most difficult phone call of my life ten times over. I drove the hour and 10 minutes home to be with my wife. I went upstairs and started writing.
I had been calling the hospital at least twice a day -- at half past noon and again at 8:30 at night. On occasion the hospital would call me, never with good news. We have to add a central line for the drips, do you approve? He needs a blood transfusion, do you consent? We want to put him on vasopressors. OK, whatever you think.
The possibility of these calls turned my cell phone into a kind of improvised explosive device. My phone rang, my stomach dropped. I knew, too, that my family and friends dreaded incoming calls from me. What horror was I going to pass along now?
I got in the habit of texting my brother before calling him: "About to call. Not bad ne