Editor’s Note: David Gelles is CNN’s executive producer of political and special events programming. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
“Where’s David?” my father asks me.
“I’m David,” I say.
“Were you thinking of someone else?” I ask him.
I told my dad it was time to take a shower and start the day. He couldn’t lift his body up off the couch.
“Let me help you.”
A few minutes go by as he struggles to push his body up.
“I can help you.”
A few more minutes go by.
“I will help you up and then you can shower.”
A few more minutes go by. He’s still struggling to get up off the couch.
“OK,” he says as he looks at me. He’s defeated.
I place my arms under his, bend my knees and let him lean into me for balance as he straightens his legs and he’s able to stand upright.
He showers. But when he gets out of the shower, he slips and falls in his bedroom. He’s seated on the ground in his bathrobe, helpless. I help him stand up.
That was just one morning in my life 60 days ago. It’s part of a series of scenes now stuck in my head over the past 100-plus days.
The time he lost his balance, fell and cut his head when we were on a walk together.
The last time he climbed the stairs on his own, and the first night he had to sleep in a hospital bed in the living room.
The night the health aide woke me up at three in the morning because he was coughing up blood.
The last time he could stand on his own legs.
The first time I had to give him morphine.
I became the primary caretaker for my father, terminally ill with brain cancer, when my mother died suddenly of a brain aneurysm in March. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, I learned what it means to care for a dying parent in isolation, while still grieving for another parent.
It hasn’t exactly been “Tuesdays with Morrie.” My dad didn’t sit around telling me stories with beautiful life lessons. The brain tumor had already damaged his short-term memory and his emotional responses. He would often ask me where my mother was, and I would have to remind him that she died.
He spent most days looking at his watch. I don’t know if it’s because he couldn’t remember what time of day it was. Did he know it was 9 a.m.? Did it matter? It did remind me at least that time was running out.
He couldn’t hold a conversation. I could ask him questions and he might respond.
“What year is it?”
“2020,” he told me.
“Who is the President?”
“Ronald Reagan,” he said.
I told him I loved him. I rubbed his back. I kissed his forehead.
Most of the time I had to just show my love by being there.
I tried to cook his favorite foods – or sometimes just order them. On more than one occasion I let him eat cupcakes for breakfast and ice cream for dinner.
It’s been over 100 days now.
Over 100 days without any visitors, just the two of us.
He’s now in bed and unable to do anything. He’s been like this for over a week.
He’s not eating or drinking.
The last food he ate was some chocolate Jell-O pudding. At least it was chocolate. He loved chocolate.
He looks so close to death.
His legs are shriveled up. There’s no more muscle. His arms are just loose skin draped over a bone.
This isn’t how I want to remember my dad.
I want to remember him as the dad who would put on his Walkman and mow the lawn while screaming out Chuck Berry songs.
I want to remember him as the dad who took me to my first R-rated movie when I was five years old.
I want to remember him taking me on a business trip with him, staying up late, watching “Hill Street Blues” and ordering strawberry cheesecake from room service.
I want to remember him picking me up from overnight camp because I was homesick by day three.
I want to remember him as sarcastic and clever.
I want to remember him telling my mother he didn’t need to ask for directions.
I want to remember him eating Oreos by the sleeve.
I want to remember him getting angry when the ball went through Bill Buckner’s legs in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series.
I want to remember him spending endless hours on eBay trying to rebuild his entire childhood baseball card collection.
I want to remember him taking my kids to Chuck E. Cheese while I was away on a Bahamas vacation, only to come home and find out that both kids had the flu because my dad definitely didn’t make them wash their hands before they ate pizza.
Two days before my dad took his last breath my wife and kids came to visit to say a final goodbye.
My seven-year-old son kneeled on the chair next to my father’s bed and just stared.
Later that night, my son woke up and couldn’t go back to sleep.
I took him downstairs and we turned on the TV and watched Jimmy Kimmel. My son had never watched a late-night comedy show before.
It’s exactly what my dad would have done in that situation.