My father and I were sitting at a small indoor table, eating roasted Cornish game hens while we looked out at well-kept grounds below us. The meal was a good step forward—it was the first time he’d been out of his room to eat for at least a week. He was smiling and laughing at my dumb jokes when a man approached us and, somewhat haltingly, introduced himself as Gavin Locklear, administrator for the Carol Woods Retirement Community in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
“I apologize about this, but we’ve had to introduce a new policy regarding visitors,” he said. “Only staff and essential workers are allowed to visit building four for the time being. The policy went into effect this morning.”
“You mean family can’t visit?” I asked. “I understand why you’re saying this, but this is pretty awful. Do I have to leave right now?”
“I know, and I’m sorry. Please feel free to finish your meal, of course. No rush. And if there’s any way in which I can help, let me know. Here’s my card.”
My father, Hodding Carter III, had followed only some of the conversation; after I explained what Locklear had said, he worked hard to repeat the information back to me, which seemed strange, since he was someone who’d made a career out of speaking to audiences.
No, that’s not quite right. His life was speaking to audiences—speaking and being witty, charming, and detailed. A former newspaperman and publisher, he’d served as Jimmy Carter’s assistant secretary of state for public affairs, and during the Iran hostage crisis, he’d kept the nation informed with appearances on the nightly news for nearly a year. After Carter’s presidency, he won four Emmys as a network television journalist and host, and he became a popular lecturer at several universities. At the family dinner table in Alexandria, Virginia, he expected to have political discussions and invariably did all the talking. He was never at a loss for words. Until now.
A few months back, Dad found out he has lung cancer. It is currently Stage IV. To make matters worse, something had rapidly affected his cognitive abilities. On bad days, putting more than two or three sentences together had become a forced, trying exercise.
I’d planned to travel from my home in Camden, Maine, to Dad’s house in Chapel Hill to visit and help where needed, but a few days before I arrived, he’d fallen while coming out of the shower and broken his hip. After a short stint in a hospital, he transferred to Carol Woods for rehab, so instead of helping at home, I’d be visiting him there. Luckily, he had reserved a place years before and would be getting much needed around-the-clock attention.
My dad and I had always been close but not close, and by that I mean we hugged hello and said we loved each other, but there was a limit. He never let me all the way in, and I was usually second to whatever else was in the room. But during times of crisis, he’d always been there for me, and it had felt good, right even, to be doing the same.
Now the coronavirus was fucking it all up. Dad would be stuck trying to rehab in a nursing home without visits from a single friend or family member.
I hate remembering the look on his face when we hugged goodbye. He understood what was going on. He pursed his lips tightly and nodded slowly when I departed. He was putting on a brave face. No one wants to see their dad do that.