Pandemic Diary: Just a Box of Rain

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry.
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.
—T. S. Eliot, “East Coker,”
Four Quartets

* * * *
One day, he decided to read the pages that I’d left next to my typewriter. I was a literature major in graduate school, and I had just pounded out some pages about “The Waste Land” for a summer T. S. Eliot seminar. “I don’t understand anything you wrote, but it sounds like you know what you’re taking about,” my dad said with a chuckle.

My dad had a pretty good chuckle, just so you know. Chuckles are difficult to rank because they receive little attention in the universe of laughs, but they are worth a note. My dad’s chuckle was never one that claimed he knew more than the person with whom he was speaking, or more than anyone else, for that matter. It was an honest assessment of how amused he was at the moment, which I realize now was one way that told us his full-bodied laughter was true and truly felt.

I did not appreciate my dad’s chuckle that summer day so long ago, though. “The poetry of T. S. Eliot is more important than a laugh,” I am certain I thought. (I was insufferable, I assure you. My insufferable self, so convinced of his own importance, still is around here somewhere, but does not show up often.) Well, Eliot’s poems have plenty of laughs and chuckles available, as I now know, and I also know now that my dad’s message to me was a sort of baffled pride in a son so different from and yet so similar to him.

As I have grown older, I have come to appreciate Eliot’s volume Four Quartets and its deeply considered meditations on time, man’s role in the cosmos, eternity, and the permanent immanence of eternity in any possible moment, never at any individual’s bidding. With my father’s death from COVID-19 on Sunday, May 10, those themes become that much more important to me, and since he chuckled at my Eliot paper (“your report” he called it), perhaps a start with Eliot (“East Coker” opens with “In my beginning is my end”) today would have earned a chuckle from him.

East Coker, the village in England, was where Eliot’s ancestors hailed from and where his ashes remain. When we can safely do so, my family will bring my father’s ashes to Vermont, where he hailed from, where half of my DNA came of age.

One thing I have learned from experience is that the cliché about how one sees one’s entire life flash before one’s eyes in a near-death moment is completely true. In a car that was about to be hit (it was not, which is how I am alive to type this) a few years ago, my entire fifty-plus years was right there, right down to every dandelion I had ever plucked petals off in childhood. Each yellow petal, some of them crunched between my finger and thumb, and some let go to fall in our backyard … you get the idea. My guess is that the body releases a hormone in that moment of fear, and every available synapse fires off, which made it seem like I was re-experiencing my entire life in real time.

It does not matter, but it was a beautiful experience. When someone close to you is about to die, it appears that something similar takes place. I would not have thought about my father’s chuckle, and had not thought of it, until this past weekend, just before a life ended, but I knew the end was nearer and nearer …

My father died of COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2, as it is known by its formal name) on May 10. William Robert (Bob to all who met him) Aldrich, was eighty-four. He is survived by his wife of fifty-three years, Rena; a son, Mark, of New Paltz, NY; and a daughter, Michelle, of Hyannis, Mass. My father was a man of kindness. That makes for a full life.

His is one of the 81,650 deaths reported in the United States as of May 12. He is one of the seventy-three individuals reported to have perished of COVID-19 in Barnstable County, Massachusetts, which is where Cape Cod is and is where he resided with my mom and sister. Because he was eighty-four and frail (he had Alzheimer’s disease, which had started to grow worse by the day rather than by the year or month), his life ended within forty-eight hours of his positive test.

Because this is a pandemic, because he died of the disease at the heart of the pandemic, the darkest fact of all of this is that he died alone, quarantined from the world to protect the world, and that my mother did not have an opportunity to say goodbye to her husband of fifty-three years. My family was taken from the slow “long goodbye” of Alzheimer’s, the extra tenderness that every farewell with elderly parents always carries (my mother is seventy-nine, so my farewells on the phone have carried extra weight to them for years—sorry, Mom, but it’s true), to an abrupt conclusion.

An online friend lost her uncle in the pandemic last week, and she and I exchanged condolences this morning. She wrote to me, “People who haven’t had COVID affect their family aren’t understanding just how serious this is.” She is correct, but she and I and tens of thousands in the United States are members of a club that none of us saw open its doors to membership a few months ago. It is the club of those who have lost family members to this. I said to a friend in early March and reported on this website that I doubted I would personally know a victim or a person who came down with COVID-19. Boy, was I wrong! I know quite a few victims, both recovered and not, and I did not need to lose my father for it to become more vivid.

This was preventable. My father was going to die sooner rather than later, but not this week, not this month, not this year. Some of those who have protested against mask-wearing and quarantine have received what I would call “rage-Tweets” from me. I’m sorry. One even went to some effort to create a new account to continue to fight with me (I took the bait) after I had blocked him and his affiliated think-tank when he and it accused me of rage, rather than see through the rage to the pain I was obviously showing. He continued to come after me (“Does grief make you stupid?” he asked me), and I blocked that account, too. His argument that my father was “expendable” is not one I would agree with, even if we were not speaking about my father’s passing, and I do not care how many economic degrees one might possess to offer that opinion out loud to, well, anyone.

There was no relief to be found in writing rage-Tweets, however, but those protesters, especially on Cape Cod, I would like to know if and when they will bring my father back. Will it be after they get their haircuts? I openly admit to having emotions of anger alongside but not as strongly as the several emotions of grief.

Most important, I hope that none of these protesters lose a father or loved one in this pandemic. There must be another way for them to learn the lessons of COVID-19 more vividly, but without the pain that my sister, mother, and I feel right now.

My father. William Robert Aldrich thought chiefly and most frequently and passionately about his family. In his last months, he missed his parents and his three brothers and the Vermont farm on which he grew up. My sister and I used to marvel at how a person who had left Vermont at eighteen and did not have a strong Vermont accent in his voice could sound like he had never left Vermont when he was on the phone with his relatives. He had regrets in his life, I am sure, but he did not regret leaving his home state; I think it made him appreciate and love his home state all the more fiercely from next door in New York, where he created a life with my mom.

My grandfather split his names between two of his sons: William Frank Aldrich gave Frank to his eldest and William to my father. Neither was “junior,” but my father became known by his middle name: Bob to my mom and his coworkers and anyone who met him, Bobby to my grandmother, “Uncle Bobby” to my first cousins. (It always startled my sister, Michelle, and I when we would hear that “Bobby” from our grandparents.)

My dearest friend, Jen, said to me that she could tell that my dad always felt that he was loved, and must have grown up with that. I reflected that this is actually a rare thing to meet. I am lucky that I did. He wanted only to express love and to have a family whose constituents loved each other always. Because that is impossible, there must have been frustrating moments, and because he was born in 1935 in Vermont among people of seemingly few emotions and fewer words (and thus raised in the 1840s more than the 1940s), he seemed to my teenage eyes and ears to express the frustrations far more than the love.

Thus when emotions came from him, they arrived in weird packages. I only saw him cry three times, and each time was over a loss (of a family member) or the fact of time’s passing (when my sister graduated high school) … which are my top two reasons to cry, as it turns out.

Sometimes, the world would acknowledge those weird packages. I have a favorite story … we used to vacation on Cape Cod, where there is a famous theater, the Cape Cod Melody Tent, which is a summer stock and concert venue. It seats several thousand around a rotating stage. Once upon a time, it boasted of performers like Frank Sinatra, now it boasts of performers starting their careers by doing impressions of Frank Sinatra. (And even that joke is probably two decades out of date.)

In the summer of 1983 or ’84, Sammy Davis, Jr., himself gave a concert there. It was one of my first live shows. At the end, Sammy did what he always did and told us that we were the best audience he had ever performed for. Gullible, I think I wrote this detail in my diary that night as a point of pride. A standing ovation followed. Wait, why is Sammy Davis, Jr. looking right at me and making a power salute in my direction and emphasizing it, really shaking his hand at me or near me? I looked to my right: my dad had, in his innocence (he didn’t know the Black Power Salute from a bowl of cherries), in his enjoyment, in his effusiveness, raised his hands and waved and held his right hand up, and the great entertainer was simply responding to my dad with the greeting he thought he had received. The two of them greeted each other across the audience, across the chasm of fame and anonymity and race, long enough for me to look back and forth between them and witness it until the stage rotated Sammy Davis to someone who was not greeting him like my father was. That person got a simple wave.

There are more memories, because they all come, some unbidden, in these times. All the synapses fire up. In memory of my dad, be awkward, be brave, love fiercely. I did not always know it, but I came to know and I hope showed him, that I am lucky to be the son of Bob Aldrich.

To those who read this, I thank you for your indulgence, patience, and compassion.

* * * *
The Grateful Dead song, “Box of Rain,” was written by the bass player Phil Lesh (who sings it) with Robert Hunter. The two wrote it while Lesh’s father was dying, so it takes on a role in the lives of sons about to lose or who have lost their father. For years, the lines that held me were, “Maybe you’re tired and broken / Your tongue is twisted / With words half spoken / And thoughts unclear,” because I was a teenager for only approximately three decades and did not perceive my own half-spoken words. I was a writer, wasn’t I?

For the last several years, as my father started to fade … you know, as recently as last summer he said to me, “I wish this Alzheimer’s would leave me alone so I could just grow old!” so he still had a good line in him and I expected more … the line that has resonated with me has been the simplest: “Such a long long time to be gone / And a short time to be there.”

The whole thing. It’s just a box of rain, whatever you make of it. Just make something of it. My dad did.

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  1. Melody LaPier · May 12, 2020

    Beautiful in it’s grief and expressions of love. I lost my mom to a disease that she’d had for over 20 years but didn’t know she had until the last 2 of her life. It’s doubly sad when those we love have struggled and made it through this thing called life, only to succumb to an ending not as peaceful as they deserve. I’m so very sorry for your loss.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Relax... · May 12, 2020

    Omigosh, Mark, I’m so sorry for your and your family’s loss.


  3. Frank vatier · May 12, 2020

    Thank you Mark you have brought me back to when my father had passed , 20 years ago he was mistreated for a cancer that he had.. I feel your loss. I am very grateful that you wrote this and expressed how you feel.. and I really feel your pain.. you helped me with total closure on my father’s death.. and I thank you for that. I hope to see you soon. Love frank vatier..


  4. Carrie · May 12, 2020

    I didn’t know. I’m so, so sorry. Mark M. just lost his mother in the same unforgivable way. It breaks my heart to think of it for them both, such fine, gentle souls, deserving of so much better an end. He would have loved this beautiful, profound tribute. I am here, as always, in the corner of your mind ready to speak of Vermont and days of long ago and those still to come. I will add you and your mom and sister to my distressingly long prayer list. I also lost my cousin and Sue lost her mom as well as Mark. I live in daily fear for my mother. They are dark days, but I’m sure you will always find the sun in the memories with your lovely family who I consider myself fortunate to have known. Thinking of you all with my profoundest condolences.


  5. Manja · May 13, 2020

    Mark, I’m sorry to hear that your dad has passed. He sounds like a pretty amazing guy. Oh, the emotions you feel when someone this close to you passes away. I would love to hear more about the Vermont connection, as I lived there for a period of time and still consider it home.


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