Barry — “My voice had been a bridge for him.”
With the first wave of COVID-19 surging, an iPad became Barry Joseph’s lifeline for communicating with his dad, Paul Joseph, in the hospital. Guided by the poems of Billy Collins, Barry stayed by his dad’s side – virtually – until it was time to let go.
Find Barry on Instagram and TikTok at @fridayistomorrow and on Facebook at the Friday is Tomorrow Book Club. You can find his book about grief during the COVID-19 Pandemic at his website: fridayistomorrow.com
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Barry Joseph 00:03
This is the beginning, almost anything can happen. This is where you find the creation of light, a fish wriggling onto land, the first word of Paradise Lost on an empty page. So something that I’m, I made sure to bring with me for my time sharing these stories is a book of poetry. By Billy Collins, it’s called Picnic Lightning, like you can imagine you’re at a picnic and there’s a moment and there’s lighting. My dad was a very caring man, he loved his family, he would always make sure we’d be together for dinner and, and brunch on Sunday morning with some bagels and lox. And it was always about the creating opportunities for us to connect with each other is footstone is gonna read, devoted brother, husband, father, grandfather, quick to prescribe a bad joke. raring to ski, tennis, or play ball, always loved. Damn good peach. That’s my dad. He was a pediatrician. for over 30 years, he had this one office on Long Island, where he took care of generations of kids. And when he retired, we still have my sister and I so many beautiful letters from patients, just saying what an impact they had. And as a doctor, you know, he had to distract kids who are about to get a shot. So he always was quick and coming up with a bad joke to distract you. And even though it wasn’t there, when he was giving the shots, we you know, we’d been in a museum somewhere at a store shopping, and if there was a kid, he always get them laughing. It was a stranger; he didn’t know who they were. But he would always say something goofy or silly and make them crack up. And I think some of my sense of humor comes from him. And when Passover had started, it was April 2020, he was supposed to come remotely to our zoom-based Seder that I was going to lead. And he wasn’t feeling well. I knew something was wrong at that point. It’s hard for me to talk about when my dad passed, because it’s confusing in a lot of ways. In retrospect. Now, it’s like, it’s obvious. He had COVID, you went to the hospital, and he died. It’s a really straightforward story. The two EMTs came, and I wasn’t, I wasn’t trying to be more dramatic, but I didn’t hold back my feelings, I was just upset and sobbing, and I was like, can you not take him like, so when they took him out, I got to spend more time with him outside the ambulance before they brought him into the hospital. And that was the last time I got to be with him in person.
Barry Joseph 03:00
I just wanted to spend as much time with him as I could. And so using the iPad, I would call him up. And from then on that device became my lifeline with my dad, because now they had a device they can use, and they cannot just use it, they could set it up and just leave it there and leave him alone. Like they didn’t have to be there and take their time away from something else that was important that they had to do. And then I could just spend 20 minutes with him, I could spend an hour, I might watch him sleep, I might just talk to him. And so I started reading to him the poems. And so the poems became a way to both kind of before and for him and entertain him, then chat with him about what the poems meant to me. And then what he meant to me was each of the poems kind of bringing up different aspects of his life. And if I had to sit down at one point and just tell him all the things I appreciated about him, I could never have done that. But the poems became my prompts. And my reading it to him became the opportunity to let whatever was bubbling up, be the conclusion after each poem, just hoping he was hearing it, hoping that it meant something to him, or at least knowing that he was hearing my voice and he can recognize my voice and hoping that that was comfort to him. And as we got towards the end of the book was Wednesday, it turned out the end poems turned out to be about death and dying and passing on. And so again, now these were prompts to talk with him about dying and letting go, and what that might mean for him for people whose leaving behind. And again, while we’re doing this, I’m watching him on my phone, he’s on the iPad. He’s on the iPad, I’m seeing his face, his upper chest, I see it moving up and down. I see the bag over his mouth that would fill up with oxygen and then collapse as he would breathe it in and fill up again. And as I’m reading him this what’s the third to last poem in the book, I noticed that the process of the bag filling up the process emptying was slowing down, it fills up and it collapses, and then it fills up and that that breath of air is not being taken. And I’m just telling myself, Just keep breathing, keep breathing. And this is the end, the car running out of road, the river losing its name in an ocean, the long nose of the photographed horse, touching the white electronic lines, I mean the last few lines of the poem. This is the end, according to Aristotle, what we’ve all been waiting for. With everything comes down to, the destination, we cannot help imagining a streak of light in the sky, a hat on a peg, and outside the cabin, falling leaves. And I read through it, knowing he had died, knowing that my voice had been a bridge for him. And that, well, I couldn’t be there in person, that COVID had taken that from me. And from him getting to be with his loved ones and his family. I did get to be with him when he died. And there was no promise of that before COVID.
Barry Joseph 06:14
So before the pandemic, I expected that after my dad died, we would have a pretty traditional Shiva period as a reformed Jew. For me, that would look like three days where we’d open up our homes, people would come in all day and all afternoon, there’ll be a moment in the evenings to say some prayers led by the clergy. But mostly it’s a time for people to come in and care for us and be with us and share memories bring bagels and Italian cookies and, and mostly schmooze. It’s almost like a party. But you know, low energy, but I didn’t want to do what I’d seen. This is again, the beginning days of, of COVID. Luckily, technologies in my bones, it’s exactly what I do. And my people, you know, my friends, my colleagues, they know how to make these things work. And so my sister and I spent all three days together in these zoom rooms where people would come in to the main zoom, and our friends who were volunteering for a few hours would welcome them, make sure the cameras were working, the microphones were working, explain what would happen, and then send them into the private room where my sister and I were. So we would just be by ourselves being like how you doing sis, how you doing brother, and then being it’s time. And then a bunch of people would come in some cousins, some friends. And we’ve kind of keep it small, the small, the right amount of people where you can actually connect with people. And then I got to connect with people. And then I got to cry. And then I got to appreciate the great stories people were telling me. And you know, it’s taken me some time to kind of as a man to kind of reclaim access to my ability to grieve and to cry. And as someone who spent many years kind of you know, disabused of the notion that I was allowed to have feelings, getting to feel feelings feels like a blessing. Because his death was a very personal thing for me. I was losing my dad, and he was dying and leaving his friends and his family. And yet, it wasn’t ours. It was part of this moment in world history that had not only brought his cause of death to him, but had also defined how he could die, and how we could mourn his death and was part of history which he would definitely have appreciated. It’s a book you would have read, for sure. I’m Barry Joseph, and thanks for listening to GOOD GRIEF. This episode of Good grief is dedicated to the memory of my dad, Paul Ronald Joseph.
GOOD GRIEF is a Lemonada Media original. Our producers are Hannah Boomershine, Giulia Hjort and Jorge Olivares. Executive producers are Stephanie Wittels Wachs and Jessica Cordova Kramer. Music and sound design or by Hannis Brown. Please help others find the show by rating and reviewing wherever you listen and follow us at @LemonadaMedia across all social platforms. If you want more Good grief, subscribe to Lemonada Premium only on Apple podcasts. This season of good grief is dedicated to those we’ve lost in the past year.