Sunday, April 4, 2021

Thoughts on a Pandemic Year


It has certainly been a year to remember. I have to go back a few months before the official start of the pandemic (March 11, 2020), however, to capture the complete picture of how very different the first year of the pandemic was for me. Until late fall 2019, BYU Studies had three full-time editors. We publish a quarterly journal, of course, but we also publish books, now limited more or less to the BYU New Testament Commentary and Royal Skousen’s Book of Mormon Critical Text. We kept busy, but the pace was not stressful. Then, one of our editors decided to drop from full-time status to very part-time. A few months later, another full-time editor, who had been commuting to Provo from Salt Lake Valley, decided to take a job closer to home. That left me as the only full-time editor. Shortly after this, the pandemic hit, and the university decided not to replace either editor, at least for a while. The editor who had stayed on part time was focused mainly on book projects, so that left me to handle the journal with the help of three very capable student interns. Little did I know what was coming my way.

Normally, each journal is 192 pages (6 full signatures). With three full-time editors, I would generally have maybe three articles and a personal essay to edit for each issue, as well as proofreading Skousen’s books, dealing with inventory matters, and handling various administrative duties. But in 2020, we published a regular journal that was 240 pages and then three lengthy special issues with 320, 224, and 208 pages. For the first two special issues, that meant I had fourteen articles and essays in each to edit and shepherd through the publication process. And at BYU Studies, we are sort of OCD. We (primarily the interns) source check everything and do an initial copy edit, we do two full edits (by different editors), and then we complete what we call a final format, which means going through a long checklist of typographical items to make sure that the final copy not only reads well but also looks good and is friendly to the eye. With my workload tripled, I relied heavily on our interns, who did great work. But at times, with fourteen articles in various stages of completion and communicating back and forth with all the authors, I felt like an air traffic controller with too many planes in the sky. Somehow, we survived, and the special issues actually turned out very well.

If this had been the only change during the COVID year, it wouldn’t have been all that memorable. Busy, yes, but not unmanageable. I was one of the lucky ones regarding work, I suppose. All through the pandemic, I have driven in to BYU and worked in my office. There were only three of us who came to the BYU Studies office every day, and we were in separate rooms, so we felt safe. It was eerie, though, because our office is in the massive Joseph F. Smith Building that houses many faculty offices and classrooms. As soon as the university moved all class instruction online, the building was like a ghost town. We felt like we were the only ones in that huge building. But the parking was great. So, work, other than being a little quiet and a bit busier than usual, was more of less normal.

It was one other little matter that made the past year memorable. My mom passed away in 2013. Since then, my dad had been living alone in the house where I grew up in North Ogden. It has a big, beautiful, high-maintenance yard, and my dad had always worked hard at keeping it in shape (as well as raking his neighbors autumn leaves, pruning their trees, and snow-blowing their driveways. He’s a man who just couldn’t sit still. But after he turned 94, he started to slow down, and his balance got shaky. He was still driving (quite well, I might add), but over the winter of 20192020, he fell a couple of times, once banging his forehead on the sidewalk (resulting in stitches) and once hitting the corner of a wall and cracking a vertebra in his back. His back was just starting to feel better when he reached a significant milestone. A year ago tomorrow (April 5), he turned 95. He had wonderful neighbors. Because the pandemic was in full swing, his ward organized a drive-by birthday party. It was general conference Sunday, and they put a big sign in his front yard, then, after the afternoon session, had him sit in a chair on his front lawn while they all drove by with signs and balloons to wish him a happy birthday. We were there, and it was like nothing I’d ever seen. At least 70 cars drove by. It took forever, but this was a man who was very loved. As well as spending his hours working in other people’s yards, since my mom’s death my dad had become the neighborhood ice cream shop. The little kids would come to his door every day, and he would give them popsicles and other ice cream treats. It was what he lived for. The neighbors visited him often and looked out for him.

Then, on May 31, I got a phone call from Dad’s best friend, who has lived across the street for over 50 years. Ray told me my dad had fallen out on the driveway and had been taken to the emergency room at McKay-Dee in Ogden. I drove up and learned that he had broken his left hip. Now, I know what that usually means for anyone over 90, but this was a man who was still putting in three to four miles a day on the stationary bike in the basement. The surgeon felt that he was nowhere near death and that to ease the pain, which was rather extreme, it would be best to do surgery. My dad and I agreed, so they put a metal rod in his femur and fixed it in place with two large pins (screws). He spent a month in rehab and made reasonable progress, but there was no way he could go back home. He could barely walk with a walker. We could also not take care of him in our house, and he insisted he didn’t want to be a burden on anyone. So I brought him down to Provo and found him a room in an assisted living facility that was on my way to work. I hated taking him away from his neighbors, but there really was no other option.

For about a month, it appeared that he might be able to progress to the point where he could go home again, and this was his goal. He worked so hard, doing laps in his room with the walker. But there was sciatic pain as well as the broken hip, and his body started getting weaker. By late summer, he was pretty much confined to a wheelchair. And even if his body had healed enough for him to go home, his mind was deteriorating. His memory had been going for years, but the physical stress must have taken a mental toll as well. He couldn’t remember things that had just happened. And he started getting delusional. It would come in two-week waves. He would be fine for a while, and then he would sort of detach from his surroundings. It became clear that it would be dangerous for him to ever live alone.

So, at that point, we started getting his house ready to sell. I had been driving up to North Ogden every other weekend to take care of his big yard. We were paying a neighbor kid to mow the lawn, but there was a lot of other work to do. It made for a busy summer. In September, we cleaned all personal items out of the house and had an estate-sale company sell most of his furniture and other belongings. The house sold very quickly, and we closed on the sale in late October. This was a piece of property that had been in my family since the 1870s, when my great-great-grandmother and her children had settled the area, so it was not an easy thing to do. But it was necessary, and it was a big relief when I could finally turn the work over to someone else.

We had a relatively quiet November, until the night of Thanksgiving. When the phone rang at 2:00 a.m., I knew there was trouble. Apparently, my dad had been trying to get up to go to the bathroom. The wheelchair wheels were not locked, and when he tried to transfer, it rolled away, and he fell and broke his right hip. I met him at Utah Valley Hospital and, once again, the surgeon recommended surgery to relieve the intense pain. This resulted in a partial hip replacement, which seemed to bring much better results than the previous surgery. My dad once again went to rehab, but within a day or two, blood tests revealed that he was suffering kidney failure. He was not eating and became unresponsive and unable to speak. It appeared his body was finally shutting down.

The nurse practitioner who had ordered the blood tests said he had seen this happen many times. While he couldn’t be sure about how things would unfold, he guessed that my dad probably had two days to two weeks to live. So we transported him back to the assisted living facility and started preparing for a funeral. By this time, he was just skin and bones. I didn’t see how he could live long. Then, one day, quite unexpectedly, he started speaking a little. And he started eating a little applesauce and yogurt. A few weeks passed, and we became suspicious, so his nurse requested another blood test. It was obvious that his kidneys had started working again. It has now been five months today since he returned to the assisted living facility. He is bedridden, but he is alert and eating a healthy diet. And he wants to die. Because of macular degeneration, he cannot read much. He has little interest in TV. So his days are endlessly long and boring. Since he can no longer serve anyone, he sees no purpose in living any longer. And he misses my mom.

I have visited my dad every day since December 4. Once they determined that he was on his way out of this life, despite the pandemic restrictions they allowed me “end of life” visits. Now, even though the end is not as near as we once thought, they still allow me to visit. They also made accommodation for me to get vaccinated with their staff and residents. I appreciate this. And it has been a blessing for me. Because he lived 80 miles away, I have not been able to visit him as often as I would have liked. Now I visit often, but it is not under the circumstances either of us would like.

Tomorrow is my dad’s 96th birthday. I have only one sibling, a sister who now lives in southern Utah and whose husband is bedridden, so she cannot get away very often. But she is coming tomorrow for the birthday we never thought he would live to see. We have no idea how long he can last, but I wouldn’t place any bets against a man who has survived two broken hips and kidney failure in the past ten months. The day of his departure will surely come, as it does for all of us, but his adventures since his last birthday have made this year of pandemic a year to remember.


  1. thanks for those thoughts, and sympathies for you and your father. Time and age doth happen to us all.

  2. This is just so hard! I'm sorry you have to experience it. But are you familiar with the Utah Library for the Blind and Disabled? We have somewhere around 100,000 audio books available. It is completely taxpayer funded. We provide the machine on which to listen and send audiobooks through the mail, paying the postage both directions. It's a great service for people who love reading, but are not able to read any longer.