Sylvie Lubow (SL): When the podcast season started, we were confronted with the worst health crisis the country has seen in a century. There were a lot of questions, but there weren’t many answers.
Josh Belser (JB): When did you realize COVID-19 was serious?
Sam Dow (SD): My floor was one of the first converted to strictly dealing with COVID patients. The numbers just started to go up and then it was showtime.
JB: Yeah. The bravest of us right now is absolutely terrified.
Evette Jourdain: I pray on my way to work. I pray on my lunch break.
Craig Boddie: Everyday I wake up and just wonder, like, ’Is this the day that COVID-19 is gonna come home with me?’
ASR: What do you worry about most now?
JS: It takes a long time to say my prayers at night; I have so many kids, grandkids. Gotta pray for everybody.
Frank de Jesus: I want you to know that you got a brother in me for life. You know, I mean, if I didn’t know it before, I know it now for sure.
Tyrone Hampton: We gonna make it through this, man. We gonna make it through.
SL: It’s the StoryCorps podcast from NPR. I’m Sylvie Lubow, filling in for Jasmyn Morris.
This week, how five families are dealing with COVID-19 and having tough conversations along the way.
Like Dan Flynn, and his daughter Shannon Doty.
Dan is a funeral director in southern California. But when the pandemic hit, he traveled across the country to join an emergency mortuary response team.
Shannon Doty (SD): When you got called to New York were you scared?
Dan Flynn (DF): Any responder will tell you that it’s part of our makeup that when everybody is running away from the danger, we run towards it.
It’s just part of the fiber of my being, I guess, to go to where there is this kind of a need.
SD: All you ever see is the stuff on the news, and you calling me up and telling me you’re going to New York, I was terrified. Knowing your personality made that ten times worse because I knew if somebody dropped on the street having symptoms, you would be the first person to pick them up and run them to the hospital despite the fact that you could catch COVID also. But I was also proud because you are that person.
How did New Yorkers respond to you guys being there?
DF: On our first day, people pulled their cars over and got out of their cars and they started applauding. People on bicycles and people on the sidewalk would shout, “Thank you!” And as long as I live I’ll never forget the sight–as we were walking, right in the middle of an intersection, a disabled veteran stood up out of his wheelchair and, uh, he saluted as we walked by. It was incredibly moving, and that sight will never leave me.
SD: It’s your attitude toward helping people that made me want to work with patients who have brain tumors. And I would rather run into the fire with my cancer patients instead of just taking the easy way. And that is your doing because you always were there to tell me, “Don’t do it the easy way, do it the right way.”
DF: I think of you as this warrior and living up to your middle name Valory, for Valor. I hope you remember that you are smarter than you think and you’re stronger than you feel.
SD: I’m very proud to be your daughter.
DF: I will always love you darling.
SL: That was Dan Flynn in California, talking to his daughter Shannon Doty in Chicago. They recorded their conversation virtually using StoryCorps Connect.
Next, we’ll hear from Dr. Joseph Kras and his 18-year-old daughter Sophie.
Even though they weren’t separated by geography during the pandemic, they found themselves grappling with another kind of distance.
Joseph Kras (JK): At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, you got really, really mad at me, that I kept going into work, to hospice and palliative care.
Sophie Kras (SK): I was mad at you because I felt like you were choosing your work over your family, and me. Whenever you talked about your duty as a physician my mind would just turn that around as, what about your duty as a father? You could save them, but you could end up killing me.
JK: If I should infect somebody in my own family and they should die or get very sick, of course I’d be guilty forever about that. How do you balance other duties that you have in your life, including of course to your own family? And so, here’s the thing: If I don’t do it, who is going to? Is everybody gonna step back and not do it? Would I want other physicians to turn their back on you if you were sick? Absolutely not.
SK: So, I’ve always wondered, how do you talk to patients who are dying, but yet they want to live?
JK: You know, they are owed honesty above all else, and so I give them that, but people need to know that you’re going to walk the path with them. Whatever that path may be.
I had this one patient — her long standing partner was not allowed to come into the hospital, and she was getting near the end of life. And the last time that this person was going to be talking before she decided to go on the ventilator was to us, and not to her partner…there was just the sense of aloneness that was over the room. And me trying to be present because sometimes that’s the most and the least that you can do for your patients. But sometimes, you know, that’s, that’s not enough. I, I think if you’re a good doctor, um…a lot of your patients take a little, take a little chunk out of you, every now and then.
SK: If I think about it harder, which I’ve had a lot of time to do since school stopped, I realize that being a physician is hard, and even though I don’t really tell you, I really admire that you go out there and confront these contagious diseases and people who are dying, and people who are angry and sad.
JK: There’s things sometimes you can’t change, and you just do your best. But, I gotta say one of the things I miss most is giving you a hug. And uh, when this is all over it’s uh, one of the things I wanna do.
SL: That’s Dr. Joseph Kras and his daughter, Sophie in St. Louis, Missouri.
Next, how a father’s long-held secret from the 1950’s came to the surface during the pandemic. At StoryCorps, Ken Felts told his daughter, Rebecca, about his first true love…
Kenneth Felts (KF): On March 13th we all went under quarantine. And being alone drug up all these memories from the past.
Rebecca Mayes (RM): One night you told me you were sad because you had lost the love of your life.
KF: And that’s when I came out to you.
RM: What do you remember about him?
KF: When I met Phillip, to me he was the perfect person. Of course, I guess that’s what everyone thinks of their first love. We just kind of blended into each other.
But one Sunday, we went to his church because he sang in the choir. I sat in the pews and it occurred to me that I was sitting in a place that condemned our behavior, I had to make a decision. And I made the wrong decision.
And It was not until I got the divorce from your mother, first thing I did was go through all the phone books, trying to find Phillip. But, I was unable to find him.
RM: I remember this day when I was in high school, you had gotten all dressed to work in the garden but you just sat crying for a while. You know, I asked you what was wrong, and you said something about, ”Oh, just stuff in the past that doesn’t matter anymore.” Do you remember what you were crying about?
KF: Having left Phillip. He died a couple of years ago. I just wished we had found him sooner.
RM: If we had found out that Phillip was alive, what do you think you would have said?
KF: I would have apologized for the decision I made.
RM: My guess would be that he forgave you long ago, and I just wish you could forgive yourself.
Would you entertain having a boyfriend?
KF: Oh absolutely. Hopefully they will consider my age as only a number.
RM: [Laughs] What do you think it’s important for me to know and do as I go through the rest of my life?
KF: Being yourself. Not hiding as I have. Because I have found out how much love there is out there that just keeps pouring into me day after day. And I thought I was doing great, until I came out and started to discover what it means to be free.
SL: That’s Ken Felts with his daughter, Rebecca Mayes, in Colorado.
After a short break, a daughter remembers her father, a World War II veteran, who died during COVID.
Stay with us.
SL: Welcome back.
Our next story starts in 1946; World War II had just ended and the first Nuremberg trial was underway.
Army Staff Sergeant Leo DiPalma, who had fought in the war, was then serving as a guard at the trial. That’s where he came face-to-face with Herman Göring, a Nazi leader who established concentration camps.
Emily Aho (EA): He was 19 years old and told me that Hermann Göring stood there, glaring at the side of his face. And my father said he did not react to him at all and took him down to the cellblock. My father stood up to that man.
SL: That’s Leo’s daughter, Emily Aho. Earlier this year, Leo died from COVID-19.
And because the family wasn’t able to have a funeral, Emily and her daughter sat down to pay tribute to him.
EA: I got this idea about taking him back to Germany around Memorial Day in May of 2000. He was 75 years old and he had all these things he wanted to talk to me about. I’ll never forget it. I may not have had a lot of time with my dad before, but I had that week.
Hannah Sibley-Liddle (HSL): Mmhmm. Why did you decide that he should go live at the veterans nursing home?
EA: After grandma died, he was alone. And over time, he started to get a little forgetful. And so we quickly moved him to an assisted living place. And he was thrilled. Because he was all with all veterans. And he. He was really happy about going there.
HSL: Tell me about the last time you saw him.
EA: I visited him March 8th. I just got this feeling that I needed to go see him and I needed to go see him that day. And, um, I talked to him. I talked to him and I told him that he was a good dad and that I loved him, and I talked about our trip. And he looked up at me and he held my hand, and he smiled.
When I left that day, I did say to the nurse, “If he should get worse, would you please call me?” And, um, she said, “Yes.” But by that time, they had started restrictions and then they shut the place down.
He was number 28 there who died of COVID. I wanted to be there, but I didn’t get that chance. That was probably the hardest part. You know, also, we couldn’t have a funeral and it’s kind of like a long pain that’s just carried out. So it’s tough.
But I knew my dad and he wanted people to never forget what he did during World War II, so that the rest of us could stay safe for the future. And I feel like I need to carry that on. I’m honoring his life, not how he died.
SL: That’s Emily Aho and her daughter, Hannah Sibley-Liddle, remembering WWII Veteran Leo DiPalma.
Our final story comes from Dr. Roberto Vargas, the Director of Microbiology at a hospital in Rochester, New York. He’s spent most of the pandemic working long hours in the lab running COVID-19 tests.
Because of the risk of exposure, Roberto was staying at a hotel while his wife and four young kids were at home, But recently, he came back and built a makeshift apartment in their basement.
That’s where Roberto was when he recorded with his wife Susan, and their 10-year-old son, Xavier, who were upstairs.
Roberto Vargas (RV): When I would go to the hotel room after a long day and it was just me there, and it was very quiet; that was when I missed you all the most.
Xavier Vargas (XV): It got very worrying once I knew the virus was going to be, like, a big thing, and with you gone it was way harder. I just missed you.
Susan Vargas (SV): I remember you’d dropped groceries off and put them on the front porch, and that’s when we started talking through the window next to our front door. You would talk on your cell phone, and the kids and I would sit behind the window. And I remember one of the hardest nights, I think you were just exhausted, you just had your head on the window and were crying.
But eventually, you started sleeping in the basement. And I would not let the kids go past the top of the basement stairs.
XV: We had to stay far away but I just felt better that you could be, like, a part of us.
XV: It’s still very hard but it’s just nice to see you, Dad.
RV: You have been so helpful to mom, so thank you, ok?
SV: I remember, once you came into the basement, the best night I had yet, you know, your coworker had made all these different dishes for us. You sat at the bottom of the stairs in a rocking chair, and I was at the top.
RV: I remember that, yes. I even remember the food; it smelled so good.
SV: It was the first time we had been able to connect in so long and, as crazy as it sounds, it’s the best date I’ve ever had with you in my life.
RV: Without you, I wouldn’t have been able to do what I’ve been able to do at work. You have to be absolutely everything to our four beautiful kids. I’ve never loved you more and I know it hasn’t been easy.
XV: Can you guys try not to cry, it makes me sad when you cry.
SV & RV: [Laughs]
SV: Oh sorry, honey. These are tears of happiness.
SV: Roberto, I admire you so much–always admired you–but you’ve done things these past couple months that seem impossible.
RV: What you’re doing is a lot harder than what I’m doing, a lot harder.
XV: Dad, I just want to say thank you for helping get rid of this virus.
RV: That’s a team effort and that team includes you. But what carries me through is this family.
SL: That’s Dr. Roberto Vargas talking with his wife, Susan, and their eldest son, Xavier.
To learn more about how to record your own virtual conversation head over to www.storycorpsconnect.org
This episode was produced by me, Sylvie Lubow and Jud Esty-Kendall, who’s also the editor. Jarrett Floyd is our technical director and wrote our theme song. Fact-checking by Natsumi Ajisaka.
And special thanks to Jasmyn Morris, Kathleen Horan, and StoryCorps producers Mitra Bonshahi, Von Diaz, Jey Born and Camila Kerwin.
That’s all for this season of the StoryCorps podcast. We’ll be back in a few months but in the meantime, we hope you stay safe. Thanks for listening.