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WFAE's Social Distancing series looks at how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we live, work, learn and connect with each other. The series is hosted by reporter Sarah Delia.

Social Distancing: 'This Can't Be Happening To Us.'


At first, life during the pandemic wasn’t all that different for 58-year-old Michele Nichols of Weddington. She’s a bookkeeper and quickly transitioned to working from home, something she pretty much did before the outbreak. Her husband still has his job. 

But in April, the family was alerted that the Indiana nursing home where her 86-year-old father lived, had been exposed to the coronavirus.

Shortly after that notice her dad, Joseph, started to show symptoms.

"When this started happening to my dad it just felt like, 'This can’t be happening to us, this is somebody else’s story," Nichols said. "You just feel so helpless and you wonder if it’s real and when it’s going to end."

Credit Courtesy of Michele Nichols
Joseph Swiezy at John Herron School of Art Indianapolis 1951.

Her father was taken to the hospital. He spent about a week there before dying.

While he was in the hospital, his family tried to let him know they were still there. Nichols said the nurses helped to organize large family FaceTime calls with her dad. One time, because of technical difficulties, a nurse even used her own personal cellphone to help coordinate the call. Nichols later learned that was against hospital rules.

Joseph was unresponsive, but with the help of the nurses, the family tried to communicate with him as much as possible.

"They would pan out if we wanted, and we would see him lying in bed," Nichols said. "One day, he made some gurgling sounds when they put the phone up to his ear. They even put his hearing aid in to try and help. They stroked his hand for us. I used to volunteer with hospice, and I felt like the sense of touch helps somebody know that somebody was near them even if they aren’t totally aware of what’s going on."

Joseph was Catholic, and religion was important to him. On these family calls, they made sure to pray, something Nichols says she knew he would have wanted.

Credit Courtesy of Michele Nichols
Joseph and Rita Swiezy with their kids: Michele, Maria and Michael in 1970.

"My mom died a year ago in March, and we talked to him about maybe seeing mom someday," Nichols said. "We all said goodbye in the ways we could."

There were a lot of emotions on those large family calls. The biggest one had 15 people on at once. Some family members told Joseph to keep fighting. Others reassured him it was OK to let go.

"It was hard to all be on the same call at the same time because you’re kind of vulnerable, you know, and to people that you don’t always stand around crying with," Nichols said. "And there you are on the phone seeing everybody."

But she did get a chance to have a private goodbye with her dad, and it came by way of a song. When she was little, she learned to sing next to him in church.

"My dad was deaf in one ear from childhood, so he had us stand to his right so he could hear us in church, and mom was on the other side," Nichols said. "I always stood next to him and he held the songbook. I learned to sing that way."

She found the opportunity to virtually sing next to her dad one last time when the nurse was early to call Nichols and her siblings for a coordinated FaceTime. She answered first, giving her a few moments of privacy before her brother and sister joined.

Joseph with his kids during Christmas in 2019.

"It was important to me to sing that to him just so ... if there was any level of his cognitive function that could connect with his past, that I share that with him," Nichols said.

One of the songs was "Amazing Grace."

"It’s funny what you think of at the end of somebody’s life," Nichols said. "You try to touch them with whatever you can when you’re not there with them."

Although family members were not permitted to be there with Joseph at the end, he wasn’t alone. Two of the nurses who had provided care throughout his time at the hospital were by his side.

"I don’t know if they always try to keep two in the room when somebody is dying, but they told us they were holding his hand and they cried because they had gotten to know us a little bit through our communication and somehow that helped me that they had compassion," Nichols said. "It made them know who our dad was."

If you ask Nichols who her dad was, she’ll tell you about his beautiful baritone voice. He sang everywhere: the shower, at church and on car rides. He was also a skilled whistler and could even yodel.

He was a commercial artist and his garden at home was his "canvas." He dressed nicely. He loved to tell corny jokes. He was married to Nichols' mom, Rita, for 58 years.

She will tell you he was a great dad.

And he kept up with the news. Up until his hospitalization, he was reading about the spread of the coronavirus.

"I even talked to him about three weeks before he died because I wanted to make sure he understood why we couldn’t come and see him, and I asked him if he knew what was going on and he said, ‘It’s just awful, isn't it? I’m reading about it in the paper. We'll get through this,’” Nichols said.

Credit Courtesy of Michele Nichols
Michele with dad in March 2019.

Of course, the outcome of losing her dad is not, Nichols said, how she envisioned getting through this. And there have been other losses that have come with his, like the deaths of some of the residents at her dad’s nursing home that she got to know over the seven years he lived there. Her brother’s father-in-law died of COVID-19 days after her dad, and a friend of hers had a parent who died because of the virus.

Then there’s the loss of not being able to celebrate Joseph in person with her entire family.

At a later date, there will be a Mass of remembrance in his honor. Nichols says they will sing "Amazing Grace," just like when she sang leading up to his death, trying to spark a memory with her voice — the voice that sang next to him from the time she was a little girl.

Only this time when Nichols sings, it won’t be in the presence of a nurse holding a screen up in a hospital room. It will be with her family and friends in person — including some of those who were there with her virtual back all those months ago when the only way to say goodbye, the only way to try to connect, was through a screen.

In our series Social Distancing, we hear from you, our listeners, about the challenges and changes you’re facing in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.

If you’d like to share how the coronavirus has changed your life, leave a voicemail at 704-916-9114 or go to wfae.org for more information. We hope you and your loved ones are taking care.

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Sarah Delia covers criminal justice and the arts for WFAE. Sarah joined the WFAE news team in 2014. An Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist, Sarah has lived and told stories from Maine, New York, Indiana, Alabama, Virginia and North Carolina. Sarah received her B.A. in English and Art history from James Madison University, where she began her broadcast career at college radio station WXJM. Sarah has interned and worked at NPR in Washington DC, interned and freelanced for WNYC, and attended the Salt Institute for Radio Documentary Studies.