For me, it was a bagel - my last taste of normalcy before the “new normal” arrived, eaten mere hours before NYC effectively cancelled the school year for my children. The inevitable was fast approaching — had arrived in fact — and I was just slow to accept it. (Weeks later, my dad would die. But I’ll get to that).
My family was in Philly for the weekend, the only guests at my wife’s sister’s youngest’s birthday party, the only ones brave/foolish enough to make that trip. That Friday, Philly had cancelled school. The hotel where we stayed, usually sold out, was at 10% capacity. So when we packed our bags to return home to Queens, to what was beginning to feel like the opening scene of a post-apocalyptic movie, I could not resist popping into the Vancouver-style bagel shop just south of Rittenhouse Square. (My dad was almost 88 but, yes, it was due to COVID-19.)
For over a decade I’ve started each work day buying one toasted bagel with butter, which I’d devour walking between the cafe and my office, finishing before arriving at my desk. But my bagel place would close down along with other New York City non-essential businesses; as I write this, it has yet to open. So that day in Philly, I bought an everything bagel, still steaming hot, plus a bag of more that could last for days. It was my “what would you bring to a deserted island” moment. It was my last grasp at the old normal. It was the last time in now two months I’ve bought food, let alone anything, from a store. (My dad was in the hospital for two weeks. I could not visit.)
But back to that hotel in Philly, and how empty it was. I want to explain what I did there, after sending my wife in advance to walk to her sister’s place with the kids. I needed some privacy. I needed to speak at a funeral. (Not my dad’s. I didn’t know that was coming).
That morning, back in Brooklyn, Eli Miller would be laid to rest. It had nothing to do with the pandemic. He was a Brooklyn icon, a recently retired seltzer delivery man whom I featured in my book on seltzer. His family, fans of the book, had reached out to me to provide a eulogy. Sorry, I said with true regret, I would be in Philadelphia. (Back when space mattered, before the only way I could see my dad was through Facetime on an iPad).
Scribe | This isn’t about the bagel, nor the seltzer man
But just a few days after the call, by the time I was in Philly, Eli’s funeral had moved to Zoom so that family from Pennsylvania to Israel could participate. So, it turned out, I could eulogize the greatest Brooklyn seltzer man. As I sat alone in my hotel room, empty of people - both in my room and throughout the hotel - staring at the panel of close-up videos revealing the exquisite intimacy of faces in mourning, I was not only taking my first steps into the Wide World of Zoom that was poised to transform my life. I was developing new skills that I would need just six weeks later when I delivered a socially-distanced eulogy for my own dad.
I’ve actually been writing his eulogy for more than half my life. When I was in college, my mother died of ovarian cancer. I was unprepared to lose a parent. Having learned they could die (who knew?!) I decided I would be ready for my father’s. Over the years, lines would flow through my mind, succinct ways to capture the essence of my dad, and I’d file them away.
“Growing up,” I’d imagine saying, “my dad couldn’t always make it to a ball game. If someone asked, ‘Where’s your dad?’ I’d say ‘He’s at the hospital.’ Oh no, they’d respond. What’s wrong. And I’d say, ‘No, he’s AT the hospital, not IN. He’s a doctor.’”
But when COVID-19 took my dad, he was in the hospital. Had been for two weeks. And in all those decades of planning I never considered that my family would be honoring him like this, a Zoom call for a man who never once owned an email address.
I love my dad, but I would not have expected more than a dozen people to come to his funeral. When he died, just shy of turning 88, most of his friends and family had since moved to Florida, or passed on years ago. Those who survived were the least likely to travel for the occasion. But it didn’t matter; none of us could mourn in person.
Scribe | This isn’t about the bagel, nor the seltzer man
Instead, I put out a call to my friends and together they provided the required back-end support for a Zoom-based funeral. On a Friday morning in April, funeral participants logged in from all over the country, topping 120. The rabbi and cantor, each at their own homes, welcomed everyone and led the religious components of the service. Two of my father’s oldest friends, a married couple both in their 90s, shared a few words in his honor.
And that eulogy I’d spent decades nurturing? I threw it all out. I was in a new world, one I could never have anticipated, with new ways to honor him. The eulogy came together for me the night before, almost in a flash. I traced his childhood in Jersey City, to his time as a young man in the CDC fighting cholera in the Philippines, to his four decades running his private pediatrics practice on Long Island, to his recent death (at which I was present, remotely, through FaceTime). Next, we shared a video that covered his life in reverse through a collection of photos edited together by a cousin in Atlanta, which my sister and I narrated.
Would I have preferred to hug my step-mom and comfort my sister? Of course! But live-streaming the funeral meant we were able to bring so many more of us together, at one time, to memorialize my father and collectively paint a portrait of his most vibrant self. I can’t imagine a better way to have honored his memory. And now, like my Bar Mitzvah and wedding, I have a recording of the full event (who knew I’d ever want such a thing?).
COVID-19 is like a super-villain in a Marvel movie. Its evil mission is to keep apart the people it can’t outright kill. And there are two types of superheroes in this movie. Of course there are the heroes fighting to keep us alive, doctors and nurses and frontline workers. But there are also the other heroes fighting to oppose the forces of social distancing. And these heroes are called Team Technology. In the context of a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster — Zoom vs COVID-19 — I am thrilled by watching Team Technology defeat evil and bring us together.
But of course, when the movie ends (Can I please leave the theater already?) I want to return to my life. I want the need for superheroes to have passed. I want to run to my sister, who lives alone in Manhattan, and give her a proper hug. I hope she’ll forgive me if I make a brief stop along the way to pick up a fresh, hot, buttered bagel.
The writer is the author of Seltzertopia: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary Drink, and most recently in the Forward about his father’s virtual shiva.