VIRUS DIARY: The unfinished business of a funeral deferred

Regional News

Bernard F. Lyons Jr. explores the tidal pools near Weekapaug, R.I., in 1993. Lyons, who died of COVID-19 on Dec. 10, 2020, will be memorialized by his family in New England in October 2021. (AP Photo/Scott Stroud)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — It dawned on me recently at the Nashville airport that the pandemic wouldn’t end at the same time for everybody. I had expected a trickle of travelers, but the airport was jammed. Most people had masks, but social distancing wasn’t a thing.

I was flying to check on my mother. Still, in my mind it would be awhile before we could settle into whatever “normal” is going to look like going forward.

There is a lot of unfinished business in the world: graduations, anniversaries, and so on. Pent-up demand has driven airfares higher. People travel for different reasons, but many have been moving around freely for months now, vaccinated or not.

And there will be funerals. Closure comes hard when you are not able to say goodbye in person. That’s the unfinished business for my family.

My wife’s father, Bernard Francis Lyons Jr., died of COVID just before Christmas. His life ended in the company of nurses at a long-term care facility near our house. We last spoke to him by video chat.

My wife and her sister chose not to try to pull off a virtual memorial, which seemed both logistically challenging and somehow not enough. I’m sure we’re not alone in feeling that a life as significant as Bernie’s deserved better than to be remembered as one of more than a half-million Americans whose lives were taken by this terrible affliction.

And so, later this year, we will drive to his native New England to honor him.

Bernie Lyons was a working-class Irish-American from Rhode Island who earned a doctorate in psychology and spent his adult life healing troubled children in Knoxville, Tennessee.

He was an elaborate storyteller, prone to exaggerating the accomplishments of the people he cared about. His stories grew more spectacular with each telling. They arose from the accomplishments of his two daughters, from his love of opera, or from whatever eclectic field of study he happened to be reading about, from the sex lives of jellyfish to weather patterns in Antarctica.

His wife, Anne, died six years earlier, and Bernie spent his last years in long-term care in Nashville as his memory slipped. But his gentle nature remained, and we’d often find him with another resident or a staff member, chatting amiably. Some of the female residents were sweet on him.

My wife and her sister will remember Bernie most vividly at the beach at Weekapaug, Rhode Island. He and Anne spent their summers there in the Dunes Trailer Park, a humble enclave tucked between beach houses and resorts.

That beach was a magical place for my wife’s cousins, who descended every time we made the trip. We’d bodysurf the waves together, play touch football on the beach, and have dinner under the awning beside their trailer. Bernie presided over all of it, regaling us with stories, music and laughter. Sometimes we’d play “Stump Uncle Bernie,” dreaming up the most preposterous questions we could. He always had an answer, though it wasn’t necessarily correct.

It will feel good to be together after all this time, and the memorial will be more celebration than mourning. At some point, most likely at dusk, we’ll go down to the beach together.

It will be cool there in the fall, but I like to think the spirits of Bernie and Anne will be there, too. It will take no feat of imagination to see them huddled on the wind-weathered lifeguard stand, smoking and talking quietly.

Bernie might pause for a moment when he sees us. He might even marvel at how much we all loved him. And then he will turn back to Anne, telling stories that may or may not be true.

Almost all of them will be things she has heard before. And yet they will still make her smile.

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Virus Diary, an occasional feature, showcases the coronavirus pandemic through the eyes of Associated Press journalists around the world. Scott Stroud is Appalachia news editor for The Associated Press, based in Nashville. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/ScottStroud1

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