About four weeks ago, David Amador dropped by the Alfredo Gonzalez Texas State Veterans Home in McAllen to visit his father Robert, a U.S. Army veteran who suffered from dementia.
David visited his father several times a week. When Robert’s health was better, they would go for long drives, sometimes out to South Padre Island or Boca Chica Beach, or maybe just down the road to Applebee’s. One time they went all the way up to Martindale.
David kept visiting his father as his health declined. He’d bring him some food and a newspaper.
“My dad knew the day when I would come by,” David said. “Because I’d bring him a copy of The Monitor. He’d get The Monitor and he’d look at the date. He’d say it’s ‘Tuesday already,’ or ‘It’s Saturday already?’”
Robert would ask how long he’d been there. He’d ask when he was leaving. “Pretty soon, dad,” David would say. Robert would talk about his brother, who’d died in the Vietnam War.
David would flip through the sports section. Robert read the news.
That day four weeks ago was the last day David talked to his father. Robert was recovering from a kidney infection.
“The last moment I had with my dad was taking him that fajita taco and watching him eat it,” David said. “And then he said, ‘I’m going to go to sleep.’ And those were the last words I had with him.”
Shortly after that visit, the veterans home notified David that the facility was closed to outsiders because of the pandemic.
“He didn’t have any phone in his room, much less could he really converse, he was growing tired,” David said. “I would call the nurses at the front desk and ask how dad was doing.”
The nurses would report that Robert was doing OK. Sometimes David would drive to the home and sit in the parking lot, just to be near his dad.
On April 10, David got a call from the home notifying him that his father had taken a turn for the worse. The next morning Robert died at the age of 86.
Robert didn’t have COVID-19, but his last days and the way his life was memorialized were dictated by the impact of the pandemic. David says he even thinks the isolation contributed to his father’s health declining.
Robert didn’t know about the coronavirus or about any pandemic. As far as he knew, David just stopped showing up one day.
“Those veterans who are there, they don’t know what’s going on. They don’t know why there’s a lockdown. They don’t even think there is a lockdown,” David said. “Do they get lonely? Yeah, my dad said that many times. When I would come by and take him lunch or just go sit with him, he would say, ‘I’m glad you’re here.’”
David’s brother owns a funeral home. David and his brother went to the veterans home that Saturday, donned facemasks and went to pick up their father.
“The staff stopped what they were doing and they lined up and played taps as we were taking dad home,” David said. “They draped the flag over him and a World War II veteran escorted my dad out.”
They’d talked about this day before, about what it’d be like. Robert was a military man through and through; he served in the Korean War, and the sound of taps filled him with pride. Naturally, he wanted to be buried in the Rio Grande Valley Veterans Cemetery, next to his brothers in arms.
“He was looking forward to being there. We went out there many times on those drives,” David said. “We’d walk out there. We’d walk and he would read the headstones of all these fallen veterans that served their country, and he would take the time to read the headstones.”
Robert was buried in that cemetery Friday, but it wasn’t the funeral he would have expected. Because of the pandemic, Robert’s funeral was deprived of many of the traditions his service had earned him.
No one played taps. There was no flag presentation. No volley of rifle fire.
“Basically with COVID-19 all we’re doing right now is direct internments until they open everything up and they feel it’s safe to expose our honor guard and the family,” said George Rice, Veterans Land Board on-site representative. “It’s postponing the honors that they deserved and they’ve earned.”
Rice said many funeral homes are holding veterans remains until the pandemic ends. A veteran, Rice says watching the deaths of war heroes go by without full honors is painful.
“It hurts, but I understand the reasoning behind it. A lot of our honor teams are up in their later 70s, so obviously they’re at tremendous risk … but as a veteran, it’s difficult to watch,” he said.
David says his father would have been upset by missing out on those honors.
“There’s an entourage of people who didn’t get a chance to come here due to the circumstances,” David said. “I know my dad was looking forward to that. I know my dad was looking forward to the escort, I knew that he was looking forward to having that military escort of friends, comrades, and the salute from his comrades.”
David says when the pandemic ends, Robert will be honored with a full ceremony worthy of a veteran. Until then, he’ll be left with a profound sense of emptiness brought on by a new reality in America, a reality in which a son can be robbed of his last few weeks with a father he cherished, and a reality in which a veteran can be buried without the recognition he earned.
“We don’t have that closure yet. We cannot celebrate this moment, because there’s a pause because of this pandemic that has put a hold on all of us in the United States. There’s no closure,” he said. “We haven’t really said goodbye.”