There’s a song, “Spirit of Life,” held dear among members of the Unitarian Universalist Association.
Sara Kelley and her father, Stephen Phinney, a Unitarian Universalist minister, sang it often. Stephen last heard it by cell phone before dying May 2 from COVID-19, the lyrics sung and recorded by his daughter 1,600 miles away.
“Roots hold me close; wings set me free; Spirit of Life, come to me, come to me.”
Stephen is among the 276,000 people killed in the United States by the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. His daughter is among the millions left to grieve their deaths.
Sara, of Lewisburg, never got to say goodbye as her family had when her mother died of cancer. Safety measures wouldn’t allow Stephen’s children and grandchildren to gather on his hospital bed, hold his hand, cry together, tell him they loved him and that they would all be OK.
“That was probably the hardest part,” Sara said.
Stephen lived a rich life. He studied to become a physicist, built a three-decade career at IBM, worked on sonar systems for U.S. Navy submarines, found love and twice married, fathered three children, learned piano and trombone, performed with two orchestras in Boulder, Colo., and Binghamton, N.Y., volunteered with the Boy Scouts, hiked remote hills and mountainsides, traveled, tinkered, volunteered for civic organizations and became an ordained minister. Consider that a snapshot of a fuller existence.
Stephen lived to be 80, but Sara said that’s no reason to shrug off his death because he died in old age. She’s heard the skeptics question the virus: its severity, the death toll, the effectiveness of masks. All of it.
It makes her angry. It made her choose to share her father’s story. Her hope is that it brings humanity to the cold and ever-changing data about the pandemic. Her hope is that it inspires someone somewhere — a skeptic — to take caution against spreading the virus to someone else, perhaps someone they love, too.
“People aren’t expendable. That’s one of the things that’s been so frustrating when it seems people say ‘only old people die.’ Those old people are people’s families. They’re not just old people. It doesn’t make them any less valuable if they’ve retired,” Sara said.
Dave Kelley, Sara’s husband, works at Bucknell University as an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. He recalled meeting Stephen at the start of his relationship with Sara.
They bonded over science and eventually, hiking, too, especially on Mount Desert Island, Maine, a place Stephen loved.
“I was really the first person in the family who Steve could really talk to on a professional level. He was a physicist and morphed into an engineer. When he learned I was an engineer too, he would always take me aside and show me the latest thing he was working on or was reading. Half the time it went way over my head,” Dave said.
Sara visited Colorado in early March. She planned to convince her father to move to a personal care home in the Lewisburg area she thought would be a better setting as Parkinson’s disease progressed with her father. She sensed the pandemic caused further confusion for him.
She spent two days with her dad. The following day she heard from his wife, Cynthia Mortland Phinney, that the personal care home where he lived was strictly restricting visitation as the virus began to spread in the U.S.
Another phone call from Cynthia in late April confirmed Stephen had tested positive for COVID-19. Dave had a sense of dread. He felt helpless and frustrated. He was sad.
“We all thought back to the time we had seen him last,” he said. “At that time, we thought surely there would be more (visits).”
He finds himself thinking back to hiking in Maine, just Stephen, Sara and himself. Stephen mapped the routes. Once, they came to a pond halfway through a hike. It was hot. They swam and cooled off. Another time, they came across a strand of birch trees, the sun filtering through the leaves leaving an indelible memory.
It was personal. It was vivid. Nothing like watching a loved one battle disease through a cell phone screen.
“The thing we all dealt with was the frustration. There was just nothing we could do. We couldn’t be there, we couldn’t travel, we couldn’t be in the same physical space,” Dave said.
So, Sara recorded a rendition of “Spirit of Life.” A nurse practitioner at the hospital to which Stephen was transferred sang with him in their church choir. Sara sent the song to him. He played it for her father.
“We had no idea if he could hear it, but we hoped he did,” Dave said.
The Kelleys’ experience with the pandemic, with losing Sara’s father, inspired an abundance of caution. The couple’s daughter attends school remotely. Dave works from home. They’re careful to protect themselves so as not to spread the disease to Dave’s mother, Martha, who has her own health issues. They avoid stores where masking isn’t practiced. If they encounter someone without a mask on necessary trips, like to the grocery store, Sara said she’ll make it clear to the person they should mask-up.
“I will say to them, ‘please wear a mask. My father died of COVID and I don’t want it to happen to anyone else.’ Almost everyone responds by putting a mask back on,” Sara said.
“If the people who worked in my dad’s care home had worn masks and had gotten tested before they went into work my dad would probably be alive,” she said.