Son’s Grief, Guilt Become Tribute Honoring COVID-19 Victims

NEW YORK — Though Brian Walter knows he tried to protect his parents from the coronavirus, doubts torment him.

Did he grab a wrong bottle of orange juice, one covered with infectious droplets? Did he get too close to his dad? What if he had worked a different shift — would things have been different?

Did he bring about his father's death?

The New York City Transit employee was deemed an essential worker needed to keep the city running last year when it became the epicenter of the pandemic. He shared a meal for St. Patrick's Day with his parents, then decided that he should stay away for their safety. They kept a sanitizing station outside their shared home where he would leave groceries that his mom would disinfect.

Still, they got sick. And he can't escape the gnawing feeling that he exposed his father to the virus. 

"I constantly feel guilty that I was the one going out every day," he said. "I mean, I'm the only person leaving the house all the time. So you know, it almost seems logical that I was the one that brought it in."

These are common questions in a world beset by a pandemic that has killed about 600,000 people in the United States alone. Survivors wonder whether small decisions they made had catastrophic consequences.

In the year since John Walter died on May 10, 2020, Brian has often returned to their last moment together, when he drove his 80-year-old father to a Manhattan hospital.

"I'd give anything to have it back, because there's so many things that I didn't say that I'd love to have that time again," he said, choking back tears. 

The family was unable to hold a wake. Instead, they buried John Walter's ashes months later in a small ceremony at All Faiths Cemetery in Queens. 

"Dad used to say: 'Oh, no one's going to come to my funeral.' And in the end, he was right — we didn't have one. … No one could come," Walter said. "But Dad thinking that he wouldn't be remembered, he's wrong — he couldn't be more wrong."

A plaque outside John Walter's home in the Middle Village neighborhood of Queens reads: "On this site in 1897 nothing happened." 

"He loved that sign!" his son said, chuckling. "He was just such a goof." 

In the living room, surrounded by John's collection of history books, toy soldiers and Laurel and Hardy memorabilia, his wife, Peg, and son re-enacted scenes from John's favorite "Pink Panther" films. 

"I loved seeing him laugh!" Peg Walter said. They were married 57 years. 

They recalled how John would often carry a clown's nose that he'd wear to elegant dinners on cruises the couple took around the world. His lifelong passion for Civil War history and the New York Mets, after the Dodgers broke his heart by leaving Brooklyn. His dedication for Autism Speaks in support of his grandson James. The way he guided teenagers at his parish youth group for nearly three decades.

John, a historian who also ran genealogy and military research businesses, "would not want us sitting around dressed in black, mourning forever," his son said. "He'd want us to go out and have the experiences that he can't have anymore."

Walter tried to turn his guilt and grief into positive deeds, honoring victims of the pandemic. He traveled in October to Washington where he spoke at the National COVID-19 Remembrance Day about his dad's life and death, and how he has coped with survivor's guilt.

He also joined online support groups. He and his mother planned their own memorial for COVID-19 victims in Queens, one of the nation's hardest-hit places. They teamed up with 16-year-old artist Hannah Ernst, who began to draw portraits of COVID-19 victims after her grandfather, Calvin Schoenfeld, died from the virus. 

On May 1 of this year, hundreds of her paintings on a yellow heart background were placed on empty benches at the bandshell at Forest Park for Queens COVID Remembrance Day. 

"Today these empty benches which stretch before us are some of the Queens residents taken away with my father way too soon," Walter said onstage in front of an image of his father clad in a plaid shirt and a Mets hat. "They're a stark representation of those who should be here today."

Participants recited Catholic, Islamic and Sikh prayers; the bereaved shared their painful stories and sang "Amazing Grace." 

Walter smiled as families sat on the benches, took photos and even kissed the paintings of their lost loved ones. "I've been dreaming about this day for months," he said.

"You finally feel that maybe you've done something for them," he said, at the same time relieving some of his own guilt. "It's a way of not letting go, but kind of letting some of it go. You're never going to forget the person. But it's a big healing factor." 


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