On a healing mission after exposing his father to a deadly virus

For a year, Michelle Pepe woke up every day, recited the Kaddish, the prayer of mourning, and kissed a picture of her father. And he dealt with his guilt.

“Dad,” she says, “I’m so sorry this happened.”

“This” was COVID-19. In March 2020, as the pandemic hit the United States, Pepe traveled from Boston to Florida for his mother’s 80th birthday. She believes she gave the coronavirus to her father; Bernie Rubin died weeks later.

“At first people would say,‘ Well, how did you take it? From me. That’s how he took it – he took it from me, ”Pepe says, crying.

“No one ever said, ‘This is your fault and you’ve given it away,’ but I know that’s true. I know I couldn’t save you. It’s just something I have to go to the grave.”

Hers is a common sadness of the times. Around the world, countless people struggle to shed the weight of feeling responsible for the death of a loved one because of COVID-19. They regret a trip or feel anxious about everyday decisions that could spread the disease – traveling to work, hugging parents, even taking food.

On the eve of the father’s death anniversary, Pepe’s hands tremble as he holds an incarnate portrait of Bernie and Phyllis Rubin, smiling and surrounded by their 10 grandchildren. Taken on March 8, 2020, it is one of the last images of the couple with their family.

After the celebration, Pepe was in Florida to take care of them during the pandemic. She believes she caught the virus while shopping for food for her parents. Then the father and mother became ill. Concerned about his plight, he called 911. He died alone at Delray Medical Center; family members were unable to visit him.

“You don’t have to give up and call the ambulance,” he says. “That’s what haunted me, and thinking of him, alone in that room … I know he was scared.”

There was only a short, socially spaced grave. Pepe watched over Zoom as he continued to treat his mother, who has multiple sclerosis and is recovering from COVID-19.

Pepe has struggled with despair ever since.

“I was in real funk for a really long time,” she says. “And then one of my daughters said to me,‘ Mom, we thought we lost our grandfather, but … we didn’t understand that we even lost our mother. I thought I should run away. ”

Pepe joined online support groups where he met other mourning survivors; went into a psychic environment, looking for signs; and sought guidance from a rabbi who taught her to recite the Kaddish.

On April 13, he wakes up to say the prayer and lights a yahrzeit candle that marks the one-year anniversary of his father’s death. “We’re just getting through this day,” she repeats on the way to the cemetery. He wears his father’s gold chain and high school graduation ring.

At her grave, she places yellow flowers on a tombstone that reads, “Beloved husband, father, puppy” – her nickname – “and great-grandfather.” In the Jewish tradition, family members left behind small stones.

They remember a man who adored his grandchildren, calling them every day to get the latest news from the Red Sox or to invite them to games at Fenway Park. In recent years, “he couldn’t walk very fast – unless it was for a baseball game. Then he turned into Carl Lewis!” says Bob Pepe, Michelle’s husband, who has worked with her father-in-law and has been her close friend for 30 years.

The furniture store that Rubin founded with his wife in 1983 has grown into the Bernie & Phyl Furniture chain, with nine locations in New England.

The couple has been featured in television commercials best known for their catchy coloring. Foreigners often recognized them in restaurants and recited the slogan, “Oh, are you Bernie and Phyl’s, quality, comfort, and price?”

And Bernie Rubin would shout, as in the ad, “It’s beautiful!”

After the cemetery, Pepe visits the company’s headquarters in Norton. Admire the walls adorned with hundreds of autographed photos of baseball players that his father began collecting as a child. He takes a deep breath and enters his office, decorated with another collection, just as precious: photos of his family on cruise vacations, at the bar mitzvahs, college graduations and weddings.

She picks up her father’s work phone, leaning close to picking up a musk as she often does with her wallet, her shirts, and her cologne, hoping to feel his presence. But he didn’t hear anything – COVID-19 robbed him of his senses of smell and taste.

At lunch, the family walks to Rubin’s favorite restaurant and orders the “Bernie Reuben,” a sandwich named after him. Every day, Rubin would come into Kelly’s Place to order a cheese omelette and go through the same comic routine with a waitress.

“Carol, do I have to stay here for 20 minutes?” There are 10 empty tables. How do you run a business like that? “Says Bob Pepe, imitating Bernie’s voice.” And she would go, “Do you want to shut up? You know where you’re sitting, go sit down!”

Sitting next to her husband, Michelle Pepe laughs. Later, it dries and tears.

“It was torture,” she says. “But a year later, here it is, and I can laugh at these stories.”

The next day, she wakes up to kiss her father’s photo. He looks at the calendar and sighs in relief. The ritual year of mourning is over.

“My father would be so tortured if I thought about how much I was tortured, and I want him to be happy and at peace,” she says. “And it will only be so if I’m so here.”

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