Jan Brent, a giving suburban Montessori preschool teacher, dead of COVID at 72
Suffering terribly, she urged her son: ‘Do everything you can to protect yourselves,’ he wrote in a much-shared Facebook post. ‘I don’t want anyone I love to go through this.’
Jan Brent loved hundreds of people as if they were her own family.
She taught generations of preschool kids and helped resettle an extended family of refugees from Guatemala, working to find them housing and jobs, enrolling the kids in school and buying them lunchboxes and clothes.
Mrs. Brent, 72, who was a Montessori preschool teacher and had been diagnosed a few years back with leukemia, died Nov. 24 at her River Forest home from complications of COVID-19. Her death came 11 days after her being diagnosed with what her son Patrick described as a devastating case of coronavirus.
When she wasn’t awake and in pain, he wrote on Facebook, she was frightened by hallucinations that were a side-effect of the narcotics she was given.
“Her passing was violent and horrific, and she spent the last weeks of her life suffocating from COVID-induced pneumonia while in agonizing pain, writhing, screaming and sobbing whenever she wasn’t heavily sedated,” he wrote. “She described the pain as feeling like her body was ‘on fire’ or being stabbed with hot needles. . . . The complete and utter despair I feel at being so powerless to help or even touch her as she went through it is a crushing weight that’s hard to bear.
“The last semi-lucid conversation I was able to have with my beautiful Mom was more than a week before she died, and, being the selfless, loving Mother to the end, her last words to me, gasped out over the telephone through ragged, panting, suffocating breaths and sobs and cries of terror and pain, will haunt me forever.”
He said she urged him, through her “chainsaw” panting: “Do everything you can to protect yourselves. . .I don’t want anyone I love to go through this. . . I love you.”
“My Mom suffered for eight tortuous, horrifying days after that call,” Patrick Brent wrote. “Her condition seeming to worsen with each agonizing hour that ticked by.”
He praised the nurses who cared for his mother at Rush Oak Park Hospital — and called anti-maskers “selfish garbage.”
“I’m sure you have seen all these goofballs marching on the [Michigan] Capitol with AK-47s and ‘I’m not wearing a mask,’ ” Brent, who lives in Michigan, said in an interview. “It just makes me sick. It’s a mask. Put it on. It’s not that big a deal.”
His posted tribute to his mother has been shared on Facebook hundreds of times.
“I’m getting responses from India, from Australia, from Europe,” he said.
Mrs. Brent grew up in Oak Lawn at a time when kids could still play on vacant land that growing up in Chicago called prairies. She went to Queen of Martyrs Grade School in Evergreen Park and Mother McAuley High School.
The only girl in a family of six kids, she took on added responsibilities after the death of her father Robert during her sophomore year of high school, according to her friend Roberta Reid, helping her mother Marjorie by babysitting her younger siblings and waiting tables at the old Purple Cow ice cream shop on Western Avenue.
Whenever there was a collection going on for charity, she was the first to help, Reid said.
“What a warmhearted, good person she was,” Reid said.
Mrs. Brent studied at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
She and her husband David were married for 47 years. He, too, was diagnosed with COVID-19 but has been asymptomatic.
David Brent said they met when she dropped in at Chicago’s Red Garter nightclub, where he worked as a doorman and waiter. She was smart, funny and “really beautiful,” he said.
For their engagement, he bought her a Mickey Mouse ring at Walt Disney World.
“She had that kind of sense of humor,” he said. Though it wasn’t a diamond, “I think the Mickey Mouse ring probably meant more to her.”
She worked as an aide at Oak Park’s Alcuin Montessori School and taught preschoolers at Keystone Montessori School in River Forest.
Former students praised her on Facebook for making them feel safe when they were nervous or scared.
Mrs. Brent also helped Regina Martin and her family feel safe after they fled the civil war in Guatemala in the mid-1980s.
“My mom had to carry me on her back” through the jungle to hide from soldiers and guerrillas, said Martin, who arrived in the Chicago area at 5, speaking only Q’anjob’al, a Mayan language spoken mainly in Guatemala.
“Jan enrolled myself and my brother into school,” Martin said. “She would pick us up, take us to school. She took us shopping for clothes, shoes. She bought us toys, a lunchbox. There’s no way I can repay what [she] did for us.”
“She was totally devoted to making sure the kids made it in school,” said Jerry Delaney, another friend of Mrs. Brent.
Patrick Brent said that, when he was diagnosed at 21 with a non-malignant brain tumor, “My mom went to the end of the earth to make sure I was OK,” researching his condition and finding doctors she trusted.
“She wasn’t going to let him go,” her husband said. “She wanted to make sure he got the best treatment possible. She mobilized a lot of people for prayers, people who would come with us in waiting rooms while we were waiting out the results of surgeries.”
After Mrs. Brent was diagnosed with leukemia, she decided to throw a bash she called her Death Party, according to her friend Patricia Martin. It was a night to remember, including friends from when she was growing up, the Guatemalan families she’d helped and entertainment by folk singer Bonnie Koloc.
“She wanted to be a part of any celebration of her life that would take place,” David Brent said. “She didn’t want to be a body in a coffin.”
Mrs. Brent, whose son Casey died in 2012, is also survived by her brothers Mark, Michael and Robert Daley and five grandchildren.
Her husband is also urging everyone to wear masks.
“Why would people let other people go through that?” he said of facing coronavirus. “You have to adjust and protect other people.”
“I don’t think people realize how brutal this is and how much people suffer,” said Martin, who’s a cardiologist.
“I really hope that her story drives home to people this is real,” her son said, “and we’re not going to get out of it unless we work together.”
Because of the pandemic, he said, “I hadn’t seen her face-to-face in eight months. I hadn’t hugged her in 10.”
On Facebook, he wrote: “I couldn’t see and comfort my wonderful Mom in person as she was dying, and the astounding helplessness and resulting, seething rage is still very much with me.
“Her body was whisked away for cremation shortly after her death, and to think I’ll never see her sweet, loving face again or hear her voice and laughter twists my guts into knots and makes me want to rage blindly at the unfairness of it all ... She deserved a much better death than this.”