COVID killed my stepfather, who followed the rules

COVID does not care about your best intentions. Or your risk assessments as you put on your amateur epidemiologist hat. Or your carefully laid out plans to “put family first” with a large gathering.

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Terry Warmbir with his granddaughter, Zoe.

Provided photo

This is a story about a good man who worked brutally hard his adult life, paid his taxes, played by the rules and was starting to enjoy retirement, only to die a week after testing positive for COVID-19.

It’s a story about my stepdad, Terry Warmbir.

I never thought my family would be hit so hard by the pandemic. Much less that I would be writing this.

I do not seek the spotlight. I work behind the scenes, as an editor helping reporters produce the best journalism possible.

Normally, I am not the story.

But in these exceptional times, I’ve decided to share this very personal story, only so that you might pause to consider your actions when it comes to COVID-19 and your family, as we experience the surge on top of the surge and Christmas soon ahead.

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The virus could not care less about your family, much less your good intentions. It certainly didn’t mine.

Terry Warmbir was 73 and a proud former union bricklayer who finally was getting to enjoy his retirement and his family, including his 8-year-old granddaughter, Zoe.

He deserved it. In a family of incredibly hard-working adults, his work ethic blew them all away.

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Terry Warmbir

He repaired and maintained boilers and incinerators in buildings across the Chicago area his whole career. He made sure that in winter children were warm in their classrooms, office workers cozy in their cubicles.

Terry was one of the nameless, faceless workers who keep the city humming, that most people never pause to consider, until something’s not working.

He never once complained about the job.

In good times, in the summer, he would arrive home smiling, drenched as if he’d run a marathon through a monsoon.

In truth, he had worked so long and so hard, in such high temperatures, he had completely sweated through his work clothes. To be precise, that was the second set of clothes he had drenched from work that very day, with the first soggy set tossed in a paper sack he’d brought home for the wash.

Bricklaying is a hot, tough, dirty job that would decimate Terry’s body over decades. His hands alone showed a chaotic map of calluses, cuts, scabs and scars.

Both Terry and my mother, Nancy, a beautician who stood on her feet six days a week for decades making clients look their best, sacrificed their health to make sure I had a shot at a good education.

But that’s what great parents do. They sacrifice themselves for their children, the costs be damned.

More than 15 years ago, health problems forced Terry to retire, against his will, but he soon took on an even more fearsome job, caring for a spouse with dementia. A proud man, Terry refused most offers of help, bearing the burden mainly alone.

My mother died three years ago. Terry’s own memory gradually deteriorated, until a 10-minute drive to the corner drugstore became an hours-long amble to another county.

No longer able to live by himself, Terry finally agreed a few months ago to move to a retiree apartment complex 15 minutes away from me and my family in Chicago.

It had a good track record of keeping its residents safe from COVID-19, provided him three squares a day and a spacious one-bedroom apartment where he could snack on Snickers and watch TV to his heart’s content.

Last week, he learned several staffers at the apartment complex had tested positive for COVID-19. Within days, his own test came back positive. He had no symptoms, but as a precaution, he was taken to the hospital, where he was infused with bamlanivimab, the experimental antibody drug. The ER doctor called his prognosis good, and he was released.

Two days later, he was dead, his body discovered during the morning delivery of breakfast to his room.

He had few final requests but wanted his body to be donated to a Chicago medical school to help future doctors.

But in the final indignity, the program would not take him. It does not accept those who were COVID-19 positive.

Terry Warmbir was never careless. He might not remember the score of the last Bears game but he never forgot to wear his mask.

For Thanksgiving, he stayed at his apartment. No family turkey dinner for him. There would always be next year, he said.

Until there wasn’t.

So remember this as you make your Christmas plans.

COVID does not care about your best intentions. Or your risk assessments as you put on your amateur epidemiologist hat. Or your carefully laid out plans to “put family first” with a large gathering.

COVID kills the young and the old. And it terrorizes our seniors when the only thing so many of them deserve is a little peace after so much sacrifice.

It killed my stepfather, who followed the rules as he had all his life, washing his hands, wearing his mask, keeping his distance — a man who wanted nothing more than to sit in a lawn chair next year, the sunshine warm on his face, and watch his granddaughter get a hit at her softball game.

COVID does not care.

Steve Warmbir is a former award-winning investigative reporter and now interim editor-in-chief of the Chicago Sun-Times. 

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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