He liked cats and bullfights, served in the Illinois National Guard during the Vietnam War and once ran a goat farm in Arizona. He taught computer programming and worked in the reptile house at the Lincoln Park Zoo.
He was varied and contradictory, as people often are, the good ones anyway, and after he died in January of COVID-19, his wife of 40 years grasped at the air where he had been. Part of that process was to write to me. There was guilt. For nearly a year, the couple lived like monks in a cell, going out only for doctors’ visits. She thinks that’s what killed him.
“I am sure I was exposed in the waiting room of a medical office, and I brought it home,” she wrote.
Yes, he was high risk: overweight, diabetes, high blood pressure. Lots of people fit that description. It doesn’t mean you deserve to die.
He went to the hospital, stayed two days, but was sent home over her objection.
“I wanted him to stay,” she wrote. “Just over 24 hours later, I found him on the floor, nearly unconscious, and he was transported to the hospital by ambulance again. This time he had a pulmonary embolism and hypoxia. Three days later he was on a ventilator, and one system after another began to fail. He was removed from machines, and he died.”
What was her husband like? He “made friends wherever he went. He was bright, funny, generous, caring and always interesting. His reserve of facts, especially about history, was amazing. He always supported me in everything I did.”
He was many things, really. He collected first editions and stamps. He liked to take photographs of birds.
“He loved birds and was constantly reading and learning about them and trying to add to his life list,” she wrote. “We spent a day recently at Machias Seal Island in Maine photographing puffins. His bird photography often won awards at the Crystal Lake Camera Club.”
I asked her how she was coping, almost two months after losing him.
“How am I doing?” she replied. “It depends on the day ... I don’t eat much, I sleep a lot, and cry a lot. I am often wracked with guilt because I brought COVID into our home. A particularly hard day for me was the day I closed his bank accounts. I felt like I was erasing him.”
She wasn’t angling for a column — I suggested that. When I did, she asked that even their first names not be used. “There are so many real crazies out there these days.” Hard to argue that.
Though no names is actually fitting, because it lets her husband better stand in for the 524,000 Americans who’ve died of COVID in a little over a year. How can you hope to grasp them all when it’s too much to even grasp one?
As more and more people are vaccinated, and we joyously enter the safe harbor of a return to life, to restaurants and concerts, family and friends, at springtime no less, as the world comes back to life, it is incumbent upon us, a moral necessity, to pause and reach back to those bereaved and alone, grieving their lost loved ones, each distinctive in their own way, each leaving an enormous hole. We have to find ways to include them.
“I am completely alone because of the pandemic,” she wrote. “We didn’t have children, just cats, and there are three left. There is no real way to soothe yourself in this situation — no travel, restaurants, shopping or just wandering in a mall.
“Mornings are the worst. You wake up, and for that first moment of consciousness, it is an ordinary day. Then it hits you like a snowplow — nothing will ever be that normal again. I have a lot of friends who have been kind and check up on me by phone and listen to me. It is easiest to talk to those who have suffered a recent loss themselves, but I am sad for those who have not because this will happen to all of us sometime.”
Losing a loved one to COVID is often worse than simply losing a loved one.
“This is a specific kind of loss, because the families of COVID victims rarely get the chance to say goodbye. We didn’t always say it, but did he know I loved him?”