May 3, 2020
My grandmother was determined to stay independent until she took her last breath. But when you live past the age of 100, and then some, things keep happening.
A minor heart attack here. A broken ankle there. Another broken ankle. At some point, allowing her to continue alone at her apartment, a constant danger to herself, just didn’t make any sense. At the age of 105, we moved my mother’s mother from her beloved Prell Gardens senior living complex in Van Nuys to a nursing home in Santa Monica.
I’ve thought often lately of those two years she stayed there, until her body gently shut down and she died, at age 107, in August, 2011. The staff there were kind and thoughtful. They seemed to anticipate needs she could no longer voice. I felt it was a far better home for her than anything our family could have provided in our respective houses.
Of course, these days, nursing homes are the worst possible place to be. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimated ten days ago that more than 10,000 staff and residents of long-term care facilities have died of COVID-19.
Ten thousand deaths. That’s a gigantic number, more than most of us can picture in human terms. Ten thousand deaths. How to get our heads around that?
Let Dan Weiner break it down for you. Dan’s the husband of my college sorority sister, Deborah, and the son of William Weiner. William died last month, in a nursing home, at age 79, of what was almost surely the coronavirus.
Let Dan tell you about his dad, one of the many whose life got snuffed out by the virus, and the memories he left behind.
Dan: My dad was born in Roxbury, Mass., but the family moved up to Maine when he was a kid, and that’s where he lived most of the rest of his life.
He was a pharmacy owner – a druggist. That’s the term we prefer over pharmacist. He inherited the pharmacy from his dad.
He was very devoted to his customers at the store. He would do emergency deliveries at all hours. I have these memories of him getting up in the middle of the night, going to the drugstore, filling a prescription, then hand-delivering it to his customers. It was his way of serving the community. He would also keep the store open on Christmas Day, and it would be the only place in the area to get pharmaceuticals on Christmas.
It was a pretty small, close-knit Jewish community at the time. Anybody he knew from temple, who came into the drugstore, would get an automatic discount. My brothers and I referred to it as the Jewish discount.
He was an avid motorcycle guy. He’d ride the rural roads in Maine. He was also a car person. The cars he liked most in his heyday were sports cars. The earliest one was probably an Austin Healey. That was before my time. He had MGs. He liked British sports cars. He had a TR6, a beautiful convertible from the 70s. Later on, he had Fiat Spyders, little convertibles also by the guy who designed Ferraris. This was his budget version.
In the 90s, he got himself a Corvette convertible. When we visited, he would let us borrow it. That thing was a brute. It drove blindingly fast.
[William and Dan’s mother divorced when Dan was in his 20s, then William continued to live alone in the house where he’d raised Dan and his two younger brothers. Eventually, he sold the home and did a brief stint in Florida, before settling in Westchester County, near two of his three sons. Increasing neurological issues drove him to move to a nearby long-term care facility about five years ago, which was where he was living when he got sick.]
About a week before his death, we got word that he was ill. And shortly thereafter, I learned his [oxygen levels were down] and they had put him on [supplementary] oxygen. He also started to demonstrate that up and down course. He had a fever, it would go away, and then it would come back. I was thinking, are they going to test him for COVID-19? I got the word they would not, because they weren’t testing anybody. We never got the sense that this would [kill him], until we got the phone call from my brother on early Saturday morning.
The end of the story is that he was buried without a COVID test. When I heard about that, I was blown away. I just assumed that anyone who died recently, who prior to their death had the symptom profile, would automatically get tested, at least post-mortem. Now you’ve got to wonder, How many people have actually died from COVID? A situation like this, that seems so clear-cut, to me anyway… We don’t know how many people from the nursing home died, how many people from the nursing home had COVID-like symptoms. None of that.
From the standpoint of knowing for sure, what the diagnosis would have done for us – very little. It doesn’t mean that much to me. To me, it was more reflective of how weak our present system of accounting for the numbers of disease actually is.
For me, the numbers now are far less meaningful than they were before this experience.
[The family managed to get the body transported up to Maine, where they held a four-person funeral: the officiating rabbi, Dan’s mother, his middle brother, and his brother’s wife, who live-streamed the service for others tuning in from around the world – including William’s sister, Anita, from Israel. Despite the awkwardness of the proceedings, they managed a number of personal touches].
My dad was a huge music aficionado. His taste was all over the place, ranging from The Pogues, which is an Irish sort of acoustic punk rock band, to classic rock. He loved Queen. I remember him taking me to see Kansas in the late 70s, I have great memories of all the early Beatles records playing when I was growing up.
His favorite artist was Bob Dylan, and he was a fan right from the start, way before he was popular and well known. As a result, my brother Joe made duplicates of photographs of all his album covers. After the dirt was tossed onto his casket, all the reproductions of the Dylan album covers were dropped onto the dirt. Then we buried him.