It’s nearly a year since COVID-19 became real for many of us, if only from a distance. Here’s what I’ve learned from survivors of family members whose deaths I wrote about.
It was one year ago this coming Thursday, March 11, when COVID-19 became real for many Americans.
That was the day when, in short order:
- Actor-couple Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson announced they had tested positive for the coronavirus, sending a message that everyone was at risk, regardless of their station in life.
- Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert also tested positive, causing the sudden cancellation of one NBA game and quickly prompting the league to suspend its season in recognition of the growing danger to players and fans.
- And President Donald Trump announced a ban on most travel from Europe, an indication even he knew it was serious.
By that point, of course, COVID-19 already was a global pandemic. The danger had existed for weeks, if not months, by then.
For most of us, there was a slow and gradual awakening to understanding the extent of this disruptive new force in our lives. On that day, though, it came at us fast.
It would be another five days before Chicago’s first known coronavirus victim, Patricia Freeson, succumbed on March 16.
And it wasn’t until March 20 that Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s “stay at home” order went into effect, shuttering many businesses, though some companies had told their employees weeks earlier to start working from home.
No matter when the pandemic became real for you, it has changed all our lives. Depending on our own circumstances, the changes might range from minor inconvenience or major buzzkill to crushing personal and financial disaster.
I think about the many families I have written about in the past year who paid the ultimate price during the pandemic: losing a loved one.
In hopes of finding some wisdom gained from their experience, I checked back with some of those families over the past few days.
Like the relatives of Irvin Kaage Jr. and his wife Muriel Kaage, whose family-operated newsstand is an Edison Park landmark.
Like many COVID-19 victims, they were elderly. He was 92. She was 90. At the time they fell ill, both lived at an assisted-living facility in Park Ridge.
What made their deaths resonate was their enduring love story that began on a bus ride downtown and ended with them dying within 36 hours of each other in April, just two months after their 70th anniversary.
Even at the end, “They couldn’t be apart,” their son Irv Kaage III said then.
Close to a year later, Kaage choked up all over again talking about his parents’ funeral procession, when neighbors lined the 7300 block of North Olcott Avenue, where the Kaages had long lived, paying their respects even though many did not know the couple.
The son said that, until then, the Kaage family worried their popular parents “weren’t going to get their due” because of the COVID restrictions that limited funerals to immediate family. But an outpouring of affection from the community filled the void.
Until we experience it ourselves, some assume the death of a parent who has lived a long, good life somehow is easier to accept. Maybe. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Kaage said his sister Patricia, who used to talk with her mother several times a day, reminisces about her.
“She’ll say, ‘I miss them so much,’” Kaage said.
As he looks back at their deaths, Kaage believes the cruelest aspect of the pandemic is that it isolated people like his parents right in their hour of greatest need, at a time all they wanted was to see their loved ones.
Quarantined in their assisted-living facility, the Kaages were deprived of face-to-face contact with their children and grandchildren.
“They couldn’t understand it,” their son said.
“When you’re older like that, you realize that what’s most important in your life is your family,” he said. “The elderly were deprived of that.”
It wasn’t only the elderly who suffered this way.
Larissa Maya, who was born with Down syndrome, was only 31 when she died alone in a hospital from COVID on April 17.
Carmen Maya, her 70-year-old mother, says she’s still confused and upset about the circumstances of her daughter’s sudden death.
Maya wonders how doctors could have missed the warning signs, treating her daughter as if she had a simple case of the flu, until it was too late and pneumonia had set in.
“I still have the antibiotics in the refrigerator,” she said.
When she took Larissa to the emergency room because she was having trouble breathing, “I never in my wildest dreams thought it was a one-way ticket,” Maya said.
She devoted herself to raising her daughter, protecting her from danger but always pointing her toward an independent path.
Now, she said she’s trying to learn how to let her daughter go.
“I miss my daughter Larissa a lot,” Maya said. “She was my inspiration. We were both learning from each other.”
Maya said she hasn’t touched Larissa’s room since her death. But she has started in on remodeling her own bedroom in her Skokie home, ripping out the carpet herself.
“Eventually, I will start moving stuff,” she said. “But I’m not there yet.”
Still, Maya said she has made peace with Larissa’s death.
“The peace comes from within,” she said. “Otherwise, how can I survive?”
Survival was a real battle for Luis Tapiru of Rogers Park, who had to fight for his life after he was hospitalized with COVID last April and placed on a ventilator.
While Tapiru was in the hospital, his wife Josephine, 56, a nursing home nurse, and their son Luis II, 20, both died from the disease.
Doctors didn’t give Tapiru the devastating news until days later, not till they felt he was strong enough to handle it. His other son Justin, now 29, had to help break it to him.
Tapiru and his wife are natives of the Philippines who immigrated with their sons to Chicago from Canada around 2007.
After the deaths, Tapiru sold his Rogers Park condo and moved back to Ottawa, Canada, to be near relatives.
Before his illness, Tapiru worked a manufacturing job and as a part-time caregiver.
Justin Tapiru told me his father hasn’t gone back to work because he no longer can lift heavy objects, which for some seems to be a longterm side effect from the virus.
He’s also still suffering emotionally.
“He didn’t get a chance to bury my mom and little brother due to the pandemic, which is what he really wanted,” Justin Tapiru said by email. “He still has their ashes in an urn, and he’s kept them in his room because it makes him feel close to them.”
He said that he and his father have talked about how his mom and brother, who had a fast-food job, were terrified about not going to work in those early days of the pandemic, fearing they’d end up jobless, without health care benefits, even being left homeless.
“What my dad wants is for the health care system to change and to have better protection for frontline and service workers,” Justin Tapiru wrote. “He wants people to be kinder and more thoughtful of others.”
Jessica Tapper hasn’t had much time to reflect about the death of her partner Matthew “Turk” Agostini, a 50-year-old house music producer who died of COVID-19 just before Thanksgiving.
Matteo, her son with Agostini, was born less than a month after his father’s death. The Logan Square couple already had a precocious daughter, Violet, age 3.
“I’m just trying to get on with my life for the kids,” said Tapper, who said she’s “doing OK” and sounded like it.
“I don’t even know that I’ve spent enough time grieving. This is life. You have to embrace your struggles. Life goes on even without the people you care about. You still got to show up. I’m all they got.”
Hold tight to your family. Peace comes from within. Be kinder to others. No matter what life throws at you, life itself goes on.
The pandemic hasn’t changed any of that. It only reminded us.