Twenty-four years ago we moved to Partridge, Kansas. I became the pastor at the only church in that little town. A recent seminary graduate, I found my real education was on-the-job training. Little did I know how intense the training would be with 58 funerals in the eight years I served there.
In the spring of 2004, my husband and I realized that my parents in their late eighties were what a doctor called “dwindling” and his mother, widowed for the third time, was alone on her 106-acre ranch. It was hard to tell my congregation we were leaving, but if there’s one thing Kansas farm folks understand, it’s the importance of family.
We arrived back in Cloverdale on Aug.18. In September we made the 8-hour trip north to Bandon, Oregon. My mother still lived in their home, but with Parkinson’s, Dad was in a nearby facility. Only weeks later, my sister called to say Mom had suffered a heart attack and was on her way by ambulance to a cardiac surgeon in Eugene.
My husband Zack and I arrived just after my mother had gone into surgery. When the surgeon came out in only minutes, he told us she had gone into cardiac arrest. She was in a coma and would only survive a day or two.
Zack and I took the night shift. We slept on a mat on the floor. My sisters arrived each morning and we’d go for coffee and breakfast. Zack went to my sister’s place for the day after leaving me at the hospital.
On the second night, I remembered that my parents’ 62nd anniversary was Oct. 20, just a few days away. I think my sisters didn’t believe me when I told them I thought she was waiting until then.
The days became almost routine. Often one of us would sit close enough to hold Mom’s hand, sometimes one on either side. We told stories from when we were kids, laughed and even sang. One night there was a knock on the door. When I opened it, a smiling older man stood there with a full-sized harp. He asked if he could play for us.
The music was so magical and even more so were the readings on the machine that stood in the corner. In that half hour, Mom’s blood pressure dropped and her heart rate evened out. Even her face seemed to have relaxed. I chuckled and said maybe when Mom heard the music she thought she was already in heaven.
The next day the three of us had gathered around Mom’s bed; my sisters each held a hand, while I held onto her blanketed feet. I had just finished telling a story when Mom sighed and stopped breathing. It was a quarter to noon on Oct. 20, 2004.
All these weeks as tens of thousands of people across the country and around the world have died from COVID-19, the five days of my mother’s dying have come back to me. I also remember those 58 deaths in Kansas. By far, the majority of the people, like my mother, were elderly and had lived long, full lives and were accompanied by those who loved them in the final days and hours.
With COVID-19, it doesn’t matter what age, race, nationality, gender, or other difference, it kills indiscriminately. It also condemns you to a death alone, no family or friends present, no one who carries shared memories as part of their own personal history, no one to honor you having lived.
As painful as it was to lose her, my mother’s death was a good death. She was nearly 88-years-old, she suffered very little and she was surrounded by love and caring until the end. A death from COVID-19 is not a good death. There’s nothing good about it. When I hear people pushing to reopen the country quickly, some even suggesting that the possible rise in deaths would be worth it, all I can think is not one person is expendable, not one.
Pamela Tinnin writes from her ranch on Pine Mountain. She can be reached at email@example.com.