David Reddington, 53, of Narragansett, was robbed of his last chance to say “I love you” at the bedside of the man who raised him and has shown him unconditional love as a child and throughout his adult life.
Betsy Olbrych, 53, of Charlestown, and Sue Davis, 57, also of Narragansett, are also grieving lost opportunities to be with elderly parents who stood by them as children and cared of them.
They all want to give back now, but cannot. The plunderer, taking these precious moments by force, is the coronavirus.
“I wish I was there with my dad for those last days. It was very hard,” said Reddington. His cherished father died April 13 from the virus — four days after learning he had it — in a Providence hospital and without any family allowed at his bedside.
The coronavirus has pillaged the lives of Reddington, Olbrych and Davis and they are the faces of thousands of others with elderly relatives or other loved ones across the state in nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, hospitals or simply alone at home.
Forced separation for the protection of older family members comes, tragically, just when adult children want and need to give back. There’s that ancient pull from childhood to protect the person who protected them – and care for them whether parents, aunts, uncles or whatever way they define family.
Instead all they really can do is watch – and absorb spiraling feelings of guilt, frustration, and for some, anger, around not being able to do enough. Stories like these right now have no happy ending, no triumph over adversity wiping out the invader virus and making things right.
However, many stories show how friends, family and religious faith sustain those denied closeness in perhaps a defining moment in their lives, and in a crisis that seemed so distant a few months ago.
This network of support has helped, these three and others have said, to infuse a sense of hope and perseverance, to rise from bed and walk into the sunlight each new day.
Last year David and Tara Reddington’s 14-year-old daughter, Grace, passed away peacefully in her mother’s arms on an early Thursday morning after 14 years of struggle with Rett Syndrome, diagnosed at two years old.
It was a devastating neurological condition that caused many health complications and rendered her unable to talk. Grace required dependence on others for every facet of her life. Yet, she was surrounded by a family that believes in love, commitment to each other, God and church and a sustaining ability to persevere.
That family included 80-year-old Richard T. Reddington, David’s father. Called “The Duke,” and a 27-year veteran of the Providence Fire Department, he retired as a lieutenant. He was a tough guy who led others into burning buildings to save lives.
“He had many ailments by now,” said his son recently. “I didn’t see him for a month because I didn’t want to bring anything in to him.”
On April 9 the family took him to a hospital emergency room thinking that he had a urinary tract infection because of the symptoms, Reddington said. “They tested him there as part of the procedure for coronavirus and found that he had it.”
“We never thought it could be that,” he added after a moment.
In the next few hectic and confusing days that followed, Richard seemed on the upswing, feeling better and fever dropping down.
“Then on Sunday night he took a turn for the worse,” Reddington said. “The hospital said they didn’t think he would make it. We — my brother and sister — wanted to see him. They said no, but if we transferred him to hospice, we might be able to.”
It was difficult. Everything was happening so fast, he said. The next day they spent three hours waiting from him to arrive at a hospice care center. But his father never came.
They called the hospital. More confusion and misunderstanding about available beds and that left him unable to be transferred. Meanwhile time was running out – fast.
“We decided to leave him there. A nurse was so nice, he was surrounded by nurses and they held a phone up to him and we all said goodbye,” Reddington said, but it was very different from the goodbye to his daughter.
“I never thought it would be like this with the Coronavirus — that you can’t say goodbye when you’re right there holding his hand, telling him I love him,” he said.
Along with the death now of both his daughter and his father, he faced the prospect of no wake or funeral at which the scores of firefighters who knew his father, family and friends could give a respectful, deserved and dignified honor of a last visit before burial.
Yet, a profound faith held him and his family together once more, explained Reddington, who works at a Providence Journal printing and production facility.
“Grace was now the first one to see him, before me. It’s comforting to know that my dad is in a better place and with God and Grace,” he said. Meanwhile, he had been in contact with trusted friend and pastor, Rev. Marcel Taillon at St. Thomas More Church in Narragansett.
The priest agreed to help set up a small funeral and wake tomorrow, Friday, April 24, with just immediate family.
Taillon, 52, said he knows personally the pain that Reddington felt. Taillon’s own father is in a Woonsocket assisted living center.
“I cannot go see him, hold him, it drives me crazy,” the priest said. There also are others, he added, who are confined to their own homes feeling lonely and “small acts of charity mean a lot to people, like writing a letter to a shut in who doesn’t have somebody to talk to.”
He reminds them, as he does, Reddington, they are not entirely alone. “We don’t believe his dad was alone at all,” he said.
“Christ is with you always from the time you are baptized. For we Catholics, that’s not a fairytale. It’s real,” he said, adding, “It is hard — absolutely. It’s good that we have our faith. It’s not a consolation prize.”
Besty Olbrych’s father, Bob Dumas, 91, a former merchant marine sailor, lived in Pawtucket for most of his life. He is now in a Westerly nursing home not far from her. Olbrych’s siblings live in other states so visiting him is chiefly her responsibility.
“I’m doing it all. I’m Wonder Woman some days. The situation with the virus is so frustrating,” said Olbrych.
Before the virus hit hard, said Olbrych, a member of Wakefield’s Church of the Ascension and a nearby Charlestown resident, weekend visits would involve she and her father sharing lunch at nearby restaurants, rides in the car for a change of scenery and sometimes church.
A firm stop came when the virus forced lockdowns in nursing homes around the state. “One day we went to see him and I thought we could just drive up to the window and talk on the phone. He has one of the small, old, flip phones. So, we did it and that was before any orders from the state about it,” she recalled.
A day later a nursing home representative called her, she said, very angry that she went to the window. One family doing it meant the home would need to allow others the same opportunity, Olbrych said she was told.
“Now he’s been getting frustrated and everything because of all this. He’s in that room most of the day,” she said, adding that a fall on April 11 took him to Westerly Hospital where he was treated for cuts.
Leaving the nursing home for the hospital treatment compounded his isolation because it meant he then had a 14-day quarantine – isolated from other residents – as a safeguard against catching and giving the coronavirus or any other illness to others, she said.
“They now come in all covered head to toe in gowns, gloves and masks to bring him his food and his medication,” she said.
In contrast to show how difficult it has become on him and for her to see, Olbrych described how “he liked going out, talking to the other residents and in the spring and summer he liked to tend to the gardens in the front of the building.”
It’s not the same anymore, she mused, wondering aloud about how much fear and anxiety is developing in confined and secluded elderly people who for decades had few restrictions, as they have now, on their lives.
Helping her cope with this challenge, though, has been her friends, Wakefield Episcopal church members and its pastor, Rev. Rob Travis, who frequently empathizes with her during their conversations. Both he and assistant, Rev. Noel Bailey, work with members in the situations such as Olbrych’s.
“I’m from the school of pastoral care of listening, to listen carefully. It’s not about wisdom or platitudes. When I talk to someone like Betsy, I want to validate their feelings and offer prayer,” he said.
At these moments for people caught in the vortex of uncontrollable events ushering in strict rules and regulations, prayer helps to bring an inner peace amid confusion replacing ordinary ways they had lived, he said.
“It helps people connect with God, to access the Lord, and you experience a profound peace in your heart, a peace that surpasses understanding. A full sense of peace for those who let go of attempts to control what they cannot,” he said.
In a different nursing home, the father of Susan Davis faces many of the same constraints as does Olbrych’s.
Davis, a Narragansett resident, said that she, too, went to a window and tried the phone conversation. She was also told by the nursing home to skip that way of contact.
“They said, ‘Oh, please, don’t do that. We can’t have people wandering around outside. It would be disturbing to other residents. It would upset them, too, (with thoughts about) ‘How come your family is there and why doesn’t my family come’ or you might tap on the wrong window,” Davis recalled being told.
For Easter she wanted to bring her 79-year-old father, Gary Davis, some chocolates. She said she just wanted to drop them off.
“No” was the answer. “They were too afraid of contamination,” said Davis, a manager for the R.I. Student Assistance program. “If they aren’t accepting a thing of chocolates this year, I’m okay with that.”
She and her father are close, and her mother lives nearby in an assisted living complex. Her father has Parkinson’s Disease and some dementia. They would get together frequently and spend time with each other.
With that not possible, she said she does feel the loss, the sadness and the difficulties around it, but has also sought work-arounds and the staff at the nursing home is helpful.
“It’s been frustrating. My father has a phone in his room. So, I can call him whenever I want and he’s typically in his room and I can talk to him. However, sometimes I can’t get to him and I don’t know why,” she said.
“Maybe he can’t find the phone, sometimes he forgets how to use it. He thinks it’s the remote control for the television. I can always call the nursing home and ask them to help out. But that might not be everybody’s circumstance,” she said.
At his nursing home, some of the staff have been helpful in setting up a teleconference in which both see each other and he tries to navigate — with some success — this new technology that was never part of his life before, she said.
Davis said that her fellowship with members of the Kingston Congregational Church and it’s pastor, Rev. Sharon Hope, have brought her comfort. Often she has found it in conversations — whether online or by phone — with other members.
She also watches the Sunday services Hope delivers from the church both live and recorded for later viewing. These inspire her a sense of working through her current situation, she said.
“It’s nice that we’re all in this together, in this space. What we’re missing is seeing each other’s faces and coffee hour where we would privately share feelings and thoughts,” she said.
On the other hand, though, the distancing also translates to what needs to be done for the living.
“I think it’s what’s necessary right now. To do anything less is dangerous. If I can’t see him, touch him, for a couple of months, I’m okay with that,” she said.