Across the United States, reports are surfacing of long-term couples dying from Covid-19 in quick succession, redoubling the pain for those they leave behind.
For most of her life, Maranda Lender, 32, has lived with her parents in Lewisberry, Pennsylvania.
An only child, she grew up doted on by a mother and father who took her to golf lessons, soccer games and orchestra rehearsals (she played the viola). After she graduated from design school, she moved back home in 2014 to save money.
But the family-of-three configuration imploded last month.
Her mother, Becky Lender, 61, died April 4. Her father, Brad Lender, 60, died three days later. Both had tested positive for the coronavirus.
"I'm alone," Maranda Lender said.
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One of the cruelties of the coronavirus is the way it sweeps through homes, passing from person to person, compounding the burdens and anxieties of relatives who are either prevented from giving physical and emotional care to their loved ones or must risk getting sick themselves to do so.
The cruelty is darker when both partners in a couple die, often within a few days of each other. It's the coronavirus version of dying of a broken heart, but the cause of death isn't a metaphor. It's a pandemic.
There is no reliable data tracking the number of couples dying from coronavirus complications, but cases have cropped up in news reports across the country. Last month, a couple in Louisiana, married for 64 years, died within 10 days of each other. The virus took a Milwaukee couple two months shy of their 65th anniversary, and a couple in Connecticut that had celebrated theirs. A couple from the Chicago area who were married nearly six decades died a few hours apart. A Florida couple married a half-century died six minutes apart. Another Wisconsin couple died on the same day last week in side-by-side hospital beds; they had been married 73 years.
Stephen Kemp, director of the Kemp Funeral Home in Southfield, Michigan, made arrangements for 64 people who died last month of Covid-19 — including three married couples.
"Entire households are becoming ill, and then the deaths of husbands and wives become a part of this crisis," said Kemp, who has been a funeral director for 36 years. "I've never seen anything like it."
Every long-term couple has a distinct story of love and commitment. For the Lenders, the story took them from a family living room where they were married to interstate motorcycle rides in search of the perfect hot dog.
Dr. Delutha King and Lois King had their own narrative, 60 years in the making and winding from the South Side of Chicago to Tuskegee, Alabama, and then Atlanta, with excursions to South Africa and South America. But it ended just as the Lenders' did.
Delutha King died in early April at the age of 96 and was buried April 10. An hour after the graveside service, the couple's son, Ron Loving, heard his phone ring.
The call came from Arbor Terrace at Cascade, the assisted living residence facility in Atlanta that Loving, 77, had moved his parents into last summer: His mother had died, too.
"For her to pass the day we lay my granddaddy to rest," said their granddaughter, Kristie Taylor, "it was like, 'Wow, you two really were inseparable.'"
The Kings both tested positive for Covid-19.
Lois and Dee, as Delutha King was known to friends, met in 1960 at a cocktail party in Chicago. She was 36, a dental hygienist and divorced mother raised on a corn and tobacco farm in Ahoskie, North Carolina. He was a World War II veteran who attended college and medical school after the war and had just completed a residency in surgical urology at Howard University College of Medicine in Washington.
They were married within six months, and he quickly became a surrogate father, and then just a father, to Loving.
The family moved to Tuskegee, where Delutha King worked at a VA hospital, and then to Atlanta, where he began building a medical practice in 1966.
Lois King delighted in being a doctor's wife, having supper on the table when he arrived home, playing bridge and raising money for organizations they both cared about, like the Sickle Cell Foundation of Georgia, which her husband helped found.
At night they would watch The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, sitting in the built-in recliners at either end of their couch and reaching their arms toward the middle, over the newspapers they had been reading, to hold hands.
They visited Barbados and Venezuela, travelled through the Panama Canal and took a cruise through Europe with their best friends, Dr. Clinton Warner and Sally Warner. In the mid-90s, after Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa, the two couples traveled there to take part in the historic moment. The trip ended with a safari.
Delutha King, who had majored in zoology as an undergraduate at Case Western Reserve University, loved the excursion. His wife, who longed for air conditioning, tolerated it.
"She was very opinionated," said Sally Warner, 73. "If Lois thought something, she would say it. If Dee thought something, he would think about it long and hard."
The Kings were part of Atlanta's African American professional elite. Their social circle included Andrew Young, the former mayor and ambassador to the United Nations. They celebrated the new year at the home of Billye and Hank Aaron, the Hall of Fame baseball player and executive, who helped Delutha King raise money to fight sickle-cell anaemia.
Loving, an Army veteran and former Atlanta police officer who had a long second career as a news cameraman for WXIA in Atlanta, revered his parents.
His wife, Freda Loving, remembers that when they began to date seriously in 2012, he told her, "I want us to be like my mom and dad."
As the Kings slipped into old age, she developed dementia and he had Parkinson's disease. Their son visited them daily and arranged for visiting nursing aides so that his parents could keep living in their house for as long as possible.
But by last year, it was clear that it was no longer safe for them to live independently. That's when they moved into Arbor Terrace. "They were still going to be together; that was the important thing," Loving said.
When you are 77 and your parents are 96, Loving said, you know that their deaths will come. But to lose them in such rapid succession and have the virus deny him the chance to comfort them at the end or give them proper funerals to celebrate their lives, particularly his father's career and civil rights achievements — he found that hard to cope with.
"This has been devastating," Loving said.
Almost 1,280km to the north, Maranda Lender is living through similar pain. "It's the worst kind of situation," she said.
Brad and Becky Lender's life together wasn't always easy. He had health issues, including diabetes and a hip injury that in recent years had left him unable to work. The couple squabbled often and fought some, most recently about Maranda Lender's fiance, whom her father gave a hard time.
"It's not like their marriage was a love story, because it was not," said Bonnie Hammaker, one of Becky Lender's sisters. "But they were committed to the marriage. You would never find them holding hands, but you would always find them together."
They were both raised in Enola, Pennsylvania, and were married in 1986. Their life revolved around family and work. He was a forklift operator. She was a clerk at the New Cumberland Army Depot, a job she left when her daughter was born in 1988 and then reclaimed several years later. She added a second job as a cashier at Karns Foods to help send her daughter, now a graphic designer, to Pennsylvania College of Art and Design.
Sue Hutchison, Becky Lender's boss at the depot and a close friend, said her employee loved meeting new people.
"She had a magnet for the needful souls," said Hutchison, 63. "We'd be sitting somewhere eating, and I would leave the table, and when I would come back, she would know the life story of the person sitting next to us. I'd say, 'Dude, how could you do that? I went to the bathroom for five minutes!' She had that kind of draw."
The Lenders spent free time motorcycle-cruising and driving vintage fire trucks owned by Brad Lender's uncle in parades and expos all over Pennsylvania. "They were into racing, dirt tracks, NASCAR. They did a lot with the fire company. They had a ton of friends," Hammaker said.
Over the winter they had made plans for a trip to Cincinnati to visit the zoo, which they had seen on a favorite program on the Animal Planet channel. They were supposed to go the weekend of May 9 to celebrate their 34th anniversary. "It would have been the first vacation that they had together in my entire life," Maranda Lender said.
But Covid-19 intervened.
On March 21, Becky Lender told her daughter she had a fever. Neither woman was particularly worried, Maranda Lender said. But the next day, Maranda Lender and her father had developed fevers as well.
The next day, a Monday, Becky went to the family doctor and was tested for Covid-19. There was a six-day wait for the results, so she went home to rest. A few days later, she had terrible diarrhoea and was nearly incapacitated. Her husband took her to the emergency room.
Doctors gave her anti-nausea medicine and sent her home again, where she waited, fighting a high fever that made her sweat and shiver. (All three Lenders ultimately tested positive for Covid-19.)
Becky Lender continued to get worse. On March 29, Maranda Lender heard her mother get out of bed and then collapse. She called 911. Her mother was admitted to the hospital and put on a ventilator.
On April 1, as Maranda Lender and her father continued to deal with their own symptoms, the family doctor called her and said her father needed to go to the hospital as well. An ambulance was called. One of the EMTs had also been to the house three days earlier to take her mother.
That night, Brad Lender called his daughter from the hospital. "They want to put me in a coma and stick me on a ventilator," he told her. "I just want you to know that I love you and that I always have."
"I love you too, Dad," she replied. "You're going to be home soon, and you're going to be fine."
She tried to set aside her anxiety. "Both my parents are in the ICU on ventilators, and I'm not well myself," she remembered thinking. "I was alone. You go into survival mode: 'What is it that I need to do for me right now?'"
Her mother's condition was worsening. Maranda Lender had a conference call with Hammaker (her aunt) and her mother's doctors. "They said, 'It's not looking good, and we think at this point you may need to just make peace with it,'" Maranda Lender recalled.
The next day, nurses brought an iPad to her mother's bedside and put Maranda Lender on speaker. "I told her that I loved her," Maranda Lender said. "I said, 'I don't want you to suffer, and I don't want you to be in pain. Go take care of Dad.'"
Becky Lender died about an hour later. Her siblings, including Hammaker, went to their mother's assisted living residence in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, which is under quarantine. "I had to tell my 85-year-old mother that her daughter died — through a window," Hammaker said.
Back at home, Maranda Lender was fielding more hospital phone calls. On April 7, a doctor treating her father called and said that the ventilator was merely prolonging the inevitable. "Give him eight hours to fight," she told the doctor. "If he is worse in eight hours, we should look into making him comfortable." Her father died about 10 hours later.
In the weeks since then, Maranda Lender has been hunkering down in the house she is now afraid to leave, healing physically from the virus and trying to manage its emotional toll. At moments, she has found dark humour in the situation, imagining her father tracking down her mother in heaven and her mother telling her father, "Brad, you only gave me a three-day break!"
She also has been scrubbing the house, and this week she finally let her aunt and her husband come into the house, masked and gloved, to help disinfect the place and look for a will.
And she has been FaceTiming with her fiance, whom she hasn't seen in person since mid-March because she is terrified that she could spread the virus to him, too.
"We have the idea of next year getting married on May 9, their anniversary date," she said. "Every time we celebrate for us, we can celebrate for them, too."
Written by: Katherine Rosman
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