VIRUS DIARY: `The meaning of abiding love in all its guises’

CLEVELAND (AP) — Loss and its many guises have been constants during the pandemic. Loss of loved ones. Economic loss. Loss of contact with family and friends.

My pandemic experience is one of unalterable loss and enduring love in the time of coronavirus with the death of my wife, Mary Lou.

Her death from cancer in late April came as no surprise. A young oncologist, with complete certainty, told us last fall that Mary Lou had six to nine months to live.

Thus, we knew it would be our last Thanksgiving and Christmas together, giving those holidays an unspoken poignancy for us, our two grown children and our families. Discussions about death are difficult; we chose to live in the moment and ignore how time was being so cruelly tolled.

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Mary Lou and I were the quintessential journalist couple. We met at a small paper outside Cleveland and snagged the big-city newspaper jobs we dreamed about. Not so quintessentially, we flew to Las Vegas the morning after a champagne-soaked dinner where a man in a green leisure suit and a bad pompadour married us in a forlorn chapel.

Two years ago, Mary Lou’s breast cancer returned after more than a decade. Treatment couldn’t stop those insidious cells from traveling to her brain. Surgery and radiation only slowed them. In February, with no treatment options left, her care was turned over to a hospice team to guide us through her remaining days.

Then the pandemic struck.

When bosses said in March we could abandon our offices, I fled for home. When Ohio locked down, I practically barred the doors. A hospice nurse would stop by a few times a week. Otherwise, only our children, Sam and Martha, were allowed inside our home. Mary Lou’s daily care was left to me.

She had always been the glue that held our family together. Now it was my turn. Summoning welcome reserves of energy and patience, I managed as best I could. It was difficult watching the health of a vibrant, intelligent woman decline so rapidly. Still, there were good days that I cherish.

Mary Lou did not want to die at home. When the time came, her consciousness drifting away, Sam, Martha and I stood at the end of the driveway, our hearts breaking, as we watched attendants place her in an ambulance knowing she’d never come home again.

The people at hospice house were kind and caring but would not alter their pandemic rule of only two visitors, which would be Sam, who lives and works in the area, and me. Despite my pleas, Martha, finishing her degree in Columbus, wouldn’t be allowed a final visit.

Five days after being admitted, Mary Lou was no longer responsive. That final morning I whispered into her ear and asked for forgiveness. For everything. I watched as this life’s journey ended peacefully, and what I’m certain would be a fantastically wonderful voyage began.

Martha and I spent that evening drinking and telling stories in a father-daughter Irish wake. I knew it was best for Sam, a man of few words, to grieve with his longtime girlfriend.

A different kind of isolation soon took hold: life without my best friend and love of my life. I so desperately needed to hear her voice.

Friends and family asked in calls and texts when there would be a service. I said I didn’t know. Perhaps when a vaccine becomes available.

Until then, I must grieve alone.

The pain endures, yet the darkness is slowly lifting. I comfort myself with thoughts of how our final weeks in isolation were the most poignant of our 30 years together.

The pandemic helped teach me the meaning of abiding love in all its guises. For that, I will be forever grateful.

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Virus Diary, an occasional feature, showcases the coronavirus saga through the eyes of Associated Press journalists around the world. Follow Cleveland-based AP journalist Mark Gillispie on Twitter at http://twitter.com/markgillispie1

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