Bobby and Sharon Cairns
“Your mom plays a certain role in your life, and your dad plays a certain role in your life,” Jay Cairns says. “Now that they’re both gone, there’s an awfully big hole there.”
His father was the celebrated Edmonton jazz guitarist Bobby Cairns; his mother, Sharon Cairns, was the affable director of the Edmonton office of Alberta Jewish National Fund for years. After being diagnosed with COVID-19 on Nov. 9, they were admitted to Royal Alexandra Hospital two days later.
“We never got confirmation on how they contracted the virus,” says Jay, 45, the older of the couple’s two sons. His mother, previously in fine health, looked after his father, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease. “She was so careful.”
His parents were placed in adjoining hospital rooms, with a sliding-glass door between them, beds facing each other.
On Nov. 19, Bobby, not responding to treatment, was taken off the ventilator and wheeled into Sharon’s room to say goodbye. They had met in the early 1970s at the Embers club, where Bobby played in Tommy Banks’s band.
Hospital staff put the couple’s hands together and played a jazz recording before Bobby died on Nov. 21, at 78. Sharon, 75, died 11 days later. Their first-born now signs off his e-mails with the hashtag “orphaned by COVID.”
After the burial of his father, Jay and his brother, Matt, were given a checklist of things to take care of. “There are lot of practical things you need to take care of that you don’t expect to be emotional,” Jay says, “but it is.”
The settling of his parents’ estate has been a difficult process – at times “ugly,” in his words.
“There’s an unwillingness on the part of big corporations to be sensitive,” Jay says. “They send nasty letters. They freeze accounts. I know it’s pretty well all automated now, but there’s a certain level of understanding that you’d expect, and it’s just not there.”
The two sons have selected a few mementos from their parents’ belongings. They each have two of his guitars now as keepsakes.
Bobby was the first section head of the guitar program at Edmonton’s Grant MacEwan Community College (now MacEwan University). He held the position for 38 years.
He had a glassy corner office, but the musician with perfect pitch hated it.
“Because the florescent lights in his office were buzzing in B-flat,” his son recalls, “he said it made it difficult when he needed to write a music chart in any other key.”
Bobby was an introvert, but Sharon was outgoing, with “pockets of friends we’re still discovering,” her son says. As the glue of the Cairns clan and someone deeply committed to the Jewish community, she was beloved by her five grandchildren and was the keeper of the family’s history.
“We have albums of photographs, with faces we can’t identify,” Jay says. “We always assumed she’d be there to fill in the blanks and answer our questions. She’s just not there any longer.”
– Brad Wheeler
Monique and Perry Buote
Monique Buote was her family’s primary breadwinner and caregiver. She ran the household and cooked her children’s favourite meals, knowing to steer clear of any seasonings more daring than salt, pepper and onion powder. When the 55-year-old home-care worker died of COVID-19 on Nov. 3, her husband, Perry Buote, became the sole parent of their two adult children with special needs.
But Perry, 57, who had the heart disorder myocardiopathy, was also ill with COVID-19, along with the rest of the family. When an ambulance arrived at their home in Ste. Anne, Man., to attend to an unresponsive Monique, a second was summoned to rush Perry to hospital.
For two weeks, their children, Adam, 33, who has autism, and Jesslyn, 26, who has an undiagnosed mental-health condition, were left alone in their home, ill with COVID-19 and hoping for their father’s return.
While Monique’s sister, Claudette Hupé, and best friend, Céline Petit, dropped off meals at their door, Adam and Jesslyn’s infections with the virus meant no visitors could enter the home. Nor could they be within two metres of the siblings when they informed them that their mother had died.
“We couldn’t even hug them. We couldn’t do [anything]. It was just awful,” Ms. Petit says. “They bawled and bawled and bawled.”
Then, on Nov. 19, Perry died as well.
Adam and Jesslyn, or “the kids,” as Ms. Petit calls them, now face an uncertain future and have yet to say goodbye to their parents.
Ms. Hupé says she believes they may finally get the chance to do so when a graveside memorial can be arranged. Monique came from a family of 10 children, who have also been unable to grieve together, Ms. Petit says.
In the meantime, Ms. Petit, who moved in with the Buotes’ children after Perry’s death, says she intends to continue living with them until they can form a long-term plan. During the days when Ms. Petit goes to work, running the kitchen at the assisted living facilities of the Villa Youville seniors’ residence, Ms. Hupé spends time with Adam and Jesslyn.
Their arrangement, keeping to a bubble of four, allows Adam and Jesslyn to remain in their own home, and they have managed to create a new routine, Ms. Hupé and Ms. Petit say.
“But the long term – we don’t know what the long term is going to be,” Ms. Petit says.
– Wency Leung
On Dec. 29, Emily Blake Personius celebrated her 10th birthday with a cake and wore heart-shaped novelty eyeglasses. Her parents, aunties, siblings and grandmother were all smiling as she opened her gifts and cut her cake.
Photos of the occasion wouldn’t lead you to believe there was any reason for sadness, until you notice the lit prayer candle beside the birthday cake.
On the candle holder is a photo of Emily’s grandfather, Garry Darwin Ross, who died of COVID-19 only 27 days earlier.
“It was the hardest thing we had to do,” Garry’s wife, Rhonda, says about celebrating Christmas and Emily’s birthday amid the family’s raw grief.
An elementary-school teacher who taught in Moose Lake, Man., and Opaskwayak Cree Nation, Garry was born in The Pas, Man., and raised in Moose Lake. He and Rhonda settled in Opaskwayak Cree Nation where they raised their daughters Tiar, Janna and Stefanie. They eventually had three grandchildren, Emily, Eliza and Eric.
Garry, who was Cree, followed traditional hunting practices along with his family, friends and elders. “I used to call him a moose whisperer,” Rhonda says with a chuckle. The two were married for 32 years.
Everybody wanted to hunt with Garry, she says.
“We believe everything is connected,” Rhonda says. “You’re not going to see a moose unless it’s prepared to give its life to you to use what it has to offer. You have to honour and respect that.”
She says she didn’t always understand why Garry practised those teachings, but countless trips riding “shotgun” to his secret, fruitful hunting grounds provided her with insight.
She believes that what appealed to him was “the ceremony that was done around it, the offering of tobacco … when the moose gave its life for you to get food,” she says.
In October, an outbreak of COVID-19 reached the school where Garry worked. Rhonda says he went in on a Monday to prepare homework packages for his students as the community went into lockdown. By the weekend, they both showed symptoms, she says.
The couple were bedridden for most of November. Rhonda began to improve but Garry was struggling. By the end of the month he was admitted to hospital in The Pas where he rallied and Rhonda believed he would recover. Instead, he was airlifted to a Brandon hospital and put on a ventilator. Garry died on Dec. 2, while his wife and two of their daughters drove the six hours from Opaskwayak Cree Nation in the middle of the night to say goodbye. He was 54.
Rhonda says Garry expressed love in everything he did.
With a particular affinity for the “underdog,” he made sure nobody went without the basics, like kindness and food.
Garry often bought snacks and drinks for hungry children at the canteen. On occasion, he would spring for treats for his entire class.
In his honour, the family has created a bursary fund for students who demonstrate a commitment to overcoming adversity. They’ve raised enough funds to offer bursaries for three years.
– Willow Fiddler
As the first wave of the pandemic touched down in North America last year, retirees Cindy and Jack Berhmann continued their dreamy daily routine at their Dominican Republic villa in the beach town of Sosua.
But they knew if they contracted the virus there they would be in trouble: nearby hospitals had only a handful of ventilators, and they would be far from their three adult children.
So, on March 16, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau implored Canadians abroad to return home, they booked their flights, and arrived – after a layover in Montreal – at their Richmond, B.C., house on March 26.
Ms. Berhmann believes that journey killed her partner of 34 years.
“My suspicion would be that we got it in one of the three airports,” Ms. Berhmann says. “There was no social distancing, there were no masks, there was nothing.”
Five days later, she started to feel like she had the flu and soon Jack began feeling similar symptoms.
When Jack, who was 66 and had a history of kidney problems, felt increasingly ill and short of breath, they phoned his family doctor. The doctor sent him to Richmond General Hospital, where Mr. Berhmann had spent a decade as head of pediatric medicine before retiring in 2014.
Jack never left the hospital, dying just more than 100 days later from “multi-system organ failure secondary to COVID-19.”
Those weeks were a surreal and insular time, as Ms. Berhmann and her three children, Michael, David and Talia, all shared their family home and did their best to communicate via tablet with Jack, who was intubated, extubated, then reintubated. He spent most of it in an induced coma, but was awake for several weeks, during which he witnessed his eldest son’s small wedding in a spare hospital room.
“It doesn’t matter how horrible pretty much any experience is, there are always things to be learned and gained from it,” she says of being locked down with her children awaiting Jack’s fate. “That’s a type of time that my kids will never have again and I do remember through that time just thinking how much Jack would love that.”
She was also amazed at the outpouring of support from friends and former colleagues of Jack, a gregarious South African who had travelled the Commonwealth practising medicine before taking a job in Edmonton and meeting Cindy in the mid-1980s. During his illness, she would give a daily update to a group chat of 150 friends and family all over the globe.
Ms. Behrmann credits daily journalling, exercise and hanging out with her children as the keys to her processing her husband’s early death. She is grateful that they shared five years of travelling and enjoying their vacation home in retirement.
“Somehow, there are still people who don’t know anybody who’s had the virus, which is just astounding to me, and for them it’s just a bunch of numbers being thrown at them all the time,” Ms. Behrmann says. “Our communities are losing amazing resources, my husband was a pillar of this community.”
– Mike Hager
When Frédéricka Petit-Homme got the call from her mother’s care home last April to come quickly, she raced there, abandoning her groceries on her porch in Montreal.
Along with other residents at the home, her mother Micheline Lazare contracted COVID-19 earlier that month, her health declining severely on April 17.
Ms. Petit-Homme found her 68-year-old mother in bed, thin in a yellow gown. She held her hand, sang and recited Psalm 23. She thanked her for the full lives she gave her three daughters. Ms. Lazare’s twin sister Mireille and youngest daughter Ed-Esther Kenga were allowed to be with her, too. “I touched her through the gloves,” Ms. Kenga says. “We feel fortunate.”
Ms. Lazare died a week later, on April 25.
Throughout her life, the woman was a presence in Montreal: she’d talk to strangers on the street and sing to console their crying toddlers.
“She loved to make people feel good,” says Ms. Petit-Homme, a musician and educator. “She was joyous.”
Born in Port-au-Prince on Oct. 15, 1951, Ms. Lazare immigrated to Montreal in her 20s. She married Frédérick Petit-Homme, a registered nurse, and spent much of her own nursing career at the Jewish General Hospital, working the evening shift.
She frequently welcomed people into her home – an ailing, elderly friend, or singers visiting from Africa with the Watoto Children’s Choir. Faith underpinned her life, “attending church, being involved, serving,” Ms. Petit-Homme says.
So did education: all three daughters in the French-speaking family were sent to private school to learn English. A no-nonsense woman, Ms. Lazare set high standards. “It was a big theme: ‘You have to work extra hard because you’re Black and you’re a woman,’” says Ms. Kenga, a French teacher in Toronto.
She remembers her mother cheering from the sidelines at her basketball games and slicing oranges for the team. On birthdays, she’d bake and deliver rectangular “cakes that could feed an army,” delighting their high-school classmates, recalls daughter Eunice Martel, a life coach in Victoria.
It was difficult to pinpoint when Ms. Lazare’s early-onset dementia took hold; the symptoms were sporadic, amplifying her expressive personality, Ms. Petit-Homme says. As caregiver, she watched her mother “slip into the chaos of dementia.” At 59, Ms. Lazare left her house with its giant sunflowers in the front yard and moved to the care home.
Processing her mother’s death, Ms. Martel says, “I moved through grief, not in a linear way, more like a sine wave. I have moments when I don’t think about it. At other times, I think, it’s over. I can forget my childhood phone number because nobody’s at the other end.”
Amid the chaos of the pandemic’s first wave, the burial was delayed for two months, which left Ms. Petit-Homme without a sense of finality. Denied a traditional church funeral, the daughter found it difficult to grieve: “I wasn’t able to do it with the Haitian wailers that sit next to the body. … I didn’t get to hear the never-ending Haitian songs.”
Instead, the family held a small gathering last June, reading scripture, singing, a granddaughter playing violin.
This winter, Ms. Petit-Homme, a soprano, honoured her mother by performing in a virtual mini-opera about the pandemic. She portrayed an overwhelmed nurse.
“One of the lines in the opera is, ‘An old folks’ home is no place to die alone.’ … My mom was by herself when she crossed over. The only comfort I have is that she crossed over into heaven. There’s so much room in heaven for my mom.”
– Zosia Bielski
When the Edmonton Oilers are playing, that’s when it hits Zack Kachuk the hardest that his best friend is gone.
It has been nearly a year since 34-year-old Shawn Auger, a social worker and devoted hockey dad in High Prairie, Alta., died of complications from COVID-19 on March 30, 2020. Memories of Mr. Auger’s lively personality still endure at their favourite local spots, from the rink to the ball diamond and the youth centre where they once worked together. When an Oilers game is on television, Mr. Kachuk still feels like his gregarious friend might pop by to watch the third period.
Mr. Auger used to stop off regularly at Mr. Kachuk’s place in Sucker Creek.
“Watching Oilers games feels like an event now because there’s nothing else to do during COVID in a small town,” Mr. Kachuk says. “So I’ll be cooking good food and the game is on, and that’s when I’ll miss him.”
Mr. Auger coached and became vice-president of the High Prairie Minor Hockey Association, where his son, Eden, and daughters, Shealynn and Neriah, played. Now Mr. Kachuk has filled that volunteer spot.
“When he passed away, I thought about how he wanted me to join the board before, but I never did,” Mr. Kachuk says. “I’m a hockey coach, too, so I thought I’d run for his spot and try to do right by him.”
Each winter, Mr. Auger, who was from Woodland First Nation, would get excited about Alberta’s Native Hockey Provincials, a huge long-running hockey tournament for Indigenous children, his friend recalls. Mr. Auger would organize teams to travel to the event. He had special jerseys made and raised funds so all players could afford to make the trip.
Mr. Kachuk was one of eight pallbearers who wore Oilers jerseys last April to carry Mr. Auger’s casket – also Oilers-themed. The pandemic made a large funeral impossible, so people hoisted hockey sticks along the road or waved Oilers flags from their cars as a lengthy procession of vehicles travelled past Mr. Auger’s favourite spots.
In the summer, Mr. Kachuk and some buddies went to cut the large lawn at the house Mr. Auger and his wife, Jennifer, bought with the hope of someday making it a group home.
Mr. Kachuk also decided to address a small wish Mr. Auger had voiced last year. The two pals hoped to get some exercise by reuniting their old slo-pitch baseball team for the summer – a squad of friends once dubbed Two Tonnes of Fun.
“We were joking last winter that we needed to play slo-pitch again, because we were getting too fat, and we might need to call our team Three Tonnes of Fun instead,” Mr. Kachuk says with a laugh. “So I organized the team, and it was really hard not having him out on the field with us. But it also felt good to follow through on another thing me and Shawn talked about.”
– Rachel Brady
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