The family had come to terms with dementia taking him within months or years, but the coronavirus stole the remaining precious time.
“He didn’t deserve to die like this,” Bradley-Klemko said. “He didn’t deserve that, and it’s so sad because he didn’t have to. I feel like this pandemic could have been controlled better or handled, and so I am angry.”
Klemko had read obituaries of coronavirus victims each day, his wife said, believing he was giving their lives a modicum of respect.
“He was like, ‘People need to be recognized,’” she said, “and he gave them their final recognition in his sense by reading their obituaries.”
When Klemko died, his family and friends also wanted his life to be recognized. One of his sons, Robert Klemko, the eldest of three boys and a reporter at The Washington Post, wrote about his father in The Post.
“He just would have been so pleased,” Bradley-Klemko said.
The story detailed the journey of Alexander — born in 1946 in Heidelberg, Germany, the son of a Ukrainian immigrant and a deployed American soldier. His father had another family back in the United States and he wanted nothing to do with Alexander. When Alexander was about 5, his mother brought him to the United States, where she took a job as a house cleaner in Alexandria.
They didn’t have a TV, so Alexander learned English through the movies he watched in theaters to bide time while his mother worked. He never met his father, though he tried.
Klemko learned his father lived in the Midwest, and at age 18, Robert Klemko said, he drove to his office and waited outside to meet him. His father never came out.
Alexander Klemko served in the Navy and was on a supply ship in Vietnam. He graduated from George Washington University and began working for a moving company, which gave him the impetus to start his own company in 1980 called Moving Masters.
One day after work, he went to the Pierce Street Annex, a bar in the District, where Bradley-Klemko caught his eye. She was wary of him, still in his moving uniform, but he handed her a drink at the bar and broke out an introduction like none before.
“Hi, my name is Alex,” Bradley-Klemko recalled him saying. “I was born an illegitimate bastard at the end of World War II to a Ukrainian that went to work for the Nazis.”
He never failed to captivate her, dressing for their second date to a Korean restaurant in a clown suit, just because it was Halloween. He was a bold dresser who had multiple white suits and many pairs of shoes. He was well-read — devouring any book about the Civil War — and adventurous.
“We’d just get in the car and drive, and we’d get off the highway and take the scenic route, the rural route to places and just kind of enjoy seeing the world,” Bradley-Klemko said.
His love for Bradley-Klemko came with a sacrifice. His mother objected to him marrying a Black woman, and it became a lasting fissure in their relationship. His mother held racist beliefs, possibly because she competed with Black women for housecleaning jobs, Alexander once told his wife. He, on the other hand, had met people of many races in the military and worked with several Black men as a mover.
After Klemko’s funeral, his 6-foot-1 body was taken to a crematorium by a moving truck, accompanied by three others from Moving Masters in a symbolic convoy.
Klemko was diagnosed with Lewy body dementia less than a year before he died. The progressive and fatal disorder is the second-most common form of dementia after Alzheimer’s disease. Robert Klemko said his father would dupe his in-home caretakers to escape, adding that his father didn’t understand why he was being confined. The Klemkos moved him to a nursing home last year for his safety, and he argued during visits about why he had to stay, even as his mind slipped away.
When the pandemic began, Klemko’s family was barred from visiting him. He slipped in the bathroom and was taken to a hospital, which is when the family suspects he contracted the coronavirus.
In his final days, his family could only see him lying in a hospice bed from a window — the covers up to his neck — where they would loudly let him know they were there.
He died Jan. 9, 2021. Robert Klemko said he still struggles with the memory of his father’s last days.
“I think the hard part for me was him feeling like he died alone,” his son said. “Because of the dementia, I think he didn’t understand why he was living in this home. And so there was an element of feeling cast aside when the reason we put him in there is because he was a danger to himself. … So in my mind for a few weeks, I was constantly kind of dwelling on that, what he must have felt as he was going.”
If Alexander Klemko had not died of covid-19, family members say his cognition and other functions would have deteriorated further. But loved ones would have been able to say goodbye on their terms.
He didn’t get to see his first grandchild, Robert’s son, born May 14. The boy’s middle name is Alexander.