“That’s not the way things work,” she said. “You have to put a dime in. For every copy.”
She said it quietly — she always said it quietly — but she said enough. Jim Strang bent over and, one by one, popped four more coins into the slot.
Five decades later, this was one of the first memories he thought of when he learned his mother had died.
Shirley Ann Strang died May 3 of pneumonia brought on by the novel coronavirus. She was 87. She died in the Virginian, an apartment complex for seniors in Fairfax County, Va. — near three school campuses where she spent nearly two decades as a Fairfax County Public Schools art teacher.
Strang was otherwise healthy but tested positive for the virus 10 days before her death. After the diagnosis, she entered a hospital, where doctors registered her deteriorating condition, her age and her “do not resuscitate” order and sent her back to the Virginian to die in greater comfort, Jim Strang said.
His mother had lived under lockdown since February, he said, and her family suspects she contracted the virus from the Virginian’s employees, who perhaps picked it up riding public transit.
The Virginian’s director could not be reached for comment. But the Strangs are not angry — not Jim Strang, 61, nor his brother Steve Strang, 63, nor their wives, nor Shirley Strang’s beloved three grandchildren, whom she used to beat at Mario Brothers video games.
“I know everyone is doing their best,” Jim Strang said, and he also knows his mother wouldn’t have wanted him to feel angry or pursue retribution. She loved her caretakers, he said, and she would have wanted him to take the most positive view possible.
Positivity, after all, was Shirley Strang’s magic power.
She stayed positive when confronted with discouraged students. His mother often came home, Jim Strang said, lamenting how the children felt they had no artistic talent. Sitting at the dinner table, she vowed to “bring it out of them” — and she did.
Well into adulthood, Jim Strang ran into a red-haired woman at a party who noticed his name and asked if his mother ever taught art to reluctant middle-schoolers. When he said yes, she grew almost teary: “I never thought I was artistic,” the woman said, “until your mom showed me how.”
She stayed positive when she fell badly, 15 years ago, and lost the use of her right hand, cutting short a prolific quilting career that saw her produce 300 masterpieces, some of which won awards and some of which hang in her children’s homes.
She stayed positive when her husband, Phillip C. Strang, died roughly two years later of mad cow disease, ending a half-century love affair begun when they met in elementary school and cemented when they started dating in middle school.
She stayed positive through the pandemic, too. When other seniors grew restive or anxious, Strang told them to feel grateful for hot food, for climate control, for the chance to shelter from the virus.
In their last calls, she reassured her son. She told Jim Strang to be careful running his bike shop, which, classed as an essential business, never closed.
“She was probably more worried about me than herself,” Strang said.
The day before she died, the Strangs — Jim, his wife, Lynne, and their children, Erin and Sean — walked to Shirley Strang’s ground-floor apartment and stood outside her window. One by one, they approached and said goodbye.
They knew she was dying. She knew she was dying. But she smiled like she didn’t.
That, Jim Strang said, was her last gift.