In early March, Dee felt sick first. Though she struggled with Parkinson’s disease, her daughter Lori Kohler said she had been feeling better than usual and wasn’t shaking or trembling at her 85th birthday party the week before. By March 7, she was too weak to stand and her speech was impaired, Kohler told The Washington Post. An ambulance carried Dee to the hospital.
Merle followed four days later. He had a vicious cough, a fever and body aches, Kohler said. Michelle Nusom Taylor, the couple’s youngest daughter, followed the ambulance that took Merle to the hospital on March 11. Two days later, both Toftes tested positive for the novel coronavirus, KATU reported, and Taylor had to be quarantined from her family for 14 days.
The vast coronavirus pandemic is cruel, mercilessly robbing aged parents and grandparents of weeks, months, even years of life. It has stripped away the customary ways of saying our last goodbyes, before and after death. Containing the virus means no deathbed visits, and no funerals, even as the pandemic has claimed more than 3,000 lives in the United States. The alternative, the video chat and phone call, are poor substitutes for a hand squeezed lovingly or a last embrace.
But the Toftes’ children had no other options, much like thousands of other grieving families who can’t even attend their loved ones’ burials because of restrictions intended to reduce the number of lives cut short by the coronavirus.
Their five children were barred from visiting Dee and Merle in the hospital. Meanwhile, their conditions worsened. Merle, who had respiratory problems, was placed on a ventilator on the hospital’s fifth floor, Kohler said. Dee was also struggling, two floors below. On March 16, doctors informed their kids that the couple had just hours to live.
The family, five children and four grandchildren spread across three locations in the Pacific Northwest, called Dee and Merle on FaceTime to say goodbye. Two granddaughters sang Doris Day’s “A Bushel and a Peck,” which was the couple’s favorite love song to croon together.
“The fact that they both went together,” Kohler said, “even though it was really hard on us, it was best for them. If only one was left, then that would have been awful.”
No one in the family was allowed to attend the burial and their youngest daughter, Taylor, had to remain in quarantine away from her family for 10 more days. She didn’t get sick, but the isolation sharpened the pain of her parents’ deaths.
“I can’t be with my loved ones,” Taylor said on Facebook. “I can’t comfort my children whom have lost their grandparents. I can’t hold a service for my parents or attend their burial.”
Just a few weeks earlier, both Merle and Dee were in relatively good health and even better spirits. On Feb. 28, their adult children gathered to commemorate Dee’s 85th birthday with a chocolate cake, balloons and presents. Her husband gave her a new wristwatch. Her kids had gift-wrapped matching pajama sets for the couple.
The family crowded around Dee and Merle, who held hands, and they all smiled for a family portrait.
“It’s our favorite photo right now,” their oldest daughter Kohler told The Washington Post, “because it was our very last family photo together.”
Fewer than three weeks later, both Dee and Merle succumbed to covid-19 infections caused by the novel coronavirus. They were buried, wearing their new matching pajama sets, without a funeral because of statewide restrictions on large gatherings.
They were the second and third people to test positive for coronavirus in Clark County, Wash., on March 13, Kohler said, but public health officials could not determine where the couple had caught the disease because it had already begun to spread within the community by then.
“It could be something so simple as my father happened to touch a door handle that happened to have the virus on it,” she said. “We were looking for where the virus came from. Everything we thought would be possible got ruled out. … We will probably never learn.”
The Toftes married in 1967. They bought the Herren Printing Company in Portland, Ore., the next year, which Merle ran for years, according to their obituary. But the father’s passion was music, Kohler said. He never learned to read sheet music, but Merle taught himself to play guitar, bass guitar, keyboard, and accordion, she said. He played country and polka music, performing at Oktoberfests.
Dee, who was “Merle’s biggest fan,” learned to play the drums and keyboard. The couple started a band together called “Dee and Mee.” They played swing, waltzes and danceable standards at Eagles Lodges, parties, and even on cruise ships, Kohler said.
They had both been married once before, and both had children from their previous marriages that they raised together. Their partnership lasted longer than a half-century, and June 17 would have been their 53rd anniversary.
“They were always holding hands and cuddling,” Kohler told The Post. “They were like high school kids.”
Kohler said her family still wonders where Dee and Merle caught the virus. It could have been passed by an asymptomatic carrier or by contact with a surface that a sick person touched. However they caught it, the virus claimed their lives “in the snap of a finger and they’re gone,” she said.
“Right now it just feels like we’re living in this really bad nightmare,” she added. “In truth, my parents were in their upper 80s, both were in compromised health, so they were the perfect targets."
Her family has been profoundly frustrated by young people ignoring the state’s stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines.
“The family just prays that telling our story people will realize,” she said, “take it all seriously. Especially the young people, if you think you’re invincible — you have older relatives, think of them.”