Courtesy Scott Thomas
En español | The time between when her family members learned that COVID-19 cases had been reported in Lona Erwin’s nursing home and when they found out she had died was just over 3 ½ hours.
Erwin was a resident of the Family of Caring nursing home in Montclair, New Jersey, when she died at age 86 due to complications from the coronavirus. That was on March 18, when understanding of the virus was changing daily.
“It was chaos at the nursing home, at least it seemed like it was,” says Alix Handy, 44, the youngest of Erwin’s five children. Handy lives less than 2 miles from the facility but couldn’t enter because of a ban on most nursing home visits. “I don’t know if someone was with her or if they were afraid to be with her. I don’t know what her last 24 hours were like, and that really bothers me.”
Handy, who lost her father (Erwin’s second husband) more than three decades ago, moved her mother from Massachusetts to New Jersey in 2015 so that Handy could look out for her. Erwin had suffered a series of strokes years earlier, was frail and hard of hearing, had hypertension and, after breaking a hip, ended up in a wheelchair. Dementia had also taken hold. But she was stable when the coronavirus appeared to end her life in a day.
Handy woke up the morning of March 18 to a message from the nursing home that her mother had been put on oxygen. She called and was told Erwin wasn’t sick but “just needed a little help breathing.” At 3 p.m., a nurse she didn’t know — and who didn’t know her mother — called to read a prepared legal statement, announcing that COVID-19 had entered the building. That nurse said she couldn’t provide information about specific residents. Soon after, another nurse Handy didn’t know phoned to say her mother was in rapid decline.
Handy demanded to speak with her mom but was told to call back later. When she did, the nurse said she held the phone to Erwin’s ear so Handy could say goodbye. But there was silence on the other end. When Handy called out after she was done speaking to her mom to thank the nurse, she got no response. She hung up not knowing if her mother ever heard her words.
The nursing home, according to New Jersey records, has reported 37 positive COVID-19 cases and 14 deaths. Handy wonders, since Erwin’s test results came in after she passed, if her mother was counted.
Erwin was cheerful and easygoing and loved children. The Framingham, Massachusetts, house that Handy grew up in was always open and full of kids. Erwin lit up around her 11 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.
Her first grandson, Scott Thomas, 48, a retired Army colonel, credits her for the man he has become. His father, Erwin’s son, was young when Thomas was born, and his own mother was abusive, he says. “Big Hun,” as he called Erwin, became his “everything” — the selfless and supportive mother figure he needed, who “epitomized for me what a parent should be.”
Thomas, who now lives in Purcellville, Virginia, grew up spending weekends, summers and holidays with Erwin. During college, he lived with her and her youngest, Handy, who is like a sister to him. Because of Big Hun, he says, he was the first in the family to earn a master’s degree.
On April 23, Handy got another phone call, this time from an assisted living facility in Fairfield, New Jersey. Erwin’s younger sister, 83-year-old Shirley Mercer, who never had children of her own and was like a second mother to Handy, had tested positive for the coronavirus.