En español | Married for more than 73 years, Billy Jim “BJ” and Ramona Frasher were known in their Connecticut nursing home as “the lovebirds.” They shared a room, their twin beds pushed together, at the end of a hallway. He read to her each night, and if she left for a doctor's appointment during the day, he'd wait in the lobby for hours until she returned. She insisted that a landscape painting she made for him hang prominently on the wall, so he could see it from his armchair.
"They had been married for years and years and years, but it was like they were newlyweds every day,” said Angela Ruple, the admissions director at Greentree Manor Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Waterford, their home for just under seven years.
Added Lauren Doherty, the facility's medical director: “He used to say, ‘I want her to die five minutes before me, so that she doesn't have to watch me die, and then I don't have to live without her.'"
As coronavirus cases spiked across the country late last fall, Greentree was hit with an outbreak. The couple tested positive in November, and their health declined rapidly. Soon they shared a hospital room, their beds pushed next to each other, and then hospice care. Ramona, 92, died on December 5. Though he was unconscious, BJ, 95, remained by her side and stayed true to his word: His breath slowed as soon as nurses told him his wife was gone, daughter Vickie Meyers, 69, said. He died four days later.
"I didn't want it to happen now, but I did want them to go together,” said Meyers, who, like the Greentree Manor staff, feared what would happen if one survived and the other didn't.
Less than two weeks after they died, nursing home residents in Connecticut began receiving shots in arms. The state would go on to become the first in the country to vaccinate its nursing home population. A federal partnership with pharmacies to vaccinate nearly all U.S. nursing homes, where the pandemic has claimed more than 131,000 lives, recently wrapped up its work and death rates have plummeted.
New federal guidance has opened the facilities to visitors after a year of coronavirus lockdown.
Each time Meyers sees images of families reuniting with and embracing loved ones living in long-term care, she said, it's “a knife through the heart."
In many ways, they were opposites
BJ and Ramona Frashers’ story began in a roller-skating rink in central Ohio, where she found a job after finishing beauty school and he moved to work with an uncle at a paper box manufacturing company after serving in World War II. BJ, a consummate showman, danced around the rink in his tailored and tight Navy uniform pants, asking “all the girls” to sign the cast on his broken wrist, Meyers said.
Ramona refused, thinking he was too forward, until she gave in. Next, he went after her name and number and “wore her down, big time,” Meyers said. According to family lore, BJ told the friend he was with that night that he was “going to marry that girl.” A few months later, he did.
They were both the youngest of seven siblings, and they shared a love for music and dancing. He played piano and guitar by ear and later sang in a quartet. She read music and played cornet in an all-girls dance band that toured military bases to perform in officers’ clubs. She was named after a 1928 hit song, “Ramona,” which BJ crooned as he twirled her around their kitchen. Their youngest of three children, Cathy “Cass” Frasher, 67, likes to think they're now dancing the jitterbug in heaven.
The picture wasn't perfect, though. BJ was a flawed husband earlier on, the daughters say. A recovering alcoholic who got sober in the ‘70s, he spent the rest of his life making it up to Ramona. He never forgot that she stuck by him.
In many ways, they were opposites. He was a boisterous storyteller. She was quiet, preferred to listen and would raise a finger when she had something to say. She was content, while he — a self-described “stubborn hillbilly” from West Virginia — was prone to complain.
The family moved around some, with time spent in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Connecticut, but the couple lived most of their later years in Ohio. Then, one day, after a fall they took together down a flight of stairs left them battered and shaken, they decided to move closer to one of their children.
Meyers, who lives five minutes from Greentree Manor in southeast Connecticut, jokes that she “drew the short straw.” The couple first stayed in an independent-living apartment along the Thames River, where Navy vet BJ could look across the water and see submarine manufacturer General Dynamics Electric Boat. Meyers moved them into the nursing home six years later, when a couple of strokes left Ramona in a wheelchair and needing more assistance.
'Can't wait till I can hug you again'
BJ grew less interested in socializing before COVID hit, but Ramona still enjoyed attending bingo games, musical performances and ice cream socials. He preferred to take his meals in their room, while she dined at a table of women. He remained largely independent, while starting to rely more on a walker and wheelchair – which he propelled himself – when neuropathy in his feet made walking more difficult.
If the couple rolled by each other in a hallway, they would stop to hold hands, recalled Ruple, the admissions director. BJ would insist on pushing Ramona in her wheelchair, even as he wheeled himself.
Family would gather in their room for holidays, birthdays and for the couple's anniversary. If they were to all gather today, this would have included three grandchildren, five great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren, including one they never got to meet.
BJ liked the idea of hitting age 100, and the two anticipated the day when Al Roker would give them a TV shout-out in celebration of their 75 years of marriage. Each Thursday, after work, Meyers would visit with her parents, bringing bags of requested old-fashioned hard candies and stories about her latest genealogical research findings. His long-term memory faltered, but Ramona, “who couldn't remember what she had for lunch,” Meyers said, and often struggled to express herself after the strokes, was by his side to help correct him.
Before the November outbreak ended socially distanced visits outside, Meyers recalls her father saying, “I can't wait till I can hug you again.” They were six feet apart, so close, and the vaccine was just around the corner.
For Cass Frasher, who called often but hadn't seen her parents in well over a year, their loss doesn't yet seem real. “My dad used to say, ‘Cremate me, and just put me in any body of water. If you can't find a body of water, flush me. I'll find it myself,'” Frasher said with a laugh. “Mom said, ‘No, I want you to be buried with me. And he said, ‘OK, burn me and stick me in her casket.'"
She suspects that her grief won't fully sink in until she, her sister and their older brother can safely gather to stand graveside outside Marion, Ohio, where the couple that never wanted to be apart went into the ground together, just as they wanted.
Jessica Ravitz is a contributing writer who covers nursing homes and human-interest stories. She previously wrote for CNN Digital and her work has also appeared in Smithsonian magazine, The Washington Post and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.