A brain aneurysm and massive stroke did not stop Arline Chesley after she suffered both more than 21 years ago. Doctors gave her five years max to live, but she carried on in spite of her limitations.
Then she contracted COVID-19 at her nursing home, Sagepoint Senior Living Services in Maryland, last April. She died on May 6 at age 78, after 17 days on a ventilator.
"That's what makes it so devastating,” says her younger of two sons, Patrick Chesley, 56. “She survived all that she went through, and then the coronavirus comes through and takes her life.” Nine months later, he still struggles to accept her death and mourns that he couldn't give her the funeral she deserved. The injustice of it all still gets him fired up, as COVID-19 cases continue to climb and deniers keep making noise. “I can't go a day without dealing with this,” he says, “unless I stay in the house with my phone and the TV off.”
He recognized his mother's strength early on. He was just 2 when he says she left an abusive marriage to raise her boys on her own. He recalls the years they lived in one room in a rundown building he described as “an old shack.” They had no running water and only a hot plate and small refrigerator for a kitchen. But his mother found joy even as she struggled and taught her boys to appreciate what they had, and the experience made them all stronger, Chesley says.
She had a cosmetology license, operated a salon, and cut and styled the hair of families — in some cases four generations of them — throughout Maryland's Charles County. At one point, she even styled hair for the deceased at a local funeral home. Later, she worked as an assistant teacher for high school students with special needs and was beloved throughout the community. The family of three moved around the county for years, until she finally bought a home of her own. She took pride in her manicured yard and flowers — and in cooking in her real kitchen. She loved music, especially Diana Ross and the Supremes, and dancing.
The stroke and brain aneurysm left her paralyzed on the right side of her body and confined to a wheelchair. She could say the simplest of words or recite material locked in her memory, including the alphabet and the Lord's Prayer, but lost her ability to carry on conversations. What she didn't lose: her commitment to care for others.
"She would give the shirt off her back to anyone,” Chesley says.
She made a point to visit her friends and neighbors every day in the nursing home, where she lived for two decades — the last 14 years under Sagepoint ownership. She'd wheel into their rooms to check on them and, if they needed something or she didn't like what she saw, she'd roll up to the nursing station to seek help. That stopped when COVID showed up and tore through the 170-bed nonprofit facility.