'A phase that we must endure': Unending grief over earliest COVID deaths on Long Island
The pandemic's first coronavirus deaths on Long Island were all reported on March 16, 2020, a Monday. Three Suffolk County residents had died: a man in his 80s, one of the Island's first known infected patients; and a man and a woman in their 90s. The next morning brought Nassau's first reported death, of a 96-year-old man. (Since then, more than 9,000 Long Islanders have died of COVID-19.)
Within weeks of those first deaths, so many people were dying daily that the toll felt impossible to fathom. Meanwhile, funerals and wakes and shivas and other rites of communal mourning were strictly capacity-capped by government order.
Three years later, we share stories of five Long Island families who are still coping with profound loss — or at least trying to cope.
JEFF BOIM, died May 30, 2020, at age 67
Fran Boim, of Glen Cove, 72, dreams about a bearded 23-year-old named Jeff who flirted with her at a Greenwich Village coffeehouse and later became her husband. She has nightmares about Jeff suffering from COVID-19, which killed him on May 30, 2020, 44 years after the couple first met.
“I dream of the day we met — often,” Boim said. “I dream of the night that he told me he was going to the hospital. I dream of seeing him on a ventilator.”
She now is in treatment with a therapist and has been in two support groups for widows. She dines once a week with other widows to commiserate. On each anniversary of Jeff's death, she lights Yahrzeit memorial candles. She partakes several times a year in a synagogue's Yizkor service, the Jewish prayer for the departed.
“I’m not used to living alone. I never lived alone. So, I cry a lot. I pray to God that he’s in heaven, and I think he knows I’m here; I believe that,” she said.
Boim is also angry. Angry that the hospital, without consulting her, put her husband on the ventilator, which he stayed on for two months and never came off alive. Angry that Uber didn’t suspend service — Jeff had taken a retirement job driving to make extra money — and Fran blames the job for exposing him to the coronavirus. Angry that President Donald Trump didn’t take the virus more seriously sooner.
Since spring 2020, she’s been struggling financially; her husband was the sole breadwinner. He also helped with household chores and gave her emotional support.
The couple’s son, who lives in Virginia, is still beset with grief, she said.
Every day, "all the time," Fran Boim thinks about first meeting Jeff Boim, on Feb. 28, 1976.
The two drank coffee, listened to music, played Scrabble and went back to his apartment.
“I fell asleep in his arms,” she recalled. “He didn’t try to kiss me. We just fell asleep. Woke up the next morning, and I knew there was something special about him. He said 'come back next week, and I’ll make you dinner.' He did. He made me fish, Japanese vegetables and an apple pie.”
She added: “He said to me before I left, ‘I like you a lot.’ And I knew I liked him a lot. ‘Let’s not go out with anybody else. See each other every weekend.’ We saw each other every weekend after that. And we never went out with anyone else. So I haven’t been out with another man since I met him. And I’m not dating.”
DR. JAMES ANTHONY "CHARLIE" MAHONEY, died April 27, 2020, at age 62
Dr. James Anthony “Charlie” Mahoney of Freeport is missing this weekend’s engagement party of his doctor son, Ryan, who is to wed his classmate from Baldwin High School, also a doctor.
Nor was Mahoney, a 62-year-old pulmonologist, there for Ryan’s graduation from medical school or for any other family milestones since April 27, 2020, when he died of COVID, having treated hospitalized coronavirus patients in Brooklyn.
“It’s hard to believe, but what do you do?” said his sister Rutha Mahoney, 66, a retired pharma sales rep. “He died doing what he loved.”
For Charlie Mahoney’s father, 91-year-old Oscar Mahoney, his son’s death doesn’t seem like just yesterday — but “like it was this morning.”
The elder Mahoney, who served in the Air Force and was a pharma rep like his daughter, still wakes up and sometimes expects his son to come into his bedroom to grab a bath towel on a shelf above the closet before taking a shower, promising to call later, and heading out to the hospital.
Charlie Mahoney had staved off retirement to keep treating patients at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.
One of the last times father and son spoke, the younger man was lamenting a scarcity of personal protective equipment to shield against the transmission of the virus, Oscar Mahoney recalled, “and that bothers me, up until now.”
He said he still thought about how his son treated COVID patients only to die of it himself. Oscar both laughs and cries at the irony.
Oscar Mahoney said Charlie was the strongest of his five children, a son who grew up to be a fine man who had no vices but one.
“He was addicted to Slurpees,” Oscar chuckled.
In the three years since Charlie Mahoney died, the family has stayed close.
“Everybody tries to comfort each other, you know?” the elder Mahoney said. “It’s really a phase that we must endure, and we know that it’s a part of life.”
He added: “What can you do?”
The family hasn't stopped celebrating joyous milestones, lately the birth of a niece and Charlie's daughter's law school graduation.
“That’s what Charlie would want us to do,” Rutha Mahoney said. “No doubt.”
ROBERTA LANDERS, died April 22, 2020, at age 92
Only with time has Madelynn Schwarz, of Roslyn Heights, come to fully understand just how alone her mom, Roberta Landers, must have felt dying of COVID in lockdown isolation.
“I just feel heartbroken that that was how her life ended,” Schwarz, 74, said Thursday, almost three years since Landers’ passing April 22, 2020.
In the final weeks of Landers’ 92 years, the nursing home in Manhasset where Landers lived provided an iPad to video chat — with unlimited time — but Landers was hard of hearing and unresponsive.
“I don’t even know how much of what I said got through; it was very difficult,” Schwarz said. “At the time we were living it, it didn’t strike me so much, but as time went on, I realized how hard it was for her to be alone at that time.”
In grief, the family swaps stories: How Landers got her degree at Queens College following her husband’s death in middle age. About her antique shop in Whitestone and her job as a travel agent in Glen Oaks. The five grandkids and 11 great-grandkids. Landers’ treating each grandchild to a trip abroad upon turning 13 — a tradition Schwarz and her sister, Debbie Wexler, have carried on with their own grandkids.
Landers’ funeral was just Schwarz, Wexler and their husbands at the gravesite, with everyone else on Zoom, including the rabbi officiant.
A year later, more family gathered for the gravestone’s unveiling.
“We went to a Chinese restaurant, because my mother loved Chinese food. And that was our way of, again, talking about her, laughing and just memorializing her,” Schwarz said.
She added: “Time heals”
“We’ve moved on. We still think about her. We still talk about her. We still laugh about her.”
And as Schwarz contemplates her mom’s passing, she ponders her own life — and her family’s.
“I’m getting up there, too, and I’m thinking of my own mortality,” she said. “It was just a sad way for my mom to have had to have gone. I just hope it doesn’t happen to myself or my husband or my sister, you know, as we get older.”
ROBIN RAMKISSOON, died May 17, 2020, at age 45
A part of Jonathan Ramkissoon is waiting to see his dad, Robin Ramkissoon, getting dressed or walking through his bedroom door or eating breakfast in their Brentwood house. Sometimes Jonathan thinks his cellphone is going to buzz with his dad's random text messages throughout the day.
The elder man, 45, died May 17, 2020, of COVID.
“I’m kind of 50/50 where I’ve come to accept that this is reality, but I’m not ready to let go of the past yet,” said the younger man, 22.
Still raw with grief, the family waited more than two years before having a tombstone installed at Robin's gravesite at St. Charles Cemetery in Farmingdale.
“I personally wasn’t ready to believe that he was gone,” said Jonathan, a college student, adding: “I blocked it out of my mind.”
Jonathan would sublimate the grief by obsessing over the bureaucratic logistics of a loved one’s final affairs: dealing with the funeral home, handling the family mortgage and taxes, planning the memorial (albeit a small one, in keeping with the law during a spiraling pandemic).
“By forcing myself to believe it wasn’t real, it helped me to not feel the emotion,” said Jonathan, who could see his dad just twice before death: dropping him off at the hospital in April and then watching him die at his bedside.
Robin, a native of Trinidad who moved to the United States in the 1990s and worked in sales, had been evangelism pastor at Evangel Church of God in Lindenhurst, a post Jonathan has since assumed. The family’s Christian faith has been the biggest balm in mourning, Jonathan said.
“My faith really did help me throughout this whole process. It actually hindered it before it helped me get through it. I guess you ask questions like, ‘Why does God allow some things to happen sometimes?’ ”
But, said Jonathan: “Seeing how consistent my dad was in his faith pushed me to say, ‘OK, maybe there’s something I’m missing. I need to go deeper into it.’”
He’s channeled his dad’s example in praying and Bible reading and finding solace in how Robin grieved his own mother.
Still, for Jonathan, Father’s Day, and the days leading up to it, are the worst, particularly because his dad’s death and the holiday come just weeks apart: “I think the culmination of those two events just kind of really hit me.”
CAPT. ROSS L. SADDLEMIRE, died April 26, 2020, at age 87
Capt. Ross L. Saddlemire, a retired American Airlines pilot who once made headlines as a co-pilot on a hijacked plane in 1979, was the family's "go-to." He was the one who helped solve family members' problems. The one who also had a hug for everyone. And the one who never failed to tell his family "I love you."
"It's kind of like everything fell apart after" his death from complications of COVID-19 almost three years ago, said Susan Saddlemire Powell, one of his five daughters. The health of her mother, Evelyn, deteriorated and she is now in a nursing home, Powell said. The Port Jefferson couple had been married 66 years at the time of Ross Saddlemire's death on April 26, 2020.
Powell, of East Setauket, said in a recent interview that while the siblings are all grown with families of their own — Ross Saddlemire had 12 grandchildren, ranging in age from 19 to 34 — their father, even in advanced age, was "the kind of man that kept everybody together, that solved everybody's problems."
Powell said her father, who was 87 when he died, was admitted to Mather Hospital in Port Jefferson in January 2020 for a "slight stroke." He was transferred to Surge Rehabilitation and Nursing Facility in Middle Island, where the family thought he was making progress. But by mid-April, he had fallen ill, which subsequently turned out to be COVID-19, and was rehospitalized.
He deteriorated quickly. Powell said the nursing home called, telling them, " 'You need to make funeral arrangements for your father right now.' We were in complete shock."
The COVID-19 restrictions limiting them to 10 mourners at the funeral was "just horrible," Powell said. "The biggest part that hurts is knowing that he was alone that seven weeks and he died alone and he never really had the funeral or the wake of all the people that knew him — the recognition for everything he had done."