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OpinionColumnistsMark Chiusano

A lost year on Long Island for one senior citizen

Newsday's Mark Chiusano joined 89-year-old Joan Rauch as

Newsday's Mark Chiusano joined 89-year-old Joan Rauch as she got the second dose of her COVID-19 shot. The retired guidance counselor who now lives at a continuing care retirement community in Port Washington talked about her family and how eager she is to travel again once this is all over.  Credit: Newsday / Mark Chiusano; Jamie Sokol

At the beginning of Joan Rauch’s year of pandemic, she set out to do the things she never gets to do.

She took out her Rolodex and removed the dead people. She discarded the plumbers from 30 years ago. She called the kind of people where she knew it was going to be a very long phone call, and that resulted in long visits, long to the point that her son, who lives in California, was forced to schedule his own phone calls. He’d email: "I’m going to call at 2."

Following routines was helpful, it filled the empty time. She did her phone calls and she watched her Andrew M. Cuomo COVID-19 briefings and she read "A Season on the Brink" about basketball coach Bobby Knight, a book her husband loved before he died. She and her husband shared a love for Indiana basketball, far away as that was from here.

Here was a window at The Amsterdam at Harborside retirement community, where you can watch the fog roll in over Port Washington, and you can almost smell the water, almost.

But it could not be pretended this was not a lost year.

It has been a lost year for Joan because at 89 there are not so many years left, she knows this. It has been a lost year because it was a year without travel, without normal social life. It has been a lost year because always, even when something got a little better, like tent brunches in a Greenvale diner, it got taken away from you. It got too cold.

This is not to say that Joan had it bad, she did not feel that way. To the contrary, she did not feel that anyone had it bad at The Amsterdam, really. It is the kind of place where residents say "there’s a difference between a movie and a film," where there’s a pool table and well-stocked library, where the steep costs cover food and cable and there's an Employee Appreciation Fund rather than tipping the servers. Where during COVID-19 exercise classes had been virtualized and good meals delivered to your room.

Still, it has been a lost year when you consider the forfeited trips to Nordstrom, to Broadway, the skipped happy hours in the sunny common room where the favored drink was Coca-Cola and Baileys, Coca-Cola and Baileys, ridiculous to Joan sipping her Pinot Grigio but all in all, that was something you missed.

Everyone has something they lost this year, and if it wasn't a family member or a friend or their health then they'd have to label themselves lucky. Joan for example had planned to travel, after caring for her husband, Dick, through his last moments the June before the pandemic began. He had been losing his memory and Joan was always with him; in fact, he told her once "Joan, you are my memory."

So they would sit there in his nursing facility room for hours and what they did was talk Indiana University sports, games they remembered. They went to Indiana together, where they met in 1948, and they loved the place dearly (15 members of their family went to Indiana). By the end, there in the nursing facility, talking about Indiana was the most lively conversation he could carry.

Someone said something a little off color to Joan during the pandemic year, the person said, "You know, you're so lucky that Dick died when he did, because otherwise you wouldn't have been able to get in to see him."

Well, that was a funny thing to say, Joan knew, but in a way it was true, because she felt that her husband could not have made it without her.

But that was in the past now, and she had been thinking of something that would honor both him and her own history, their gathered family. She had been planning to go to her granddaughter Jamie’s Indiana graduation, and Jamie was No. 15, and the unbelievable thing was that for Joan, though she had been back to Indiana’s campus countless times in the intervening nearly-three quarters of a century, she had never been to another Indiana graduation. In fact, she had not attended her own graduation. And that wrong was going to be righted finally, in 2020, when she had big plans to return to Indiana and bring everything, everything full circle.

Losses, big and small

For all the uncounted big losses this pandemic year, there are exponentially many smaller ones, and now, a year later, they deserve a reckoning. A reckoning of this pandemic year of shutdown on Long Island, 12 months this March.

And so for Joan the loss was Indiana.

How does a Brooklyn girl end up at Indiana? There was the scholarship, the amount of housing Indiana had, at a time when soldiers back from fighting were taking up space. And the emotional reasons: Maybe it was that Joan just wanted to get away. The end result was that it changed everything.

It did wonderful things for her, she acknowledges now, it made her realize she was good at things, starting at the beginning running a big dance for freshmen on campus. And of course it was the place she met her husband.

It wasn’t immediate with Joan and her husband because he invited her to an Indiana basketball game during finals week. She said, "Are you crazy?" She was studying. But then he tried again her second semester and it was a tight game with Illinois. When Indiana lost, Dick stood up and ran out, so upset he forgot Joan, or at least this is the way Joan remembers it. She caught up to him outside.

"You took me here, you’re taking me home," she says. That was their first date.

It was a different era, when if women didn’t marry before sophomore year they almost had to transfer. Joan loved Indiana, but marriage seemed important then. Her husband was a little older and graduated before her, so she finished 26 credits in one semester. And left. She was with him in Tennessee when she was supposed to be graduating.

But there were indications even then how important Indiana would be. Dick was stationed at a little radar base up in the mountains where they couldn’t even get Indiana basketball on the radio. It was one of the reasons Joan wrote a letter up the Air Force chain of command asking for her husband to be transferred. She got her wish: that was Joan.

She was the kind of person who, when her husband wanted to switch careers from building Long Island supermarkets to teaching marketing, she got a job, too, so they wouldn’t have to change the way they lived their life. She went back to school and became a director of guidance. She raised a whole family in Woodbury and sent them to Indiana one after the other, like bumper crops. And she and her husband visited and saw basketball games but every time, for one reason or another, she missed the graduation.

Yet Indiana was no less important to her, or Dick, at the end of his life. Consider that his room at the nursing facility there at The Amsterdam had a little plastic hoop in it, a little Indiana basketball, and nurses and doctors would take a shot when they came in, interrupt even just briefly Dick and Joan’s conversations about games gone by. Consider that a year after his death she was turning back to his Bobby Knight Indiana basketball book.

This time she was going to graduation, what was there that could stop her? She had a special hotel room right on campus that is never available for graduation. Her granddaughter Jamie helped set that up, a connection through her hospitality job on campus. Jamie was going into event planning. She had a whole career ahead of her, that exciting field, with plenty of opportunities for students right out of college, events and parties and gatherings being in some ways recession proof, really. What could go wrong?

COVID-19's impact

There were bleak moments at The Amsterdam this pandemic year, it was true.

It is a beautiful place in many ways and just another example that money and the having of it can keep certain sadnesses at bay. There was the way that when Dick died Joan had been able to invite her grandkids to stay in the place’s guest rooms, all of it not unlike a fancy hotel, her granddaughter Jamie remembers. Not every community of senior citizens has well-stocked happy hours, or challah for the shabbat table in the dining room, almost like being at college.

But there is always the democracy of aging, the way it comes for us all, the way Joan remembers one day getting on the elevator in The Amsterdam and seeing another woman already there. "Are you going up or down," Joan asked? The woman said, "it doesn’t matter."

That was before the pandemic but maybe that kind of thing was liable to spread a little through all the shutdowns, the separations, the losses. From last March through February The Amsterdam community saw eight COVID-related deaths, all among those with comorbidities and underlying health conditions, but then there was the way life for everyone else had suddenly imploded.

There was the couple Joan remembers seeing in the common area one day and well, she hardly recognized them, they had aged so quickly.

Or take the April edition of The Overlook, the resident news organ for which Joan is a regular writer, which included one piece with the open question, "Are you lonely?"

There was Joan in her own words: "The virus has isolated us to our apartments where we continue to have the necessities," she wrote, and then she asked: "but where, oh where are the people?"

Yet she was hopeful, she was, she laid out her case, the virtual Yoga and Meditation classes, the current events discussion, and the Life Stories event at which you could speak into your computer and tell other people a short narrative — she told the one about meeting her husband at an Indiana basketball game, naturally. It was among the ways she felt the seniors around her were doing their best to keep going and not fade.

"You’re never alone at The Amsterdam," she wrote.

Indiana on her mind

And so the year carried on for Joan. The weekends were sometimes harder, but sometimes there was Indiana football, or basketball. She read. She tried to keep some sort of routine.

And there was her family, her big Indiana-educated family, who called and Zoomed and sometimes dropped off food or visited, their own lives on hold and full of their own losses in this pandemic year.

On the day that would have been her granddaughter’s graduation, even though Joan couldn’t be there, she called all her friends and relayed the exciting news, about Jamie and Indiana, No. 15.

There was a strange symmetry through all the years of history: that Joan had been in Tennessee for her graduation, and now her granddaughter was in the same state for her’s, far from campus, living with a boyfriend and navigating post-college life under lockdown.

And then there was a further irony or coincidence or symmetry, that on the very day in January that Joan got her first vaccine shot next to a fireplace in an elegant Amsterdam room, a gift showed up in the mail for Jamie, from Indiana University: a big, beautiful frame for her diploma, something she could keep, even if neither she nor her grandmother got to go to their graduation after all.

In February, the second dose came for Joan and because they wanted to celebrate but still could not gather themselves in person, her grandchildren held a Zoom event in her honor. They offered their congratulations and little tidbits from their lives, their own quarantines, feeling like it was Groundhog Day or struggling to teach on Zoom or prepare for a wedding. Joan watched it all matriarchally and offered advice and, at one point, a tablecloth, a gray tablecloth, because these are the things that grandmothers do.

When they asked her what she was looking forward to when this pandemic year was over for everyone as, in some ways, it is now over for her, she said the one thing she’d like is to have more than one person eating with her, and not have to be six feet apart. Because nobody at The Amsterdam can hear anything, it sometimes seems, and that means a lot of screaming.

And she’s looking forward to traveling, and seeing family, and perhaps even getting back to Indiana sometime soon.

But here’s how she put it, very precisely, right after that second vaccine shot, her summation of a most historic year: It was a lost year, sometimes she admits that to herself, she allows her optimism to flag a little.

"But then I say no, I learned to Zoom, I do use the computer a lot more. I've done more writing than I’ve ever done. And outside of the fact that I haven’t gotten as involved with community, I really haven’t lost anything."

Mark Chiusano is a member of Newsday's editorial board.