‘They Took My Husband’: Six Decades of Devotion Ended With a Double Diagnosis
After Anita Thomas was stricken with Alzheimer’s, her husband Bill spent nights with her at an assisted living facility. Then coronavirus came.
Here was love in the time of COVID-19.
Love that roused Anita Thomas as if by miracle from the depths of advanced Alzheimer’s disease to comfort her husband of 61 years as he fell victim to the virus.
Love that easily might not have been at all. She had received the last rites twice as a 4-year-old battling diphtheria and pneumonia in a wine cellar-turned-bomb shelter in wartime Germany.
Love that began when she and Bill Thomas were just teens. She was a high school majorette who worked in The Midway, the luncheonette her family opened after immigrating to Northport, Long Island, in 1949. She would sometimes be sent to get lunch meat at Betcher’s butcher shop, where Bill worked. They would exchange glances at the end of the day as she rolled up The Midway’s front awning and he took care of Betcher’s trash.
Love that blossomed after Bill’s older brother asked her older sister out and her parents said only if Anita goes too. Bill came along. And what ended as just a date for the older siblings became a whole life for Bill and Anita.
Love that led to marriage in 1959. They purchased a house in their home town in 1965 and had three children: Katherine, then Peter, then Eric, each two years apart.
Love that became only stronger after the death of 8-year-old Eric in a road accident during a family summer holiday in Canada in 1974. Ten-year-old Peter lost both his legs below the knee and learned to walk again at Craig Rehabilitation Hospital in Colorado in time to join his fifth-grade class.
“The loss of their youngest child deeply wounded Anita and Bill throughout their lives and shook their faith for a time, but to their credit, they never let it show,” Peter would remember. “Anita was always the most positive person in the room with Bill steadfast by her side. What easily could have driven the family apart brought them closer together than ever.”
Anita taught grammar school special education. Bill taught science and health in middle school, becoming head of the teacher’s union.
At home, Bill liked to tend the lawn, garden and pool as well as the finances, keeping it all in perfect order, the checkbook balanced to the penny. Anita filled the house with her guitar-playing and singing. They welcomed friends for memorable meals.
“Anita was an accomplished cook and baker,” Peter recalled. “Always homemade, her dishes were inspired by her mother's German recipes including the best apple cake—Apfel Kuchen—ever.”
They were both joggers and founding members of the Northport Road Runners. Anita ran 26 marathons, including the one in New York City.
Bill wholeheartedly supported her charity work. He was named an Honorary Rotarian when she was named Rotarian of the Year. She joined a program called “Soles4Soles” that collected used shoes to be donated to impoverished people in developing countries. Bill pitched in and they went from collecting 500 pairs in the first year to more than 21,000 pairs in 2018.
“Many in Northport refer to Anita as ‘The Shoe Lady,’” Peter reported. “Bill and Anita also opened their home throughout the years to host children and their parents from Haiti who traveled to New York City to undergo donated heart surgery.”
They wished the same blessings of love for Peter and Katherine when they each married and had children of their own. Bill marked his 55th year with Anita by surprising her with a trip to the South Pacific.
But then, in her late 70s, Anita began to suffer from an aggressive form of Alzhimer’s disease.
Love saw Bill join her when she got to where she had to move into the Bristal assisted-living facility in East Northport. She could no longer speak in sentences. Her eyes would glimmer with a thought that would be lost before it became words.
“You’d see her having an idea,” Peter said. “But then it would be gone. She couldn't capture anything.”
But Bill and Anita still spent every night in the same bed. Anita would go to the facility’s memory unit during the day. Bill would head off to their home, where he kept everything as orderly as ever. He would return in time to escort her back to their one-bedroom unit at the facility.
“My dad would come pick her up at the end of the day and all was well,” Peter said. “Then came the lockdown.”
As the pandemic became an increasing threat in mid-March, 82-year-old Bill and 80-year-old Anita were confined to their unit. Daughter Katherine, 58, lived nearby, but she could no longer visit. The best she could do was wave from the parking lot to their third-floor window and call numerous times a day on FaceTime.
The confinement was clearly having an effect on Bill. Katherine became alarmed when he failed to open his eyes at the start of one call. She asked if he was asleep. He made a sudden plea that she recounted to Peter.
“He said, ‘You got to get me out of here or I'll be dead before the weekend,’” Peter, 56, later reported.
Peter, a health-care attorney in Washington, D.C., called the assisted living facility.
“I asked, ‘How many people actually died from this thing at your assisted facility?’” he recalled. “She kind of hemmed and hawed and said, ‘Nine.’ I said, ‘Nine? You got to be kidding me. How are you not telling me this?’”
On April 23, Katherine got their parents out of the facility and Peter joined them at the house. Anita tested negative for COVID-19, but Bill tested positive. He quickly went from sick to sicker but refused to go to the hospital.
“He had always envisioned this idyllic death at his home, surrounded by his children, slipping off into the next world listening to Mozart,” Pete reported.
Pete and Katherine tried repeatedly to get home health care. People agreed to come, but Peter figures they must have been scared off by COVID-19 in the house.
“They agreed early in the day and thought about it and decided not to come,” Peter said.
“We were on our own,” Katherine said.
Peter and Katherine did their determined best as the virus proceeded to do its diabolical worst.
Then came a seeming miracle of love in the time of COVID-19. Anita suddenly became mentally present as she had not been in a year.
“She was speaking full sentences. She was very loving, she was telling my dad like 15 times a day how much she loved him, holding his hand and laying next to him,” Peter recalled.
Peter and Katherine realized there was no way to explain social distancing to their mother in these circumstances. And they were not about to pull her away.
At one point, Anita sat up in the bed.
“She looked my sister straight in the eye, which she hasn’t had in a year and said, ‘I planned it this way,’” Peter reported.
After six days, Peter and Katherine decided that the time had come to move their father to a hospice. Anita, of course, came with him.
That night, 135 people joined in a Zoom prayer vigil.
Bill was set at ease by the knowledge that Katherine had arranged for a dying request regarding the house.
“He wanted the deck power-washed,” Katherine recalled.
Bill died the following day, May 1. Anita spoke one more full sentence.
“She said, ‘They took my husband,’” Peter recalled.
She had given her absolute, astonishing all.
“She spent everything she had the last week,” Peter remembered. “She was with him, being supportive and loving. And as soon as my dad passed, she went straight downhill.”
He added, “She knew and that precipitated her demise.”
Anita tested positive and died six days later, on May 7, without ever leaving the hospice. The virus was as cruel to her as it had been to Bill.
“For people who really get hit hard, it's a horrific death,” Peter said “It is painful and horrific. It’s just not the way you want to go.”
He added, “My parents did not deserve that.”
But their love had made them all the more beloved in the town. A hundred cars led by a police motorcycle contingent joined a procession that took the place of a funeral, rolling past both their childhood homes as well as the onetime Midway luncheonette, now a sweet shop, and a butcher, now a florist. The route also included their home, the deck freshly power-washed. The town’s firefighters stood at attention outside the firehouse in tribute to a couple who were all the more important to honor in the midst of this pandemic.
“They’re saluting as we drove by,” Peter said.
The procession ended at Northport Rural Cemetery. A lone cellist sat a social distance from the grave and played classical music such as Bill had envisioned for his end. The couple was buried with Eric.
“They’re all together now,” Peter said.
Peter and Katherine returned to their childhood home, where they would go into quarantine. Both tested positive and had nearly recovered on Wednesday. Peter had only some sniffles. He only wished their parents had been as lucky.
“They were good people,” Peter said. “We’re sitting here missing them right now.”
He remained amazed by the love they witnessed during those final days in the time of COVID-19. He wondered if their mother really had somehow planned it.
“It’s like a novel,” Peter said. “It’s unbelievable.”