Coronavirus: St. Johns County family rushed to get parents home to die, a day apart

Charles R. and Bonnie Redlinger, married 63 years, died a day apart after their children took them home just as their memory-care unit was going into lockdown.

By Matt Soergel, The Florida Times-Union

Charles R. and Bonnie Redlinger were married 63 years, and died a day apart last week in the Palm Valley home of one of their daughters, Sandy Antonopoulos. He was 84, she was 81, and Antonopoulos is sure they were waiting for each other before dying.

They did not die from the effects of the coronavirus, but the pandemic was a source of stress and urgency for their children, who, as their parents’ health failed, quickly transferred them from a memory-care facility, just as it went under lockdown. This way the couple could die together in a family home.

“I couldn’t let go of the angst because of the urgency of the virus,” Antonopolous said.

In a letter written Monday night, Antonopoulos described her parents’ last days. She called it “Unimaginable — Love Endures Amid the Virus: A Personal Memoir on the Death of my Parents.” It’s been lightly edited for length:

I am not a writer and as time is of the essence, I don’t have the luxury of an editor. Although this is my personal story, I think it’s one worth sharing as the coronavirus brings the life we’ve all known to a devastating halt.

Tomorrow Cindy, Sherri, Sonny and I will bury our parents, alone. Just the four of us. A mandate was issued today to limit funerals to 10 people. We will conduct our own service. First, Mom and Dad deserved so much more. Everybody loved them! Second, because of ever-changing mandates, I anticipated such a mandate and in Mom’s stead, and with my sisters’ agreement, pulled rank and encouraged family to honor them by staying safely at home and praying for all of us. Since all eight grandchildren and the older great-grandchildren cannot attend, then none can. How do you choose? You don’t. Unimaginable!

Looking back, the journey to bring Mom and Dad home Friday, March 13, began some two weeks ago. They lived together at The Palms assisted-living facility in memory care. Dad suffered from dementia for years and Mom had six strokes. Both were under Community Hospice care at the facility and it was obvious that they were declining daily.

So, The Virus. My stress level hit an all-time high when upon entering the facility my temperature was taken. I was due my second shingles vaccine but dared not for fear that I might spike a fever and be banned from the facility. The mere thought of that took my breath.

Thursday, March 12, I asked the Palms’ director if it was conceivable that the facility would go into lockdown. At that point, she didn’t see it happening and, nonetheless, considered my family a special case. One not to take a chance, I arranged to move my parents “home” (my house) the very next day. Sure enough, when Cindy arrived at the facility Friday morning, the doors were locked. Other families were turned away, but since we were deemed an essential part of my folks’ care team, they let Cindy enter.

Cindy packed them up with Sherri’s help while I prepared at home. Mom and Dad arrived by ambulances at dinnertime. Perfect for Dad. He never missed a meal and the girls made a Cracker Barrel-worthy one. Saturday was a gorgeous day and Mom soaked it all in on the lanai overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway. I took the last picture of my Mom — sitting next to my husband, Mike, and waving at me. That night she had her seventh and last stroke.

They weren’t even settled in when everything changed exponentially. Thank God we moved so quickly because a couple days later no one was allowed to enter the facility. My heart goes out to EVERY family living the nightmare of being estranged from their helpless parents and others. Unimaginable!

Hospice triage nurses, regular nurses and CNAs were in and out around the clock for Mom starting Sunday morning, March 15. Each parent had their own case and care. Hospice folks were stunned when they arrived to see two patients side by side in hospital beds. Mom never regained consciousness and at first we tried to shield Dad from her impending death. However, when Cindy and I sang “Amazing Grace” to Mom, Dad started singing with us — that was a miracle and emotional moment for me. It was time to tell him.

We dropped the bed-rails, pushed the beds together and clasped their hands. With Sonny, Cindy and Sherri at the foot of Dad’s bed, I sat next to him and with my hand on his heart I said, “Dad, I have to tell you something. Mom is going to pass away. She’ll be with Jesus, and both Grandmas and Grandpas.” He responded in the softest voice, “I thought so.” Those present were relieved that he knew.

That very night, Tuesday, March 17, he joined Mom in the dying process. My family came to the conclusion that Mom was waiting for Dad; amusingly that was nothing new. By now I was situated and the chaos was replaced with peaceful acceptance.

Wednesday night, March 18, Hospice CNA Dee advised us that Mom and Dad were breathing in sync. How special for my sisters and me to witness. Mom must’ve decided that she waited long enough and surrendered at 6:30 a.m. Thursday.

What a privilege to be there for Mom’s last breaths and for my sisters and me to assist Dee in grooming my beloved Mother for the last time. I knew taking Mom out of the house would be the worst. While it wasn’t easy, I requested the two young funeral representatives to not cover her face in my presence and to let Cindy and me meet them in the front yard. Why? Because it was a Mom kinda day — sunny, breezy and birds chirping all around.

Funny thing, though, the neighbor had a service cutting his grass so I had Mike (her husband) run the guy down and ask him to shut it off until Mom’s van passed. Oh, the attention to detail. It was a beautiful moment and then she was gone. I was glad the guys didn’t show up in a hearse, but was conflicted, because she deserved to ride in one. The white minivans looked normal in my newly abnormal world.

That same afternoon, Sherri, Mike and I went to the funeral home to finalize plans. The director, Danny, advised me that there was no hurry and we could wait until the next day. Danny soon came to know that nothing in my life at the moment could wait. Since I knew Dad was soon to follow, I asked Danny if we could take care of his business. He wasn’t supposed to, and under normal circumstances who would make plans for someone not yet deceased, but Danny acquiesced and I didn’t have to go back.

The three of us left and planned to drive to the grave sites. My car wouldn’t start due to electrical issues — a first — so we had it towed and took an Uber home. All I could think was, “Jesus, keep piling it on!” We sanitized the Uber with my scented Touchland spray and made it home.

Early the next morning, my special nurse, Shakeliah, gathered my sisters and me to Dad’s bedside. We thought he was gone several times, but no. We encouraged him to go have breakfast with Mom because she was surely waiting for him. Shakeliah left and Hospice nurses Bernie and Carol took over. Cindy continued to play gospel music for Dad and we hovered.

After a few hours, Carol pulled us out of the room and enlightened us to the fact that Dad may be waiting for us to leave. Good idea, Carol. We said our goodbyes for the umpteenth time and then headed to the kitchen for our first huge Southern-style breakfast which was made by Sherri. Oh yum! Dad passed shortly thereafter and we continue to blame Cindy for keeping him here with all that good ol’ gospel music.

Bernie and Carol prepared Dad for his transport to the funeral home. We did the same routine for Dad — he came out on another beautiful day and all three sisters spent a few moments with him before removal. Dad didn’t appreciate nature like Mom, but we did, so there is that. He was happy in his recliner with a remote. And just like that, my 60-year-old self is an orphan.

The threat of the virus got my parents home, which allowed Cindy, Sherri and me to care for them. I hoped they’d be with me a bit, but God had other plans. I totally checked out this week to focus on my parents, and it was a revelation and relief that I didn’t even care to look at social media, my phone or watch TV.

The world stopped in a surreal, wonderful way. I knew the virus was out there and was still affecting my life as it pertained to Mom and Dad. It’s bad enough that the family can’t attend the funeral, but they couldn’t even visit Mom and Dad at home. Too many people could result in no visits from health care providers. That angst lingers even until now as I pray that we get through tomorrow and bury my parents before any mandate shuts down funerals altogether. Unimaginable! (Note: The four siblings were able to attend the burial at Jacksonville Memory Gardens. They were the only attendees.)

We will always remember this time as difficult, but also as a special miracle that my parents left this world together. What a sweet blessing. Our friends and family are devastated for them and us. Please don’t be for us. Yes, please keep us in your prayers, but know that we got through this challenging, sometimes scary week with prayer, music, scripture, loving professional help, laughter, gratitude and I’m told, grace.

My siblings and I feel all the love sent our way. My parents lived a life of fun, fun, fun and now I plan to carry on that family mission statement.