Husband rues not getting Covid help earlier
December 25, 2020
Gene Shank most often got up before his wife, Linda, did. She had allergies, and at night it could keep her from getting to sleep right away.
Gene would let the dogs outside at their home next to the Moose Horn River in Barnum. He'd putz around, get on his computer. It was the "normal life of retired people," he said.
Linda was a loud snorer - "she rattled the windows" - and he relied on that rumbling to know she was at least getting her sleep.
By mid-morning, he'd start preparing the stinging nettle tea. Linda would get up and they'd complain about their aches and pains while sipping their tea.
She'd eventually settle into the living room, getting the dachshund and chiweenie just right on her lap. Gene might get her a Hershey bar out of the freezer and a Diet Coke.
Linda died Dec. 5 due to Covid-19 complications. She had turned 69 on Oct. 30, about the time the "aches and pains" they griped about starting feeling like something else. They both tested positive for Covid on Nov. 3 but had been feeling OK, Gene said. They stuck to the routine and took extra measures in self-medicating and monitoring.
By Nov. 10, Linda posted online about all the "trouble" she was having: fever, chills, aches, fatigue, cough, nausea, diarrhea.
She told her Facebook audience to "be extra careful right now. We must have let our guard down once and that is all it took to get the virus."
Today, Gene would give anything to have that boring old routine back. He watched his wife die in a Duluth hospital after two weeks of her being in turns "alone," "scared shitless," "angry," and finally sedated beyond communication.
He was able to talk to her a few times by phone or video call. Other times he talked to nursing staff, telling them to stroke her hair for him, comfort her, pray for her.
"This was just so horrible," Gene said a week later. "It's just beyond comprehension. I was so happy it was over. I know she's in a better place now."
He pauses for a long time. You can hear his breathing on the phone and then a harrowing howl.
"I'm 78 years old. Dear God, what am I going to do?"
Leah Dunbar has a muddling veil of regret clinging to her. When she could still speak, Linda offered goodbyes. She said she'd always loved the daughter she adopted from Korea as an infant in 1975. Leah is in Minneapolis, locked down under her own strict pandemic protocols with a 6- and 8-year-old doing distance learning. "I don't go anywhere," she said.
So she wasn't going to make a trek up north, where it was likely she couldn't see her mother in a Covid unit anyway.
And there is the rift she's had with her parents for most of her adult life. They are polar opposites when it comes to life philosophy and politics, she said. It was a "very distant, struggled relationship," Leah said of the connection to her mother.
But when Linda called about how she was feeling in mid-November, Leah had to take action. All during the pandemic that began in March, she had felt the "collective grief" of lives changed dramatically, in daily routines and illness and death. "Life unfolds like it does," she said, and now Covid was hitting so close to home.
Linda had woken up one night "huffing and puffing," Gene said. He told her they should go get themselves checked out, the Covid might be getting worse. "No, no, no," he recalled her saying. Then she called her daughter about her deteriorating condition.
Leah got the couple an oxygenator, a device that checks oxygen levels in the blood. A reading of less than 95 percent can signal a severe Covid infection and health experts recommend seeing a doctor right away. Linda's level was 60.
"I couldn't believe she wasn't in the hospital already," Leah said.
The couple went to Moose Lake to have blood drawn. Then they waited at home, where Linda said she was feeling fine.
That night, she was in Moose Lake's Mercy Hospital, soon to be transferred to Essentia-St. Mary's in Duluth because the smaller hospital did not have the means to treat her.
For Gene and Leah, the two weeks leading up to Linda's death are a blur.
For Leah, regret comes in not exactly reciprocating those goodbyes in the middle of her mother's struggle. All she could think to do is encourage her. "I was trying to soothe her."
The cacophony of machines in the background was terrifying, she said. "It's not peaceful."
"When Mom was awake, there was confusion and pain," she said. "You're not in your right mind."
"I wasn't prepared," Leah said of the moment she wishes she could have had words to sum up a life with her mother. "How would you say goodbye?" she asked. All she could think of - with the machine keeping Linda alive whirring incessantly into the phone - was: "This is my mom. And she can't breathe."
In the early 1980s, South St. Paul police officer Gene Shank would have conversations with his partner about life and love. Gene laughs, because his partner had been divorced three times. "To the same woman," he roared. But as Gene's own marriage was falling apart, his partner gave him some assurances since he had apparently finally found the right woman. "Life will get better," Gene recalls him saying. "You'll find someone and all this will go away."
"He was so right."
A friend suggested Gene meet a "nice person" he knew who was also going through a pained breakup. "No thank you," Gene told him. "I wanted to fix it," he said of his own flailing marriage. When none of his children acknowledged him on Father's Day in 1983, his hopes were dashed.
"I want to meet this person," he told his friend.
Gene put on his White Castle T-shirt, an homage to the burger place he loved, and suspenders. He picked up a 12-pack of the cheapest beer he could find, Hamm's, and went to Linda's apartment.
"She opened the door and, oh my God, it was love at first sight." They sat on her couch and drained some beers, talking for several hours.
"We were soulmates," Gene said.
Two days later, Linda visited Gene at his place, a not-so-nice apartment that he was proud of despite its dilapidated condition. Linda, showing a headstrong spirit Gene would come to know and love, said "You're not staying here. You're moving in with me."
Linda was coming out of a harrowing, abusive marriage, Gene said. "She left with her life" and her grade-school daughter, Leah.
"We were happy as pigs in shit," Gene said.
The couple married in 1986. They found they had a shared interest in "old things" after they'd go out to garage sales on the weekends. When Gene retired in 1993, they moved to the Two Harbors area, where they had a cabin. Linda said she wanted to open up a shop to sell the stuff they were collecting.
When Linda decided she wanted to do something, "she would do it," Gene said. If she'd ask Gene to do a simple task like mowing the yard, he learned that he'd better get on it or she'd go and do it herself.
"She had a method to her madness," he said with a laugh.
They had a thrift shop in Two Harbors and later one up the North Shore in Castle Danger, near Gooseberry Falls State Park.
"We were doing what we loved," Gene said. "It was fun. And we were making money."
Linda showed off her creative side in store displays and ideas. At Fat-n-Happy's, the store in Castle Danger, they had changed their concept to a malt shop and convenience store with a photo booth for tourists with various motifs - a formal tea party, a bear in the woods, a camping spot.
It was fun, until it wasn't. "That's enough," they told each other in 2015. They had been on a search for the perfect place to really retire. In 2016 they found the place on the river in Barnum. "It was everything we wanted," Gene said. "Life was good. Until now."
Gene calls himself the "Big Mouth Bohemian." He likes to tease people, and called Linda his "Blond Left-handed Norwegian." It was a moniker she didn't like at all, he said, but eventually she realized it was just one of her husband's methods of affection.
They were an outspoken couple that didn't shy away from their conservative political viewpoints. A conversation with Gene is littered with asides about the state of the world and who's right and who's wrong.
He says people should stock up on "guns and ammo" the way the pandemic is turning life upside down. With no prodding, he says he and Linda were Fox News "addicts."
Leah said she can't think of her parents without attaching the cable news network affiliated with extreme conservative, and often suspect, viewpoints. She doesn't know how its influence guided "how they were navigating" during the pandemic.
Gene sent an email out with the notice about Linda's death, warning people to take Covid seriously. Linda had been careful, he said, even requiring that their mail be disinfected before opening it. She wore a mask. Gene says he hasn't always adhered to mask wearing, admitting he's gone into stores without one.
There are more dichotomies. Linda was still going to the casino, with a mask. Gene was making the rounds chatting up "good old boys" at a few shops in Barnum.
Gene's lament is that those who feel they are sick should stay home and avoid others to prevent the spread of Covid. And they should seek medical attention early. "It was too late" in Linda's case, he said. "It had too much of a start on her. We let it go too far."
It was a deadly fall in Minnesota for Covid cases. November and December saw the highest case rates since the early days of the pandemic. Deaths spiked in Carlton County, from just one into October to more than 30 people by late last week.
Gene says there's no way to know how they acquired Covid. Linda had those nagging allergies. By what is known of Covid, Gene was more susceptible to the virus with his Type 2 diabetes. But he thinks he made it through and is feeling OK now, healthwise.
Leah said it pains her to think that Gene may be wondering "Did I bring this home?" She takes their word that they had been careful, she said. Compared to the extreme precautions she's taken to avoid Covid, she wonders if things got a bit lax up north, where cases hadn't surged until this fall. "She didn't have to die right now," she said.
Leah wrote Linda's obituary for Gene. She knew the facts, but struggled to precisely explain who her mother was. She noted her creative side, a love of animals, her faith.
"She lived her life boldly with an authentic spirit," Leah wrote.
"She lived her truth," Leah said. "You were going to know" how she felt, she said.
As for the gulf between the parents and child, "it all dissolves when you're crying together," she said.
If there is a shaft of light through the grief, she said, it's seeing Gene and his devotion to Linda.
In a video call to the hospital, Leah saw how much Gene loved his wife and how it crushed him that he could only ask hospital staff to hold her hand, comfort her. "That part was brutal, wanting to comfort your love," Leah said. "Me seeing his precious love show up, it's the biggest gift," she said. "I've seen a side of him I've never seen."
Gene says that despite his "big bad cop" persona, he really is a softie. He hated handing out tickets while he was on the beat, something that might only add to a difficult situation someone might be going through, he said.
"I'm hard on the outside and soft on the inside," he said. "I love people. I hate injustice."
That's what drove him to offer a public warning after Linda's death, he said. "This Covid thing is no joke," he wrote. "It's deadly. Wear masks, wash hands and stay away from people."
Leah is encouraging Gene to take on his emotions, grieve to the fullest despite the pandemic taking away a natural human instinct "to gather around" and console each other after a death.
Gene thinks of the doctor at Essentia who called to say he was sorry that more couldn't be done. Leah, like so many who have lost loved ones to Covid, was numbed from the ups and downs in the days before her mother's death. One day held promise, the next, despair.
She wrote online how she felt, just after Linda died. "You do not want your loved one to endure this, nor do you want to witness this kind of death. It is brutal and full of suffering for all."
Gene wonders how medical staff "are going through it, the stress. They're angels."
And he keeps wondering where he is in all the loss. He was able to go to Linda's side in the last moments, dressed in his retirement uniform of bib overalls. She was on morphine and heavily sedated. He never dreamed two weeks earlier, when she was whisked off to Duluth, that he'd never really see her again.
In Moose Lake they wheeled her to the ambulance. "I told her that I loved her, stroked her hair. That was it."
This week, a thought occurred to him as Christmas loomed. "She's going to be with Jesus for his birthday. How about that."
Words to describe his wife don't surface easily in all the pain. He talks between sobs. "She was anything a guy could want. Everything about her was perfect. That's why I am so mad. I know she is with God. But I'm left here with-out her. It's just tearing me apart."