Just ‘One More Kiss’ Outside the Ambulance

On a frigid night in the age of COVID, Sherry Wolfe kissed her husband of 72 years goodbye.

Elizabeth Regan

The Day, New London, Conn.

(MCT)

On a frigid night in the age of COVID, Sherry Wolfe kissed her husband of 72 years goodbye.

Harold Wolfe, 95, was transported Monday evening from Westerly Hospital to Mystic Healthcare for hospice services, suffering more from old age than any specific illness. Sherry said doctors in Westerly hadn’t been sure he’d make it through the afternoon.

He’d fallen and broken a hip, had surgery, then fallen again. Sometimes his mind went. He’d tested positive for COVID-19 last week, but didn’t have any symptoms beyond a preexisting cough.

COVID wasn’t what was killing him, but it was what would likely leave him to die alone.

Sherry wore an ankle-length, black-and-white faux fur coat she hadn’t donned in the three decades since they’d retired to Sarasota, Fla. When the ambulance doors opened, Harold took one look at her and gave his driver the wry directive to “turn around and go back.” Sherry laughed, relieved.

“You know I’m here,” she cried, kissing his smooth head and placing a scarf around it to ward off the chill.

Earlier, at the couple’s apartment in Masonicare at Mystic, Sherry recalled that Harold had promised her he’d never go bald. “I call him a liar,” she said, again with the laugh.

In the cold, she pressed her face to his. “Oh, my sweetheart,” she said. “I love you dearly.”

She wasn’t going inside.

The beginning

They met in 1945, Harold tanned from service in the Philippines at the end of World War II and resplendent with all that thick, dark hair. Oh my God, Sherry remembered thinking.

“He looked at me, I looked at him,” she said. That was it.

He was 19; she was “15 and 10 months.” His family owned the hotel that her mother stayed at for the healing effects of the Catskills region’s sulphur springs. Their summer romance, rife with dancing to the jukebox behind the ice cream parlor, turned into a yearslong courtship. He hitchhiked from Hartwick College in upstate New York to her family’s home in Brooklyn so he’d have money to do things like buy her a $10 steak at a posh midtown Manhattan restaurant.

The wedding came in 1949, with the details of the proposal and engagement obscured for Sherry by more than seven decades of raising a family, working, moving all over the Eastern Seaboard and then, finally, embarking on a well-earned retirement. “It was a given,” she said of the decision to get married.

Harold’s career as a press secretary took him from the National Institutes of Health in Washington, D.C., to New York’s Department of Mental Hygiene and its judicial system. Sherry worked as an administrator for two state institutions and 26 group homes under the mental hygiene department.

Life was busy with careers and two sons, Scott and Bruce. One family gave way to more as the boys graduated from college and set off on their own. Bruce graduated from New York University and went to Israel, where he began practicing observant Judaism, married and had 12 children. Scott, who lives now in Waterford and is married to Barbara, stayed in the state after graduating from the University of Connecticut. He has two children.

Marriage wasn’t always easy, according to Sherry.

“It was bumpy here and there with different things going on,” she said. “But he always said, ‘We’ll get through it,’ and we did.”

The end

In front of Mystic Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center, Sherry told Harold she couldn’t go inside with him because of a temporary COVID-19 lockdown instituted as cases soared across the region, state and country.

“It’ll be OK,” she said to him. “Do you believe that?”

“I believe anything you say,” he replied, his dry wit cutting through the cold.

Earlier, Sherry acknowledged she could probably get permission to be with her husband at the time of his death — which she believed to be imminent — if she requested it. But there were other considerations. Would he know she was there at the end? Would it be safe? Was it fair to the rest of the family if something happened to her, too?

She said she was expecting her 50th great-grandchild at any moment.

“I want to be healthy. I want to get back to working out, which I used to do years ago. I want to go visit family here and in Israel. I’m not a youngster; I’ll be 92,” she said. “I want to get as much life as I can, and Harold would want me to do that.”

Ultimately, she decided with Scott and Barbara that saying their last goodbyes outside the ambulance before he went into hospice was the best option.

“Then I can come away and go on with life, because there is life,” she said. “As hard as it will be.”

Her overriding concern as he deteriorated for more than a year had been the pain he is in, she said. She recalled the trouble he had with tasks like getting out of bed, using the bathroom and washing his hands. But he wouldn’t ask for help, and she’d have to come in with the wheelchair to help.

“I remember saying to myself, ‘It’s not fair. He shouldn’t be in all this pain,'” she said. “Then other things happened, one thing after another.”

Pneumonia, sepsis. He survived, and his mantra remained the same: “Don’t worry, we’ll get through this. We always do.” But last week, he stopped saying it. The words, to her shock, were replaced with “So, I’m going before you.” She pretended not to know what he was talking about.

She described it as the elephant in the room. “But I can’t say anything and he doesn’t say anything,” she said. “And I don’t know if that’s right or wrong.”

The goodbye

Barbara, the couple’s daughter-in-law, said COVID-19 has colored Harold’s last years, months and days.

“Much of it has been very horrific because hospitals and rehab centers cannot seem to get enough staff. I think we feel neglected a little bit. It would’ve been a different picture if…” she trailed off.

Sherry finished for her: “If things were normal.”

Waiting for the ambulance to arrive Monday night, as day turned to dusk and then to darkness, Sherry was upbeat in her faux fur coat. There were two false alarms as she approached ambulances that turned out not to be carrying her husband. One patient almost got a scarf and a kiss before she realized her mistake.

“That’s not him!” she chortled.

But the love of her life got there finally, and the laughter mixed with tears. She fawned over the man she’d described earlier in terms of his character, his humanity, his intellect and his need to overcome adversity. In his later years, he was an actor, a playwright and a poet.

One of those poems went like this:

“If at the moment of my death

I still have the strength

and the breath to speak

just two last words

then surely,

out of gratitude

and love,

they will be

‘Sherry, darling.'”

When Sherry read it aloud earlier that day, she cried for her soul mate and her broken heart. When it was time to go, she put on the dazzling fur coat and grabbed a plaid scarf.

“I think I should bring a hat for him,” she told her son and daughter-in-law. “He’s going to be cold.”

The air was 26 degrees and cathartic as Sherry held onto Harold as their visit wound down. Ryan Parker, an EMT with Westerly Ambulance Corps, added another blanket to the pile. Harold reminded Sherry to pay the ambulance company.

When she laughed, it was like she must have sounded when they were just married. “You’re still worried about bills?”

“Always,” he said.

Soon, Sherry signaled it was time to take Harold in from the cold. “My precious,” she said, her face against Harold’s masked one as she cried.

Parker pushed Harold to the entrance of the facility on High Street in Mystic. It would be her husband’s last stop, Sherry knew.

The first stop had been on a different High Street. It was in Binghamton, N.Y., where he was born on May 11, 1926.

Parker paused at the doors.

“One more kiss before you go in,” the EMT said to Harold. “There’s always time for one more kiss.”

e.regan@theday.com

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