By Michael Capuzzo
On the morning of December 18, 2020, as the newscaster announced a grim New York record for COVID-19 deaths and the weatherman predicted a white Christmas for Buffalo, Judy Smentkiewicz drove home from a house cleaning job, excited about the holiday. But her back hurt bad, and she was unusually exhausted. “I thought it was my age, being eighty years old, working every day,” she said. “I never thought about COVID.”
Judy’s small house in Cheektowaga, just east of Buffalo, was all set for Christmas. Daughter Michelle, who lives a few miles away and talks to her mother five times a day, put up the tree and the decorations and the snowman on the front lawn of grandma’s house with her daughter until it looked like a scene from It’s a Wonderful Life. Son Michael came up from Florida with his wife Haley to help his sister cook the family Christmas Eve dinner, usually for twenty-five, but now just immediate family with “COVID shaping everything,” Michael said. Michael, fifty-seven, hasn’t lived in Buffalo for close to thirty years, and relishes the trip home.
But now he was worried. Mom was sleeping twelve hours a day. She couldn’t eat. She couldn’t lift the phone. “I’m fine, I’m just tired,” she kept saying. But Judy was always up with the sun. After raising two children as a single mother, working thirty-five years as an office manager for Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, she was still cleaning houses five mornings a week with her girlfriends to “keep busy.” On December 22, three days before Christmas, Judy tested positive for COVID-19.
“We were devastated,” Michael said. The family Christmas Eve dinner was cancelled, Judy spent Christmas in quarantine in her house, four days after Christmas she was taken by ambulance to Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital, and on New Year’s Eve Michael and Michelle got a call from the hospital that their mother was being admitted to the ICU. It all happened so fast. “We can’t be with her,” Michael said. “We can’t hold her hand, we can’t sleep in the room with her.” He started keeping notes to make sense of it all. “Hearing her voice crack on the phone as she agreed to go on the ventilator was HEART-BREAKING,” he wrote.
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