Ruth Harrington on her 93rd birthday.
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Sally Yablonsky knows what strangers might think when they hear her mother was 93-years-old when she died of the coronavirus. That she was old, that maybe it was her time, that her best years were behind her. But to Sally, and others who loved Ruth Harrington, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Ruth was a “firecracker,” they say, who loved to speed down roadways and drop into Bingo games, who lived alone on a large plot of land in Vestal in upstate New York and could outwalk her own daughter. Sally always thought she would live to 100.
“My mother was a very healthy 93-year-old, she wasn’t frail in any way,” Sally said. “She lived on her own, she still drove. Til the morning they took her, she was very healthy. And that was just the shock, because by the time she arrived to the E.R. that morning, she had died within 30 hours of arriving at the hospital.”
Ruth died on March 24, the second fatality in Broome County, which has now seen 12 people die of complications from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. The day before, she had been complaining of chills and Sally, thinking her mother had the flu or something similar, urged her to stay away from the hospital, worried she could contract the virus there.
“I tried to stress to her, ‘Mom, stay home, whatever you have, you’ll get through this,’” Sally said. It was still the early days of the crisis and she couldn’t believe it might be COVID-19.
But Ruth pressed a medical alarm on her wristband in the early morning of March 23. Even then, she seemed okay, moving rugs for EMTs as they brought a stretcher into her home. “This wasn’t a dying woman,” Sally said.
When the EMTs pulled up to Ruth’s home, Sally was waiting in the driveway. “I stood up on the back fender of the ambulance to look in at her and I was waving at her,” she said. “Little did I know that would be the last time I ever saw her alive.”
Harrington in an undated photo from her youth.
In 1953, Ruth and her husband got married and moved into a homestead he inherited from his family, and spent years remodeling and fixing up the old rickety farmhouse and caring for its hundreds of acres. Sally’s sister Judy was born in 1954, and Sally was born five years later.
Ruth was a meticulous keeper of the home — every night the plate setting had to be just right, the pot roast or spaghetti and meatballs cooked to perfection. When Sally was a kid, Ruth took up bowling and kept at it for 40 years. She joined an all women’s league and, according to her longtime friend Rita Nier, bowled an average of around 150, 160. “That’s pretty good,” Rita said.
Later, she became obsessed with Bingo and played at least once a week, her last game coming just about two weeks before she died. She loved the game so much that for one birthday, Sally made her a cake and stuck a card in it that read: “How do you get an 84-year-old woman to say the F word? Have somebody yell Bingo.” Rita thinks it was her love of numbers that drove her passion for the game — when they would go out to dinner, no matter the size of the group, it was always Ruth who divided up the check.
It’s not that there weren’t hard times. Ruth’s oldest, Bill, served as an infantry medic during the Vietnam War, taking part in the brutal Battle of Hamburger Hill. Sally remembers her mother watching the news, getting increasingly upset. “She wore her emotions on her sleeve,” Sally said. Bill died, suddenly, in 2018, and Ruth went through the pain of losing a child. “For a long time, it was, you know, ‘it’s been 64 days since Bill died,’ or ‘72 days since Bill died.’ She remembered, she counted all the time,” Rita said.
Still, Ruth stuck to her routine. She was an early riser, and spent her mornings with a cup of tea and her iPad, reading the Press and Sun Bulletin, a newspaper from nearby Binghamton. She would play Sudoku and word scrambles. Sally called her every day, between 7 and 8am. “She was always busy,” Sally said. She would get into bed around 11pm — but get up around midnight to check her lottery numbers and play a game of solitaire on her iPad.
Ruth’s life is made up of the memories she made with family and friends — seeing Ringo Starr, just two years ago, with his all-star band; going to see April the Giraffe, with Sally, at a nearby animal park, when the world became obsessed with watching a livestream of the animal’s impending delivery of a little calf; the cards she would send her three kids, five grandchildren, six great grandchildren, and many nieces and nephews for every occasion, not just Christmas and birthdays, but Halloween, Thanksgiving, and St Patrick’s Day, too.
That’s why it doesn’t make sense that this vibrant woman — who burned rubber speeding out of her daughter’s driveway just a couple months ago, such was her love of fast driving — is gone.
On March 27, three days after she died, Ruth’s ashes were laid to rest at a plot next to her husband. That was the same day that her husband was buried, in 2006, and it also was their wedding anniversary. Sally sees poetry in that. Ruth had bought herself a sleek black tombstone back in the ‘90s “and we picked out a beautiful black — she would call it sexy — urn” to sit next to it, Sally said.
Yablonsky’s view of her mother’s funeral from her car.
Since they had been in contact with Ruth, Sally and her son had been court ordered into quarantine, but got special permission to drive to the cemetery and attend the brief ceremony. Watching from her car, Sally remembered how she used to tease her mom that one day she would deliver her eulogy, just as she did for her dad. “I always told my mom, at her eulogy, I would start ‘Before we begin.’ And then I would say, ‘I said B4 — she would be yelling Bingo right now!’ I tried to have a little bit of a sense of humor the day we buried her, but nobody else found it funny.”
“I used to tease her that I was going to do that, and she would always say, ‘Oh Sal!’”
Sally is furious at the demonstrators who are emerging in cities around the country to protest the lockdowns meant to protect people from the spread of COVID-19. “I really am angry with people who are protesting stay-at-home orders, because I just feel that if they have lived through anything that I have lived in the last month….,”she said. “Sure they have the right to protest but, you know, please don’t be stupid for yourself, for your family. I see people having their children protest. That’s not fair to those kids. They don’t know the dangers of this. I really pray for these people because I hope that those families don’t have to endure what my family has gone through.”
“It’s not just taking out feeble elderly people. My mother was not feeble. My mother was full of life two days before she died from this.”
After her mother died, Sally started a GoFundMe — she takes the donations and buys food from local restaurants that are suffering, and then has the food delivered to health care workers, police departments, ambulance crews, county sheriffs’ offices, the funeral director’s office, and a nursing home. Using Ruth’s initials, she called it Hugs for RAH RAH RAH, and has raised $12,900 so far, well beyond what she imagined. “That’s really helped my heart heal,” she said.
About five days after her mother died, Sally left her home late at night to go get the mail. “As I was walking down my driveway, I had two shadows of myself walking down. Now they’re short and heavy like me but I had two shadows and I got like a little, oh, I got a chill in my spine.” When she got home, she told her husband and son what had happened — and her son said he always sees two shadows, because of the way their floodlights are set up. But Sally saw something different. “I had a life lesson — my mom is by my side. I might not see her, but she’s always by my side.”
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Miriam Elder is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Her secure PGP fingerprint is 5B5F EC17 C20B C11F 226D 3EBE 6205 F92F AC14 DCB1
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