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If you ever needed to find George Finefrock at a party, he was the guy in the center of the room whom everyone gathered around to listen to and laugh with. More than anything, Finefrock was a storyteller.
Finefrock died on Nov. 13 in Boise, Idaho, after catching COVID-19, and now the torch has been passed to his daughter Sarah. And the story she wants to tell is that her dad — and every other person who has died from the disease — isn’t just a number in a grim tally but a beloved family member whose life ended too soon.
"Nobody deserves to have lived the experience that he did," said his adult daughter, Sarah.
The Finefrocks knew something was wrong on Oct. 20, when Sarah got a call from her father.
"He called from the hospital and said, 'The weirdest thing has happened; I got in a car accident. I blacked out and hit two cars,'” Sarah told BuzzFeed News.
He'd been going slow and wasn't hurt in the accident, but he was completely confused.
"He said, 'I don’t understand what happened; I don’t know why I would have done that,'" she said.
Three days later, Finefrock was at home in Boise when he suddenly fell to the ground and couldn't get up. He managed to crawl to the phone and dial 911. At the hospital, he tested positive for COVID-19.
His family still doesn't know how he got it. In March, Sarah had called both her father and his wife, Moira, who lives in Hawaii, and told them to quarantine.
"I said to them, 'this will kill you,' and we had a very stern conversation," Sarah said.
Finefrock in particular was at risk; he had prediabetes and had undergone a quadruple bypass only last year. He listened. He wore his mask, had his food delivered, and took precautions if he had to leave his home.
"We don’t know where he got it. We couldn’t contract-trace it at all," Sarah said. She also said that during one visit with her father earlier in the year (everyone had quarantined before and after), she noticed that mask compliance in Boise was much lower than in Portland, Oregon, where she lived. "We noticed half the people in the grocery store weren’t wearing masks."
Despite his risk factors and collapse, Finefrock was sent home from the hospital to recover, but his health continued to deteriorate. Sarah said his symptoms were like "the worst flu you've ever seen."
From a distance, the family tried multiple times to get him into the hospital, but they were told he didn't meet the criteria for admission. They bought him an oximeter online to monitor his oxygen levels; even when the levels dropped, the hospital wouldn't admit him.
"He’s really starting to tell us, 'I’m not okay; I can’t do this on my own for very much longer,'" she said.
On Nov. 2, he called Sarah. "He couldn’t breathe, and all I could hear was his labored breathing in the background," she said.
She called the emergency line in Portland, desperate to get help for her father. The operator was able to contact Boise and get help for Finefrock.
"It’s like some shit you see on TV that you can’t even imagine," Sarah said.
This time, he was admitted to the hospital.
"My dad was scared. He was really scared — because what he was feeling was real. It was validated at that point," she said.
She said the doctors who cared for Finefrock were wonderful. When he got anxious, his breathing worsened. The doctors started administering ICU services and kept him in his room so he wouldn't worry.
Finefrock, true to form, kept his sense of humor the whole time.
"At one point, they had to shave his neck to put a tube in and he said, 'Oh, do you also do pedicures?'" she said.
Sarah called him every day, even as he was able to only say "yes" or "no" or simply listen.
"He was having difficulty speaking because of the speaking issues, but it meant the world to him," said Moira, his wife, who also called daily.
"Mostly we talked about the kids, Sarah and David. We talked about his grandson. We talked about what his wishes were, and he talked about the fact that he wasn’t afraid — and no matter what happened, he wasn’t afraid, and that he was at peace."
On his fifth day in the hospital, Finefrock was intubated and sedated. On Nov. 12, Sarah got a call from the doctor. It was time to come and say goodbye.
Then, on Friday the 13th — which Sarah said her dad would have found hilarious — Sarah sat with him while they turned the ventilator off. She told the nurses stories of her dad. They laughed. Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird" played in the background.
"It was just so humane," she said. Knowing how many other families weren't able to be there when a loved one died from COVID-19, Sarah is grateful. "And then you just walk out of there alone."
Finefrock was born in Ohio in 1951 and joined the Army as an adult, stationed in Thailand. He met Moira in Honolulu in 1972. She was on a trip around the world; while she was seeing friends in Hawaii, they set her up on a surprise blind date with Finefrock. Two years later, they wed.
With their two kids, Sarah and David, the family moved around the United States, living in Hawaii for many years but also Alaska, California, and Idaho. Sarah said he was the opposite of Moira, a "reserved" Canadian.
"He was very funny. He’s always been very funny," she said.
"He’s very jovial. I think if you ask everyone he met, he’s a storyteller. He was like the person at the party who was just telling the stories, and people were just crowding around him."
Moira said he was the type of person who remembered every joke he was told, but that he might add a little flourish when he inevitably retold it.
"He would laugh at his own jokes, which we thought was really funny," Sarah said. "He would tell a joke and he could barely get through it."
She said her 6-year-old son has picked up his grandfather's sense of humor.
He loved being a father, and Moira said his priority was keeping his family safe and comfortable, even if that meant long commutes during his career in automotive financing and commercial leasing. After retiring, he went on to teach high school business classes, something he said was among the most rewarding experiences of his life.
Instead of a funeral, the family held a virtual celebration of life on Dec. 3 for Finefrock. Moira said it was hard, but touching.
"It was the essence of George with all the people there. All the people who spoke were really able to nail George right on the head in terms of how he was," she said. She added that it was Sarah who pulled it all together.
"She just has such a big heart and feels things really strongly, but also she has such strength and resilience that came through at this time," she said.
It's also Sarah who needs people to know Finefrock's story.
"It is so important to me," she said. "That puts a face on that 270,000 people. That puts a face on this disease."
Since Sarah spoke to BuzzFeed News, the number of people in the US who have died from COVID-19 has risen to 293,000, with more than 15 million cases.
"You just are hungry for people to see this as something more."