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 Yablonsky, and others who loved Ruth Harrington, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Harrington 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. Yablonsky always thought she would live to 100.
“My mother was a very healthy 93-year-old. She wasn’t frail in any way,” Yablonsky said. “She lived on her own, she still drove. Till the morning they took her, she was very healthy. And that was just the shock, because by the time she arrived to the ER that morning, she had died within 30 hours of arriving at the hospital.”
Harrington 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 Yablonsky, 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,’” Yablonsky said. It was still the early days of the crisis, and she couldn’t believe it might be COVID-19.
But Harrington 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,” Yablonsky said.
When the EMTs pulled up to Harrington’s home, Yablonsky 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’s decline was swift, and Yablonsky finds comfort in the fact that her mother didn’t suffer. She was diagnosed with double pneumonia and the day she was admitted, she told doctors she did not want to be put on a ventilator if it came to that. As her oxygen levels dropped, a nurse called Yablonsky for a final phone call with her mother at 5 a.m. the next day, and they were able to tell each other they loved each other. Later that morning, Harrington said she was hungry and was given pancakes and sausages. She told her nurse she was cold, and she was given some heated blankets. Then she drifted to sleep and didn’t wake up.
“Thank god she died with dignity,” Yablonsky said. “I really found comfort in the fact that she had the best medical care. She had an isolated, private room. They weren't busy. The staff at this point, they weren't overworked; they didn't have a thousand cases.”
One month later, Yablonsky is still in shock that her mother is gone.
Ruth Harrington was born on Dec. 11, 1926, in West Endicott, New York, and grew up in a family with two sisters and a little brother. In her teen years, she saw friends go off to fight in World War II. After her father retired from working at the Endicott Johnson shoe company, he and his wife opened a mom-and-pop shop attached to a gas station. It was there that Harrington would meet her husband, Richard, following a previous marriage from which she had one son, Bill.
In 1953, Harrington 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. Yablonsky's sister, Judy, was born in 1954, and Yablonsky was born five years later.
Harrington 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 Yablonsky was a kid, Harrington 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,” Nier 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, Yablonsky 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.” Nier 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 Harrington who divided up the check.
It’s not that there weren’t hard times. Harrington’s oldest, Bill, served as an infantry medic during the Vietnam War, taking part in the brutal Battle of Hamburger Hill. Yablonsky remembers her mother watching the news, getting increasingly upset. “She wore her emotions on her sleeve,” Yablonsky said. Bill died, suddenly, in 2018, and Harrington 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, Harrington stuck to her routine. She was an early riser and spent her mornings with a cup of tea and her iPad, reading the Press & Sun-Bulletin, a newspaper from nearby Binghamton. She would play sudoku and word scrambles. Yablonsky called her every day, between 7 and 8 a.m. “She was always busy,” Yablonsky said. She would get into bed around 11 p.m. — but get up around midnight to check her lottery numbers and play a game of solitaire on her iPad.
Harrington’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 Yablonsky, 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 of months ago, such was her love of fast driving — is gone.
On March 27, three days after she died, Harrington’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. Yablonsky sees poetry in that. Harrington 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, Yablonsky said.
Since they had been in contact with Harrington, Yablonsky 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, Yablonsky 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!’”
Yablonsky 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, Yablonsky 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 Harrington’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, Yablonsky 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 Yablonsky 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.”