Married 72 Years, Now Separated Due to Coronavirus

Larry Hawkinson can’t remember the last time he saw his wife, Elise, in person. They both reside at the Saratoga Retirement Community, but live separately, in adjacent buildings.

Larry Hawkinson, year unknown. (Courtesy Larry Hawkinson)

In Santa Clara County, health officials report hundreds of cases of COVID-19 at assisted living and nursing homes. Many of those facilities began to escalate infection control protocols months ago, and those efforts to slow the spread of the virus have changed life dramatically for older couples like the Hawkinsons, who need different levels of care.

Mostly, it’s kept the Hawkinsons apart. “It just started tightening up a little bit and tightening up a little bit,” he says. “It’s kind of a dull life. But ‘tis what it is. I would be very upset if I got it, of course,” said Larry, who is 95. He laughs.

Travelers No More

When they were young, Larry and Elise, who is 93, wandered Europe, not always knowing where they’d sleep the next night.

Now the difficult distance they have to cover is the one between two buildings on the same property.

Over a dozen years ago, the Hawkinsons moved into a two-bedroom apartment, living independently in the retirement community, commonly known as the Odd Fellows Home. Hawkinson led community emergency response training and was a ham radio enthusiast.

Then, on vacation in Hawaii, Elise had a terrible fall that robbed her of mobility. They got caregiver help; eventually, it wasn’t enough. They moved to assisted living. When Elise's condition declined to the point that she couldn’t recognize her own daughter, Larry reluctantly moved her to the memory care facility.

“She’s in the closest room possible for me to get to,” he said.

Two or three times a day, Hawkinson would walk downstairs from his assisted living apartment, past the dining room, across a paved lane to Elise’s room.

“I'd be there when they’d put her into bed at night, and we’d kiss goodnight, and she'd say, ‘I love you,’” he said. “And if she didn't, I'd say, ‘Did you forget to say something?’”

Then in February, Santa Clara County reported its first cases of COVID-19. The dining room closed. He couldn’t get permission to visit his wife as much; state and county orders limited visitors and locked down nursing homes.

Sponsored

The county’s stay-at-home order means Hawkinson can’t play golf. Sunday church is now streamed video. He gets three meals a day delivered to his door. He eats them on a TV tray.

“It pretty well drives me nuts,” he said.

Saratoga Retirement Community has reported one staffer testing positive for the coronavirus. Still, Hawkinson feels safe, and he welcomes the precautions.

But he says it’s horrible that he hasn’t seen his wife in person since early last month.

Hawkinson calls over to the nurses’ station in his wife’s building a couple of times a week. An aide calls him back from Elise’s room. Then she gets on the phone and her voice journeys back to him. It’s harder to connect that way.

“We just chat for a little bit,” he said. No use staying...very long on there cause she doesn't understand what's going on. She has pretty bad dementia. But she's not unhappy. She is not belligerent at all. She just...exists. Pretty tough, but that’s the way it is.”

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It Happened in Burlingame...

Now married 72 years, the Hawkinsons’ love story began in the Burlingame Public Library.

When Elise was in high school, she worked with Hawkinson’s sister there. A graduate of Lowell High School in San Francisco, Larry joined the naval reserve after Pearl Harbor, a military man like his father. Larry’s sister prodded Elise to send him, a boy she’d never met, a birthday card.

“I got this card, very nice, and so I wrote back and said, ‘Thank you very much for the nice birthday card, whoever you are,” he said. “She wrote back and said, ‘Thank you for the nice thank you card, whoever you are.’”

He came back from officer candidate school, and they started to date. When he first asked Elise to marry him, she said maybe. “Maybe?” he says now. “I thought maybe she thought I might not come home from the war or maybe she could do better while I was gone.”

It was neither: She wanted to finish school and teach kindergarten. She did just that.

When he returned from the Navy, he became a teacher, too, of mathematics, forging a whole career as part of the founding faculty at Gunn High School in Palo Alto. Larry and Elise raised two daughters in Santa Clara County.

All along the way, Elise matched him in work and adventures. They’ve been to 54 countries together, he says.

When the pandemic is over, Hawkinson wants to play golf again. And he holds out hope he can make the trip to his sister’s for her 100th birthday this summer, in Oregon.

He knows his travels with Elise are a thing of the past. But at night, once in a while when he can’t sleep, he relives them.

“I start redoing the 54 countries in order," he said.

"Number one, number two, and so on...”

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