‘My Mother Was My Best Friend’: Remembering A Life Lost To COVID-19
Coralyn Wescott was a fiercely independent woman who loved gardening, baking and line-dancing. She could be spontaneous, but also grounded in her community, and was active in the VFW and American Legion. Every year, she went to the Champlain Valley Fair.
Coralyn is also one of the 54 people in Vermont to die after contracting COVID-19.
On a recent afternoon, Coralyn’s daughter Robin stood in Burlington’s Battery Park. She looked at Beansie's — a retrofitted yellow school bus where hot dogs and hamburgers are under $3 and french fries come by the quart.
It’s a place where Coralyn starting bringing Robin to when she was a baby. Robin said they’d pull up the car, order and have dinner in park.
They became regulars. Coralyn usually stuck to a classic hamburger or hot dog, but on occasion Robin said her mom would switch it up.
“She did a Michigan now and then,” Robin said. “But she liked her fries. And creemees. It was all about the creemee: ‘Can I get a creemee after?'"
Coralyn died on April 21 after contracting the coronavirus at Birchwood Terrace in Burlington. She was 91.
I first met Robin in early April while reporting on the outbreak at Birchwood. At the time, Robin hadn’t seen her mom in-person for a month. Birchwood, like all long-term care facilities, stopped allowing visitors when the pandemic struck.
Coralyn had dementia, and Robin was worried her mom would die of COVID-19.
More from VPR: 'Losing Sleep, Worrying': COVID-19 Sweeps Through Two Vermont Nursing Homes
At Battery Park on this May afternoon, Robin rummaged through two bags bursting with photos and memories.
She pulled out the soundtrack to Pretty Woman — her mom’s favorite movie, a photo of her mom as a young girl, and one of her mom’s many hats, adorned with a cloth flower. Then Robin unfolded a large green sweatshirt emblazed with the words, "All I Want For Christmas Is George Strait."
“She had it all,” Robin said. “T-shirt, sweatshirt, I got her everything. I even brought the George Strait mug.”
Coralyn, as it turns out, was a massive fan of the country singer. When Robin took her mom to see Strait in concert, Coralyn was “ecstatic,” and the show left an impression.
Robin recalled one day getting a call from her mom, who told her the local country station was giving away tickets to George Strait.
“'Robin,' she says, 'WOKO is giving away tickets to George Strait — could we go again? Will you try and call in and win the tickets?'” Robin said. “And it's like, 'OK.' I mean, she just she loved George Strait, loved him.”
Coralyn was born in Burlington and raised in Essex, and for most of her life, she stayed around those towns. She loved gardening, line-dancing and cooking, especially baking pies — each holiday, everyone would get their favorite pie, Robin said.
Coralyn had five other children, though she wasn’t in close contact with them, according to Robin. Coralyn’s third husband, Robin’s adopted father, died 28 years go.
That’s when Robin moved into an apartment above her mom’s house. Coralyn would go out dancing with Robin and her friends. Sometimes, they’d go hunting for deals at garage sales. The pair bought a camper, and for eight years they were seasonals at a campground in Georgia, Vermont.
They’d also take spontaneous road trips, like the time they drove to St. Johnsbury and Reading in one day — and came back with a dog and cat.
“My mother was my best friend,” Robin said.
About 10 years ago, Robin became her mom’s full-time caregiver as Coralyn developed dementia. In 2017, Coralyn moved to Birchwood Terrace.
Robin said she’d visit and take her mom on trips, even mundane chores like going to the bank.
“If I would tell her that I was coming to pick her up on Thursday, she'd be dressed and in that lobby at 8 a.m. waiting for me to show up,” Robin said. “I could tell her 1 o'clock, but that didn't mean anything. I was coming to pick her up.”
But as Coralyn’s dementia grew worse, she couldn’t leave Birchwood. And when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Birchwood stopped allowing visitors.
About a month ago, Robin got a call from the nursing home: Her mom had developed COVID-19 symptoms. Robin rushed over to Birchwood, where she was outfitted in the full range of personal protective gear and allowed in.
She visited four times over the course of her mother’s last days. During one visit, she said she pulled out her phone and FaceTimed Coralyn’s grandkids so they could say goodbye.
Robin said it was after that visit that the nursing home called and said her mom’s condition had gotten worse.
“So I basically got right out of here and headed over and talked to her,” she said. “And basically held her hand, stroked her head and her hair.”
Then Robin laid down in the bed and played her mom’s favorite songs. She started with “Pretty Woman,” then put on some George Strait. Finally, during “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston, Coralyn died.
Robin said her family is planning a celebration of life for Coralyn once gatherings are allowed. They’re going to get a country band for the event, and they'll have to play Coralyn’s favorite song: “Pretty Woman.”
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