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'We Didn't Think It Could Happen, Then It Did': A Daughter Remembers Her Dad, Lost To COVID-19

A portrait of an older man in a plaid shirt sitting in front of a shrub of purple flowers.
photo provided by family

In the past year, more than 200 Vermonters have been killed by the novel coronavirus. Older Vermonters have been hardest hit. In fact more than half of all COVID-related deaths in Vermont have occurred in nursing homes.

Thomas Canavan had lived at Rutland Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center less than two months before COVID-19 ravaged the skilled nursing facility last fall. Now his name is among those we've lost.

But who was he?

Early in 2021, VPR reporters began reaching out to family members of Vermonters who died after contracting COVID-19. This is the third in a series of stories about their lives and what they left behind. Watch for two more stories throughout the week. Find stories and memories of those lost from their loved ones, here.

Tom Canavan was born in West Rutland in 1926. He met his wife Mary on a blind date and they got married just after Christmas in 1946, after Tom got home from the war.

They raised four children. Debbie Holmes, the youngest, says her dad put in long hours in the foundry at the Howe Scale Company in Rutland.

More from VPR: 'I Miss The Heck Out Of Him': A Year In, COVID-19 Has Killed More Than 200 Vermonters

“He was such a hard worker,” Holmes recalled. “I think it was 35 years straight and he never missed a day of work. And then he worked a couple of jobs in addition to that part time, just to make ends meet for the family he and my mom had.”

Tom and Mary Canavan were together for more than 65 years until Mary died in January, 2012.

Two portraits side by side of husband and wife Tom and Mary Canavan, when both were young. He wears a blue overcoat and she a blue dress, sitting in a blue chair.
Credit Canavan family, courtesy
Thomas Canavan, shown at right as a young man. His friends and family recall he was an excellent dancer. Mary Canavan met Tom on a blind date. The couple married in late December, 1946 after Tom returned from service in World War Two.

Tom went on living alone in the Rutland  home he and Mary had shared until last year. That’s when the kids realized their dad, who was 94, needed more help.

“One time he did wander off in the night and went to the neighbor's house and said he didn't know how he got there,” Holmes said. “So that's when we were like, ‘Oh, no, you know, we can't let him be alone.’ And he was so independent, he didn't want anybody to stay with him.”

Having their father enter a nursing home during the pandemic, however, was something the family agonized over.

But Holmes said she and her siblings knew they couldn’t provide the kind of around-the-clock care their dad needed and they wanted him to be around other people his own age.

So on Sept. 24, Tom Canavan moved into Rutland Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center. It was the same facility that had cared for his wife Mary before her death; the same nursing home he’d visited nearly every day while she was there.

And we hated to put him there,” Holmes admitted sadly. “But, you know, at the time, Vermont was the best in the country … Rutland wasn't bad. We didn't really have any cases [of COVID-19].  You know, we didn't think it would happen.”

“But," she added softly, "Then it did.”

"He was such a hard worker. I think it was 35 years straight he never missed a day of work ... just to make ends meet for the family he and my mom had." - Debbie Holmes, daughter

Rutland Health and Rehab reported its first case of COVID-19 on Nov. 9, 2020.

A week later, patients began dying.

Eighty-three-year-old John Joseph Zawistowski was first on Nov. 16. 

Ninety-four-year-old Rita Bernadette DiSalvo died the next day. She was born in Ireland and had been a homemaker in Rutland.

Seventy-five-year old Michael Nikonchuk died Nov. 18. He was an engineer who worked in space research. 

Two days later, Mary "Pat" Brown died on Nov. 20. Brown, 79, had been a nurse for 25 years. According to her obituary, she and her husband were married 53 years and raised six children together.

That same week, Debbie Holmes says she and her siblings learned their father had tested positive for COVID-19. “And we were like, 'Oh man.' You know, it was just shocking!”

She says they were frantic. They couldn’t visit; they could only talk to their dad by phone, and Holmes said it sounded like he was having trouble breathing.

And they wanted to put him on morphine. And [then] they're like, ‘Okay, it's end of life time.’ And we were like, ‘WHAT?’”

Thomas Joseph Canavan passed away Nov. 22 — one of eight patients at the nursing home to die in the outbreak.

Rutland Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center, a brick institutional building with a big tree out front, against a gray November sky.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR
Thomas Canavan of Rutland died Nov. 22 from COVID-19. He was 94 and among eight patients to die from COVID-19 at Rutland Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center, a skilled nursing facility.

Debbie Holmes and her siblings weren’t able to be with him. They couldn’t hold his hand or reassure him. Afterwards, they couldn’t have the kind of funeral he’d wanted.And so I felt like he was cheated out of everything,” said Holmes sadly.

They couldn’t even dress him for burial.

“We were told because he had COVID, they didn't even want  to take him out of the body bag,” Holmes explained. “And we said, 'Well, you know, can we bring some clothes for him?' And then they said, ‘No, you know, we're just going to leave him in the pajamas he was wearing when he passed away and just stick him in the casket like that.’”

Holmes said that was hard.

“That really bothered me," she said.

But there were bright spots.

When Tom Canavan’s obituary came out, a number of people wrote lovely remembrances.

More from VPR: 'I'm What This Guy Has': A Doctor Reflects On Treating Vt.'s First COVID-19 Patient

Jim Pallutto, Sr. recalled what a brilliant dancer Canavan had been.

Pallutto lives in Springfield now, but he grew up in Rutland and in the late 1970s, Tom and Mary Canavan had come to his wedding.

Pallutto still remembers how the couple moved across the dance floor.We were a bit stunned and jealous of his fantastic abilities, very handsome. And I think they danced to a Waltz, which was beautifully graceful and then to a polka, which was quite lively,” he said.

A black and white photo of a young man, Tom Canavan, and young woman, Mary Canavan, dancing.
Credit Canavan family, courtesy
Tom and Mary Canavan in a photo provided by his daughter.

“He just looked so wonderfully engaged with his wife and they were just drinking from each other's eyes,” added Pallutto, who said he remembered thinking that was the kind of relationship he wanted.

Debbie Holmes said her parents loved to dance.

“They used to dance every Saturday night. They'd always go to the American Legion and dance and they just loved it. They used to jitterbug too, and they were really good,” she said.

“What I love the best was on Saturday nights, my mother would be getting ready in the bathroom, taking forever, and my father had a little shoeshine kit. And every Saturday night he would shine his shoes on this little kit in the kitchen and I would stand there and watch him,” recalled Holmes.

“And then he always had Certs that they would bring so that when they danced with other people, their breath would smell good, I guess,” she added, laughing. "And he'd always give me a Certs and he'd let me dance on his feet in the kitchen. And we’d waltz around with my feet on top of his shoes.”

A 94-year-old man sits at his kitchen table.
Credit courtesy of family
Tom Canavan last April on his 94th birthday. He passed away November 22nd, one of eight patients at Rutland Health and Rehab who died due to complications of covid-19.

Debbie Holmes says she likes to think of her parents together again, dancing somewhere.

She says she and her dad disagreed about the existence of an afterlife and the day he died she was up late worrying about it.  

I was lying in bed. And I felt like he was around and I said, ‘Dad, are you there?’ And I said, ‘Please give me a sign if you're OK.’ And then my phone buzzed,” said Holmes.

“And it’s eleven o'clock at night and everybody knows don't bother me because I usually go to bed at eight and it was the aid from the nursing home.”

The woman apologized for calling so late, but explained she’d just gotten off of work. She wanted Holmes to know that she’d been with her father earlier that day, and that she’d been holding his hand when he died.

Find stories and memories of some of the people Vermont lost to COVID-19, here.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Nina Keck @NinaPKeck.

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