Constable: 'Invisible beast' of COVID-19 makes family man die alone, and changes mourning
Fully recovered from a bout of pneumonia, Robert Kanney was beaming for the photograph as he left his rehab center in Lincolnshire on March 24 and returned to his family in Vernon Hills.
"He was so excited to come home," remembers Anne Gulotta of Barrington, one of Kanney's three daughters, who looked forward to an eventual end of COVID-19 staying-at-home and a return to normalcy with big family gatherings. "We were raised with family. That was very important to my parents. Being committed to family was their thing."
Instead, Kanney, 91, died alone on March 29 at Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville, a victim of the coronavirus. The devout Catholic was buried next to his wife Friday at Lake Forest's St. Mary Catholic Cemetery in a spartan graveside ceremony unimaginable before the advent of COVID-19.
Unable to have a full funeral mass at St. Mary of Vernon Catholic Church in Indian Creek, Kanney was laid to rest with a few words from the Rev. Mark Augustine of the Church of St. Mary in Lake Forest. Gulotta, her son, Jay Gulotta, Kanney's daughter Kathleen and her husband Alek Kasprzak of Lake Bluff were the only family members who could attend. The family of his other daughter, Patrice and her husband, Ricardo Lagos -- quarantined in Kanney's Vernon Hills home where they live -- watched a Facebook Live feed, as did Kanney's sister and loved ones in Rockford.
"The Catholic service was all of 10 minutes, and there were no hugs or handshakes when it was over," Gulotta says. "It's a very empty feeling ... but I am thankful that we were able to be there in spirit for my dad."
An electrical engineer who was owner president of a manufacturing rep company, Midwest division, Kanney was known as a sharp dresser who almost always wore a suit and tie. But the coronavirus made it too risky to have him embalmed, groomed and dressed before he was placed in his coffin.
"He was buried in a double black bag. That is not my dad," Gulotta says, her voice cracking. "It's really a lonely send-off."
Nothing about COVID-19 seems ordinary.
Kanney, who was born Dec. 14, 1928, to a Chicago family, met his future wife, Helen, when they were students at Austin High School. His father, Francis, died young and Kanney grew up with his mom, Elsie, and lots of relatives before earning his electrical engineering degree at the University of Illinois. Helen died in 1993, and Kanney was happy when his daughter's family moved in with him for what was expected to be a temporary arrangement.
"They ended up never leaving because my dad loved it. He was a big kid himself," Gulotta says. "I can't tell you how many dinners we've had at the house with my dad at the head of the table."
Every Halloween, Kanney carved creative pumpkins. He loved to fly kites. He loved dogs. He loved his daughters, sons-in-laws, five grandkids and one great-granddaughter.
In later years, when he needed help, "Patrice took on that duty every day with a smile on her face," Gulotta says. Kanney rallied from his pneumonia in February and was walking and feeling good when he came home on a Tuesday. Two days later, the rehab center called to say someone there had tested positive for COVID-19.
"Even hearing that, we didn't jump to conclusions," remembers Gulotta, who had seen her dad shake off other ills. But he developed a fever and a bit of a wheeze that night, and his doctor told Patrice to take him to the hospital on Friday.
"That was the last time she saw him," says Gulotta, who visited her father on March 8 but had to skip her next weekly visit because she had a cold that she didn't want him to catch.
"One of us was always with dad until the state of Illinois said we couldn't come in anymore," Gulotta says. "So every day we'd call him. We talked to him Sunday after he ate his dinner. He said he was doing OK. He was calm. He always sounded hopeful. The last thing he said was, 'God bless you.'"
A few hours later, Patrice got the phone call saying he was dead.
"There's no goodbyes," Gulotta says. "It's a real empty feeling. He was robbed of the time he had left because of this virus."
Many COVID-19 victims are older people with underlying health conditions, but that doesn't make their deaths less sad, or lessen the pain for survivors. Not being able to mourn together as a family, sharing hugs and tears, also hurts.
"You don't realize how meaningful that is until you don't have it," Gulotta says. She hopes her father's death makes people do everything they can to protect others from the virus.
"COVID-19 is an invisible beast," Gulotta wrote in a Facebook post with her dad's smiling photograph and the story of how he went from healthy to deceased in five days. "This virus does not discriminate. ... Take the warning to shelter in place seriously."
Gulotta says she hopes her father's death can have an impact on others.
"If someone wants to thank a medical professional or caregiver in Illinois at one of the hospitals they can go to giftofhope.org, and donate a tin of cookies," says Gulotta, the board chair with that not-for-profit organ and tissue donor network.
"We have to look for the hope," says Gulotta, who asks that donations in her father's memory be sent to the Illinois COVID-19 Response Fund at ilcovidresponsefund.org. "We want to try to help whoever we can."