Love and Loss in the Time of Coronavirus
Updated: Sep 12
By Mary Coombs
Dedicated to Derryl Millican, my partner of seven years, and to all those who remember someone who died during the pandemic
We are left to face this with what we have: our hearts, beating sadness and love, and our imaginations, this underused magical power.
-- Lauren Collins,“Missed Calls,” The New Yorker May 11, 2020
The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?
--David Brooks, “The Moral Bucket List,” The New York Times April 11, 2015
I hope you will find here a sense of who Derryl was, and why so many people were so fond of him.
First, my memories of Derryl.
Second, a historical document. After Derryl died, I found among his papers copies of the letters he had mailed to his mother just about every day from Jakarta, where he worked for two international oil companies. I’ve included some snippets that tell a bit about what Derryl was like in the late 1990s– insightful, funny and a very loving son.
Third, Derryl’s own words to me. Shortly after we met, I went back to Miami for a few months, so he courted me by email. I’m sharing some of the sweet or funny lines.
Fourth, and lastly the story of how Derryl and I reached our final destination.
I hope this story will help you all understand why I feel so fortunate to have had him in my life and perhaps trigger memories of others you have loved and lost.
I. My Memories of Derryl
Most of these are memories of us. After 40-plus years as an “I,” being a part of “we” was a new and (almost always) wonderful experience.
How did we meet? I came to Ashland, Oregon first, in 2012, and was taking a “Building Bones” exercise class through Parks and Rec. Derryl came to Ashland in 2013, and rented a room about a mile away from my house. .Not long after, he saw a woman walking down the street with an exercise mat and asked her if there were a class nearby. She said there was, but it was offered in six-week segments and it was already the end of week two. Then she added that the class was almost all women, and the instructor might be willing to let in another man. Derryl set up his mat next to mine and the rest, as they say, is history. We chatted after and a bit during class, we went out for coffee; I invited him to an Ashland New Plays Festival Reading, he invited me to dinner.
Derryl was more playfully imaginative than me. When people asked us how we met, he would tell a story that he was taking part in a protest march against conditions in Dagestan; he was arrested; and I, in my lawyer role, came and bailed him out. I, being far more literal, squelched that story because (1) I am not a lawyer admitted to the bar in Oregon and (2) I liked the true story better.
Derryl’s mother, Dolly, had died not too long before he moved to Ashland. He was clearly very close to her and liked to talk about her. She was often in his dreams. I don’t know for sure what would have happened if she had still been alive, and I had had to pass the “Dolly approval test.” Fortunately, I only had to pass the “Derryl’s beliefs about Dolly’s approval test,” and I did.
One part of that test was kindness. For Dolly and Derryl, kindness was absolutely a prime virtue. Frankly, I’d never thought of myself as unusually kind. But Derryl thought I was and perhaps, with him in my life,I became both consciously and unconsciously a kinder person.
Living with someone was new to me, and at Derryl’s suggestion, we had a pattern. If one (or both) of us thought the other was behaving badly, we would try not to get into a fight then. But soon we (usually he) would suggest that we break out the bottle of Courvoisier and discuss, over glasses, what had caused the upset. It worked pretty well, but I don’t know that I will ever want to drink the rest of the Courvoisier.
Odd the tricks you learn to make things easier when you are sharing a life and home. Derryl would get very cranky when his blood sugar was low. So when we drove out, even the 15 miles to Medford, I’d be sure to have a protein bar in my purse and offer it at the first sign of peckishness. On the other hand, I learned that when I got cranky and snippy–and especially when we both did – sometimes the best thing was to go somewhere else until I calmed down and—often--realized that the brouhaha was significantly my fault or not very important. Hence, the impetus for us moving across the driveway to a larger town house with more as needed “me only” space and me heading out for longish walks.
Derryl loved to laugh, and could sometimes be very funny. He was almost always appreciative of my puns and silliness. I gave him books from two of my favorite Florida authors, Carl Hiassen and Dave Barry. More than once, he’d be reading Dave Barry and try to tell me the portion that had made him laugh. But he was laughing so hard he couldn’t stop long enough to speak.
Derryl had an interesting relationship with universities. He went to the University of Oklahoma, majoring in petroleum engineering. It was, I think, in large part a choice driven by a felt need for an adequate income, both in the summers, where oil companies would hire people like him at way more than the rest of us made in our college summers, and upon graduation. His view of himself was that he was a good enough engineer, but his talents lay more in the business end of things and human interactions, with the people who worked under him and with the people from other companies that he interacted with.
He was always intensely interested in a wide variety of things and, I think, sometimes regretted not having taken a more academic turn in his life. He had been encouraged by a college professor to shift his major to psychology. And he always liked being near a university. When he was more mobile, he would regularly walk up to the Hannon Library at Southern Oregon University, where he would read various periodicals.
He had a small library of books on how to write well and on anthropology, statistics and economics. Among his favorite people were those who had been academics or were involved in intellectually interesting pursuits, like Phil Newman, a retired anthropology professor. Derryl loved to walk and talk with Phil, when he could still participate in the Hillclimbers walking group. And, of course, that meant that he let me natter on about the law at great length and, I like to think, I was not as irritatingly “let me tell you what this is all about, peon” as I would have been with most people who weren’t lawyers.
Derryl loved watching sports. First and foremost, Oklahoma football. Saturday mornings in the fall, he would be in front of the TV. He wasn’t much interested in professional sports, or most college games not involving Oklahoma.. But he had (and seemed to develop more of) a delight in the success of college women’s sports, again with a tilt toward the Oklahoma teams. He really loved that women were athletes, using their bodies as men had traditionally done. And to the extent he openly admired other women’s looks (at least to me), it was the athletic, fit bodies of women soccer, softball and basketball players.
Generally, he was more the TV watcher. He liked rom-coms, on TV or sometimes at the theater. He enjoyed some of the traditional network series: “Star Trek,” “McGyver”, “NCIS” and its spinoffs. An evening often found us both curled up on the couch in front of the TV. He was watching, and sometimes I watched with him; sometimes I read. Fortunately, though my eyesight was better, his hearing was more acute, so he could set the TV volume loud enough for him and quiet enough for me. And as we sat there, he rubbed my feet. Am I selfish that that is one of the things I especially miss?
He was more spiritual than me. He had abandoned his Baptist upbringing, but in his 12 years in Marin just before he moved to Ashland. he was part of the Sausalito Presbyterian Church. He was always happy when he talked about that, and when he introduced me to Pastor Paul when we went to San Francisco. I’m not sure how much of it was a commitment to Presbyterian doctrine as opposed to a community. He didn’t connect the same way with the Presbyterian Church here. But while he was well enough, he manifested his deep kindness as he participated in preparing their monthly community dinners. He worked hard at thinking about what foods he wanted to prepare, purchase and cook. And he always stayed and visited with the people who came to the dinners. There was, he told me, a woman who brought her children there; he understood that this was a rare opportunity for them to “go out to eat.” I think his inability to keep up with that was one of the real emotional costs for him as his health declined.
Perhaps I can best explain what he meant and why I miss him by walking through a “day in the life.” We always woke up in the same bed. Sometimes I would fall asleep in the TV room or the living room but often after Derryl would call out for me, I’d move to the bed. (Part of our relationship rule, from the beginning, was that I could continue to engage in the various activities I’d done in Ashland during the day, but I’d always be in bed with him at night). One of the ways his kindness manifested itself was by his encouraging me to go on trips that he couldn’t take for health reasons: to Italy on my own, on Overseas Adventure Travel tours to China and to Costa Rica, on a quick weekend jaunt to Montreal with my daughter, Karen. Whenever I did travel alone, I called him every night to check in. We never got the chance to travel abroad together.
We did go to:
Also to Los Angeles, to Santa Fe and Taos and to North Reno (with his brother and sister-in-law). He came to Miami twice during our first year together, when I went back for my final semester of teaching law school: at the beginning to help celebrate my January birthday and in May to help me pack and move permanently to Ashland. He developed a really bad allergic reaction to pollen from the tropical plants, so my later trips back to Miami were on my own.
I remember especially the trip we took to New York City together. He enjoyed a Broadway play and the nice dinner at the Red Rooster in Harlem, but what he remembered most fondly was our morning coffee. We were staying at the apartment of a friend who was away. Each morning, we would head out to a nearby Dunkin’ Donuts, sit at the counter at the front window and watch Manhattan wake up.
What of our usual days together? We woke up. I went downstairs and made a pot of coffee (good coffee, medium blend as he liked it, in a French press) and brought it upstairs. We sat on the two bedroom chairs. (I always appropriated the comfortable green leather chair and ottoman that were part of his “dowry,” while he sat in a straight back, no-arm wooden chair. As he got weaker, I could justify this by how difficult it would be for him to get up from the green chair, but it really started because I claimed it.) We would look out at the sunrise or at the tops of the trees and smile.
We would talk about the news, especially when the New York Times came and I brought it upstairs with the coffee. Our political views were different but “adjacent,” and each of us would sometimes shift our positions as we worked through the argument. I really loved to discuss contemporary political issues with him; sometimes I now find myself having an internal discussion between my first instincts and what I guess he would say. I have adopted his habit of reading every David Brooks column, though I probably agree with Brooks less than Derryl did.
Before we went downstairs, we would make the bed. He was a restless sleeper and the covers were thoroughly disorganized by morning. And he wanted nice sheets and pillows. I claimed that he had aspects of a princess, being bothered by the pea under the mattress. (Though he complained only intermittently and gently about my habit of eating pretzels in bed.)
We would talk about our plans for the day. Often I would be off hiking or working at various organizational tasks I had taken on. In the earlier times, we would take a walk or drive together into Medford for various errands. He always noticed and was made happy by how beautiful our surroundings were, though he complained about the traffic on Main Street once the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was underway.
Frequently in things I do, I remember Derryl and I have a moment of saying to myself that I need to tell Derryl X, or show him Y.
He was always interested in Judaism (he had told me this and I bought him a short biography of Maimonides that he treasured). More at his urging than mine, we attended Temple Emek Shalom for a few months, but I think his interest in Jewish thought and the discussions of Torah could not overcome my lesser enthusiasm, and the sense that the synagogue members were polite but somehow never became warmer than that.
I now hope that there is a truth in the teachings of the various religions, so that some spirit of Derryl is out there at peace and waiting for me, someday, to join him.
Derryl enjoying life in Ashland
He went along, as a good sport, with my plan to march in the Halloween parade: being silly but not having to create amazing costumes
Having fun in Lithia Park
II. Derryl’s Letters to His Mom 1997-1998
I always knew how much Derryl loved his mom and how much he felt loved by her. After he died, I found in his papers his copies of the letters he had sent her almost every day for the little-over-a-year when he lived in Jakarta. In the letters he often speaks very directly of their relationship.
“I think my stay in Indonesia will end when I get fed up with missing my mother”
“The greatest gift you ever gave me is the complete confidence that I was loved”
Sometimes he talks about life in Jakarta as a relatively well-off Westerner. As an employee of an international oil company, he was entitled to have his own cook and driver, but often frustrated by trying to make the relationships work fairly and effectively,
One employee was a good cook but only knew how to cook Indonesian food and training her to make things he likes “is a struggle because she is also illiterate. And she hasn’t got the hang of tuna salad yet.”
He recognizes the downsides of his inability to communicate with drivers and cooks and his expectation that they be fluent in English: “I definitely have to work on learning Indonesian or I am going to be traveling in circles and eating pigs’ intestines.”
He was an expat himself, of course. One day, he bought the fixings and wrote, “a ham sandwich is heaven when you have been on a diet of strange tasting foods.”
And one story is classic Derryl: “A Texan (note: given Derryl’s Oklahoma roots, this guy is not likely to be the hero of the story) said he really liked having servants and wouldn’t mind taking a couple back to the states. Then he decided that he might have to pay them better and they might leave him for someone else. He thought it would be hard to control them unless you brought them in illegally and threatened to send them back if they misbehaved. I suggested chaining them to their beds at night and hiring off duty cops to beat them occasionally. He doesn’t realize that he wants the return of slavery.”
He spent some time in Singapore, and kept most of his money there, safe from Suharto. When I knew him, Derryl was always quite positive about Singapore; it probably started here. He liked that the rules were all strictly enforced, so it was always safe. But at the end of one comment, another side of Derryl peeks out. “It tends to get dull after about three days. Maybe a little chaos creates the things we find interesting.”
He reports that the Singaporean government “makes Saturday a day off for domestic help and Sunday the day off for construction workers. They don’t want the [foreign] men and women to have a chance to meet, marry and ask for citizenship.”
In one letter he notes that “the people of Hong Kong and Singapore may not be concerned about democracy but they are passionate about the rule of law,” and that Indonesia has neither. (One of the many topics I wish I could talk with Derryl about is the current events in Hong Kong, as the people resist the attempts – unfortunately likely to succeed – to suppress the freedoms that Hong Kongers have and mainland Chinese do not.)
He sometimes talks of other aspects of life in Indonesia, usually with good humor. Apparently, as a result of the detergents and the poor water quality, his underwear came out grey and dingy. “Next time I am going to buy underwear in the color Dingy so I won’t experience a color change.”
When he started working for a new employer, he didn’t yet have his ID card “so I put on my best silly foreigner grin and ask the guards to let me through. I am sure it violates company policy – but this is Indonesia.”
And, one of my favorite stories: “Across the street from my apartment I saw two sheep waiting with their owner at a covered bus stop. I wonder what fare you charge for sheep? Do they get a seat or crowd the aisle? And what if someone wants to get on with their dog at the next stop? Clearly I don’t understand everything I see in Jakarta.”
He has stories and insights from his work world, about the locals, the management, and himself. He notes that he is working on a project to double production which “is silly because we can’t dispose of the waste water from current operations, the contract is unfavorable for this type of work and Pertamina cannot pay its bill. I will do one more study to prove the obvious. Don [his older brother] and I both suffer from management that does not listen.”
He indicates that one senior co-worker was incompetent, stupid and obstructionist. Why did they keep him? Question answered by an announcement of the death of the Governor of Jakarta--said co-worker’s father!
At one company, little of the work was documented so “much of my learning comes from debriefing other people, which I am good at. The challenge is to quickly build enough of a relationship with coworkers to justify their investment of time in me. I am succeeding as I meet more people and convince them that I am a good guy.”
He intervened once as a consultant was making a report and an Indonesian guy was asking questions that didn’t make sense to the consultant. “I translated for both of them. I call this my English to English translation service. I reworked Z’s questions so they weren’t foolish and restated B’s answers so they were in plain English. This is a skill I developed in Russia and China. I have no skill at foreign languages, but I am good at English to English translation.”
Finally some odds and ends, self-reflections and funny asides:
“Sorry I was so whiny. My letters must sound like a kid at summer camp. It was cloudy today, the world is awful; the sun is out, the world is rosy. Just discount the Bad Jakarta days. It mostly comes from being so spoiled for so long before I got here.”
He apparently gained a lot of weight in Indonesia (like me, he ate when depressed and didn’t exercise). He occasionally refers to this in his letters. After returning from a visit home, he says “the airline imposed an overweight passenger fee for the weight I gained over Christmas,” Another comment: “I have decided to become a Buddhist. They revere fat guys. I had briefly flirted with the idea of sumo wrestling but I am not that committed to being fat.”
He sometimes tried to learn and use Indonesian. In Indonesian you make a plural of a noun by repeating it. “I learned that gula means sugar, so I asked a young girl at the coffee stand saya gula gula (I want sugars) and she turned and walked away. . . A coworker explained that there is not a plural for sugar, so the expression gula gula is used for a mistress. She thought I was propositioning her.”
And sometimes his deep kindness shows through. “I now give lovingly to each beggar I see on the street. I have lost the image of them as cheats and try to see them as fully human. I try to see the Christ in each of them. I give a thousand rupiahs to each, but more importantly, from my viewpoint, I smile and think of them as whole capable people. Most of them now beam back a smile at me. It may be the money, but I had never seen them smile at others who gave them money. It doesn’t matter to me what is really going on. To me, I am giving the gift of a smile and I feel better for it.”
Derryl and His Family
III. Derryl in his own words to me
In the first few months after we met and fell in love, I had to go to Miami twice. In both cases, he sent me frequent emails. I want to share some of them that reveal things about him that are appropriate for a G-rated publication!
He quoted Kierkegaard (I was frequently amazed by the breadth of his reading and interests): “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” He then added, “When I pray, I ask only for illumination for the steps in front of me. I no longer pretend to understand very much, but I know it feels right to be with you.”
He liked words and dictionaries, as in this email, “Word of the day: canoodle: Canoodle is an old-fashioned word that I think we should explore” when you get back.
Although he grew up in Oklahoma, he was a New York Times fan and also an Economist fan, though after a couple of years, he concluded that the balance of Economist pages actually read to cost of subscription didn’t work. He commented more than once about the pleasure of us together with coffee and the Times in the morning, talking about big and little things.
At one point I told him that I had planned to get a dog when I moved to Ashland. Something to love and-–if chosen and trained with care—to love me back. Something to ensure that I got out of the house even if I got into a funk and didn’t want to. Instead, I got Derryl, who met all those criteria. His response? “Yes, and I don’t shed.” (I sometimes wish we had gotten a dog. I think, when I do get one, however, I should NOT name him Derryl.)
“I fantasize about us walking hand in hand on a beach somewhere with twenty-somethings looking at us. Some think ‘what a corny old couple,’ but the smart ones think, ‘I hope I have that when I’m their age.’”
He even wrote poetry, not, I suspect, a common avocation for petroleum engineers:
Walking East at sunrise I see no shadow
What occurs behind is not known to me
Near my beginning many shadows cross my pathway
Some interesting, pleasant, exciting but all provisional
As my shadow grows, it blends with other shadows
Some persistent but never the complement of mine
Near my destination a unique shadow appears
This shadow has clear edges; a substantive texture
My shadow joyfully joins with hers in a dance
Long shadows – always touching; always dancing
Can one feel cathexis for a shadow?
And he sometimes responded with delight to poems by others, such as this excerpt of Adrienne Rich’s “For Memory”:
The past is not a husk, yet change goes on
Freedom. It isn’t once, to walk out
Under the Milky Way, feeling the rivers
Of light, the fields of dark
Freedom is daily, prose-bound, routine
Remembering. Putting together, inch by inch
The starry worlds. From all the lost collections.
Perhaps this is too personal, but it really captures an aspect of who Derryl was:
“I want to become more attractive for you. . .more brave in facing my failing, more loving in my relations and more kind in dealing with people I find offensive.”
I think a lot about the current controversies over how to respond to past “heroes” who had some distinctly unheroic thoughts and actions. Derryl had read a bio of Jefferson and said that it led him to think about “Jefferson’s failure to equate kidnapping whites by the Barbary Pirates with chattel slavery. Jefferson was a complex man, but always a Virginian.”
He reported that he was listening to Cole Porter’s lyrics for Anything Goes (“In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking, but now, God knows, anything goes”). “Pretty racy for 1934. I am struck by each generation’s assumption that they discovered sex.”
At one time in his career, Derryl was a landsman (going to places where there was land that might well have oil under it and persuading the landowners to sell the mineral rights). One story from that time: “All of the landsmen used me as a personal Google asking me a bewildering range of questions, exceptions granted for hunting and fishing, because I was clueless about them. They would ask me questions as a game of Stump the Chump. One day, one man asked me which was the largest Indian Tribe. When I told him I didn’t know, he looked dumbfounded and then said, ‘Well, make something up.’” (When I got this email, I Googled: Navaho and Cherokee.)
He was a sort of redneck, and he claimed to understand the redneck approach to life. A Derryl original for the category: “Redneck Humor: I don’t know why gays make such a big deal about homophones. I mean occasionally I spell dear deer and bear bare, but most folks don’t get upset.”
He reported one day, “At the Y today, I saw a woman wearing a big backpack on a treadmill set at low speed and a steep angle. Backpacking season is near.”
Finally, his last email, sent when I was on a trip out of Ashland “Your puppy has been watching the front door. He seems depressed and started howling at night. I considered Prozac, but instead put ice cream on his kibbles. This made him happy, but is just a stopgap until you return. I hope you get home before your puppy gets fat.”
IV. End Times
When I met Derryl in 2013, he was taking 15 pills a day. Despite that, he seemed healthy and energetic. The first time we went for a hike, he had to slow down for me. But his health slowly declined. His first serious health issue was his end-stage renal disease. In 2015, shortly after he was diagnosed, we went up to Portland to learn about kidney transplants. I was willing to be a donor, but ineligible because I was over 70 —2 ½ years older than Derryl. I rather blithely assumed he’d get a transplant, but as his other health issues came to the fore, it was clear he would never be transplant-eligible.,
I couldn’t avoid seeing the seriousness of his kidney issues when he started going into the dialysis center for triweekly treatments in 2018. Because he had terrible night vision, I would drive him there, wait and then drive him home. Some of the other patients looked so ill and weak. Over time, I began to realize that he was among them.
His other big health problem was his increasing inability to move his body with full control. By 2017, he used a walker (one for home, one to keep in the car for moving between the car and the dialysis center). By 2018, he couldn’t manage the stairs in our two-story house. He was afraid of falling, and I was afraid for him. So he went upstairs in a kind of hands-and-knees crawl.
I think I resisted recognizing how much his health was declining and how serious it was. He was younger than me --how could he be so much sicker? I though sometimes that it seemed unfair that of all the health problems we both suffered, he got 90% of them. Mine were all short-term and resolvable, such as emergency gall bladder surgery, which didn’t even interfere with my ability to eat junk food.
The weakness of his muscles and balance was a consequence of Parkinson’s. I didn’t even know that until less than a year before he died. I suspect he knew, but he didn’t want to burden me.
Things got really bad in January of this year. He fell four times. He didn’t injure himself much in the falling, but he couldn’t get up, even with help from me. Each time, we called 911 and a team of EMTs came out. They were very professional, and took him to the hospital. There was never a simple answer to what had happened, or a treatment to make it not happen again. The last time, at the end of February, our local hospital had him transferred to a bigger hospital that could provide him with the needed dialysis treatments. He was in there for several days, then moved to a rehab-assisted living facility in Ashland. He never left.
I think I knew as little as I did, both because I didn’t want to know and because he didn’t want to worry me.
Derryl passed away on March 26, 2020. The official cause of death was the flu. The facility went into lockdown shortly after he went there, so there were no visitors, When it was only their corporate policy, they made an exception for me because I came so much and they could see how it improved Derryl’s mood. When he was still going to dialysis, using a special bus for people needing transport for medical needs, I would meet him outside of the rehab facility and wait with him for 20 minutes or so until the transport arrived. But when Oregon imposed restrictions, I couldn’t go there. Phone calls didn’t even work. Derryl didn’t remember to charge his phone, and the staff was, I suspect, overworked and didn’t do it either, so I frequently couldn’t even talk to him.
Then Derryl stopped going to dialysis. In the facility (versus being in a hospital), they have a state-mandated end-of-life exception, so I got to be with him on his last day, and his son flew out and got to be with him too. In an odd way, Derryl’s death created a stronger bond between Sean and me. I'm sure Derryl would have approved.
Why didn’t they ever give Derryl a COVID test? I don’t really know, but I’m glad they didn’t. I suspect if it were COVID, I couldn’t have come into the facility to be with him at the end. And that loss of the last hours together – which so many other families have had to endure – is at least one loss that he and I avoided.
Mary I. Coombs earned a B.A. in 1965, an M.A. in sociology in 1967, an M.A. in library science in 1970, and a J.D. in 1978, all from the University of Michigan. Following graduation from law school, she served as law clerk to Judge Henry J. Friendly of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. She was in private practice until she joined the University of Miami School of Law faculty in 1983. She was a professor at the law school for 31 years, until retiring in 2014