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In Ruskin, a daughter feels the ache of separation

Pandemic has cut family ties, kept her isolated from elderly parents.

About a month ago, Denise Kwiatkowski’s doctor told her to stay home. She was more susceptible to the coronavirus than most, given her history of three autoimmune diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis.

That night, at their two-story home in Ruskin, she and her husband, Ray, discussed what to do.

Someone had to take supplies to her elderly parents, who lived a few blocks apart in Sun City Center. They all needed masks. And her husband still had to work six days a week as a supervisor at a construction landfill.

They also needed to somehow isolate -- from each other.

The pandemic can cut the threads that bind a family. Children can no longer see ailing parents. Spouses have to figure out new ways to co-exist. Some people are truly alone for the first time in their lives.

The realization that things would be different arrived slowly, like a thickening fog.

Kwiatkowski (pronounced quit-cow-ski), 59, began by setting up a table in the garage with hand sanitizer, Clorox wipes and clean socks. She urged her husband to put the socks on before he stripped and headed to the shower when he got home from work.

At dinner, they sat about 5 feet apart, on opposite ends of the table, instead of next to each other.

That first night, she slept upstairs with her cat, Tabitha, in their bedroom. He slept downstairs with the other cat, Princess, on the sectional couch in front of the TV, where he watched and scrolled on his phone through an endless stream of news shows.

The next morning before he left for work, he came into the bedroom and kissed her on the head instead of on the lips.

As her husband headed out, Kwiatkowski told him to stay healthy. They were all depending on him.

***

Ray and Denise Kwiatkowski were neighbors in Apollo Beach before they married 11 years ago. They bonded over books. She’d walked into his place and noticed his collection of Tom Clancy and Clive Cussler. She had a collection of James Patterson, which now filled an entire bookcase -- floor to ceiling.

Back then, Denise Kwiatkowski was a manager at Verizon. They bought their four-bedroom house in Ruskin and combined their books. A few years later, Denise Kwiatkowski developed an autoimmune disease of her thyroid. Other autoimmunities developed in rapid succession. She noticed she got sick with colds and the flu more often. She later struggled with her eyes. “Any little germ will come find you,” she said.

In 2013, after 25 years with Verizon, she retired, on disability. Some days, she worked out on her treadmill at home. Other days, she was flat on her back with pain that she felt in her joints and her bones. A couple times a month, she cooked for her parents or took them out.

Now, they all have new routines.

The day before Easter, Ray Kwiatowski left the landfill and headed to Publix. He had started bringing groceries to his 89-year-old mother-in-law once a week.

On this night, he picked out a salmon dinner and ceasar salad for her and his 92-year-old father-in-law’s beloved Hershey’s bars. He dropped off the care packages and headed home to his wife.

Ray Kwiatkowski said he was being careful. He was following guidelines, using hand sanitizer, cleaning and scrubbing his house. And he was still kissing his wife on the head.

“I’m doing what I’m being advised to do,” he said. “But I’m not going to carry it to an extreme.”

***

On Easter Sunday, Denise Kwiatkowski called her parents. On the phone with her Dad, they talked about the virus.

She couldn’t believe the U.S. had the most cases in the world.

“When is it going to end Dad?” she asked.

When the state and federal government figure things out, he said.

He was sharp, as he’d always been. Her beacon.

She found herself thinking about how many more times she’d get to see him, or even talk to him. It brought tears to her eyes. And when would she get to see her mother?

Denise Kwiatkowski’s parents had met during the Korean War, when her father was stationed in Germany. Her mother, a New York City nightclub singer who had opened for Tony Bennett, came to sing at his base. Her father had spent more than 35 years in the Air Force. Denise was their only child.

The couple retired more than two decades ago to a home on a golf course in Sun City Center. Five years ago, he got foot surgery, which led to rehab and assisted living. He was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Often, he connected to an oxygen tank to breathe.

Every morning, he drove his golf cart a couple blocks from his apartment to see his wife. She still lived in the home they had shared.

On the cart, he took her to doctor’s appointments, yoga, the store. They lived their days together but their nights apart. But now he couldn’t leave his apartment. The coronavirus has separated them indefinitely. Her father worried about her mother, but he rarely complained about things he couldn’t change.

“I love you, Dad,” Kwiatkowski said. “Talk to you tomorrow.”

***

Recently, Kwiatkowski left the house by herself. She wore a paper mask.

Her father had located a mask for her mother, and she wanted to take it to her. Really she just wanted to capture a glimpse of her mother.

Her days had narrowed to trips downstairs to clean and cook and occasionally to watching 911 on TV with her husband — sitting on the love seat on the other side of the room. She’d been staring at the white walls of her bedroom for three weeks.

Kwiatkowski spoke with her mother every day. Some days were harder than others. “I feel so bad I can’t be there for her,” she said. Her mother, mostly blind in one eye, did not want to leave her home. But she forgot a lot, Kwiatkowski said, and struggled with anxiety and depression.

“Quit watching the news,” Kwiatkowski told her. “Put something funny on.”

One day, she spoke with her seven times.

She pulled up to her mom’s house. For both their sakes, she knew she shouldn’t go inside.

She walked up to the lanai, opened the door and dropped the bag with the mask.

She headed back to her car and stood there. She turned around, hoping to see her mom. A minute passed, then she heard the door being unlocked. It opened a sliver, and she saw the top of her mother’s head as she reached down to pick up the bag. Her mother waved quickly and shut the door.

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