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Duckler: When people die these days, nothing seems real anymore

  • Anthony Pinto died on March 21 and was buried Friday. Courtesy

  • Anthony Pinto died on March 21 and was buried on March 27. His death had nothing to do with the coronavirus, but his last hours with his family and his services were affected. —Courtesy

  • Anthony Pinto died on March 21 and was buried on March 27. His death had nothing to do with the coronavirus, but his last hours with his family and his services were affected. —Courtesy

  • Anthony Pinto —Courtesy

Monitor columnist
Published: 3/28/2020 5:39:28 PM

Tony Pinto never saw it coming.

Never saw that clean shot to the gut, delivered by a well-meaning nurse at Concord Hospital. She told Pinto the hospital was going on lockdown. She told him visiting hours were over, for the foreseeable future and perhaps beyond, at a time when Pinto’s father, Anthony Pinto, old and near death, had already spent three weeks in the hospital.

Pinto didn’t get it at that exact moment, that he and his wife and his mother and the couples’ sons and their kids and their grandkids might never see Nanu again. All the kids in the family called Anthony Nanu, Italian for grandfather. Like I said, he never saw it coming.

“You want to talk about a punch to the stomach, this was an example of that,” said Tony Pinto, whose dad died from emphysema, among other ailments, on March 21. “It was like he passed away right there, at that very moment. We told my mom and we put a positive spin on it.”

Positive spins are hard to come by these days. The coronavirus continues its Twilight-Zone like spread across the globe, bringing with it what we all had hoped was science fiction, even though we knew it had happened before, 100 years ago.

The virus’ effect on people’s lives are everywhere, from the deadly illness itself, to lost income, to canceled sports events, to a shaky stock market, to an uncertain future. And on and on.

Here, another painful subplot, even in a case medically unrelated to the coronavirus. Tony Pinto could not visit Anthony Pinto once the coronavirus hit harder. No one could. Too dangerous. More than a week went by with no visitors.

Near death, Tony, and Tony alone, was allowed to say goodbye to his father. That one-sided conversation lasted 3 ½ hours before Anthony Pinto died at the age of 83.

“We had said that before it gets worse, let’s bring mom up on a Saturday,” Tony said, referring to a time shortly before the lockdown. “Other family members were supposed to see him that morning too. They were devastated. Then he took a turn for the worse.”

Funeral directors said all sorts of inconveniences and emotional pain have already been endured, with more to follow. Mike Bourque, the funeral director at the Wendell J. Butt Funeral Home in Penacook, only hosts about 60 funerals per year. He’s had none since establishments started closing. He’s worried, though.

“This feels like the calm before the snowstorm,” Bourque said.

He mentioned another problem, part of that obscure group of issues that never stop surfacing.

“It’s also affected clergy who help us,” Bourque said. “A lot of the clergy are in a higher age category, so they don’t want to come out. Maybe face-time or a video conference.”

Matt Roan of Petit-Roan Funeral Home in Pembroke said an invisible force field now surrounds grave-sites during burial. “Groups of 10 or less at the cemetery,” Roan said. “And no one at the grave-sites. Show up and witness it from a distance, but you’ll have to come back at a later date to go to the grave.”

Buddy Phaneuf of Phaneuf Funeral Home encourages people to register for an appointment online only. No more walk-ins. He no longer announces funerals ahead of time in the local newspaper. His meetings with family members, during the planning phase of the funeral, is shrinking.

“Just the key decision makers,” Phaneuf said. “Not the grandkids in the office. It’s not the safest environment. We separate the chairs.”

Roxanne Brune of Pittsfield has felt the sting of confusion while grieving. Her husband, Terry Lynn Brune, died from cancer on March 15. He was 71. The tighter measures and lockdowns hadn’t surfaced in full force yet. Since then, however, Roxanne has had trouble securing a death certificate and social security payments.

Terry had requested a private service, something small, so Roxanne sent obits to newspapers all over the area, making sure people knew that her husband was a champion for special education students. He loved motorcycles, antiques, watches and ties.

Roxanne has the urn at her home in Pittsfield. She said she might have opened up a service of some kind to allow others to honor her husband. Perhaps not. In the end, though, she had no choice.

“The possibility of a service was knocked out of the picture right away because of the coronavirus,” Roxanne said. “And given that I have been watching the news, it did not seem like a wise decision in any way to bring people together.”

The Pintos’s pain was palpable. They never got to say goodbye to Anthony Pinto. Except for Tony.

“There was a rush for everyone to get in and see him,” said Marie Pinto, Tony’s wife and the late Anthony’s daughter-in-law. “Not all of them made it.”

Beyond Tony and his brother, no one saw Anthony in the closing weeks. Keeping visiting hours in place had disaster written all over it, with an infectious disease roaming around.

So we’ll leave those final moments for Tony, later, and turn to Anthony, the man.

He was a Boston native, a proud Italian, a Korean veteran, a carpenter who built a construction company in his hometown that still bears his name.

Marie said her father-in-law was energetic, kind, a story-teller. She said they were pretty funny stories, too. He’d bring hard candy to the nurses at the hospital. Anthony and his wife, Joann, moved to Barnstead in the 1980s. They moved in with Marie and Tony a few years ago. Joann still lives there.

Anthony was strong back then. “He was go, go, go,” Marie said. “He hustled around and had challenges breathing, but he would rest and it did not slow him down.”

Then this. Out of nowhere. Four weeks in and out of the hospital. A high fever. Respiratory problems. Then feeling good, after stunts had been inserted. Then not.

Tony said his father did not die from the coronavirus, but his illness led to breathing problems, liver trouble and pneumonia.

When Anthony was placed in the ICU, hope faded. Then, in unpredictable fashion like that of the virus itself, he felt better, looking like a man resting in bed. Nothing more. The two sons watched a movie with their dad, talked.

“I thought he was going to live four different times,” Tony said. “He went from death’s doorstep to watching a western on TV.”

That aforementioned punch to the stomach occurred shortly after that visit, on March 13, a Friday night. Anthony felt pretty good, and plans were in the works to bring Joann and other family members to visit.

That’s when the nurse broke the news. No more visitors after midnight, none, starting that very night. No more visitors for, well, who knows?

“He’s laying there worrying out of his mind,” Tony said, “and we could not see him.”

The nurses pitched in that final week. They set up a face-time chat with Joann. Then Anthony’s condition worsened. He was near death, and that’s when the hospital chose to unhook all those tubes and, due to this world-wide crisis, let only one family member in to minimize the chance of the infection spreading.

Tony went. He said the nurse held his father’s hand until he got there. He said his father was unconscious, but that didn’t stop Tony from telling stories, family stories, funny stories. He was there for 3 ½ hours. He was there when his father died, holding his hand.

It was Tony’s first visit in eight days.

Anthony was not embalmed, meaning the family had limited time to bury him. The director at Riverview Cemetery in Barnstead opened his heart and opened the cemetery for burial, five weeks before the usual date. Anthony was buried Friday afternoon.

He was due to have a flag draped over his coffin, but no honor guard. And no family members bunched together near the site.

Not now. Not yet.

“I was glad I got to talk to him,” Tony said, shortly before the funeral. “I told him we promised to take care of my mother, and that was something he was always worried about, and I told him everyone will miss him.

“I’m sure he could hear me.”

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