My Mother and Step-Father’s Decades-Long Love Story Ended with a Zoom Funeral

In 2017, Jason Rosenthal's heartbreak went viral when his wife, Amy Krouse Rosenthal, who was battling ovarian cancer, published a dating profile for him just 10 days before she died. Since then, Jason has become a public speaker, sharing how to navigate devastating loss with the world. In April, the dad of three published his memoir, My Wife Said You May Want to Marry Me, an inspiring personal account of life, love, loss and new beginnings. ("Amy gave me this new voice that maybe was in me, but I didn’t know," Jason told PEOPLE at the time.) Now, in an essay for PEOPLE, "Todd & Jo," Jason remembers another person he's lost: his stepdad, Todd Lief, who died of COVID-19 in November at the age of 85. He writes about Todd's ability to "command a room" and his abiding, decades-long love for his mom, Jo Lief, 83, who wasn't able to be with him when he died. 

He loved her so much, he was jumping with glee and happiness. On their honeymoon. On their bed. In fact, he was so blinded by that love that he did not see the ceiling fan.

Theirs was a 63-year love story that ended with her not being able to be with him as he took his last breath — a COVID conclusion.

Todd married my mom Jo after their first marriages failed, but their romance began even before they married other people. You see, when my mom was 19, she and Todd dated. I suppose her getting slightly overserved and losing it in his swanky new car may have played a role in their breakup.

But breakup and first marriages aside, they both knew that it's best not to interfere with matters of the heart. They were destined to be together, and when I was 9 years old, my mom and Todd got married.

Today I am reminded that our family is all too familiar with loss.

When I lost my wife in a rather public way after 26 years of marriage, I began to hear many, many people’s experiences with loss. And my mom has seen it all. She lost her stepdaughter, then her son-in-law, followed by her daughter-in-law and now Todd, the love of her life. Her experience with loss looks more like a horrible pile up on the interstate.

Jo, my mother, has a knack for showing her emotions. The mere tearing open of an envelope that contains a card I wrote her triggers a flood of tears. But through it all, she is vibrant, intelligent, youthful and beautiful. Think Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis circa 1962. Mom is a therapist and still sees patients to this day.

Todd was the kind of guy who could command a room, in both a business setting and a social one. He was quirky. He invented characters. One was called a prxlyth, a sort of land creature housed in a body similar to a capybara, with feet like a baby flamingo and a mouth resembling a crocodile. He memorized and randomly recited a phrase in Russian. He played the piano beautifully and could carry a tune. (Jo and Todd were quite the singing duo. Invite them to your party and their sentiment to you might come out in song.) Want a quick Daffy Duck impression? He was your guy. He was also a trendsetter. When the first Apple computer came out, he quit smoking, saved up the money he used to spend on tobacco and bought one of the first home computers. Todd could write, not just in advertising, where he excelled for much of his career, but casually as well. He was encyclopedically brilliant. Name the subject and Todd could carry on a conversation about it. Science fiction? Check. Russian literature? Check. Model cars? Check. Chess? Check.

My mom lost Todd slowly. He was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia and the last couple of years of his life were spent in a memory care facility. When COVID-19 rampaged through the world, these facilities were the first to be ravaged. Todd’s was spared. Zero cases… that is until about a week before his death. After suffering an infection, he was discharged from the local hospital and brought back to the facility. A few days later, he and his roommate tested positive for the coronavirus. That triggered my mom and all other visitors being banished from the building. No exceptions.

Whether or not Todd’s death certificate lists “COVID-19” as his official cause of death is really irrelevant. This is a pandemic loss. How tragic that these two magnificent people, with six decades of history together, had to say goodbye over a device. A screen. No loving human touch to guide them to whatever happens after this life, or even an intimate whisper that only those two who knew each other so well could understand. How cruel that we could not all be together for the service. Mom had visited Todd after he left the hospital and was placed in isolation, just days before he rapidly declined and passed away. The results of her COVID test didn't come back in time for the day of the funeral. As much as we all needed each other, she couldn’t live with the guilt of potentially exposing her family, no matter how thoroughly we protected ourselves with masks, shields and other personal protective equipment.

Oh, and that historic honeymoon ceiling fan? Todd’s jubilation of the notion that he could now spend the rest of his days with his beloved Jo resulted in a gash to his wrist that resulted in medical attention. How ironic that this love story began and ended with the intervention of the health care system. A beginning filled with love, hope, dreams and passion. A solitary ending, co-void of one another. Void of touch. Void of a family grieving together. Todd dying alone in a cold room, a COVID statistic, while Mom, the love of his life, grieves alone in the house they shared for four decades.

Not the kind of ending they anticipated. But sometimes an unexpected ending to a great love story is what makes it worth telling.

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