Thursday, December 7

‘One last Christmas’: after six decades together Covid claims husband and wife in the same week | Coronavirus

From the moment they met to their final days in hospital together, Jeanette and Michael Ryan’s relationship was a love story. For six decades they were dedicated to each other, and both tested positive for Covid-19 on New Year’s Eve.

They were admitted to hospital in the regional Victorian city of Shepparton 10 days later. Michael was 84 when he died on 15 January. His wife of him followed him exactly a week later, aged 82.

Their four children, Olivia, Joanne, Mike and Damien, say their deaths were “sad, but not tragic” because they can’t imagine how either of them would have endured life without the other.

Mike says his mother, a practicing nurse before she retired, used to rise at 5.30am for a 7am start. “Dad used to get up with her, make her breakfast, and go out every morning and get in the old Galaxy,” he says.

“It was always hard to start when it was cold, so he would turn on the heating and warm it up so she wouldn’t be getting into a freezing car. He’d do that every morning.”

The family don’t know where the couple acquired the virus – they became ill sometime in the busy holiday period when Covid cases spiked across much of the country. They’re just glad they managed to spend one last Christmas together.

The ‘plowing poet’

Jeanette Davis was born in 1939 in the Melbourne suburb of Brunswick. A passionate musician, she won a scholarship to attend the Conservatory of Music, but money was tight so she entered the workforce as a nurse instead.

In 1961, Jeanette met her future husband working in the ICU department at St Vincent’s hospital. Michael was being treated for a broken nose after an ice skating fall.

He wrote later, in a poem he titled Jeanette:

She walked into my life one day In nineteen sixty one. I, the patient in the bed, She the ray of sun.

The uniform was crisp and trim, The nurse’s cap so neat, She moved with grace and confidence On those tiny little feet.

My heart was lost I must admit. It was true love at first sight. I hadn’t thought it possible That this feeling could be right.

When she came towards me I knew she was the one. The first words that she said to me were “Your gown’s on back to front.”

Michael was smitten but Jeanette needed a little more convincing. Their daughter Joanne says in the early days, her dad would finish work on his family’s farm in little town of Dookie at 6pm and drive two and a half hours down to Melbourne to pick Jeanette up from her shift de ella the same evening.

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Jeanette and Michael Ryan’s daughters Dr Joanne Bowmaker and Dr Olivia Mitchell in their parents’ house, with their parents’ wedding day photos from May 1963. Photograph: Ellen Smith/The Guardian

Two years later, they were married and moved to Dookie in 1964, where they would live out the rest of their lives together. Michael’s family had farmed in the sweltering Goulburn Valley town since the 1850s.

Dookie is now home to a small community of creatives, welders and horticulturalists, but, in Michael’s day, life consisted of working on the farm and in his family’s equipment business.

When Jeanette arrived, she progressed up the ranks in nursing, while Michael ran the farm by day and the Hy-Tone cleaning company at night. Times were tough – the couple endured drought, financial hardship and declining sheep and wheat prices.

But Michael was ahead of his time as a farmer. He was the first in the region to work at night, putting lights on his tractors and harvesters. In the late 70s he turned to soil conservation and was a pioneer in salinity control. He was also deeply creative.

His daughter Olivia says they called him the “plowing poet”, as he’d often recite and write poems while driving his tractor – or, as he called it, “spinning ever decreasing circles in the paddock”.

“He’d get an inspiration while he was going around the paddock and just stop the tractor and write stuff down,” Joanne says.

“He said anyone watching him would’ve thought he was insane. People didn’t realize how clever he was – he was essentially self-taught in most things. He taught himself to play piano, he heard an opera piece over the radio one night and fell in love with opera, he subscribed to Time magazine and would read it from cover to cover.”

His son Mike says his dad was the kind of father who would find time to clean and polish his children’s black leather school shoes despite working night and day.

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Michael Ryan built this Thomas the tank engine trailer for his grandchildren
Michael Ryan built this Thomas the tank engine trailer for his grandchildren and used to hitch it to his ute and take them for rides on at the family farm at Dookie, north-east Victoria. Photograph: Ellen Smith/The Guardian

He has vivid memories of his dad spreading newspaper on the floor of the laundry, where he would kneel and scrub the shoes before lining them up in the hallway to be donned in the morning.

“My entire life … I was always aware, even when I was a child, no one else’s father was like him in his dedication to us, and his sacrifice of almost everything else that he would do in his life to look after us,” Mike says.

“I always thought if I did end up being 50% the man he was, then I would have done more than I ever thought I could.”

‘With mum in your corner, you could not lose’

Jeanette was just as devoted to a mother and nurse.

“She compared her success to a duck, swimming in the water – on the surface, it’s all calm and collected and beneath you’re pedaling like crazy,” Mike says.

“Her attitude to life was to never give up, and try as hard as you can.”

Shopping with Jeanette, her children say, was impossible because she couldn’t go into town without running into someone she knew, who would profusely thank her for the care she gave them or their family.

“Mum was fierce and scary,” Joanne says. “But she was also kind and totally fair. With mum in your corner, you knew that you could not lose, she just would not allow that to happen.

“[My parents] had unwavering faith in our abilities. Whenever we told them of our children’s achievements their standard answer was, ‘I knew they would,’ or, ‘Of course they did.’”

Jeanette’s nursing career, which spanned 57 years, eventually led to managerial roles at Goulburn Valley Health and regional Victorian aged care facilities.

She may not have retired, aged 72, if she hadn’t been diagnosed with bowel cancer – which she went on to recover from. She’d probably be on the frontline of Covid, too, if not for her age and her failing health.

“[When Covid hit]she rattled off a whole list of things they had to do – set up people in isolation, put them in full PPE, she knew exactly how to do it,” Joanne says.

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‘There were no regrets’

Their children pushed the couple to protect themselves from the virus before the vaccine arrived, and only go into town for essential shopping.

“They begrudgingly listened to what we said and they agreed with it,” Joanne says.

“But they knew that time was marching on for them. So they waited like we’d ask them to be vaccinated. They waited until they’d had the booster. And then their feelings were … ‘We need to see our family. We are getting older and we are getting friar. And we can’t wait any longer.’”

Mike says Jeanette was adamant the family Christmas went ahead this year, “to the point where she was ringing me every day checking to see if we were coming for two weeks beforehand”.

In the end, about a third of the family came down with the virus. In a seemingly arbitrary roll of the dice, Jeanette and Michael were among them.

Joanne and Olivia Mitchell at their parents' house on their farm
Joanne and Olivia Mitchell at their parents’ house on their farm. Photograph: Ellen Smith/The Guardian

Jeanette lost her life just four days before she was named the City of Greater Shepparton Senior Citizen of the Year.

Joanne accepted the award on behalf of her mother in front of a large crowd, with many of the Ryan family present. There were mixed emotions that day – grief and heartbreak, tangled up with pride.

But despite the family’s loss, Joanne says what happened to her parents was the “kindest thing” if they were going to die of the virus.

“I wouldn’t have wanted either of them to be as heartbroken [as] we are that they’re gone, and to have to cope without that person who’s been there for the past 60 years,” she says.

“People think losing both is harder than losing one, but I don’t think it has been. It would have been so sad to watch one of them mourn the other.”

Joanne would have loved her parents to “go on for ever and ever”, as would all of the family. They were the type of people “you just wanted to go and chat to – tell them what things you’re up to and what the kids were up to”.

“But none of us wanted them to suffer,” she says.

“They kept telling us at the end, how proud they were of all of us, how happy they were with what they’d achieved in their lives.

“They really wanted us to know that there were no regrets – that they couldn’t have wanted for any more than what they had achieved.”

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