Number of deaths linked to COVID-19 in Toronto tops 3,000, leaving families 'shattered'

·6 min read
Gary Clarke, right, with his father Vincent Clarke and mother Esme Clarke at their long-term care home in Scarborough. (Submitted by Gary Clarke - image credit)
Gary Clarke, right, with his father Vincent Clarke and mother Esme Clarke at their long-term care home in Scarborough. (Submitted by Gary Clarke - image credit)

First it was Gary Clarke's mother Esme who struggled to breathe from COVID-19. He visited her through the window of a Scarborough long-term care home, yearning to hold and comfort her but never getting the chance before she died on April 15, 2020.

Clarke's father Vincent shared a room with Esme, his wife of 48 years, and tested positive for COVID-19 the day before she died. Heartbroken that the love of his life was gone, Vincent also died of complications from the virus, Clarke said.

In 13 days, Clarke had suddenly lost both of his parents. A year later, he struggles to describe the pain.

"It's been very… I can't even put it into words. I've been through every kind of emotion you can think of — sadness, anger, just sort of in a daze," Clarke told CBC News.

"It's so empty and heavy. This is a rare tragedy of immense proportions that we cannot get over."

Esme and Vincent Clarke were married for 48 years before they both died of COVID-19 in their Scarborough long-term care home in April 2020, 13 days apart.
Esme and Vincent Clarke were married for 48 years before they both died of COVID-19 in their Scarborough long-term care home in April 2020, 13 days apart. (Gary Clarke)

Esme and Vincent were among the first 1,000 COVID-19-related deaths in Toronto. A year later, the city saw that death toll triple.

On Sunday, the number of deaths linked to COVID-19 in the city reached 3,011, almost enough people to fill Toronto's Meridian Hall (formerly the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts).

The city has lost a beloved baker, Holocaust survivor, Muslim community advocate, health-care workers who contracted the virus while caring for others and those who came from other countries to build better lives.

"I ask everyone to ask themselves if we should mark this loss of life in some way more than a milestone. And that is why I ask all of us to reflect on this terrible loss of life and what we can do in the days and weeks ahead," said Eileen de Villa, Toronto's medical officer of health at a press conference Wednesday, acknowledging the city was soon going to mark its 3,000th death.

For Clarke, this number represents not only the human cost of the pandemic but also thousands of people across the city who, like him, are in mourning. He and his family are still waiting to say a final farewell to Esme and Vincent as COVID-19 restrictions make large funerals, memorials and trips to visit family abroad impossible.

Those who lost loved ones in the first wave last year are thinking about the families going through the same horror now.

"These are families that are shattered. These are families that will never see their loved ones again," Clarke said. "We didn't have any proper chance to say goodbye to them, no proper chance to grieve."

WATCH | Gary Clarke remembers his parents' life before they both died of COVID-19:

Esme was known for her incomparable zest for life and infectious laugh, Vincent for his sharp mind and wit and, beneath a serious exterior, a warm personality, Clarke said. Deeply in love, the two immigrated to Toronto from Jamaica in the 1960s and raised four children, building a life from hard work and decency.

Clarke said he thinks of his parents, and every person who has died of COVID-19, as heroes, underlining the need over and over again for widespread change.

"My parents' deaths are not in vain," Clarke said. "They died for the cause and the cause is to raise the issues and the cautions about what's going on in nursing homes and the emphasis on the need for vaccines."

Esme and Vincent Clarke on their wedding day. They moved to Toronto from Jamaica in the 1960s.
Esme and Vincent Clarke on their wedding day. They moved to Toronto from Jamaica in the 1960s.(Submitted by Gary Clarke)

Clarke and his wife Jane, whom he says has been his rock this past year, honour his parents by doing everything in their power to keep themselves and everyone around them safe — wearing masks, washing hands and physical distancing.

"My mom would say, 'Keep doing good,' to help others stay safe during these difficult times through my words and actions," Clarke said.

Before dawn one morning this week, Clarke and Jane lined up at a pop-up vaccine clinic near their North York home. They both had tears in their eyes, remembering Esme and Vincent, as they got their first dose.

3rd wave triggers painful memories

Amy Swartz remembers her grandmother Sally Strauss as a strong, stoic woman who survived the measles and scarlet fever, but not COVID-19. Strauss died in her long-term care home at 103 years old on April 16, 2020, the day after Esme died.

"I miss her deeply. She was such an amazing person," said Swartz. "It's fundamentally changed our lives. I can only imagine how it is for everyone else who has lost loved ones."

Sally Strauss died of COVID-19 at the age of 103.
Sally Strauss died of COVID-19 at the age of 103.(Amy Swartz)

Strauss was born in 1917 and grew up on a small farm in Newmarket where she drank fresh milk and was chased by turkeys, said Swartz.

She and her family moved to Toronto when her father died, and worked as a seamstress from the age of 12. She had one daughter, Swartz's mother, who died in 2000. Strauss became a mother figure to Swartz and her three siblings, and their children, too.

"Her love, support, nourishment and strength of spirit and character is an enduring legacy she leaves behind," Strauss's obituary said.

Ontario's third wave has proven triggering for Swartz, who said it's like reliving the horror of when Strauss tested positive for COVID-19 and her health rapidly deteriorated a year ago.

Swartz wants Toronto residents to know the novel coronavirus is "brutal, nasty, even cruel."

"Take it seriously," Swartz said.

"Do everything the government says to protect your loved ones, to protect each other."

Remembering 'the wonderful life'

Arthur Parks dreams about his mother Gustavine, or Guusje for short, almost every night, ever since she died of COVID-19 at a Toronto nursing home last April.

The loss of the family's 98-year-old matriarch felt very sudden, said Parks, who continues to wait for the day he can fill the pews of Guusje's Rosedale United Church with all her family, friends and supporters for a final sendoff.

Parks said he wants the lives of older people to be cherished and celebrated instead of dismissed and ignored.

People "don't realize the wonderful stories, the wonderful life that person might have had," he said.

Guusje grew up in Holland and volunteered for the Red Cross driving trucks during the Second World War until it was liberated May 15,1945 by the Allied Forces. Soon after, Guusje married a Canadian army officer, Arthur Hamilton Parks II, and moved to Toronto where she devoted her life to volunteering and the church.

Guusje Parks in her long-term care home, the Isabelle and Arthur Meighen Manor, in February 2020, two months before she died of COVID-19.
Guusje Parks in her long-term care home, the Isabelle and Arthur Meighen Manor, in February 2020, two months before she died of COVID-19.(Arthur Parks)

An outgoing and humble mother, Guusje downhill skied until she was 79 and golfed until she was 93.

In some ways, Guusje was fortunate to go at the beginning of the pandemic, not having to endure a year of her home being in lockdown, with no visitors, hugs and kisses with family members, or time outside, Parks said.

"They've got to figure out a way that these people can live a life rather than just enduring," Parks said of Ontario's long-term care homes. "Basically they're like people in jail."