She never knew what time it was.
So everyone laughed when, at her 85th birthday party on Feb. 28, Delores “Dee” Tofte opened a box from her beloved husband, Merle, 86, and found a new wristwatch.
Three weeks later, time would run out for both of them — more quickly than they or their children could have ever imagined.
The Toftes — married 52 years — would be the second and third people in Clark County to be diagnosed with COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus.
Just three days after that diagnosis, on March 16, they would both die in the same hospital, two floors apart and within hours of each other at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center in Vancouver.
Not only did the Toftes’ deaths mark the end of their love story, it showed how quickly the virus can upend lives deeply planted, tended and celebrated.
“Four days,” said Lori Kohler, one of the Toftes’ five children. “Inside those four days, we had so many surreal things happen. It was like rolling us over with a steamroller.
“Every day was bad news. Everything was changing. We had so much taken away from us.”
The Toftes lived in Vancouver for more than five decades after meeting in a Portland music club called The Grove, where Merle used to play the guitar and sing. Merle owned a print shop called Herren Printing (his children run it now), and Dee was a homemaker, known for her ceramics and for pulling together celebrations for their family, which included six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
The Toftes loved to sing together, and performed at local lodges and on cruises as “Dee and Mee,” with Dee on keyboards and Merle on his guitar. Three years ago, they booked a job on an Alaskan cruise. The whole family joined them.
Last fall, the couple moved to the Van Mall senior living community in Vancouver. Within a few weeks, though, Dee fell and broke her hip. After a hospital stay and rehabilitation, “she needed far more care than [Merle] and Van Mall could provide,” Lori said.
So Dee moved to an adult-care home nearby. Merle drove himself back and forth every day, until the family arranged for him to stay overnight with his wife, and then return to Van Mall in the morning.
“He said it was like going to work in the morning and then coming home at night,” Lori said.
On Feb. 28, the family gathered for Dee’s birthday. Despite having Parkinson’s disease, she was steady and happy, smiling at the balloon bouquet and chocolate cake. Merle, who had respiratory issues and usually used a walker, was breathing well and managed just fine with a cane.
He sat beside Dee as she read cards and opened presents, including the watch from her husband, and a pair of matching pajamas their children had bought for the two of them.
“The day was perfect,” said Lori.
On March 7, Dee woke up too weak to stand and unable to speak. She was taken to PeaceHealth by ambulance and tested for pneumonia and COVID-19. The results came back negative for pneumonia, but positive for the sometimes-deadly virus.
Four days later, on March 11, Merle, too, was admitted to PeaceHealth “with all the symptoms of COVID-19,” his daughter said. “Horrible cough, fever and body aches.”
Their other daughter, Michelle, followed the ambulance to PeaceHealth to be with her father. He was tested for COVID-19, and two days later, on March 13, his result came back positive.
He told Michelle and Lori he felt fine. He wanted Michelle to bring him his tax papers and a razor.
Within hours, he could barely speak and was put on a ventilator. Michelle went into a 14-day quarantine.
Marissa Armstrong of Clark County Public Health could not say where Merle or Dee Tofte may have contracted the virus. The first confirmed case in the county was a man in his 70s, but it is unknown whether he had been in contact with the couple.
“If someone has no known contact with a confirmed case, we’re not going to be able to pinpoint exactly where someone contracted this illness,” Armstrong said.
In the weeks since the Toftes were diagnosed as the second and third cases of COVID-19, the number of confirmed cases in Clark County has surged to 137.
The Tofte children pored over Merle’s bank statements to see where he had been, but he hadn’t even stopped for gas. Just to see his wife, then back home. And no one at her adult-care home was sick.
“Maybe he came back and forth with someone, or said hello to someone in passing,” Lori said, “Maybe he grabbed a doorknob someone had coughed on …”
Her voice trailed off, then came back stronger: “I see young people walking around all the time and breaking all the rules. COVID-19 does kill people and it may not kill you, but if somebody got sick and took it home to their mother or grandfather, well, that’s where the real damage is. And that’s what young people need to know.
“This one, COVID-19, is like the silent monster. It sneaks up from anywhere.”
Three days after the Toftes were diagnosed, the hospital notified the family that Merle and Dee were close to death.
To prevent exposure, PeaceHealth arranged for the family to FaceTime with their parents to say goodbye. It wasn’t an easy thing to pull together; Merle was on the fifth floor ICU, on a ventilator, and Dee was on the third floor.
From three locations, the Toftes’ five children and four of their six grandchildren dialed in.
“How do you say goodbye?” Lori asked. “Are there words for saying goodbye to your parents? The last time we were all together, we were all together at that birthday party, and now we were saying goodbye.”
Each of the children said, in their own way, that they had the greatest parents in the world. They promised to work hard and make sure the print shop would keep running.
Through tears, Michelle’s children sang a song that Merle and Dee used to sing to each other often: “A Bushel and a Peck.”
The nurses told the family that Merle and Dee were comfortable, and sedated, and able to hear everything.
“We said our goodbyes and gave them all the love we could,” Lori said. “It’s hard to come up with words for stuff like this, because there isn’t a word.
“We couldn’t be with them, we couldn’t hold their hands or stroke their faces or be close to them.”
The plan was to bury them on March 25, when Michelle was out of quarantine. With gatherings limited to 10 people, the family got permission from Clark County Public Health for 12 people, as long as they followed social distancing.
On March 20 — five days before the planned burial — Gov. Jay Inslee banned funeral homes from having any kind of service. So the Tofte siblings had their parents buried without a service on March 25, and gathered as a family via FaceTime to share a moment of silence and say prayers, and then spent an hour or so telling stories.
Merle and Dee Tofte were buried side by side, in their matching pajamas. Dee wore the watch Merle had given her.