You wonder how Raymond Lee is standing. How he got out of bed that morning. How he is stringing sentences together and remembering dates and places, meals he ate and what people told him.
Lee is carrying within him unimaginable grief.
Last month, in a span of just 13 days, he and his brother, William, lost their sister Regina Lim Lee, 58; their mother, Susie Chin Lee, 82; and their other sister Willa Lee, 60, to the novel coronavirus. Three beloved women gone in less than two weeks.
This while Raymond Lee is mourning the death of his 21-year-old daughter, Tiana, two years ago, to depression.
“I work,” Lee said recently, when asked how he was coping. “I work to keep my mind off the death of my daughter and the death of my mom and sisters,” he said. “I keep my mind busy. If I didn’t … it would be too difficult.
“You work to the point of exhaustion,” he continued, standing in the driveway of his West Seattle home. “I sit down and fall asleep. If you don’t, you start to think. I can’t dwell on it now. There’s too much pain.”
The onslaught of coronavirus has rerouted the normal path of life for some people, and changed the way we grieve. The losses shared by Lee, his wife and brother also show how that grief can come in devastating bursts, leaving vast and sudden holes in the lives of those left behind.
It started when Regina Lee, who worked in the call center for Costco Travel, picked up a cough and fever.
Raymond Lee, a building engineer for Hyatt, didn’t know Regina was sick when, on March 16, his sister Willa, a trainer at a biomedical company, called with stunning news.
“Gina just passed away,” she told him. Regina had been in the bathroom of the Everett home the three women shared when she collapsed. Paramedics arrived and were unable to revive her. (Regina later tested positive for COVID-19, Lee said.)
While the paramedics were tending to her sister, Willa Lee told them about her own 101 degree fever. They told her to go to the doctor.
Willa’s doctor at the Polyclinic in Seattle sent her to the hospital. She went to nearby Swedish Medical Center, where she was admitted to the intensive-care unit. She texted Raymond Lee to tell him where she was and to not go to the house in Everett, that “everything was contaminated.”
“That was the last time I ever talked to her,” he said.
Lee had been in touch with his mother, Susie, but one day she stopped answering her phone. He drove to the Everett house, but she wouldn’t answer the door. He went inside and found his mother in an upstairs closet. She said she was in so much pain, she couldn’t get up.
He took her to Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, where she died on March 27.
Willa Lee died two days later, on March 29, never knowing that her mother was gone.
Through all this, Raymond Lee was never allowed into a hospital room, not permitted to comfort his mother or sisters, or say goodbye. It was that first, shocking phone call, and then more and more, ending with the last call from one of Willa’s nurses, saying she was gone.
The restrictions around the virus made it impossible for Lee and his brother to honor their mother and sisters the way they wanted. None of the women were embalmed; they were placed in body bags, then put in their coffins, with the clothes chosen for their burial laid beside them.
When sister Regina died, Lee and his family were only able to sit in their car inside the gates of Lake View Cemetery and watch the hearse drive by. The funeral director came back with a photo of her coffin, and then the sod under which she was buried.
When it came to burying their mother and other sister, some leniency allowed for a 15-minute gathering in the cemetery for immediate family only.
“What can we do?” Lee asked about Regina’s burial. “There is no choice in the matter. All you can do is watch the hearse go back there. The lockdown was so strict that it was all we had.
“I don’t blame our governor,” he added. “We don’t want anyone else to be in jeopardy or give anyone else the possibility of getting the disease.
“But it was pretty sad.”
They were last all together to celebrate the Chinese New Year, when Lee, who used to work as a cook, made and brought food to the house in Everett.
“Old dishes that they loved,” he remembered. Steamed minced pork. Black beans and spare ribs. Dim sum.
“They were loving and they lived life to their fullest,” he said. The sisters were approaching retirement and had paid their house off in January. There was talk about a trip to China to see their family’s roots.
Lee spoke of how the kids in the family were born one after the other: William, Raymond, Willa and Regina, all about a year apart. Their father, Albert, who died of lung cancer, worked as a server in a restaurant. Their mother was a housekeeper.
“We drove her crazy, the four of us,” Raymond Lee said. “We didn’t have cellphones. We just got on our bikes and rode around Beacon Hill.”
Their grandfather owned a neighborhood grocery, Joe’s Food Center, at 33rd and Union in Seattle, where they would spend time.
In the 1970s, Lee’s mother changed her name to “Susie.” He remembered how she loved the song, “Susie Q.” He smiled at the memory.
Two years ago, after the loss of their daughter, Lee and his wife built a memorial garden in their backyard. He may do something like that for his mother and sisters. His uncle is a Buddhist monk in Malaysia and plans to install a plaque bearing their names.
“A lot of people think this coronavirus is nothing,” he said. “I say, ‘Hey, you need to be careful because this is real. I lost two sisters and my mom in two weeks.'”
He has seen news reports about people who want to go back to work.
“It’s too early!” he said. “This disease is going to kill a lot more people, and we’re not ready for it.”
He has watched President Donald Trump on television and takes what he says “with a grain of salt, because not everyone is an expert.”
As a refrigeration technician, he said, “I take in all the technical information. I look at all the different reports and won’t make a decision until later.”
For now, he is overwhelmed with paperwork related to the women’s deaths.
“It’s very hard to grieve because I’m just busy working on the estate,” he said. “I just put my mind out of the grieving process. I just … can’t.”