Every evening, Lola Knight, 89, of Winter Harbor would pick up the phone to call her younger brother at 6 p.m.
“You could set your watch to it,” Loretta Leighton, her niece by marriage, said.
The calls were intended to reassure Harry Leighton, 80, of Pittston that his sister was all right. Knight lived alone, had diabetes and was in a wheelchair, but she didn’t let those things get in her way. The siblings would talk for half an hour together, reminiscing and laughing.
“She was always happy,” her brother said. “She didn’t let anything bother her.”
But now, those calls are a memory. And there’s just an emptiness at 6 p.m. when the phone doesn’t ring.
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Knight, who died of COVID-19 on Dec. 10, is one of the 334 — and counting — Mainers who succumbed to the virus in 2020 since it claimed its first victim here at the end of March.
At 243 deaths per 1 million population, Maine has the third-lowest death rate from COVID-19 in the nation, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Only Vermont and Hawaii have lower fatality rates.
Still, the statistics don’t tell the stories of the Mainers who lost their lives to the new virus.
The deaths have come from every county, with a 102-year-old World War II Army nurse who was born during the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, among the oldest victims. An Androscoggin County man in his 20s was among the youngest.
Those who died of the virus include a former fire chief, an Allagash ranger, paper mill workers, and a pastor’s wife from Patten. There was the Morrill first selectman, an Anah Temple Shriner, a survivor of Nazi Germany, a sled dog runner, military veterans and others.
Some were born here. Others adopted Maine as their home.
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They were good cooks, musicians and enthusiastic dancers. They were beloved parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, children and siblings. They were as idiosyncratic and special as the state where they lived, and the threads of their lives added color and weft to the fabric that makes up the communities and history of Maine.
Just take Knight, whose family is mourning the loss of the Jonesport native they described as tough, kind and resilient.
“She was a typical Maine woman … as strong as a ‘bag of hammers,’ as she said, and lovingly stubborn,” said her grandson, Shaun Knight, of State College, Pennsylvania.
After her husband died in the 1970s, Knight supported herself and her children with hard work, including a stint canning sardines at Stinson Seafood in Prospect Harbor. She loved watching wrestling on television, traveled as much as she could and had a thick Down East accent.
“We’d bring her to Pennsylvania every November to spend time with me for the month, and all my other half’s family would ask me to interpret for them,” Shaun Knight said.
Lola Knight was also a noteworthy cook, canning mincemeat from venison every fall and frying homemade donuts that were the stuff of mouthwatering legend.
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On Thanksgiving, she took part in a very small gathering. The Saturday after the holiday, during their daily phone call, Harry Leighton said she didn’t sound like herself.
Knight was infected with COVID-19. The next day, she was admitted to the intensive care unit at the hospital in Ellsworth, where she remained until her death on Dec. 10.
“I think when people see someone almost 90, they think they’re on their way out. She was not,” Loretta Leighton said. “She was still planning trips to Pennsylvania. Planning on things to cook for Christmas.”
An unimaginable toll
The virus, which is still surging across Maine and the country, has taken an especially high toll on those living in nursing homes and other congregate care facilities. The Commons at Tall Pines in Belfast became an early epicenter of the disease, with 13 residents losing their lives as COVID-19 surged through it in April.
One of those who died was Leone “Kitty” Harriman, who on April 19 became the 35th Mainer to die from the virus. The 71-year-old Northport resident was recuperating at Tall Pines from an infection she contracted in January.
She was beginning to feel better, according to her daughter, Melissa Harriman Staples. Then she tested positive for COVID-19, and her health quickly deteriorated. The optimistic homemaker who seemed to feed her entire town with the Christmas pickles and zucchini relish she’d make every summer from home-grown vegetables couldn’t beat the virus.
After Harriman’s death, her daughter wanted to honor her memory. A big funeral was out of the question, so Staples created a public space on the internet where people could grieve the losses of Mainers who have died from the disease. The Facebook group she started, “Remembering Maine’s Covid-19 — Every Number Has a Name,” now has 2,800 members, who share stories of those who’ve died from the virus.
“There’s nothing I can do to bring my mom back,” Staples said last week. “So I try to make sure her memory stays alive. That’s my mission.”
Members of the group often share compassion and strength with each other, along with their memories.
“It’s been just amazing,” she said. “It gave me peace in honoring my mom, and has also blossomed into some friendships. We’ve become friends because we share the same experience of loss. It’s people experiencing concern, love and care.”
Sharing stories and memories
One of the connections Staples has made during this hard year is Jolayne DiCentes, the longtime partner of former Allagash Wilderness Waterway ranger Tom Coon, who died at the end of May of complications of COVID-19. Coon, a 63-year-old outdoorsman from Medway, was outspoken and was proud of his nickname, “The Rogue Ranger.”
Over the years, Coon was stationed at various locations along the waterway, including Chamberlain Bridge, Churchill Dam and Eagle Lake, which he loved the most, according to his supervisor. He helped with the winter rescues of ice fishermen who didn’t return when they said they would, and became something of a proficient amateur archaeologist. He always knew where he was going, and only had to glance at the map once before setting off and getting there.
Coon loved to travel, and he and DiCentes had planned to go to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, this summer. But at the end of April, they both got sick. DiCentes watched her active partner, who formerly had no problems loading a canoe onto his truck, get weaker. He died in a Bangor hospital room with family members gathered outside it and with a view of the Penobscot River far below.
That’s when DiCentes saw something that resonated.
“An eagle flew down,” she said. “And I thought, ‘how fitting.’”
This fall, Maine’s COVID-19 casualties have increased by the day as the surge has taken hold. Sometimes it seems as if the human cost to the pandemic has gotten lost amid the escalating numbers, along with the arguments over mask-wearing and government mandates aimed at decreasing the toll of the disease. The new vaccines are a hope and a comfort to many in the state, but the losses will still keep coming until enough of the population is vaccinated.
Staples still wants to help people see the faces, and lives, behind the numbers. She hopes that grieving Mainers will come to the Facebook group and find some peace of their own there.
“This is a sad time of year for me, but just making a connection with people has made my heart so happy,” she said.
If you would like to share the story and photo of a loved one who died in Maine this year of COVID-19, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.