Carolyn Lee was in a bowling league and enjoyed dancing with her husband to music from the 1940s. She had memberships in the Elks and Moose lodges.
She was best known as the co-owner of Toa Yuen, a popular Chinese restaurant in Corvallis. While her name might not have been familiar, Lee was a public figure, her smile making her instantly recognizable to the customers who had eaten at the establishment over the decades.
When she died at 88 from COVID-19, the Corvallis grandmother became a statistic, one of more than 300 Oregonians whose lost lives are measured in charts, graphs and numbers.
Her end came in late March in a hospital bed. Her children consider it a blessing that she did not suffer for weeks on a ventilator, fighting to breathe. Death came so swiftly that Lee’s children never got to say their goodbyes.
“At some point there will be a support group for those of us who lost a parent to the virus,” said Cathy Lee. “I know I’m not the only one who feels like I do.”
Carolyn Lee was one of those people everyone knew for all the right reasons, said her son, Kendall Lee.
For more than 20 years, Lee and her late husband, Tot E. Lee, and three other partners owned and operated Toa Yuen, a popular Chinese restaurant in Corvallis. When the restaurant opened in 1963, it was only the second Chinese restaurant in town. Her husband was the bartender. She was in charge of the staff, and she got to know all the customers who walked through those doors and sat at a table waiting to be fed. The Lees eventually sold their share and the restaurant closed in the mid-1980s.
“The restaurant was their life,” said Kendall Lee. “My parents were always working. They knew everyone.”
Carolyn Lee was born in Portland and graduated from Benson High School.
“My dad was from Portland,” said Cathy Lee. “He was friends with my mom’s sister. My mom didn’t like him. But he asked her out on a date, and they got married and ended up moving to Corvallis.”
One of Carolyn Lee’s three children, a daughter who was a nurse, died in 2006. Lee’s husband died in 1998.
“My sister’s death was hard on my mother,” said Kendall Lee. “No parent expects to outlive a child. My father lived at home until he died. All of us were caregivers, especially my mother. We got to say goodbye to him and to be there when he passed.”
They missed that with their mother.
“I can’t put into words what COVID has done,” said Kendall Lee. “We were a family that said ‘I love you’ each time we saw each other. We kissed every time we said goodbye. Not this time.”
Carolyn Lee fell in her home. Kendall Lee and his wife moved in to care for her. Then Cathy Lee and her son took over.
“She was afraid to be alone,” said Cathy Lee. “When she took another fall, she moved to a care facility in Corvallis and never walked again.”
In late March, Carolyn Lee came down with a cough and fever. She was taken to Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center where tests showed she had COVID-19. The family was notified by phone their mother was “not going to make it.”
“The hospital asked what her wishes were,” said Cathy Lee. “Mom always told us she never wanted life-saving measures. No ventilator. They just gave her as much oxygen as they could.”
She was gone in five hours.
“That last day was so quick,” said Cathy Lee. “A nurse used a hospital phone by my mother’s bed so we could try and talk to my mother. The nurse put the phone up to her ear so we could say something. We heard her making noises, but we will never know if she understood what we were saying.”
Carolyn Lee’s body was taken to a funeral home. Because she died from COVID-19, a viewing was not permitted. Her body was cremated, her children given an urn containing her cremains.
“What COVID did was isolate us,” said Kendall Lee. “With cancer you can be with your people. Not with COVID. That’s the tragedy. People are not meant to be isolated.”
Cathy Lee spends times looking at photographs of her mother.
“I still have my mother’s messages on my phone,” she said. “When I need to, I can still listen to her voice.”
— Tom Hallman Jr; firstname.lastname@example.org; 503-221-8224; @thallmanjr
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