Anna Rosko moved around a lot growing up. Her mom, Jan Rosko, was in the Air Force and so every few years when her mother was stationed somewhere new, Anna had to start over — new school, new friends.
But no matter what, she knew she had a place she could always call home: in Iowa with her grandparents, Norris and Jane Gronert.
“We were just moving around my entire childhood, so for my entire life, really, my grandparents and their house were what I considered home. They had created that space for us. They and their house were really the only consistent thing in my life other than my immediate family,” she said. “They were my home base.”
Now, she and her family are trying to process a future without that home base. Both Norris, 90, and Jane, 89, contracted the novel coronavirus during an outbreak at Keystone Cedars Assisted Living Center in Cedar Rapids, where they lived. The couple died just two hours apart on Nov. 11.
As the pandemic’s death toll has risen, their story is part of a somber trend of families losing multiple members within just a short time. Theirs is one of three such families The Gazette is profiling this week.
“I felt robbed. I felt robbed of seeing them in April, I felt robbed from seeing them this summer, I felt robbed from being there with them in the hospital, I felt robbed of having a funeral,” daughter Jan Rosko said. “In one hand I hold my sorrow and I hold my grief and I hold my anger. And in my other hand I am so grateful neither of them have to try to live without the other, and I’m grateful I only have to grieve my parents once.”
She lives in Monument, Colo., and had planned a visit last spring for her father’s birthday in April. But with visitor restrictions at the assisted living center due to the pandemic, the family held a car parade and waved at him on his balcony.
Missing months of seeing his grandparents in person makes losing them even more difficult, said grandson Adam Skibbe, of Coralville.
He wishes he had done more virtual visits, though they were hard for his grandmother, who had memory loss.
“I regret not reaching out more — if you have family members in these facilities, make sure you’re taking advantage of the time you have and don’t leave anything on the table,” he said.
Though vaccines are arriving and nursing home residents and staff will start being vaccinated in the coming weeks, it still will be some time before they have immunity. The vaccines require two doses, weeks apart. And it will be longer still before others in the community are vaccinated. Skibbe said people need to keep them in mind when deciding what risks to take.
“There will be a national reckoning, asking, ‘How did we let this happen?’” he said. “Maybe you’re young and healthy and don’t get sick, but you spread it. Somehow it still got there (to the assisted living facility), and they were stuck inside for months. Don’t think about yourself but about the ones who are at the highest risk.”
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CEDAR RAPIDS - A Christmas wreath and an evergreen arrangement adorn the gravesite of Judith and Gary Stevens at St. Joseph's Cemetery just southwest of Cedar Rapids. Judith, who went by Judy, had ordered the holiday decorations but never got to put them up.Continue Reading
Because of the pandemic, the family did not hold a funeral and relatives won’t gather as usual for Christmas.
“I don’t think we’re following any kind of standard grieving procedures here. There was no formal closure with a funeral,” Skibbe said. “I catch myself thinking about seeing them again, and it’s hard; that’s not going to happen. It’s rough.”
Importance of Family
Norris Gronert, often called Norry, was born April 4, 1930, in Creston to Frank and Jessica Gronert. The family later moved to Tipton. Jane was born May 4, 1931, in Bennett to Elmer “Butch” and Verna McQuillen.
They were high school sweethearts who met in eighth grade, and they married in 1951 while Norris in the U.S. Navy.
They lived in the tiny town of Midway, north of Cedar Rapids, for more than 60 years, where they raised four daughters: Joyce Skibbe of Tiffin, Joan Gronert of Coralville, Jill Hurt of Marion and Jan Rosko of Colorado. They had six grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
Norris worked at Collins Radio for 37 years, and Jane was a homemaker and teacher’s aide in the Alburnett Community Schools. She also taught Sunday school at Toddville Free Methodist Church, where Norris served on the board. He was an active member of the American Legion of Toddville and the Otter Creek Lions Club, where he helped with pancake breakfasts, fish fries and soup suppers.
“We would all try to pick the same time to meet at one of these events as a family and roll in at least 15 deep to sit as a family and eat with Grandpa as he took a break,” grandson Derek Hurt, of Marion, wrote in an email. “Grandma would always bake desserts as either a part of the meal or as part of the bake sale that coincided.”
He said they also maintained a park down the street from their house, doing groundskeeping and securing playground equipment.
“They were truly loving people who were always willing to help people out,” he said.
Anna Rosko recalled going with them to deliver Meals on Wheels when she was visiting.
“I will always treasure those moments,” she said. “They knew or came to know everyone they delivered meals to. They told me a little bit about the person and their background and story.”
Skibbe recalled Christmases with the whole extended family gathered in the small Midway house, packed around the table for games — cards, Yahtzee, Trivial Pursuit.
“I think they just really enjoyed being around family. ... They were both just very happy to be among everyone,” he said. “My father, who married into it, he was their son. My wife got a big hug the first time she came home with me. It didn’t matter if you were there for the first time or the 50th time, you were their family.”
They Went Together
When Jane’s health started to deteriorate a couple of years ago, the couple sold their house and moved to Keystone Assisted Living Center.
“My personal belief was that Mom was ready to go and that was OK, and in some ways it would be a relief for her,” Jan Rosko said. “But Dad would have had good years left to his life. Dad was strong and healthy, and we all thought, even if Mom goes, Dad would be here.”
In fact, it was Norris who went first. Jane had tested positive and gotten seriously ill before he did, but once he contracted the virus things moved quickly.
“On Wednesday he was joking about new glasses making him look like Buddy Holly,” Skibbe said. “On Thursday he took a turn and started getting sick and was basically in a state where he wasn’t in for a long fight. The love of his life was on her way out.”
Norris died early the following Tuesday, and Jane followed two hours and 17 minutes later.
“It’s sweet in a way, and it’s sad in another way,” Skibbe said. “I’m not a religious man but it seems almost perfect that it happened that way.”
Rosko is religious and envisions her parents’ souls living on together, along with Jane’s twin sister who died when they were children. It gives her hope.
“I just picture my mom arriving in Heaven, and because my dad went first, he was there to greet her,” she said. “And I just have this picture in my mind of Jesus walking with this little girl, her twin. And that girl looks up and sees my mom and says, ‘Janie,’ and runs to her. It’s just an amazing reunion.”
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