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News >  Spokane

‘Wherever you are, that’s where I’ll be’: Cancer survivor dies from coronavirus

Rolland Heiss and Marolyn Heiss, on their wedding day, June 15, 1985. (Rolland Heiss / Courtesy)
Rolland Heiss and Marolyn Heiss, on their wedding day, June 15, 1985. (Rolland Heiss / Courtesy)

On May 27, Rolland Heiss took his wife’s urn into their bedroom. Since Marolyn Heiss has died, this has been how he speaks with her.

He is comforted and surrounded by her belongings – her jewelry-making beads in the basement, her antique furniture purchased from a shop in Montana and her clothes hanging in the walk-in closet.

Not ready to sing, he read the lyrics of the song he composed for her.

“It’s the little things in life that meant the most for me, like the love-light in your eyes that’s so heavenly,” Rolland read. “The sound of your footsteps as you’re coming down the hall, a tender smile that I’m missing most of all.”

He had the feeling she approved. Under his nickname “Ron Heiss,” Rolland has been a songwriter since high school, including penning “Because I Love You.” The ’60s band “The Innocents” bought the rights and rerecorded it. But he can’t make it through his latest song without choking up.

Marolyn died at 72 on May 3, due to a broken hip that escalated into COVID-19 complications. Unlike the majority of coronavirus victims, she died at home surrounded by family.

Rolland describes the life of his wife of 34 years as “unusual, and therefore probably interesting,” which was something he picked up immediately, though it took him much longer to get to know her.

He first encountered her because she was a returning student who enrolled in his drama class at Spokane Community College. There was a possibility the two never would have been enjoined – Rolland heard from a student that Marolyn was considering dropping his class because she didn’t want to improv in front of the class. He pulled her aside and told her getting up in front of the class was her choice, and urged her to stay.

The next class was the first of many times Rolland’s wife-to-be surprised him. Not only did she get up, she was very good and went on to join the drama club. Their friendship blossomed, because Rolland was the adviser, as well as director of the plays.

Marolyn’s natural talent is no wonder – as Rolland would come to realize, and many of her loved ones expressed – she was quick-witted, loved to laugh and was known for her off-the-cuff remarks stemming from her blatant honesty.

Rolland said her laugh “wasn’t a cackle at all, it just came from her whole being somehow.”

After she was no longer a student, Marolyn revealed a part of her story to Rolland, something they were able to bond over. When she was 28, Marolyn was in a serious accident. Though not as serious, Rolland suffered a head injury during his time with the Arizona National Guard.

In Marolyn’s case, she fell out of the bed of a pickup truck, causing a subdural hematoma. A large portion of her left cranium was replaced with a plastic plate. Surgeons did not think she would live, and if she did, she could end up in a vegetative state.

“It was a miracle that she survived that,” said Linda Holmes, Marolyn’s best friend since age 6.

But Marolyn recovered, relearning to talk, walk and retrieve her memories, reconnecting faces with names. This would be enough trauma for any one lifetime, but that was not the case for Marolyn. And over time, she allowed Rolland access to more of her life’s struggles. Marolyn was raised in Libby, Montana, by a mother who had her first child at 16 and a stepfather who treated Marolyn poorly.

But Holmes said this didn’t stop her from being a happy, fun girl with a wonderful sense of humor. Charlene Leckrone, who is a year younger and also grew up in Libby, became friends with Marolyn when she was in seventh grade. Marolyn was popular and cute, but always there to lend a hand to the underdog.

“We could hardly wait to leave town,” Leckrone said. “And I guess it was all the small-town gossip, and I think we both felt like when we left for the city, you were anonymous.”

When Marolyn was 18, she became pregnant with her daughter, Annette Abraham. Abraham’s biological father proposed to Marolyn, but later broke off the engagement. Marolyn was living with her parents, but when Abraham was a baby, she realized this was an unhealthy arrangement, packed Abraham into the car and drove to Seattle. Unsure what to do or where to turn, the two lived in the car while Marolyn searched for employment.

“She always really tried to do the right thing, and she sacrificed a lot for that,” Abraham said. “Obviously, if you’re putting a baby in the car and driving across the state, sleeping in the car. I think about that moment. Obviously I don’t remember it, but think about it.”

When Annette was 2, Marolyn married, and two years later, had her son, Rich Connelly. Three years later, the marriage ended. Leckrone described the ex-husband as a “cute jerk.” Again, Marolyn was a single mother. Abraham has happy memories of those days. Marolyn had two close friends – Holmes was one of them – who were also single mothers, and the kids grew up together, becoming close friends.

“She had two friends, and they were a constant in our lives,” Abraham said. “And those three would laugh – it was almost like you would see in a movie of three friends. And they were like fun moms, like the aunt or fun mom who you could talk to.”

Abraham said her mother was complicated, and she thinks Marolyn had a lot of shame for things she didn’t work through. She was compassionate, but she could be sharp. But they were close, and Abraham said part of this was because Marolyn was always open and honest.

Marolyn married Rolland a few weeks after Abraham graduated from high school. She was happy her mother wasn’t going to be alone, but there was strain because Abraham was a teenager and all transitions can be difficult, she said.

Connelly was younger and connected easily with Rolland. Connelly said he thinks Marolyn was relieved that he had Rolland because he finally had a full-time dad around. Rolland said he found out a lot about Marolyn one day while she was signing a card for Connelly’s birthday.

“I said, ‘What are you doing?’ ” Rolland said. “And she says, ‘Well, I’m making out this card for Richard.’ I said, ‘Yes, but you’re signing it with Richard’s father’s name. Why are you doing that?’ And she said, ‘Well, it’s because it’s for Richard.’ ”

When they were first married, Rolland was still dealing with built-up anger from his previous marriage. In fact, when the two met, romance was the last thing on his mind. When he divorced, his ex-wife moved their children to Tucson, Arizona. One night, he was arguing with Marolyn, and he punched a wall. He knew his anger had nothing to do with her, and she asked him to get help.

He did it, for her. He had a friend who was running an anger control group, and Rolland started attending. He was the only person who wasn’t court-ordered to be there.

“As I sat there and I listened to what some of these guys were saying, I thought to myself, ‘Oh man, I don’t want any part of that. I never want to end up being like that.’ ”

Rolland said Marolyn was an extremely caring person. She had a strong sense of social justice, as well as empathy and compassion for the less fortunate. Rolland said he thinks this was because of her difficult childhood.

“She would sit there and listen to the commercials when they’d have little kids in the Shriners Hospital, and there’d be tears running down her face,” Rolland said. “And the next thing she’d do is write a check.”

When Abraham married, the relationship between mother and daughter became further strained, but that bridge was partially mended when Abraham had her daughter, Madison Abraham. Growing up in Seattle, Madison has fond memories of visiting her grandparents. She remembers playing with Marolyn’s jewelry, and a visit where her grandparents let her eat Wendy’s for dinner three nights in a row.

“I distinctly remember sitting in the kitchen, eating Frosties with my grandpa and my grandma and thinking it was the best day ever,” Madison said. “I wish I could go back to simpler times, just happy with a Wendy’s Frosty.”

Madison attended Gonzaga University, and visited her grandparents constantly. She would bring her laundry, and she always thought it was silly that Marolyn would even fold her underwear, but now he does it, too, to be close to her. They would lie on the bed together watching reruns of “Law and Order” or old Westerns, cracking jokes.

“I know what her skin feels like,” Madison said. “I can just remember holding my grandma’s arms and her hands, and I can still remember what her skin felt like.”

Not long after Madison graduated from college, Marolyn’s health declined. She would call her grandma every week, but then she began writing her cards. Annette found all of Madison’s cards in a box.

“I could just tell she loved me so much, and she just cared so much about me,” Madison said.

The hardest years of Rolland’s and Marolyn’s marriage were the last 4 1/2, Rolland said. Marolyn was diagnosed with Stage 2 lung cancer, and she went through chemotherapy and radiation to beat it. In fact, Marolyn’s last three CT scans showed she was cancer -free, but the radiation had caused a flare in rheumatoid arthritis, causing her immense pain.

“She was a trooper,” Holmes said. “She did not let it get her down. She just did not.”

Rolland became her caretaker, monitoring the pain relief medicine she took. One of her prescriptions was causing memory loss.

“I said, ‘That’s it, no more of that. We’re done with that,’ ” Rolland said. “So she didn’t end up taking that very long.”

Then Marolyn broke her hip. After surgery, she went to St. Luke’s Rehabilitation, as did Rolland, so he would know how to care for her at home. During her rehab, she fell ill. So did Rolland.

“I believe we got it in St. Luke’s,” Rolland said. “And the reason I say that is I talked to another nurse, and she asked me the same question, and I said, ‘Well, I think we picked it up at St. Luke’s.’ She said, ‘Oh, yes, I heard that they were having problems with it over there.’ ”

When Marolyn tested positive for coronavirus, she went to Deaconess Hospital. Three days later, Rolland also tested positive, but his case was mild. For him, that meant for a week he had a fever hovering between 100 and 101 degrees, and he was always tired. Never one to nap during daytime, he constantly fell asleep on the couch for two to three hours and woke feeling fatigued. He lost his sense of taste for five days.

For Marolyn – as with most things in her life – coronavirus was a brutal fight, but for the first time, she lost. Marolyn was in the hospital for a couple of weeks, and then she tested negative, though she would not survive long. Then and there, Rolland said he was taking her home so Marolyn could get her wish, dying at home.

A hospital bed sat in their bedroom, and nurses instructed Rolland on how to provide palliative care for his wife. Nurses also came by the home when Rolland wanted additional assistance.

One of the last days Marolyn was alive, Rolland was grief-stricken and asked the hospice nurse what he was supposed to do if he couldn’t talk with Marolyn anymore.

“The nurse looked at me and she said, ‘Yes, you can. Just keep talking, she’ll hear you,’ ” Rolland said.

The hospice nurse also said if Marolyn had family who would want to see her, now was the time to call them. Both Connelly and Abraham came to see Marolyn.

Connelly said he felt lucky, he could have lost his mom when he was 6. Saying goodbye to her in her home was a blessing.

“All these people not being able to be with their loved ones when they pass right now, it was the greatest thing through all this that happened because so many people are going to have to live their whole lives with that hole in their heart,” Connelly said. “She’s the strongest person I’ve ever known, and she wasn’t going to go down without a fight.”

On May 3, at 3 a.m., the alarm went off that signaled to Rolland it was time to give Marolyn more of her medicine. He used a dropper to put the pain medicine on the inside of her cheek. Before returning to bed, he held her hand and stayed with her, telling her how very much he loved her.

“They sure love each other a lot,” Connelly said. “They never stop doting on each other. They were soul mates for sure.”

When Rolland woke to the 7 a.m. medication alarm, she had passed.

“Her life was worth it,” Rolland said.

Or, as his song puts it, “You’re the only girl, who was meant for only me. Wherever you are, that’s where I’ll be. Wherever you are … save a place for me.”

If you have a loved one who died of the coronavirus, The Spokesman-Review would like to hear your story. Please contact Megan Rowe at meganr@spokesman.com

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