Weeks after she and her husband recovered from the coronavirus, Ann Robinson still struggles to recall certain words. First it was quarantine. Sometimes it’s conspiracy or tenacious or remedies.
She needs those words. She needed them when she was sick — how could she forget quarantine? — and she needs them now that she’s become a living testament in a doubting moment. She’s embraced that role: She spends a lot of her time on the computer, crunching the daily coronavirus numbers into a spreadsheet and posting it to Facebook. She pushes back on her friends, people she’s known for years, when they call the virus a hoax. When one friend declared that she didn’t know anyone who’d been sick, Ann replied, “You know us.”
She wants people to know about her and Marvin, her husband of nearly 55 years. She wants people to know that first he and then she had the virus. She wants them to know it’s real. She wants them to take the same precautions she and Marvin did, that they’re still taking. She wants them to have compassion for one another.
“We’ll do everything we can — and it’s not that hard to do these things — but we’ll do everything we can to avoid making someone else sick and making someone else go through this,” she says from her dining room table. Before the couple built an addition to their Vista West home, this was the living room. Now the table is surrounded by antiques collected in cabinets: blue china, little model cars, an empty bottle of Chief Washakie soda, a bowling trophy she won in 1972, photos of relatives that have that an off-color maroon tinge that identifies them as memories.
Even if they hadn’t been infected and survived — a couple in their 70s beating a disease that’s killed tens of thousands of their generation — the two have remarkable stories. Marvin used to catch falling spy satellites as part of a program called, of all things, Corona. Ann served in the Legislature and worked to reunite families separated by adoption; one of her cases ended up on “48 Hours,” and she was interviewed right down there, in their living room that’s filled with more cabinets, more evidence of a long and memory-filled life.
But their pasts aren’t what the moment needs. This moment, of doubt and distrust and denial, needs Ann and Marvin’s presence as a poster child.
“It is real, and they can put my face on it,” Ann says. “A lot of people around town know me, and they can put my face on it.”
They first heard about the coronavirus when it exploded into the news in early March. Ann and Marv lived pretty active lifestyles, really since the day they eloped to Paris (“Paris, Idaho,” Ann says, with a smile that shows this is a frequent punchline). That little detour ended with Ann’s father, former legislator Alfred Graham, calling the sheriff in Paris to get the wedding annulled. The sheriff was unmoved — he had been one of their witnesses.
Before the world began to upend five months ago, their days were packed. Sunday was bingo. Monday night they bowled. Tuesday, Ann bowled again and went to fiddle jam. They went to dinner Wednesdays, played bingo again Thursdays, and kept their weekends “up for grabs,” Ann says. Marvin still works fixing helicopters and planes, and wears a blue work shirt with his name sewed in it.
Like much of daily life in Wyoming, all of that ended virtually overnight in March. The couple immediately began following the precautions. They limited their trips out, they wore masks, they washed their hands. They joined the morale-boosters: They drove through town as part of the those little parades, riding in Marv’s ‘57 Ford Ranchero. They howled each night.
Then Marv’s coworker returned from a trip to Houston and tested positive for the virus in mid-June. Marv was told to quarantine for two weeks. He wasn’t one to get sick, he says, so he was excited for two weeks’ off. Then he started to feel off — he was short of breath and had a slight headache. He had trouble walking very far without taking a break. His test came back positive on June 22.
He tried to stay away from Ann. They normally sit next to each other at their small kitchen table, but he moved to the other side. They stopped sleeping in the same bed. They were even told to stop hugging Lady, the milky-eyed Japanese Chin they inherited from Marv’s mom.
The attempted separation was pointless. Within a few days, Ann started feeling sick, too. Her first test came back negative but her second one confirmed what she’d already known. Dr. Andy Dunn, who runs Wyoming Medical Center’s respiratory clinic and has been heavily involved in the patient side of the pandemic, called the couple and told them they needed to go to the hospital. The elderly are particularly at risk, and Ann hits a number of high-risk factors. She ticks them off on her fingers: high-blood pressure, obesity, diabetes.
But still, the couple said no. Marvin had only spent one night in the hospital, and that was the day he was born. It was denial: People who went into the hospital didn’t come out. As long as they weren’t in the hospital, they couldn’t be that sick.
They checked their oxygen every hour, and if it fell too far, they had to rush to the emergency room. It never dipped below acceptable levels, but Ann’s throat was so sore she could hardly swallow. Both of them briefly lost their sense of smell.
“My smell went away for a couple of days,” Marv says. “I couldn’t smell horseradish.”
“I couldn’t smell Lady's breath so I knew there was something wrong there,” Ann says.
“That’s really bad if you can’t smell Lady's breath,” Marv agreed.
Ann was nauseated, and her fever peaked at 103.3. Marv had to take even more breaks walking across their backyard to his shop. Food lost its appeal. Ann had to take a nap every time she forced something down. Sometimes she made it to her recliner, sometimes she didn’t make it out of her seat. She lost 10 pounds (“I’ve found most of it already,” she says).
Family brought them food and left it hanging on their door or in the driveway. But they were isolated, to a degree they’d never been before.
They would sit at the table and stare at each other, and they’d wonder.
“Is this ever going to end?” Ann asks.
They didn’t really think about much else, no deeper questions. Their relationship, still going strong after all of these years, didn’t change. They just were spending more time together. They watched “Gunsmoke” sometimes, or “Days of our Lives.” Marv’s really into soap operas now, and since he’s back at work, Ann gives him a daily report on what he missed.
They started to turn the corner after June turned into July. They’d had their quarantine extended beyond the 14-day minimum, and they lobbied to have it lowered because they were doing better. They were finally freed on July 14.
“We didn’t start a car for 21 days,” Marv says, “because the orders from the state said, ‘You will not leave your property line.’”
Marv’s still getting his breath back. Ann’s still struggling to come up with some words. They realize they were lucky — all of those risk factors, and they made it through. A close friend, younger than both of them, didn’t. She died in Texas last month after weeks on a ventilator. She was younger than both of them. On Wednesday, the couple drove to Nebraska to say goodbye.
Ann has taken to Facebook to push back on those — she pauses, what’s the word — those conspiracies. She posts the daily numbers by county to her page. She tells friends turned doubters that she’s going to remove them from her account because otherwise, they won’t be friends in real life.
“I keep still seeing posts – ‘Oh it’s just a hoax, it’s gonna go away on election day,’” Ann says, frustration creeping in to her voice. “And it’s like, ‘No, it’s not, and it’s not a hoax, I can tell you first-hand. If you just think about what you’re saying, if this was all a ploy to hurt Donald Trump, how did they get 180 or however many other countries to go along with it?”
It’s not like they enjoy the precautions. They loved their active lifestyle. Ann is claustrophobic, and when she first put a mask on, she thought she was going to suffocate. She practiced at home until she was comfortable with it.
After they got better, they picked up food from a drive-thru restaurant. The woman at the window said she wasn’t worried about the virus; she was young, she said, so even if she got sick, she’d survive. Ann bristled.
“Either you die from it and it’s serious for those people, or you get over it, you recover — you survive is the better word — so it wasn’t that bad because you survived,” Ann says. “There was that poor guy from Lander, did you see the story about him? He was in the hospital for like 100 days, and he got out. He’s not well. And he’s probably gonna have problems forever. So surviving doesn’t mean that it’s no big deal. ‘Surviving’ means you didn’t die, but it doesn’t mean you’re not going to have problems for the rest of your life from it.”
Her advice to the public is the same advice that the daughter of her friend, the one who died, passed along. Pray for the sick and those who will get sick. Wear masks. Wash your hands. Stop acting like it’s not real.
More than two months after they were diagnosed, many things have returned to normal — at least by 2020 standards — for the Robinsons. Marvin is back at work repairing airplanes and helicopters, and he only gets slightly winded when he’s tending to the garden or hauling away parts of that ‘57 Ford Ranchero. The couple is back to playing bingo. Marvin still sits in the seat on the opposite side of the kitchen table, but only because he’s found it’s closer to the air conditioning vent.
There’s no longer a pressing need to figure out what to do with their home full of antiques, with that blue china, the cabinet Ann’s grandparents bought with coupons from laundry detergent boxes, the old slot machine in the living room, the chamber pot Ann had as a girl so she didn’t have to cross the backyard to the outhouse in the winter. The family bible, which dates back to the 1800s and has an inside cover penciled with family births and deaths, will remain in that cabinet until it’s passed down to their oldest granddaughter.
Ann drives to the senior center every day to pick up their lunch — unless it’s fish, Marvin doesn’t care for the fish — and heats it up as Marvin makes the short drive home at 11:45 a.m. He’ll eat, feed Lady from his plate, and they’ll talk until he leaves again, brushing Ann’s shoulder or calling goodbye to his Ann Marie on the way out.
They have recovered, and they know they have antibodies. But they act as if they never had the virus — they don’t want to be responsible for anybody else getting it, and they want to set an example. So they still wear their masks, they still socially distance, they only go to bingo because the staff takes this seriously.
And every night, they walk out of the home they built more than four decades ago. They pass an old Shell gas pump and push through a door that warns away solicitors, except for kids trying to raise money.
They stand in their driveway, their backs to the yellow house and to a rock that wishes upon all visitors that their weeds be wildflowers. They stand there, with each other and with their neighbors, and they howl to the sky.