Happy Valley couple lost both fathers to COVID-19 the day before Thanksgiving
Karen Lee had just left another moving visit with her sick parents to their Happy Valley long-term care facility when her husband called.
Don Lee, Karen’s stepfather, had died of COVID-19 in a Portland hospital. The father who immigrated in 1969 to Portland from Hong Kong with his wife and six children, including Karen’s future husband Raymond, was gone.
Don died aqessential COVID-19 deaths: Alone.
Still behind the wheel, Karen called her son, Harrison, to let him know when a second call arrived. This time, a nurse said Jim Ledbetter, the father of Karen, the retired car enthusiast minister whose normal sacred duty was to get married or bury, also died from complications from COVID- 19.
“How is it possible? Karen thought blindly. “Both?”
Karen and Raymond Lee each lost their father on November 25, two of the over 1000 Oregonians who have died so far from COVID-19. Their death was a blow to the couple and their extended family.
Faithe Ledbetter, Jim’s wife, also contracted COVID-19 but recovered.
Raymond Lee said neither of the men have been healthy in recent years, so losing them to the coronavirus during the pandemic was not a total shock. People in their The 80s represent the majority of COVID-19-related deaths. Jim was 91; Don was 88 years old.
“But nothing prepares you for that,” Raymond said of their loss the same day.
Within minutes, the family lost two anchors. Jim – the passionate minister who loved the outdoors and long road trips in his campervan, and Don – the man who gave up his career and moved to a new country to give his children a better life.
Harrison Lee said his family and the greater Portland area lost two great men.
“My two grandfathers had long, difficult and successful lives and they were both absolute beasts of men with big families to care for,” Harrison said, “and I will always admire the generosity and joy they brought to me and to those who knew them. “
Don Manchoy Lee was born in 1932 in Taishan, in the province of Guangdong, in the south of China. His father was a doctor and in a different world Don may have followed in his footsteps.
In 1951, he left those dreams behind.
By then, Mao Zedong and the Communist Party had consolidated control of the country. Don and his wife, Judy, uprooted the young family and moved to Hong Kong.
By the time Raymond, the oldest of six, was a teenager, Don had forged a successful career as a supervisor in the sanitation department.
“Deep down, he knew we needed more opportunities for the six kids,” Raymond said.
They landed in Portland on a visa sponsored by Don’s brother Louis, who owned the famous Pagoda restaurant in the Hollywood borough. A neighborhood newspaper commemorated the move with a large family photo.
Don quickly began a decades-long career as a bartender. He worked at the downtown Hilton and took side gigs at private parties to pay the bills. Don liked to be prepared. He was going to a location the day before to get a feel for the lay of the land, to make sure he would arrive on time.
Preparation was a way of life.
“It would drive him crazy if my gas gauge was half full,” laughs Raymond.
This trait may come from living under the Japanese invasion of China and then the rise of the Communists, Raymond speculated. People had to flee at all times.
While at the Hilton, Don had a plan even when he was on vacation.
“This is my son Raymond, take care of him,” he told a young colleague of his then 20-year-old son, who worked at the hotel during his break from pharmacy school. .
“I don’t think he meant to get married. But I took care of him, ”joked Karen Lee, this young hotel employee.
Don eventually spent 20 years working at the bar at the exclusive downtown Arlington Club.
He liked getting to know the city’s elite – the big business guys, the doctors, the politicians. “He dropped the names of people I had never heard of,” Raymond said.
Outside of work, he and Judy attended Trail Blazers games and was active in the Chinese-American community.
Harrison Lee said that he, his brother and sister lovingly called Don the “Chinese Godfather” because he always seemed to set a table at a dim sum even when it was packed and people were passing the table in. the restaurants “apparently to pay homage to him.” . “
An introvert until he warmed up, Don was comfortable running the bar or hosting small gatherings. “He was always laughing and smiling and really enjoyed welcoming the whole family into his home,” Harrison said.
James Tilbert Ledbetter – aka JT, Jim or Led – was born in rural Tennessee in 1929. As a young boy, the family moved to Chowchilla, California, a small town 40 miles north of Fresno.
His father owned several Union 76 gas stations, and Jim’s partial stake in one of them went far enough at the time to pay for his way through Linfield College in McMinnville.
He studied religion and met his wife, Faithe, while studying.
They were a dynamic team, Faithe was a talented musician who would go on to lead the choir and play the organ or piano in various churches for 30 years while Jim led the congregation.
Jim embarked on a career as a Baptist pastor which took him and his family to Washington, Hawaii and California. His ministry was progressive. In the mid-1980s, Karen said, her church in Northern California was a sanctuary for Central American refugees fleeing deportation.
Harrison Lee said all family gatherings revolved around the campsite and his grandfather loved adventure.
When he moved to Southern California, Ledbetter’s grandparents took an annual hike in their RV, well into their 80s.
He retired in 1994 as executive minister of what was then called the American Baptist Church of Oregon.
Retirement didn’t slow Jim down, but health issues finally did 20 years later.
Eventually the family had to take Jim’s keys away – as with many families, this loss of independence was difficult, especially for a man who loved his cars.
Faithe and Jim both suffered from dementia and had been in a memory care facility in Happy Valley for the past few years.
Karen said she would always pick up her parents and they would go to the church they attended in North Portland, where her mother played the piano for years and her father offered prayers. They attended the Rivergate community church three times a week until the pandemic – for women’s Bible study on Tuesday, feeding the homeless on Thursday, and traditional Sunday service.
Even in his father’s dementia, Karen said, he was eloquent and precise when summoned to pray at church.
Long-term care facilities have exceptions that allow in-person visits if a patient, even those with COVID, is at the end of life.
Karen was there with her daughter and a brother, wearing a face shield, mask and gloves in the days leading up to Jim’s death.
They played church hymns and camping songs on a piano and sang together.
Jim was largely unresponsive, until they sang, “I love the mountains, I love the hills. I love fire, I love daffodils.
“Do you want to go camping, daddy?” Karen asked.
Her eyes filled with tears.
In 2005, the whole family and four grandparents took the trip of a lifetime to mainland China.
They brought a copy of the Oregonian’s “Destinations” travel section, the four of them posing while holding it on their trip.
Back home, the couples socialized extensively during the family vacations. On Thanksgiving, the family often had traditional Chinese food, which Jim loved. Afterwards, Karen said they should take Faithe to Huber’s place to get some turkey instead.
Judy Lee died in 2016 from Alzheimer’s disease and Don suffered a horrific fall a few years later and was then transferred to a facility not far from Jim and Faithe’s center.
Wednesdays have been important in recent years. Raymond and Karen would take the Ledbetters just down the road from their Happy Valley home.
Then they walked over to a dim sum joint or buffet, where Don would join them or, later, they would pick it up as well.
These meals were special.
The men shared a few loves: the family. Cars. Buffets.
It’s one way the family tried to compartmentalize the common grief by losing the two in one day – the day before Thanksgiving.
“It must have been a really good buffet in Heaven that they both had to get there at the same time,” Karen said. “That’s why they decided to go together.”