The Stuart and Adrian Baker Memorial Fund will help subsidize an annual grant awarded to an incoming college student from Queensbridge, N.Y., and also be used to help find a cure for COVID-19.
The Bakers’ unshakeable, unbreakable bond began the same way as so many love stories, with a boy who met a girl at a party and soon after pledged to love her, unconditionally, for the rest of his life. Stuart Baker never broke his promise. Not after he bumped into his soulmate, Adrian, more than half a century ago at a sorority in Queens. Not when they started dating. Nor when they married. Nor when they spent the next 51 anniversaries celebrating the life they’d always wanted, which was exactly the life they’d built.
Their world centered on their two children, Sheri and her brother, Buddy. Sheri would become a lead operations associate at a bank. The boy would grow up to become a successful and respected NFL and NBA agent with clients ranging from retired wideout Doug Baldwin to Colts tight end Jack Doyle to the Griffin twins, Seahawks teammates so close they wrote a book titled Inseparable, their lives so intertwined they often can seem like a single person. Just like Buddy’s parents.
Buddy says that title only begins to describe the Bakers. His mother learned to enjoy golf so that she could spend time watching the game with his father, and later in life, they sat there on the couch, day after day, their knees touching as if glued in place. It’s not that they spent every chance they could in the same place; it’s that they never spent more than 10 minutes or so at home not in the same room.
Stuart had always been an extrovert, a leader, a man who served his country as an Army medic in Vietnam, came home and became a physical education teacher and a coach—and not in the suburbs but in the Queensbridge projects, where the lessons he imparted saved countless lives. Adrian was a gentle soul, the family backbone, a woman with so much empathy she quit her job as a nurse because she couldn’t stomach what happened to her patients. She worked as a clerk at the IRS instead.
Both of the Bakers went to Queens College. Stuart became the first person in his family to obtain a degree beyond high school. He got his master’s and moved his family to Long Island, 50 miles from New York City, because he wanted his kids to have a yard, space, trees—the kind of suburban existence he’d always dreamed of. He never complained about commuting more than three hours each day, or the extra jobs he had to take at night, as a referee, or in the summer, as the director of a sleepaway camp in upstate New York. In fact, when Buddy began playing sports, his father gave up coaching them. He didn’t want to miss anything, choosing his family over his bank account.
About 17 years ago, the Bakers left New York and moved to Boynton Beach, Fla., settling in a retirement community named Tuscany Bay. Sheri planned their 50th wedding anniversary, last year, at a local banquet hall. Her parents expected to eat dinner with their grandchildren; instead, 60 friends stood before them, everyone smiling, yelling out, “Surprise!” Both parents told Buddy individually that the party had marked one of the happiest days of their respective lives. “You wish you could take how we felt that day and sustain it,” Buddy says …
… two days after his parents’ funeral …
… less than a week after they both died, six minutes apart, from complications related to the coronavirus.
The Bakers were healthy when March started. No fevers. No coughing. No colds, even. Eventually, both felt ill enough to visit their doctor, and they received matching diagnoses, slight cases of pneumonia, nothing to worry about, or so they thought. Stuart, though, continued to feel worse, until on March 19 he checked into the local hospital, with a high fever and a preexisting asthma condition. Doctors affixed a breathing mask to his face immediately.
Forty-eight hours later, they placed him in intensive care. Even then, they lowered the amount of oxygen that he required, signaling that his health was improving. “We were concerned, but my dad was a tough guy. We figured he’d get through it,” Buddy says. “We never imagined this was going to be life-threatening.”
He worried more about his mother, sitting there at home, anxious and alone. She didn’t exhibit any symptoms at that point. Buddy would stop by her house, bring her food, sit at a safe distance away and make sure she was O.K. But as his father’s condition worsened at the hospital, his mother started to suffer from her own symptoms—and they were pretty much exactly the same as the ones that kept his father in that hospital bed. Doctors diagnosed Stuart with COVID-19, the deadly respiratory disease, on Thursday, March 26.
A hospital official called Buddy that afternoon and said he didn’t think his father would survive. So Buddy decided to take his mom there, reasoning that if she panicked when he told her the awful news, she would at least be near doctors and nurses and medicine. Plus, she could also be tested for the virus. Soon after Adrian checked in, her oxygen levels plummeted.
Another call. Same official, same afternoon, same devastating news, only now, for his other parent. On Friday, the 27th, Buddy went back to the house where he was staying, and for most of the night he couldn’t sleep. He nodded off after 3 a.m. and woke up not even three hours later to a voicemail from someone at the hospital’s emergency room. The doctor said his mom had been moved to ICU. Both of his parents’ conditions continued to worsen, and eventually, Buddy and Sheri filled out hospice paperwork so that both Stuart and Adrian would be taken off their ventilators.
The family had only one request: They wanted both parents to be in the same room when the removals took place. Doctors took both parents off their ventilators that Sunday, after placing the Bakers in adjacent beds. Stuart and Adrian held hands until the end. They died those six minutes apart. Stuart was 74; Adrian, 72.
Buddy, his sister, their relatives and their parents’ friends held a virtual funeral last Thursday, the event made all the more difficult because of the very disease that had claimed his parents’ lives. Buddy couldn’t meet with people to hear stories about his mother and father. He couldn’t grieve with other relatives, couldn’t drink or eat away his sorrows with his friends. “You’re stuck with your own thoughts,” he says. “You just drown in them.”
He wondered: Was I a good enough son?
He asked: When was the last time I hugged them?
And: Why weren’t some people taking the coronavirus more seriously? Couldn’t they see what was happening? Couldn’t they tell the impact, the lives lost, the families shattered, for people just like him?
Buddy dropped by his parents’ house to take care of disinfecting a residence surely contaminated by the virus. He couldn’t step foot inside. He sat in a car in the driveway, as a crew went in, and he choked back tears when he saw the full garage, his father’s whiffle golf ball on the front lawn, the toy his mother used to throw to her puppy. “To have that feeling of emptiness, that lack of closure, it’s hard,” Buddy says.
That afternoon, though, Buddy climbed out the car, went for a walk and had an epiphany. How would he pay tribute to his parents? By helping other families, he decided, by sharing his story, their story; by reminding others that no one will stop this virus until the spread can be slowed; that people, like his parents, will die, if precautions are not taken; that this isn’t something that happens to other people, in remote, faraway places; that COVID-19 is unsparing, reaching into every city and every stratosphere and every social tier until enough people take enough precautions to slow down the spread. Please, please, please: Listen to him.
Baker has always told his clients: Use your platform. Make a difference. He vows to do the same thing now. He released a video on social media that spread quickly, all over the world, and the outpouring of support that he received speaks he says to the values that his parents long ago instilled in him. That won’t bring them back. But for now, for as long as possible, the work, his plans, will have to be enough. There’s no reasonable alternative.
“I don’t want anyone else,” he says, “to feel our unfathomable pain.”
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