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The coronavirus, and a deathbed without family

A retired priest from the Cape was one of 15 to die so far in Massachusetts

Richard Ottaway (right, with his wife Elaine) died of complications of the coronavirus.
Richard Ottaway (right, with his wife Elaine) died of complications of the coronavirus.Family photo/handout

Here is another way to measure the effects of a plague, not in numbers, but by the life of one man.

Even at 88 years old, Richard Napoleon Ottaway would begin his days with a stack of important things to be read: Fresh copies of The New York Times, his local Cape Cod Times, and maybe some four-year-old edition of The New Yorker he might have lying around. The Bible was never far from his reach.

He was a man of God, a retired Episcopal priest, with a striking shock of white hair. He was a lover of oysters and wine, and a collector of bow ties, who treated the cultivation of friendships like a lifelong vocation. He watched and eagerly fed the wild birds that came to his property in Brewster, and, for him, a perfect day would end in an Adirondack chair, in quiet admiration of another Cape Cod sunset.

He died just after midnight on Monday in Cape Cod Hospital, unable to have any visitors, with a Bible in his hands. Test results that came back after his death were positive for COVID-19, according to his stepdaughter Rebecca Ashley and her husband, J.T. Rogers.

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Dick’s wife, Elaine, who is 76, is also ill with COVID-19, and quarantined at home.

It is a hard thing for his family that they could not be with him in the hospital due to illness and the risk of infection. And they are keenly aware of the ironic tragedy that someone who had ministered to so many people near death died without family around him.

They prefer to look, however, at the elements of beauty at the end of his life, such as the nurse who offered her own family Bible so that Dick Ottaway could die with the Good Book in his hands, his family said.

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“The nurses at Cape Cod Hospital could not have been more lovely,” Ashley said.

The Rev. Richard Ottaway.
The Rev. Richard Ottaway.Family photo/handout

Ottaway is one of 15 people in Massachusetts to die from coronavirus, as of Wednesday afternoon, most of them older persons with preexisting medical conditions. The men and women who have died in Massachusetts from the virus have come from counties across the state, including Suffolk, Hampden, Essex, Worcester, Norfolk, and Middlesex.

The first death in Massachusetts linked to the pandemic was an 87-year-old Winthrop man, and while the town held a press conference last Friday to mourn his passing, his family has requested privacy and ongoing anonymity.

Ottaway’s family was eager to talk about the man they have lost.

“We as humans are hardwired to be afraid — even ashamed — of plague, of illness,” Ashley and Rogers said by text. “That we somehow, irrational as it is, are ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ if we are touched by something like this.

“But of course that’s not true. And if we are collectively to get through this, we need full transparency with each other. Facts and knowledge are our collective weapons in this war. So, yes, in Dick’s honor, the more we can be open about this, the better.”

Ted and Pam Borman of Harwich have been Dick’s friends for decades. They met through church, and then Dick invited them to a cocktail party, which included an eclectic mix of people the Bormans might never have met otherwise. Connecting people from all sorts of backgrounds, with all sorts of beliefs, was Dick Ottaway’s superpower, Ted Borman said.

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One of Dick’s favorite things, Pam Borman said, was to have people over for dinner to his old, rambling captain’s house on the Cape, and to have wines paired with each course. “He loved opening up his home to people they enjoyed.”

Ottaway grew up poor, in a faithful rural community in North Carolina, where there was no higher calling than going into the church, his family said. He went to divinity school in Virginia, worked as a minister in tiny Chocowinity, N.C., and later as a chaplain at Wake Forest University.

He got his doctorate at the University of Manchester, England, met his wife overseas, and spent about eight years in the UK as a professor of business ethics, before he moved back to the states with Elaine in 1981.

Dick and Elaine were serious foodies together, and both great cooks. Rogers said Dick Ottaway still liked to smoke all of his own meats. “You can take the boy out of North Carolina…” he said.

His family does not know how he became infected with coronavirus. He was active for a man in his late 80s but spent most of his time at home. “For him to get it is really shocking,” Rogers said. “The speed at which this hits and it takes people — it’s staggering.”

“They live in a single-family home,” Ashley said. “They’re not having dinner parties. ... Everyone was already being so careful.”

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They learned Wednesday that a coronavirus test done on Ottaway before he died had come back positive. Elaine Ottaway’s positive test came back on Saturday, two days before her husband died, they said.

Rogers and Ashley, who live outside of New York City, recently got home from Japan and are quarantining themselves as a precaution. The separation from family at a time of grief is difficult.

“Here’s a person who was a man of God and he can’t have a funeral right now,” Ashley said.

And no one knows when it will be safe again to have a gathering.

“We want to make sure that we’re clear,” Rogers said. “We want to make sure we’re all clear of it before we embrace each other again.”


Mark Arsenault can be reached at mark.arsenault@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bostonglobemark.