On Dec. 30, after spending more than a week in the intensive care unit of a New Hampshire hospital battling COVID-19, the couple died hand-in-hand, their close family gathered around while dressed head-to-toe in protective gear.
“As soon as they touched hands, Dad took his last breath, and seconds later, Mom took hers,” said Melissa Noke, one of the couple’s daughters. “They were happy to be next to each other.”
The Stewarts were “the true definition of soul mates,” Noke said. They met when they were just 4 years old, when Bill’s mother babysat for Carol. They lost contact but reconnected as adults, and within a year fell in love and got married.
They spent the next 44 years together, mainly in Salem, N.H., where they watched their children and grandchildren grow up. Bill, 73, worked as a machinist for an equipment company and later took a job at Market Basket, where he was “adored” by customers and his coworkers, Noke said. Before retiring, Carol, 69, was a home health aide, a job she took on because she wanted to help others.
In their long life together, they were hardly ever apart, from day trips to Manchester airport to see the planes take off, to stops at local beaches to watch the waves crash on the shore.
“Everything they did, they did together,” Noke said.
“They would get up and just dance together, Dad would sing to Mom. Every time he came home from work he’d say, ‘Honey, I’m home.’ In the morning — every single morning — he would make her a cup of coffee, and then knock on the bedroom door and say, ‘Room service!,’” she said. “They were cute together. They were really cute.”
But their enduring relationship came to a sudden end last month, shortly after the couple got COVID-19. Neither were vaccinated, and within days of testing positive for the virus, their health declined rapidly. Bill had pre-existing health issues, WMUR first reported.
“It happened so fast,” Noke said.
They were admitted to Parkland Medical Center in Derry, where they were intubated and put on life support, she said. Their hospital rooms were across the hall from one another.
At first, the family was only allowed to see them remotely, on iPads a nurse brought into their rooms since Noke and others who lived with the couple had also tested positive for COVID-19. Each day, they spoke with them through the screen and told them they loved them.
“Their daughters video chat with them everyday and believe it is helping their parents fight this!!,” a relative wrote in an update to friends and family on a fund-raising page to help cover hospital expenses. “Yesterday when they video chatted, Carol moved her head!!”
But their health never improved. A few days after Christmas, Noke and her family went to the hospital to say their final goodbyes.
After the couple was taken off life support, Noke’s family lined the hallway of the hospital unit dressed in face shields, masks, gloves, and blue gowns. They watched solemnly as hospital staff wheeled Bill and Carol’s beds to a larger room, where they were placed side by side.
At the family’s request, a nurse put her mother and father’s hands together in an embrace, not unlike one captured in a photo of the couple on their wedding day. Almost as soon as they touched, Bill took his last breath, Noke said. Within seconds, her mother did the same.
“We knew that they would pass together,” Noke said.
A hospital spokesman said staff worked to give the family — and couple — the opportunity to be together one last time.
“Our thoughts remain with the family and we commend our staff for going above and beyond for the family to see their loved ones during their last moments in a safe manner,” he said.
Noke said losing her parents has been devastating for the family, and in recent days she’s felt as though she’s been living in a nightmare she can’t wake up from.
“It just doesn’t feel real,” Noke said.
She is encouraging people to consider getting vaccinated so they don’t have to endure the pain her parents went through in their final days. Noke is also planning to get vaccinated.
“I just want people to get vaccinated, because you never know what tomorrow is going to bring,” she said. “We want to spread the story as much as possible about their love story, and what happened to them.”
The family plans to have Bill and Carol cremated. They’ve already picked out a “companion urn” for their remains.
On the front it will read, “Together forever.”