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WFAE's Social Distancing series looks at how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we live, work, learn and connect with each other. The series is hosted by reporter Sarah Delia.

Social Distancing: ‘That’s My Girl. She Was Something Else.’

Now it’s time for the latest installment of Social Distancing. It’s our series where we hear from you, our listeners, about the challenges and changes you’re facing in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. In our latest story, WFAE’s Sarah Delia spoke to a Charlotte man about how his wife chose to spend her last few weeks after losing her battle with cancer during the pandemic. 

The way 49-year-old film and television editor Jay Thomas describes his late wife is the way most hope they would be described by their significant other.

"You know Lord Alfred Tennyson, ‘Tis better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all’ is something I keep coming back to," Thomas said. "Knowing what the outcome was, I still would have done it exactly the same way. She was the most wonderful person I had ever met."

PaigeJohnston Thomas died a week and half ago after losing an almost three-year, on-again, off-again battle with a rare form of cancer. She was 51.

Credit Courtesy of Jay Thomas
Paige Johnston Thomas died April 27 at her home after a three year battle with cancer.

Paige also had underlying liver disease. And during her last in-person doctor's visit weeks ago, Paige’s doctor had bad news. He thought her liver was failing and it looked like the end was near. Thomas put Paige’s parents on speaker phone. By then, social distancing was the norm and restrictions on visitation at hospitals were already in place. They worried if she was admitted to the hospital, she would never leave.

"We all knew, there’s no way in hell that we were going to let her be admitted," Thomas said. "Because we knew she would be alone."

So Paige came home -- like she wanted. And they set up hospice care. And a small group of family, including Paige’s mother and father, gathered.

"Her brother and wife and our two little nieces, they live in Hood River, Oregon, and when we found out about hospice they packed up the minivan, they'd been super quarantined out there as well, they drove two and half days straight," Thomas said. "They literally went to the bathroom on the side of the road. They did not go into restaurants or hotels, they slept in the van, they only stopped for gas. And he used a mask and gloves. And they got here as soon as they possibly could."

The family had two great weeks with Paige. Surrounding her with love and being loved by her. That included Paige surprising the family with temporary tattoos.

"She had purchased some temporary tattoos that said, 'Everything is going to be OK.' A week after hospice was set up, we had a little ceremony in the house. Unbeknownst to any of us that she had done this. We sat around and she put the temporary tattoos on our arms. That’s just how she was -- she was always looking out for us till the end."

Credit Jay Thomas
Jay and Paige's arms side by side.

Paige’s friends organized food drop offs for the couple, and as Thomas points out, they still are. Paige was in the process of writing thank-you notes for the meals, the flowers, and the cards she received, right up until the end.

"She’s getting ready to pass and she wanted to make sure she would get her thank-you notes out," Thomas said. "That’s my girl. She was something else."

On Paige’s last day, April 27, Thomas said he could tell she was a little out of it. She took a pain pill to help her sleep that night.

"I crawled in bed next to her. And sometime between midnight and 6 a.m., I woke up at 6, she had passed," he said.

That was Paige, Thomas said. She didn’t like to be a burden or make a big deal out of anything.

"She was just comfortable, and I guess it’s what everybody hopes for," he said. "It was a very tough morning to wake up to. But I’m so, so, so thankful that she was able to come home. If there is a brightness thing to this virus and the stay-at-home it’s that Paige's brother and family were on lockdown, we could all be together. If there is a silver lining to any of this it's that it was OK for us to all be with her and we didn’t have other places to be."

Paige was well known in Charlotte’s theater community. She did it all -- directing, casting, arts fundraising. Her former business partner Mitzi Corrigan established a scholarshipfund in Paige’s name to benefit young people who otherwise may not be able to pursue arts opportunities. More than $41,000 has already been raised.

A large gathering with Charlotte’s arts community the couple knew and loved seems like a fitting way to remember Paige, Thomas said. But he’s not quite sure when that will happen because of the pandemic.

"You can’t have any kind of a big celebration," Thomas said. "I don’t even know when I’ll be shoulder-to-shoulder with someone in the theater and that was one of the big things that Paige and I did. She was very involved in the theater, and I was, too. I don’t know when we are going to be able to celebrate her in the right way, and that’s just kind of really unfortunate."

What the family was able to do was gather at Paige’s grandparents’ home on Lake Norman to scatter her ashes. The house was built before she was born. Thomas describes it as a Paige time capsule. It still has baby pictures of her.

"We were going to retire there," Thomas said. "That was the plan. We would grow old together and be on the lake."

The family made a shrine out of branches and rocks.

"We just put some of her effects on a table that were important to her and we all kind of said some things and we played a song. And cast her ashes into the water, her brother and I did," Thomas said.

The song they played was a Bob Marley classic, a nod to the temporary tattoos Paige had bought for the family.

"We decided to play Bob Marley’s 'Everything Is Going To Be Alright,' which is pretty close to ‘Everything is going to be OK’ on the tattoo," Thomas said.

The last picture Thomas took of them as a couple was of their arms side by side showing the temporary tattoos. His arm is a healthy pink, hers yellowed and frail. It’s a shocking picture, he said, but he wanted to share their last photo. The couple had been married 13 and a half years.

When the world returns to some sense of normalcy, and tattoo shops are open again, Jay plans to get his very first piece. It will be the script Paige wanted him to remember, and maybe everyone needs to hear now more than ever: "Everything is going to be OK."

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Sarah Delia is a Senior Producer for Charlotte Talks with Mike Collins. Sarah joined the WFAE news team in 2014. An Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist, Sarah has lived and told stories from Maine, New York, Indiana, Alabama, Virginia and North Carolina. Sarah received her B.A. in English and Art history from James Madison University, where she began her broadcast career at college radio station WXJM. Sarah has interned and worked at NPR in Washington DC, interned and freelanced for WNYC, and attended the Salt Institute for Radio Documentary Studies.