Shutting Themselves Inside to Avoid Being a Burden to Others

When Lee Lee developed a raspy cough three weeks ago, there were only a handful of coronavirus cases in Australia. No one was talking yet of social distancing, but when Mrs. Lee’s doctor swabbed her for a coronavirus test, she and her husband got to thinking.

If hospitals were to become overwhelmed and their grandchildren or great-grandchildren got sick, doctors would face a terrible choice.

“It occurred to us that if push came to shove, although we are certainly not tired of living, we’ve had a pretty good bite and we’d want the limited resources given to them rather than taking them ourselves,” Mrs. Lee said.

So though her test came back negative, Mrs. Lee, 72, a former human resources consultant, and her husband, Colin Lee, 86, a former police officer, decided to self-isolate. No more volunteering or group lunches, nothing really, beyond the backyard of their home in Geelong, outside Melbourne, where socializing was reduced to a tree filled with rainbow lorikeets.

Their decision came from knowing the splendor of a second chance. They met 16 years ago in the Fort Lauderdale airport after both of their spouses had died. A Jewish New Yorker, she was dropping off a friend. An Anglican Brit who lived in Australia, he could barely stand after 40 hours of travel weighted by grief.

“Are you all right?” she asked.

“No, I’m not,” he said.

Together, they traveled, moved back to Australia and married. Together, with the virus threatening, the last thing they wanted was to take away someone else’s serendipity, hospital bed or life.

“We all have to care about each other, because it’s no longer the kind of war where you can let your neighbor go to the devil and take care of yourself,” Mrs. Lee said.

Mr. Lee agreed: “We’ve just got to share what’s there, share sensibly.”

Like many others, they were stunned by all the hoarding that’s gone on in Australia and elsewhere. Character and calm, in their view, should not be harder to find than toilet paper.

Mr. Lee, white-haired and wearing a bright smile in family photos, said by phone last week that he began his days with the news. He often found echoes of World War II and the Great Depression: the anxiety and uncertainty spreading across continents; the soaring death tolls; the not knowing where to go, or when it will end.

“People everywhere are being shut up and scared to go outside,” he said. “It is dangerous, at least in our age group.”

He said he wasn’t frightened. Just contemplative.

Books were good company. Inside day after day, Mr. and Mrs. Lee became enthralled with “Burke and Wills,” Peter FitzSimons’s rollicking account of Australia’s most famous explorers. It’s not a short book. It fit their routines just fine.

“The best part of it is that life has slowed down a little bit,” Mrs. Lee said. “I don’t seem to be rushing around trying to accomplish as much. The worst part of it is that life has slowed down a bit and I don’t seem to be rushing around trying to accomplish as much.”

But even in isolation, life is no less fragile. Late last week, Mr. Lee started complaining about feeling cold. Mrs. Lee put a warm jacket on him, a winter hat and gloves, and called the doctor. An ambulance arrived a few minutes later.

In the emergency room, Mr. Lee was isolated. Mrs. Lee stayed with him in a mask and hospital gown. A chest X-ray revealed pneumonia, and he was swabbed for the coronavirus.

On Saturday, the test came back negative. But his sickness did not subside, and he was placed on a ventilator to aid his breathing — Australia’s outbreak has not yet overwhelmed the health care system.

On Tuesday at 4 a.m., he opened his eyes and seemed to look at something just above his wife.

“I kissed him and told him that he had run a good race, but that it was time to rest,” Mrs. Lee said. A few breaths later, he was gone.

On Wednesday, Mrs. Lee emailed the last photo taken of her husband while he was alive. All it showed was her hand holding his. The subject line: Heartbreak.

“He was the best man that God ever made,” she said, “and I am completely undone.”

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