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One family's losses reflect the breadth of the devastation from twin crises of COVID, opioids

Photographs of Cindy Bezzek's late mother and daughter, Marley, who died within two weeks of each other in 2020.

RACHEL JESSEN/BLOOMBERG

By EMMA COURT | Bloomberg | Published: December 28, 2020

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Cindy Bezzek and her husband built their home in Sanford, N.C., to be an oasis, with bonsai trees, tortoises and a waterfall-flanked koi pond. The place called Tranquility Ranch was Bezzek's refuge after years of tumult. Her mantra when 2020 began: "Look for the beauty."

Then came spring, when Mark Bezzek, a physician, started treating patients so sick they died no matter what he did. When Mark's mother contracted COVID-19 and died. When an assisted-living facility cut off Cindy's visits with her own mother, Louise Hope. When the 92-year-old stopped eating and wasted away.

When, as Cindy had long feared, her 33-year-old daughter, Marley, overdosed for the last time.

The pandemic that began 8,000 miles away in a corner of a Chinese market overran the defenses of Tranquility Ranch. With her husband of four years plunged into the medical crisis and friends and family unable to visit freely, it left Bezzek, 62, a retired mother of three, to grieve on her own.

"I stay outside a lot. It just feels like you need the sky because your grief is so big. If you're inside, it feels like you're going to suffocate," said Bezzek, who has the drawn-out vowels of a lifetime spent in North Carolina. "My daughter's gone. My mother's gone. And I'm still here."

Across the globe, 2020 has been a year of loss: of education, jobs, health and lives. The U.S., whose federal government refused aggressive measures to confront the pandemic, has seen more than 19 million covid-19 cases and 333,000 deaths, largely among the elderly and people of color. As many as 130,500 more Americans are expected to die this year from other causes, above historical averages. At least one factor: With people cut off from relatives and support systems, drug overdoses and mental-health crises have soared.

Yet for all that families like the Bezzeks have endured, 2021 is set to begin much like the year that preceded it. By April, 209,000 more in the U.S. could be dead from COVID-19, according to one model. While calculating the impact of lost lives, productivity and health, economists and academics predict long-term effects on the mental health of those who have lived through the pandemic. Families across the U.S. are already grappling with that toll.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon in December, Bezzek has a video visit with two of her three sisters. The oldest, Bonnie Allen, keeps coughing — hacking, really. She can't smell or taste, and it's driving her crazy, she tells her sisters. The symptoms have spoiled a plan to visit her granddaughter in Pittsburgh, who is having a unicorn-themed sixth birthday party.

"Maybe it'll change," Bezzek tells her sisters. "Maybe the vaccine will be miraculous and things will just open up and we can get back to some better life."

Maybe, says Allen. But she read that even after a vaccine we'll still need masks and social distancing.

"I'm just trying to find some hope for 2021," Bezzek says.

"We only have three more weeks," Allen says.

"Thankfully," pipes in Kari Crow from Katy, Texas, still the baby of the family at 50.

The day after they talk, Allen's test result comes back: positive.

COVID-19 has been pervading the family for months. In April, the sisters had gathered when their mother contracted the disease.

Thinking it was the end, the assisted-living facility in Pittsboro, N.C., let them visit, Bezzek says. When Louise Hope rallied, the home halted visits once more. Then she stopped eating. Her daughters believe she felt abandoned and isolated. Bezzek was able to visit in her mother's final days but arrived too late on the afternoon of July 22 to be with Louise as she died.

"COVID didn't kill her, but the broken heart did, I think," Allen says.

Louise Hope had seven children, raising them in Alabama and then North Carolina, where she and her daughters became members of the insular Worldwide Church of God, which some have called cultlike. There, Bezzek at 18 met and married her first husband and the father of her three children, including Marley.

After a divorce, she left the church, remarried a developer and helped manage property they rented to students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. That marriage crumbled in 2015, eroded by years of trying to help Marley. She met Mark Bezzek online that year, messaging the 62-year-old emergency medicine physician because she liked his smile. They married a year later and moved to Tranquility Ranch in 2018.

They lost Mark's 82-year-old mother in June. Already suffering with Alzheimer's disease, she contracted COVID-19 in a New Jersey nursing home and passed away a week later. Until they got the call, they hadn't even known about the diagnosis, he says.

Stoic and white-haired, with a broad, rugged face, Mark Bezzek has been surrounded by the disease for months, often working without sufficient protective equipment. Even with the trauma in his family, the job has kept Mark from taking days off. His hospital is seeing more covid-19 patients than ever, and with limited numbers of nurses, each staffed bed is full.

"It's hard dealing with the losses at home and at work. You're just surrounded by death all the time," he says. "One of the things that I have over Cindy is, I've worked with death. I've been surrounded by it my whole career. Eventually you become, I wouldn't say stone-hearted, but you become a little less passionate for death."

Cindy, meanwhile, had been haunted for years by the prospect of a singular death. Marley Atamanchuk had gotten hooked on opioids in her late teens. She got married, had children and became an aesthetician. Nothing stopped the cycle of treatment, recovery and relapse.

The pandemic hasn't tamped down America's addiction crisis — instead, driving forces like economic desperation and social isolation have intensified. Overdose deaths, already on the rise, appear to be accelerating, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently warned. More than 81,000 such deaths occurred in the year through May, the most ever recorded in a 12-month span, according to the agency.

Marley was laid off this year, and Bezzek spotted signs that she was declining. Insurance through the Affordable Care Act paid for a program, but Marley came back to a world without in-person support meetings and struggled to find the same connection through Zoom offerings.

Just two weeks after the death of the grandmother who gave Marley her middle name, Louise, she overdosed on heroin, dying days later.

The Hope sisters visited North Carolina again in August while Marley lay in a hospital bed. But when it came time to pick up her ashes from the funeral home, Bezzek was alone. She drove herself and strapped the urn into the passenger seat. Neither Marley nor Louise Hope have had a funeral.

Lately, Bezzek spends her days meditating and reading books about death and the afterlife. Through the rest of the year, she's given herself a pass: to eat sugar at every meal, or not wash her face. But in January, she has to get back up and start moving again; maybe start some volunteer work, if covid allows.

She hasn't picked a mantra for 2021. She thinks it will be about coming home to herself. Finding ways to keep moving forward.
 

"I stay outside a lot. It just feels like you need the sky because your grief is so big. If you're inside, it feels like you're going to suffocate," says Cindy Bezzek, at home in Sanford, N.C.
RACHEL JESSEN/BLOOMBERG