Portraits of Loss

Ronald S. Chandler

A collection of stories and essays that illustrate the indelible mark left on our community by a pandemic that touched all our lives.

My mom didn’t have a lot of symptoms. Then one day in September my aunt, who was living with her, called and said that she was having difficulty breathing and that something was going on. There were no indications that she had COVID. About a week later, Mom just went to sleep and never woke up. We later confirmed that she was in fact COVID-19-positive.

My aunt called me in shock to tell me on the morning of Sept. 10. It was a painful, surreal, and tear-filled conversation that I replay often in my mind and keep close to my heart.

I am the chief information officer at the Harvard Business School [HBS]. At the time of Mom’s passing, we were starting a new semester at HBS. We deployed hybrid classes where we had some students physically sitting in the classroom during the class session while the other students participated virtually via Zoom. My department, IT, was central to this work. It was the busiest time of the year for us. Home life was equally busy, too, as my wife and I had two sons who were going off to college.

Immediately after my mom’s passing, time became a fleeting notion, and I do not remember a lot of what happened until sometime in October. I was just in business mode, but the nuances of life outside of work were a blur.

Within a matter of six weeks, I packed up the house in South Carolina where my mom and aunt were living, settled my mom’s affairs and relocated my aunt back to the Boston area. It was not until the beginning of November that I could finally start the grieving process. Then came the month of December. Mom’s birthday is in December. That was particularly tough.

Ronald Chandler.

“I remember her telling me: ‘It’s not about how much money you make.’ It was: ‘What are you doing with what you have?’ ‘What are you doing to give back?’” said Ronald Chandler.

Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

My mom’s name was Carol Marie Chandler, and she was born Dec. 30, 1939, in the Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan. She was an amazing woman and inspired many. Lots of people offer similar sentiments when it comes to a loved one, but with my mom, it was validated by many to be especially true. If you were a member of an underrepresented minority community in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn and are between 35 and 60 years old you probably knew my mom. There is also a good chance that “Miss Carol” was your teacher, as she was an elementary and special education teacher for more than 40 years.

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She was one of the neighborhood den mothers — both unofficially and officially, because she was actually a real den mother for the local Cub Scout troop. Our neighborhood was made up mostly of working-class families with parents who were often unavailable to pick up their children (my friends) from school. Mom would often bring them (and occasionally a new student whom I did not know) home with her. We would all eat together, do homework, and then play games. Mom would have our guests ready when a parent came to retrieve them. This illustrates the essence of who Mom was. She was just someone who always offered a listening ear or a warm shoulder to cry on.

She and my father, Willie (who passed away 13 months before she did), raised five boys in a house full of love, energy, and discipline.

I remember her telling me: “It’s not about how much money you make.” It was: “What are you doing with what you have?” “What are you doing to give back?” And “How will you bring someone else along?” She was a huge advocate for youth and young adults. She would often say that it is our job to make the lives of those we meet better.

My affinity toward the field of education and appreciation for its life-transforming power comes from my mom — both by osmosis and learned behavior. She always wanted me to be in front of a classroom. When I accepted my first job in education as the chief information officer for a K‒12 school district, she said: “You’re getting there. You’re getting closer.”

She retired in 2000. She and my dad moved to Florence, S.C. After enjoying a break for 10 months, she decided to start teaching again, and in 2009 she officially retired … again. She was a big fan of “The Golden Girls” TV series and loved, loved, loved music. We grew up in a household where there was music playing regularly, mostly jazz, and some R&B. Mom had a great singing voice and would often accompany a great crooner whose song was playing on the radio, and occasionally she would grab the hand of the nearest son and force us to dance with her.

Ronald Chandler's mother with her sons.

Willie and Carol Marie Chandler (center) with sons Victor (from left), Ronald, Kevin, Arnold, and Willie III.

Courtesy of Ronald Chandler

The way she died was terrible, not only because I lost my confidant and one of my heroes, but because it was such an undignified way to pass on. Especially for someone like her, someone who had touched the lives of so many people. Under normal circumstances, we would have had a big celebration with family and friends. Mom knew that she was loved and cherished. Her sissy and guardian angel (my aunt) was there with her, so she was not alone and did not suffer long with pain. We had a very nice, intimate memorial, but it was still difficult for us not to be able to honor her the way that she deserved.

During the pandemic, Mom’s death was not my family’s only loss. Two of my uncles passed away, and at least eight other people that I knew died from this horrific disease.

As I reflect, I am fortunate that I was in a wonderful place with Mom and did not have regrets. I was prompted to think about the cycle of life and this journey that I am currently on. I think about what is most important in life and have become more reflective and intentional about taking less for granted, including myself. My mission is to continue to be a beacon of light for others, but all while enjoying life a lot more.

The craziness of the last many months deprived us of an adequate opportunity to properly mourn, but we are doing well. What gives me comfort is my belief that she and my dad are together again, as they had been for the more than 60 years prior to their passing. They are both looking down on us smiling, because they are pleased with what happened in their lives and what is happening in the lives of their five little boys.

— As told to Juan Siliezar, Harvard Staff Writer

Ronald S. Chandler is the chief information officer at Harvard Business School.