Toms River, NJ/ Patch.com — The corners of Helen Duszynski’s eyes turned upward as she watched the group of police officers walk by to line up for a photo, making the smile hidden by her mask evident.
Turning 100 is a birthday to be celebrated, but in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, it is far more challenging to make it a special day. But her family was determined to make it so, and with a little help from the Toms River Police Department and Patch readers, Helen Duszynski was showered on Sunday with wishes for continued good health and happiness.
“That was so nice,” she said, after the police officers departed.
The gathering at Brandywine Living at Toms River included a socially distanced visit with her family — the first time they had been able to see each other in person since March 12.
“This isn’t at all how we thought we’d be celebrating her 100th birthday,” her granddaughter, Barbara Judge, said. Despite that, the joy and love was evident as they stood on the sidewalk, waving and snapping photos while Helen was outside.
The Brandywine staff wheeled her back into the building and into a conference room teeming with flowers and balloons and gifts and birthday cards. They seated Duszynski next to an open window, and separated by screen, her family — daughter, Carol Lee Bannier, granddaughters Jaqueline Kruzik and Judge, and Duszynski ‘s nine great-grandchildren, who range in age from their 20s to 2 years old — serenaded her with “Happy Birthday,” then watched as she opened gifts.
The police car parade was an unexpected bonus, Judge said.
“I got this phone call out of the blue from the police and it startled me,” she said. The department contacted her after seeing a Patch article about the family’s request for birthday cards for “Nana Bean,”as the family calls Duszynski.
The police parade wasn’t the only surprise. Duszynski has received more than 400 cards, including more than 40 cards from the third- and fourth-grade classes at Cedar Creek Elementary School, where family friend Jennifer Mantegna is a teacher.
Someone sent jewelry, a item that delighted Duszynski, Kruzik said. “She loves costume jewelry.”
There were specially decorated cookies and candies, Calvin Klein perfume and makeup. A crown with the number “100” was perched on Duszynski’s head, and she beamed from behind the screen.
“All of her favorites,” one of Duszynski’s great-granddaughters said.
Duszynski had lived on her own until a few years ago, but after a fall her family convinced her to move to Brandywine Assisted Living, where she would have help and people around her and a safer living situation in an emergency, but still have her own private space. Before the pandemic, that meant being able to have dinner with friends in the facility, playing cards, and other activities.
When the pandemic hit, Brandywine Living locked down immediately, Judge said, not allowing visitors and not allowing residents to go in and out, all to prevent bringing the virus into the facility. For a while, they were limited to their rooms, Judge said.
It’s been hard on Duszynski.
“She wants to be with us,” Bannier said. To help bridge the gap more easily, Bannier got her mother a Facebook Portal, to allow her to see and talk to family members directly. Her family wants to be with her as well.
“She’s the highlight of our family,” Judge said.
That was evident as family members took turns drawing slightly closer to the window — all in masks — to speak to Duszynski as she opened gifts.
“Here’s to 100 more years,” one family member said as he leaned in.
“Oh, I don’t know if I can take that,” Duszynski said with a laugh, after the remark was repeated to her.
Despite the challenges of celebrating in a pandemic, Duszynski smiled at what the day had brought.
“It’s plenty special,” she said.