John O’Mahony, left, and Yaroslav Koporulin with their two sets of twins on Jan. 24. Photo for The Washington Post by Michael A. McCoy

WASHINGTON — Yaroslav Koporulin was scared of dying.

That’s the part that bothers John O’Mahony the most when he thinks about how his husband spent his final hours.

For nearly 25 years, John had stood at Yaroslav’s side, but in the end, he wasn’t allowed to sit next to him for even a moment.

“I may have gotten through this a little easier if I could have sat by him for just a second,” he tells me on a recent afternoon. “I just needed to say something to him. I just needed to say, ‘Don’t be scared.’ ”

I first told you about John and Yaroslav earlier this year in a column about how their family and others who would’ve normally struggled to afford quality child care in the Washington region were finding that and more through CentroNía. The couple credited the organization’s Columbia Heights child-care center with remaining a reassuring constant in their lives after Yaroslav learned he had small-cell lung cancer on the same day their second set of twins were born.

When I met the couple in January, they had two 3-year-old daughters and two sons, who were about to turn 1, enrolled at the child-care center.

They also still had hope that Yaroslav would get better.

“There are moments when I think, ‘I may not see my children grow, or they may not even remember me,’ ” Yaroslav told me at the time. “But hopefully I make it long enough. Hopefully I beat this thing. Which is still a possibility.”

Less than two months later, the first cases of the novel coronavirus were reported in the Washington area. Soon after that, hospitals started changing their internal policies and practices to prevent the virus from spreading among staff and patients.

Yaroslav meanwhile continued to undergo treatment for his cancer, a course of action that included receiving chemotherapy, which weakened his immune system.

Several weeks ago, on Oct. 24, those two realities collided in a devastating way for his family.

We are in a grim and shameful moment in our country. After months of the coronavirus causing countable deaths and incalculable horrors, we are still watching caseloads rise, families mourn and lawmakers recklessly use the virus to bolster their base, at whatever communal cost.

President Donald Trump’s initial resistance to mask-wearing and his insistence on playing down the seriousness of the virus has been characterized as “among the worst failures of leadership in American history.” That was the phrasing used in a recent report by the House select subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis. Others have chosen harsher words, all cutting at the same point: When it comes to controlling the pandemic, the outgoing president failed bigly.

This weekend, Trump supporters gathered in the nation’s capital and shouted his praises. Those shouts, if other pro-Trump gathering and social media chatter is any indication, came full force out of uncovered mouths.

Those protesters have the right to march for what they believe in. Those types of freedoms are what draw people to this country. But if they think their maskless faces are a show of power, they are mistaken. They only confirm the depth of failure of a man who held the power to do more to the control the pandemic, and didn’t.

They are reminders of the cost of his leadership.

Yaroslav was an artist who taught at American University, where he graduated with a master’s degree.

As John tells it, he was working as a bartender at a Dupont Circle bar in 1995 when he met Yaroslav. Not long after that, he was moving to Russia to live with Yaroslav. The couple lived there for five years, before returning to D.C. to settle down and start a family. A profile in the Washington Blade described them as “the first known gay couple in the U.S. to have two sets of twins via surrogacy.”

In 2013, the two got married. And in 2016, Yaroslav became a U.S. citizen. That moment came too late for him to vote in the presidential election, John says. But he did not miss that chance this year.

On his absentee ballot, he scribbled in that circle next to Joe Biden’s name.

“He was so happy,” John recalls. Yaroslav’s Facebook page shows he changed his profile picture to reflect the words “I voted early.”

On Oct. 24, John’s mother turned in Yaroslav’s ballot for him.

The next night, Yaroslav developed a fever of 101. John says they weren’t yet alarmed.

Then on Friday, his temperature rose to 102.4. He normally hated going to the hospital, but when his doctor told him to go, he didn’t resist. John helped him get dressed and John’s mother drove him to the hospital. John planned to meet him there in an hour.

“I love you. You’ll be all right,” John recalls casually telling him, not knowing that would be the last time he saw him alive. “We thought he was just going to go in there, and they were going to give him antibiotics.”

An hour later, when John arrived at the hospital, he discovered he couldn’t get in to see Yaroslav. The staff, he says, explained that covid-19 had caused visitation hours to be restricted to 3 to 7 p.m. A doctor instead came out to tell him Yaroslav had pneumonia and needed to remain at the hospital.

Later that night, while home with their children, John received a call telling him that Yaroslav had developed sepsis and might not survive. He says he begged the hospital’s staff to make an exception and let him in. He even assured them he had tested negative for the coronavirus. But, he says, he was told the new restrictions required he wait until 3 p.m. the next day.

He spoke briefly to Yaroslav over FaceTime, and told him an exception had been made, knowing it hadn’t but hoping it might offer him some strength. “I’m going to see you early in the morning,” he recalls saying. “They’re going to let me in early.”

At 7 a.m., John received a call telling him that Yaroslav had passed away.

Again, he begged to see him. Again, he was told he couldn’t, because covid-19 required the morgue to remain closed to visitors.

“Can I come by there, please?” he recalls pleading. “I just want to touch his glasses or something.”

When he arrived at the hospital, he was handed a bag of Yaroslav’s belongings. He recalls holding his empty shirt. He asked, yet again, to see him. This time, he says, an administrator explained through tears that she couldn’t let him into the morgue.

Nearly two weeks later, at the crematorium, John finally saw Yaroslav.

“I feel so alone,” he says when we talk. “You think you’re always going to be able to text him or call him, and after 25 years, it just stops. It just kills your heart. I now know how people die from broken hearts.”

The pandemic didn’t kill Yaroslav. John knows that. But just as it has stolen goodbyes from others who have found themselves in similar situations during this seemingly never-ending pandemic, it added a layer of unnecessary hurt onto a pile of pain. It took from John the chance to know that in his final moments Yaroslav wasn’t alone, wasn’t scared. “If he had done more, or just said, ‘Wear your mask,’ ” John says of Trump, “maybe they wouldn’t have to stop visitations when someone is dying, maybe I could have seen Yaroslav.”

Two days after Yaroslav’s death, John turned in his ballot. He also voted for Biden. (It is unclear whether Yaroslav’s vote was counted. Some states require a vote be counted even if a person dies before Election Day, other states prohibit it, and many don’t have a rule. The issue is also largely seen as bipartisan, since the situation may apply to people from both parties).

In the days that followed, a tribute to Yaroslav appeared on American University’s website, and a friend of the family created a GoFundMe to help John, who is now left to raise the couple’s four young children on his own.

On an Instagram page John has filled with photos of the family, he recently posted one of Yaroslav lounging with their son who resembles him. The caption reads in part: “I can’t stop crying yet, but need to be strong for my 4 little ones. I am so glad I have them. They are the only ones that really make it bearable for me since they are partly him, so I feel like he is still here.”

The twins, who are now ages 4 and almost 2, called John “Dad” and Yaroslav “Papa.” John says he wasn’t sure how to tell them that their papa didn’t want to leave but wasn’t coming home, so he took them outside.

“You see the moon up there?” he told them. “You see the star next to the moon that’s flickering? That’s where Papa is. He’s saying he loves you. He wants to be with you forever. So whenever you look at that star by the moon, and it’s flickering, that’s Papa saying, ‘I love you.’ ”

On his Facebook page, Yaroslav posted one final message in Russian the night he died that has offered John some reassurance that he was ready to be at peace.

Translated, it reads, “I think I’m free . . .”

Theresa Vargas is a local columnist for The Washington Post. Before coming to The Post, she worked at Newsday in New York. She has degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University School of Journalism.

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