Edward Charles Peterson of San Rafael had four joys in his life: travel, reading, his children and grandchildren — “and me,” said Sandy Sverdloff, his wife of 17 years.
Peterson died on March 27 after contracting the coronavirus. He was 67 and the second Marin resident to succumb to the virus, Sverdloff said.
Speaking through occasional tears over the phone, Sverdloff fondly recalled her years with her husband. It was a life filled with travel adventures in about 50 countries.
“From him, I learned so much because he took me into worlds that I would have never explored otherwise,” Sverdloff said.
Peterson’s daughter, Kristina Beste, said her dad always stood by the people he loved and always worked to share his adventures and the things he learned.
“He made it a priority that he included me in all of his travels. No matter where he went in the world, he would message me every day,” Beste said. “He embraced anything that ignited me, that struck my interest. Whatever it was, he wanted me to learn.”
Peterson’s death occurred a week after he and Sverdloff marked the 25th anniversary of their first date on St. Patrick’s Day 1995 — a date they celebrated more than their wedding anniversary. The couple had known each other since 1981 through their work at Wells Fargo Bank.
“We were always friends,” she said. “And actually he used to tell me that he always knew that we’d be together and he always remembered the outfit I was wearing when he first met me.”
The relationship sparked in 1994, when the two met up at a company Christmas party. Both happened to be unattached and they hit it off, Sverdloff said.
Aside from Peterson’s charisma, what drew Sverdloff to her future husband was a shared desire for independence. Sverdloff, having been married before, said she didn’t want to move in with anyone at the time, and Peterson shared the same sentiment.
“So then of course, by the end 1995, he had moved into my house. So, so much for that,” Sverdloff said with a laugh. “We were together for 25 years.”
Sverdloff found complexity under Peterson’s surface. He was a bodybuilder and a huge fan of Arnold Schwarzenegger, but also a self-taught academic who studied philosophy, classical music, theology, art and poetry.
“I thought, when I first met him, that he was a jock with no brains,” Sverdloff laughed. “What’s the most interesting aspect about him was he was the smartest person you would have ever met.”
“He was self taught; he wasn’t some ivy league student,” Beste said, “but he was truly the most intelligent human I have ever come across in my entire life.”
Peterson was always working to discover and learn more. If he read a book from the 1800s, he would read five others to get different perspectives, Beste said. When she was 14, Beste said, she and her dad got dressed up, went out to a fancy dinner and he took her to the opera.
While she didn’t appreciate it at the time and they ultimately were asked to leave the opera house because she was getting up and down too much, Beste said her dad was trying to show her “that there was life beyond our little neighborhood in San Francisco.”
From the beginning, the couple shared a passion for traveling. From trips to Tibet or Bhutan, hiking in the Italian Alps or spending three weeks on an African safari, Sverdloff said they made it a point to meet the residents, explore the culture, make friends and “really embrace every location that we were honored to be in.”
It was in the Amazon rainforest when Thomas Parker of Temple City first met Peterson and Sverdloff in 2017. They became fast friends and continued traveling together about four times a year thereafter. Parker said he was struck by Peterson’s kindness, his quick laugh and his unassuming intellect.
“He was just somebody I wanted to be around,” Parker said. “We just gravitated toward each other. It was almost like a brotherly love.”
The last time Parker saw Peterson was March 9 when departing from their trip with him and Sverdloff to Guatemala and Costa Rica. It would be the last trip Peterson would ever go on.
“On the last night, they were leaving and we gave each other a hug and said, ‘Hey listen, we’ll see you soon,’” Parker said. “We planned to go to Japan in November. We were both excited about that. So needless to say it was a stunner.”
At the time they were there, Costa Rica was not considered to be a hot spot for the virus and Sverdloff said they felt fortunate to be away from other areas.
The day after their return, Sverdloff departed for Southern California for a week to care for her mother-in-law, who had been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. Soon she got a call from her husband. He was running a fever.
They initially thought his fatigue and aches were jet lag. But after the fever didn’t dissipate after several days, Peterson went to a Kaiser testing site. He did not have a cough, however, and was instructed to go home and continue to monitor his symptoms, Sverdloff said.
As the fever continued another two days, Peterson saw his doctor and received a coronavirus test.
While Sverdloff was away, Beste said she brought food to her dad, who at first was playing off that he wasn’t that sick. As his poor condition persisted, Peterson wouldn’t allow Beste or his two grandsons to come into the house, even when it brought Beste to tears on the phone. He told her if he ended up testing positive, he didn’t want to expose them to the virus.
“He was very protective in that regard,” Beste said.
Soon after, the test came back positive and Sverdloff returned home early. While his symptoms appeared to be easing in the following days, Peterson suddenly began to feel short of breath. At the advice of a friend, Sverdloff called an ambulance.
Sverdloff recalled waving to her husband as he was loaded in the ambulance, telling him she’d meet him at the hospital.
“I didn’t get to say goodbye when he was conscious,” Sverdloff said, her voice breaking.
Peterson had bilateral pneumonia, doctors said. He was admitted to the intensive care unit in a medically induced coma and was placed on a respirator. As a type 2 diabetic, Peterson was a high-risk patient.
Despite the assurances of doctors that he could potentially pull through, Sverdloff said she wasn’t convinced after speaking with the health care providers through video chats.
“It was like he was possessed and all the medication that they gave him, nothing made a dent,” Sverdloff said. “It was like a demon. It just blocked anything.”
While Peterson had a do-not-resuscitate agreement with Sverdloff, she said she wanted to wait to see whether anything could be done. But then the doctor informed Sverdloff, Beste and Peterson’s youngest sister on a call that Peterson’s health had deteriorated to the point that if he regained consciousness he would essentially be senile. He would no longer be able to hike, travel and live the life he had loved so much, Sverdloff said.
On a trip to the island of Tinos in Greece, Beste had secured some holy water from a shrine. Knowing her father was dying, she asked the doctor how she could get it to him. The hospital allowed Sverdloff, Beste and Peterson’s sister to put on protective suits and make their final goodbyes in person.
Sverdloff carried a flask of Bombay Sapphire gin in honor of her husband’s favorite drink, a Bombay Sapphire martini.
She also had three selected works of his favorite poet, Rainer Rilke. In a final sendoff, she gave her husband a sponge bath with the drink and read the poems. Beste placed some of the holy water on her dad’s forehead and chest.
While Beste held his hand and had placed the other on his chest, Peterson died at 5:15 p.m. with the three women around him.
“It’s a terrible thing. You never want to see your loved one die, but yet I wouldn’t have changed a thing,” Sverdloff said. “I just wish that I had the opportunity to talk with him and say a proper goodbye and talk about our life together and how much we loved our life and each other. And we never got to do that. But he knew.”
On Thursday, Sverdloff picked up her husband’s ashes, which are now in his library alongside his books. She plans to spread half in Marin County. The other half Sverdloff intends to carry with her as she continue traveling, leaving a little part of her husband in each of the countries she visits.
Parker said he and his wife still plan to travel with Sverdloff to Japan when it becomes safe to do so.
A celebration of Peterson’s life is likely to be held this summer. In the meantime, donations in his memory can be made to the Chabad Richmond Torah Center in San Francisco at RTChabad.org
In addition to his wife and daughter, Peterson is survived by his grandsons Johnny and Nick Beste, his son Jason Peterson, his mother Joan Peterson and his sisters Vicki Bassing, Teri Espiritu and Shari Peterson.
“The message he had given me was that it’s really not so much about what we’re searching for, but how important the journey is,” his daughter said.
“People say that all the time, but that is something he organically instilled in me and that’s how he always lived his life: the journey. And that’s what I’ll always remember.”
Bay Area coronavirus widow: ‘I didn’t get to say goodbye’