The toll of coronavirus | Feature | Chicago Reader

The toll of coronavirus 

Loved ones reflect on the loss of partners, parents, siblings, joy givers, caretakers, and secret keepers.

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DANIEL ZALKUS
  • Daniel Zalkus

Jada Judkins, 20

Lost sister Resheeta Boyd Thompson, 30, on April 22

[Resheeta] was my older sister on my mother's side. She was a home care aide, she made sure she'd be there for her client, who lived in an apartment. A couple weeks before she passed away, [my sister] got word that the whole entire building tested positive. She didn't have insurance. Her insurance came a month after she passed away. Her [employer, Addus HomeCare,] they don't do medical insurance. Funny part about this situation is she was already quarantined for two weeks. She was at her two weeks' peak. She was about to get over the COVID and then she had breathing problems around 11 o'clock at night. She went to the hospital. They told me she's on her way to the ICU, she's doing fine. At 12:30 they called to tell me she's going into cardiac arrest and what's her medical history. In a panic I gave them her medical history, she was diabetic. Around 1:30 they called [to tell] me that my sister had passed.

It was very rough for my mom. I had to be the one to tell her when my sister isn't coming home. It was shock in her face, like she didn't hear what I said. Then she spent nights and nights and nights crying. She couldn't eat. And me and my mother had the COVID-19. We had the mild symptoms, my mom's diabetic too but we've recovered. My mom had to figure out how to get the money to bury my sister. I didn't have a job because of the pandemic, it was a seasonal job with the White Sox. [Resheeta] had very few friends. On my mom's side the family is kind of small—most of who came to her funeral really was my friends, my mom's friends, and she had two or three friends who brung their friends.

Resheeta Boyd Thompson - DANIEL ZALKUS
  • Resheeta Boyd Thompson
  • Daniel Zalkus

I feel like people are taking it more serious than before, but I do honestly invite people to not fall for the phases, like everything is peachy cream and rainbows. Wash your hands and care about your hygiene. It's fine the state is opening back up, but stay home if you feel sick. It's like you're driving, you have to keep yourself safe and other people as well—do the same when you go into the store. Someone else might have to go through what I went through because you don't know if you have COVID.

For the last couple of months I've been trying to stay as busy as possible. You can't let this bottle up inside, because it'll make you crazy. Whether it's working, sleeping, grieving, just do it. You have to live every day as if it's never changed because the person you loved would want you to do that, they want you to go on. Being around other people that are just here with me, cooking and gardening [has been most comforting]. She was into cooking. She wanted to actually start a vegetable garden, so I decided to do it. Right now I'm doing succulents. And my best friend gave me a spider plant that makes different vines. And I have lilies her aunties gave me for her funeral.

Daniel Hennessy - DANIEL ZALKUS
  • Daniel Hennessy
  • Daniel Zalkus

Maggie Hennessy Underwood, 47

Lost brother Daniel Hennessy, 48, on May 15

My brother was diagnosed with lung cancer in January, so as soon as we realized COVID was coming to the United States there was a huge concern. He was at such high risk and we knew that if he got this it would most likely be fatal. He was going through chemo and responded very well to it. He was in an extended care facility because he had medical complications from lung cancer. They had called prior to the shutdown and said they weren't taking any visitors. They had tight restrictions, you couldn't even drop anything off. He was calling me and asking me for Sprite, and I couldn't bring that. It was challenging but I commended [the facility] for taking the necessary steps for keeping the residents safe. As he stated, they had the place locked down like Fort Knox, and I felt he was in safe hands.

When we got the phone call that he was taken to the emergency room they didn't say what was wrong, but the hospital called the next morning and said he tested positive for COVID. He went to the emergency room on a Sunday, and Thursday I got a call that he was moved to the intensive care unit, and on Friday he texted me "I'm still alive." He had a great sense of humor. He passed away that evening, it was so quick.

I couldn't go to the hospital to be with him, I couldn't go to the nursing home to be with him. I think it magnifies the loss, you're so isolated and have no family members to comfort you. When he passed away we couldn't get together. We have a large family and you couldn't do any type of wake or funeral for him. I'm an extreme germaphobe and I still don't think it's safe to have a funeral for him. Having to put the closure on hold has been particularly trying, and already in a place when you're not in the best mental state when you're stuck at home. The things that give you stress relief, a lot of that was taken away from us. And you put a loss of a family member on top of it—it's hard.

What helped me was when information about his death was published and people reached out to me. He had moved to the city from the suburbs in his 20s, to Wicker Park when it was an artist community. He worked at a coffeehouse called Urbus Orbis, and the owner of it reached out to me. People who hung out in the coffeehouse and smoked cigarettes together reached out to me. It was nice to hear their stories. One of them had described him to me as the wheel of the artist community. He worked as a graphic artist but he went to the beat of his own drummer. He'd carve our soap into a mouse.

The thing that has not been helpful is people with the opposite view on face masks, and polarizing and politicizing the coronavirus, people thinking it's a hoax. I'm not a person who likes to get into political conversation but when people put stuff [like that] on Facebook I'll respond that I lost a family member. Those workers picked it up in their community, not because the nursing home necessarily did something wrong. [This experience] has made me more of a spokesperson against rushing reopenings. I'm speaking up more than I ever have before. Anything we can do in our personal power to stop the spread of the virus could save a life. People are saying it's their constitutional right, they don't have to wear a mask—where in the Constitution does it say that? It's just infuriating to me. It's a piece of cloth. We all wear seatbelts because it could save a life. No family should have to go through what we went through, being so alone and isolated and trying to deal with a loss and not being there for people that you love.

Wilbert Reynolds - DANIEL ZALKUS
  • Wilbert Reynolds
  • Daniel Zalkus

Renee Heath, 57

Lost brother Wilbert Reynolds, 81, on April 1

[Wilbert] was in the service and one of his friends invited him to go home with him to Chicago when he had shore leave. When he got there he liked it so much that he called my mom and said, "I think I'm gonna move to Chicago." He'd been in Chicago over 60 years, so it was more of his home than Detroit was. The rest of us are in Detroit. He was a computer programmer. He put himself through school after the service. He really enjoyed his retirement. He walked two to three miles a day. He fished, he would travel. For my mom's side of the family [Wilbert] was the keeper of our history. He was born in Alabama. My mom had him very young so he grew up being able to tell us stories about our family and our cousins. He was the keeper of our secrets too. My mother told him something on her deathbed and it's been 35 years and I still don't know what it is. They were best friends, even though they were mother and son. He treated my mother like she was a queen.

I think he was called away too soon. I believe he got sick walking to the store. He frequented the bowling alley. So he could have picked it up anywhere. That was way before the lockdown. I had called him and he sounded like he had a cold. He sounded terrible. I was listening to the news, they had just started talking about the [coronavirus] symptoms. I said, "No, I don't believe you have the flu, could you just call your doctor and see what he says." I spoke to him one more time, the day he went [into the hospital].

The experience was gut-wrenching. My brother was the oldest of the five of us and there was a 24-year age gap between he and I. He didn't have any children and he was never married so I was sort of like his daughter. Any time I called him he was always there for me. I was in Detroit and helpless, there was nothing I could do. The hospital notified me every single day about his progress. He was just too far gone. He did come off of the ventilator and he seemed to be stable. And later his stats for his oxygen started dropping. That's when I got the call to make the decision of what I thought would be best for him. My brother and I had talked for years about what he wanted. He never wanted to go into a nursing home, he never wanted to be a burden. They had already explained to me how long you can stay on the vent. He had signed a DNR and so I honored his wishes and let him go peacefully.

It was early during the pandemic, they weren't doing funerals. And he had asked to be cremated. He wanted me to take him to a fishing hole and release his ashes in Lake Michigan, so that's what I did. I didn't actually have an opportunity to say goodbye in a physical sense. The hardest thing was that I could not hold his hand or tell him I love him. I would call every day and I would tell [the nurses] to whisper in his ear that Sweetpea called. They would let me know he heard them.

Our family gets together at my aunt and uncle's house on Sundays and they cook a huge dinner and someone had the virus and they contracted it [in the spring]. My aunt ended up on a ventilator at the same time as my brother and they couldn't pull her off. My aunt passed in April and my uncle passed away just a week ago. He was home in hospice. His liver was gone. My aunt was in her 60s and my uncle was 82. They were all healthy. They just didn't know that they had it and by the time they got help it was too late.

I still can't believe my brother is not here. Even though he was 81 years old, I think he had many more years to live. We didn't know about this virus until he caught it. I think if he had known he would have taken more precautions. It was five siblings. He was the oldest. It's only two of us left. [My last living brother is taking it] hard. They were extremely close. He wants to pick up the phone and call and talk to him. We're a sports family and we'd get on the three-way to talk about the Bears, the Lions.

I appreciate everyone's prayers, and I appreciate everyone's thoughtfulness and saying they're praying for me and my family. That's the blessing. The part that hurts is that it doesn't bring back my brother. I can't get him back. Even though people have been so kind and so understanding I still can't get over that he's not coming back. And I won't see him again. To be taken by a virus is a little bit harder than just having a heart attack. Yes he was 81, but I don't know when his time was and I think he was taken from me way too soon.

I argue with people all the time. Everyone says sorry for your loss and I say, "Yeah but are you protecting yourself? Are you doing what it takes to ensure you and your family don't get it?" I don't understand why a mask is an issue. I don't understand why distancing is an issue. You're told to have a driver's license and a social security card. But you're told to put a mask on and suddenly you say, "You can't tell me what to do"? That irks me, that you would walk around and endanger not only yourself but people around you. It's not just statistics, there's real people behind these numbers and over 150,000 families are going through the same things I'm going through right now.

Arlola Rawls - DANIEL ZALKUS
  • Arlola Rawls
  • Daniel Zalkus

Tenesha Rawls, 37

Lost mother Arlola Rawls, 81, on April 10

My mom had just gotten out of the hospital from a 15-day stay. With my mom being older, having dementia, I never left my mom in the hospital. So the entire time she was there, I was there. [A few days later] my mom had a fever. I took my mom [back] to the hospital. I just figured maybe it was some type of infection.

The hardest part is hearing daily that your loved one is gonna die. And your mind is racing, wondering if you're doing everything that you could for them. You can't be there. It was never any good news . . . they stopped giving her dialysis. They told me that she had an infection at her catheter port. I just had to trust the people that were around her. That was hard. I still go back and wonder if I did everything the right way. If I should have kept her at home. Honestly I never felt like [the doctors] gave me any sense of hope.

I think the people have gotten really lax now. And want to get back to some normalcy, as though [the virus] is nonexistent. This is real. It is really real. It's probably the most devastating experience that you will have. I mean I lost a nephew, too, but this, for me, I cannot make peace with. The doctors have their own way of doing things and everyone has their different beliefs about death. Some people feel like, why suffer? Your quality of life will never be the same. Initially, my thing was to do everything that you can, put her on a ventilator. Then I was told that if she was to be intubated she would never fully recover. She would have to have a [tracheostomy], she would have to be in a nursing home the rest of her life. I know that that's not what my mom would have wanted. But I was still not sure if they were telling me that because of how they felt or if that really was my mom's last option.

I often feel like, did I give up on her? [What I'd say] to someone else is really just do what you feel first when it comes to your loved ones. Keep fighting. I don't know. It just felt like a lose/lose situation. We still have not been able to have a memorial for my mom. At the time [of her passing] I couldn't be around individuals, family members, so I have to grieve alone. I have to deal with all of this in my house by myself.

Everything that used to soothe me or help me get through things don't work anymore. Initially I couldn't pray, I couldn't talk to God. I couldn't do anything. For me, it was like, wow, my mom just came through two weeks of being in the hospital and she made it through that, just to come to something like this. You have people who tell you "She's in a better place, you wouldn't have wanted her to live through this," and none of that means anything to me. It's not soothing at all. Especially listening to people be conspiracy theorists about this whole COVID. That's not helpful because at the end of it, I felt my mom was a casualty.

My mother was a woman who helped everyone she could with the little bit she had. She never complained. My mom was like the oldest in our family. My mom had me late in life. She was 44. The only time I've been away from my mom is when I went away to college. Slowly she became dependent. But I have to say that was the greatest joy of my life, being able to do for her. And that's what kept me going, knowing that she counted on me. I have no children of my own so my mom was my responsibility and she was my best friend. Not having her, just, it's a complete void. I woke up this morning just feeling like I want to be wherever she is. I still have to live in the house. I don't know if that helps or hurts. My mom was my life so I'm trying to just figure out my life beyond her now. Everything I did, even with my job, where we lived, everything in my life was set around my mom. So it's like starting life over again. And honestly I don't feel like I want to, it's just, it's hard. It is. Death is hard anyway but to lose someone this way it is probably one of the most devastating feelings.

I don't think that she understood what was happening. And they did allow me to come to the hospital, probably two days before she passed. My mom wasn't herself. And to know that my mom had to leave this earth by herself, that will not sit well with me. I can only imagine just how scared she may have been, and she had dementia, so even just her understanding why I couldn't be there with her. . . . I hope that [now] they have a better system for that because no one deserves to die alone. I don't feel any closure. I don't.

Kiara D'Leesa Anderson-McDade - DANIEL ZALKUS
  • Kiara D'Leesa Anderson-McDade
  • Daniel Zalkus

Juwan McDade, 26

Lost wife Kiara D'Leesa Anderson-McDade, 25, on April 26

I never thought "until death do us part" for me would come so early. We just got married last year, May 25, 2019. My relationship with Kiara, I believe it was something that was heaven-sent. We brought out the best in each other. We've known each other our whole life. Grew up in church together. We started dating when I was 17. When I proposed, we had been together for seven years. So, a decade, a decade, with one person. She held a very special place in my heart. It'll be a long time before I'm alright.

She worked as a registered nurse. She worked at nursing homes. She was passionate about senior citizens and kids. For her side of the family, she was the designated person that you take with you to all your doctor's appointments. Kiara was all about living life. She was adventurous. She helped me develop myself, the man I am today. She kept it honest with me. Our relationship was very intimate. I walk around feeling like there's something missing. I know it's her.

March 15 she got sick. I picked her up from work, and when [we] came home she almost collapsed on the bed. I had to help her take her uniform off and put her pajamas on. And she was wheezing. She had asthma. But how she was breathing that night—I've never heard her breathe like that before. We found out that she was pregnant back in January. So not only is she suffering with side effects from being pregnant, now she's wheezing uncontrollably. She can barely keep her eyes open. Her entire body shut completely down. I had to help her up, I had to cook for her, I had to help her in the bathroom. Two weeks before Kiara passed, she came home from the hospital. She was able to walk around without being dizzy or without being short of breath. She was able to laugh and joke.

April 26 was a Sunday. I went to church but she had stayed [at home]. I had been telling myself that when I get back home, I'm gonna go out for some exercise, go for a nice walk, get some fresh air, because ain't no telling how long we're gonna be on shutdown. So [after church] I had grabbed some food, brought it back to the house. We watched some movies. And I see it getting late outside and I was telling myself I really need to go do this walk. I was gone for like two hours.

Before I left she had texted me saying bring back some chips or something like that. [When I came back] I came in the house, I changed my clothes, drove to the gas station. When I came in the house the first time the lights were off, but the TV was on. And she was laying back against the arm of the couch. When I left and came back the second time she was still in the same position. So I'm like OK, Kiara, Kiara, baby wake up. When I had walked up on her, the first thing I noticed were her lips were very pale. Her hands were blue. I call 911 and I'm on the phone with the operator and they're telling me how to properly do CPR, try to get the blood flowing back to her heart and her body. When they got here, they were trying for like a good ten minutes and they called it at that point.

The first thing I did was grab a rolling chair that I used as a barber chair and I tossed it to my room, about six feet. A bunch of things flashed into my head, seeing the face of her mom crying and sisters and all that. And the first person who walked towards me was one of the firefighters. And I felt like punching him in the face. Not because he didn't do his job or he didn't try hard enough. I was just mad. I got a table in my living room and about broke it in half. I was heated. I've never hurt like that. I've never felt like that before a day in my life.

Everybody always asks me, "How you doing?" Sometimes I honestly don't know how to respond to that question. Sometimes I feel like I tell people I am alright, just so they won't ask me any more questions. Because I don't always be wanting to talk. If somebody ask me questions like how I feel, my energy behind it won't be good. I'll start to get upset. If I tell you that I'm not alright, you should just take it at that and just say, "I'm praying that it gets better."

Cutting hair keeps me distracted. She actually encouraged me to cut hair. So I told myself that from this point on everything good that I do in life—and that's regardless if I ever get married and start another family again—everything good that I do is in dedication to honoring the memory of her and my baby. I plan on going back to school and get my associate's then if this barber thing take off get my own spot, be my own boss.

Some days her and the baby cross my mind and I have a moment where I don't want to think about it because I'm in a house with nothing to do. And then I have those moments where I'll go to my gallery and just look at all the pictures, all our videos, all our snaps. And I feel like me doing that is more so me accepting it. I'm thinking man like man, like, my baby really not coming back. I'll never hear her voice again. I'm never gonna find out the gender of my baby. I'm never gonna hear my child's voice.

You got to live on and if that person that you're mourning truly loved you they will want you to live your life to the fullest, they won't want you to just soak in this and be sad. Surround yourself with good energy. Focus on finding something constructive to do. Don't just sit in the house. Live. However, you're going to feel or whatever you want to feel. Feel it. Let it out. If you want to scream, scream. If you want to punch something, punch something but don't hurt yourself. If you want to just lay out and have a fit, do it because it's way better than keeping all those emotions and other energy bottled up.

There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about her or think about my baby or just wish like they both could be here. But I mean, I come to learn, you know, growing up in church my whole life everything happens for a reason. Like there's no such thing as a coincidence. These are the times you will really find out like what love is. Just love on your family, your friends as much as you can. I feel good knowing that I loved my baby till she left.

Patricia Frieson and Wanda Bailey - DANIEL ZALKUS
  • Patricia Frieson and Wanda Bailey
  • Daniel Zalkus

Gladys Frieson-Lucas, 68

Lost sisters Patricia Frieson, 61, on March 16 and Wanda Bailey, 63, on March 25

Pat, the first one to pass, she had double pneumonia when she was about one. And Wanda, the second one to pass, is the one right over Pat in age, she had pneumonia way back when she was three. We grew up in a household together. All nine of us, mother, and father. We had a close-knit family. We were all raised up here in Chicago. My mother had college education. My dad just had eighth-grade education but went to the military at a young age. He was a tall man so he got away with it. My mom, they say she could fix the mole on Lincoln's face on a penny. So she made a way for us to have play clothes, school clothes, church clothes, every last one of us. And only on daddy's salary, cause mama did not work until after the ninth child was well in school. So we lived a pretty good life. Christmas we always got two toys. My mom made those things happen.

When Pat was about 12 years old, my mother's father passed. That left my grandmother, Mother Gladys, down in Arkansas all by herself. My mother was the only one [of her children] that lived to adulthood. Now mama, since she had nine kids, I don't know maybe she thought she could spare one to go down there and be with her mother. Pat moved down there. Twelve to adulthood, she lived down there until my grandmother passed. She went to nursing school and became a nurse and made all that money. So she was glad that she stayed down there with Mother Gladys, and had that kind of southern lifestyle. She had some job nursing where she'd run across country making beaucoup money, you know as a traveling nurse. She enjoyed that too. She enjoyed life, she got all she could out of life.

Within the last 12 years she got this condition called lymphedema, people call it elephant leg syndrome. She grew large bags filled with fluid on the back of both of her legs and so she walked with a walker and two canes. But she loved life, she would go on a cruise ship with us, me and other friends. I'd put her in a wheelchair and push her around on that cruise ship. We were close, we'd play together, we'd have fun together. My father had these rules for us about always staying together and he had charged another sister of mine, Charmaine, the one right under me, to always keep the family together even after he was gone.

Both of [my sisters who passed] were very strong women of God. They had good faith, they lived, moved, and had their being in Christ Jesus. Wanda's husband was the minister of the church. They would not drink and smoke or anything. They lived good Christian lives, both of them together. And so that's one reason I never would've thought they would get a virus. My sister Wanda would give everyone gifts on Christmas even when we say we're not going to do all that gift giving this year. Wanda, she would go into her basement and get things that she had overstock in: deodorant, soaps, toothbrushes. She would get a whole, big shopping bag full of things that she had excess of and put it together, and put a bow on and give it to me, and I needed everything she gave me. I'd be so happy. Did that for a couple of Christmases. She's very generous. I think that's a strong word for Wanda. Good word for her, generous.

Patricia was a ministering person, she could talk to people and make them feel better about themselves, on the telephone. That was Pat: she was encouraging and inspirational to people. She sewed, sometimes we would take her things to alter for us. One year after dad and mama had passed, she took pieces of mama's robe that she always wore and daddy's robe, and she made pillow cases out of the robe material. And then she used some of the sheets from their bed and covering. She made clothes, pillowcases, and pillow jackets. She gave everyone in the family one. That's what Pat did.

Sometimes, I go down and we just get into talking and she would always be a blessing to me. She gave wise, good advice. Pat, I think she was sort of a seer. Sometimes she said the Lord would give her warnings if somebody was going to pass. So and so is having a baby, somebody might be going—you know the Lord would let her see some things in advance. And I don't know if she had seen her own passing. She might have, but she was encouraging us on the phone the day after we visited her [in the hospital]. She said they wanted to put her on the ventilator. She gave us hope that she was going to get off of the ventilator.

We heard about the virus and stuff but no way we thought something like that would get around in our family or to Pat because she's a Christian and Wanda, she was a beautiful Christian. That was the roughest thing for me. How did they get this when the scripture says "No plague shall come nigh thy dwelling"? God just let me know that he's merciful God. And that it was his doing, bringing this virus. He helped me to say amen to his will. Those were two beautiful sisters. He took the best of us. He took Pat and Wanda.

The Lord is the one that comforted me in losing my sister. Chronicles 7:13, He said, "If I cause a plague or famine, or pestilence in the land, if my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will heal their land."

Now, God is saying this. I believe he brought this pandemic to get us to turn away from our idols and start to keep His commandments. Because He is the one that's really in control. I heard Trump say, "Well, I think we oughta go back to work." And then the next day God doubled the numbers of deaths in the state of Illinois. What is [Trump's] response to the numbers going back up? He has none. I don't think he cares, because most of them are Afro-American. Trump doesn't care about us, so, "let 'em go back to work," and then that makes us the guinea pigs. Latinos and Blacks. But God was saying He's not ready for us to go back to work. He wants us to rest at home and we should get back to him, get to obeying our God.

I'm still a stickler for staying socially distant, wearing a mask, and frequently washing my hands with soap and water. Hand sanitizer is real. I'm in the best place I could be in having lost two sisters to this virus. My grief is consoled. And I'm comforted. I have talked it out pretty much, I'm at a good place with my grief. And so talking to you is good. Nothing wrong with that. Besides, you get to hear. It's therapeutic too. My sisters were some fine people.   v

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