Sunday, February 7, 2021

Death in the Time of COVID-19

It doesn’t get easier—saying good-bye to those you love.  You think once this pandemic is over, you will emerge from virtual hibernation, and the world as you knew it will still be there.  But, of course, it won’t be.  Time marches on, nothing will be the same.  Favorite restaurants have folded, stores have closed, live events have gone by the wayside, and people have died. 

Four people I loved died in the last six months, not of COVID, but because of COVID protocols, everything is different.

In May, my friend Beth died.  It wasn’t unexpected.  She was in a long-term care facility in deteriorating health.  I hadn’t visited her in quite awhile because of her precarious health and COVID restrictions.  She was brilliant before disease attacked her mind and body.  We talked about books, current events, mutual friends, Saints football.  Over the 30 years of our friendship, we were able to work together on projects in the field of early childhood, especially targeting underserved populations and children with cognitive or language delays. We presented at professional conferences.  We took several trips—to Europe and to our respective hometowns so we could see where the other person grew up.  Beth, I, and several of our friends used to get together regularly, never missing a birthday or holiday observation.  Fortunately, Beth’s daughter and husband were able to be with her at the end, singing hymns and reading her favorite Bible verses aloud.  There was no memorial service because of COVID.

Beth eats Thanksgiving dinner with us

My college roommate Brenda came to visit Ricky and me in March of 2020.  Brenda and I were like sisters during college.  We had been talking about her coming to see me for years, and finally it was reality.  From their home in Virginia, Brenda and her husband Roger embarked on a tour of the Deep South. Unfortunately, there were other realities in play.  Brenda had lung cancer and was enrolled in an experimental drug trial that had her cancer in remission.  Brenda and Roger were coming to our house from New Orleans.  Following Mardi Gras 2020, New Orleans was experiencing the spread of a novel corona virus that was killing people.  Ricky and I felt that Brenda would be especially vulnerable to a virus that attacked the lungs, but Brenda and Roger seemed oblivious to the dangers of COVID-19.  (This was before wearing face coverings was mandated or recommended.)  Roger and Brenda wanted to see the city.  Ricky drove us around Shreveport, stopping at tourist attractions that had few other visitors.  We ate outside on patios and took them to one of my favorite gift shops, The Enchanted Garden, so they could see handmade Mardi Gras masks and meet the mask artist who was also Krewe of Highland Mardi Gras King when I was the queen. 

I later learned that the experimental drug stopped working in June after buying Brenda three good years.  Roger reported that Brenda declined rapidly after that, dying in August.  I found all the photos of Brenda from our friendship and posted them for her family and friends to see.  Brenda was always laughing in those days. 

Brenda and me, March 2020

Amy, Teresa, Lynn, Brenda at college graduation

In September 2005 as a result of Hurricane Katrina, Ricky and I met Jolanta, Elizabeth, and Christopher when they were evacuated from the V.A. Hospital in New Orleans where Jolanta was working when Katrina hit.  In those days, it wasn’t unusual for staff members to take their kids to work when a hurricane was predicted, and no family members were available to care for the children.  Jolanta and her two children, Elizabeth who was in her early 20’s but had some special needs and Chris, a high school senior, were stranded in the V.A. Hospital for days after Katrina hit.  Jolanta and her colleagues who worked in the cardiac unit bagged patients who had been on vents to keep them alive.  Chris and older kids foraged for food in the hospital, while Elizabeth played games in a secluded room with the younger children.  Finally,  the National Guard evacuated the V.A. Hospital, and Jolanta and her two children ended up at Overton Brooks V.A. Hospital in Shreveport where my husband was a registered nurse.

When the van carrying Jolanta, Elizabeth, and Chris arrived at the V.A. in Shreveport, Ricky called to say he was bringing them to our house so they could stay in our guest cottage until other arrangements were made.  Jolanta, Elizabeth, and Chris stayed in our backyard cottage for several weeks until they found a nearby house to rent.  Bill, the dad of the family, had been working in Washington, D.C., but he soon arrived in Shreveport, too.  This was the beginning of a close relationship between our two families for the next 16 years. 

Bill and Christopher returned to New Orleans after Christmas 2005 when Chris’ high school reopened, and repairs began on the family home in Uptown/Carrollton area of the city.  Jolanta and Elizabeth remained in Shreveport for a year.  The V.A. transferred Jolanta to the Shreveport V.A. to continue her employment.  Elizabeth accompanied me to work, alternating between the two early childhood centers where I had offices.  Elizabeth blossomed in Shreveport.  My friends adopted the family and grew to love them, too. 

When Jolanta and Elizabeth returned to New Orleans, Ricky and I visited their home many times over the years.  The family, plus Bill’s mother, evacuated to our house when another hurricane threatened. We went to New Orleans when Bill’s mom died in order to distract Elizabeth from the preparations.  Elizabeth visited us in Shreveport and loved it.  When she was in New Orleans, Elizabeth called me every week.  She would keep the rest of her family abreast of events in Shreveport.  She was possessive of that role.

Tragically, three members of the Haney family are now gone.  Bill died in 2018 after a long illness.  We attended the funeral and grieved with Jolanta.  I talked to Jolanta afterwards, and she said it was so hard to go on without Bill, but she had to be there for her kids, especially Elizabeth.  Then in August of 2020, I talked to Jolanta.  She said she had lung cancer, but her prognosis was good.  However, in September of 2020 as I was driving back to Louisiana from Virginia, my husband called and said Jolanta had died.  There was a virtual funeral.  I sent a video in which I talked about my friend, the fascinating and totally unique Jolanta. 

Jolanta and Elizabeth at the TajMo concert

Now, unbelievably, Elizabeth too is gone.  Ricky got a call from Chris this week.  Elizabeth had some type of medical crisis and despite her brother’s rushing her to the hospital, she didn’t make it.  Elizabeth had medical issues.  I knew, in a sense, that Elizabeth lived on borrowed time.  Her mom and her doctors had brought her back from the brink more than once.  This time, it was not to be.  I talked to Elizabeth the Saturday night before she died.  She seemed happy.  Chris had her in a routine that she liked.  Elizabeth said the young woman who was her companion and helper took walks with her, sat on the porch swing with her when the weather permitted, and did some coloring and other "work" with her.  She talked about her dog Lila and cat Sarah.  She seemed the same as usual, now she is gone.  Rest in peace in the arms of your mother, my beautiful little friend. 

Elizabeth on her porch swing in New Orleans

I have no words of wisdom or comfort with which to end this essay.  They’ve all been said, especially this past year. We all know that we are not guaranteed a tomorrow.  Love your friends and family, embrace the now, live in the present, it’s all any of us have.