By Liora Engel-Smith
Dulce Garcia was afraid. The 29-year-old’s coronavirus infection started ordinarily enough. She ran a fever. She had difficulties breathing. And it terrified her.
Everyone, including her sister, Crystal Garcia, 27, thought she’d pull through. The Alamance County resident had everything working in her favor: she was young, healthy and had the kind of vibrant energy that made her someone you could lean on, her younger sister said.
But then, on Mother’s Day, Dulce Garcia wasn’t feeling well. An interpreter at UNC Hospital in Chapel Hill, Dulce Garcia caught coronavirus somewhere in the community. Her family does not know how or where. But these questions quickly lost their significance as the older sister’s condition worsened.
“I’m scared,” she told her younger sister in the last video call they’d ever have.
“Don’t cry,” Crystal Garcia, who was working the night shift at the time, told her. “Your fever broke. That’s good.”
The older sister nodded with a weak half-smile and signed off with an “I love you.”
The following morning, as Dulce Garcia reported she was too weak to stand, Crystal Garcia decided that enough was enough. Her big sister, a headstrong woman who avoided hospital visits for herself because she was scared of needles, needed an emergency room visit.
Crystal Garcia did not know at the time that her sister had already been seen in the emergency room for her coronavirus days earlier, despite her needle aversion. She was given medications to help her breathe and sent home, Crystal Garcia later learned.
“I’m done with this, I don’t care what she says, she is going to the ER,” the younger sister thought.
But it was too late. Dulce Garcia had a seizure en route to the hospital. She died shortly thereafter.
Crystal Garcia can’t begin to tally what she’s lost: a best friend, a big sister to butt heads with, someone who loved and understood her. Dulce, whose name means sweet in Spanish, supported her parents financially. She wanted everyone to know that they mattered. Almost a year after her death, her absence remains a gaping wound.
“We’re doing the best we can,” Crystal Garcia said. “We’re doing the best we can with everything.”
Coronavirus has killed more than 11,200 North Carolinians in the year since the first known case was confirmed on March 3 last year. They were grandparents, parents and siblings. Coworkers, neighbors, volunteers. The pandemic didn’t spare church elders or college students. It brought heartache to cities and tore through small towns and rural enclaves.
The loss has irrevocably changed communities of color, as long-time advocates and community linchpins died, said Randolph Keaton, who heads Men and Women United for Youth and Families, a nonprofit that serves Bladen, Brunswick, and Columbus Counties.
While African Americans make up 22 percent of North Carolina’s population, they account for roughly a quarter of coronavirus deaths in the state. Seventy percent of the state’s population is white, but they make up only 66 percent of deaths.
“I would say we have lost a part of our future,” Keaton said. “You would never know what these folks would have done in their lives for life to be better.”
Keaton has sent more condolence bouquets than he’d care to count over the last year. But flowers aren’t as comforting as grieving with families in person. Social distancing prohibits hugging, kissing or holding a loved one’s hand. Masks make crying together difficult. With chilly winter weather making outdoor funerals nearly impossible, the pandemic took yet another precious thing: It changed the way we mourn.
Cindy Wechter has seen many kinds of grief. A pastor at Burke County’s Christ United Methodist Church in Drexel, Wechter has supported countless families who have lost loved ones. So when her father, Marvin L. Shepard, 89, died of coronavirus the spring after it arrived in North Carolina, Wechter felt ready.
But the losses began long before her father stopped breathing. Shepard got ill at the end of April, just weeks after Gov. Roy Cooper signed the state’s first stay-at-home order. As the virus spread through the nursing home, Wechter worried about her dad.
“He kept saying, ‘I’m not going to catch that stupid virus,’” she recalled. “But then it started going down the hall … and we kind of knew.”
The lockdown confined Wechter and her mom to the lawn outside of Shepard’s window. They wrote notes to hang on his window. They used a walkie-talkie to play his favorite songs. But neither mother or daughter could touch or hug him. They sent vicarious hugs through the facility’s nursing staff.
Once, when the sun glare obscured their faces, Wechter and her mom hung a tarp as a makeshift canopy to allow him to see them.
Wechter posted regular updates on her Facebook page. She also told her dad about the comments.
“We weren’t alone,” she said. “While we were isolated, at least on Facebook we were able to bring all of dad’s friends and all of his community and all of our friends.”
Digital media also brought the family together after Shepard’s death. The service took place outside, and family members set up a memorial table with photos and other keepsakes. They parked his favorite ride — the lawn mower — nearby. A procession of cars, filled with neighbors, friends and loved ones rode by. Family members who couldn’t attend in person joined the service over Zoom. And at 2 o’clock sharp, everyone raised a glass in honor of Shepard, who loved beer.
“We knew that all over the country, his friends were doing that,” she said. “Even the nurses from the nursing home sent us videos of themselves lifting up and doing a cheer for him.”
Jimmy Kirksey, who is an associate at the Sossoman Funeral Home in Morganton, has seen a similar shift among his clients. Kirksey, who has been in the funeral business for decades, said many clients opt for virtual funeral services. Demand for memorial live-streams has increased so much that Kirksey has invested in a permanent webpage for videos on the funeral home’s website. He’s also in the process of buying a mobile hotspot to offer the same service to his more rural clients.
A sizable chunk of clients still prefers to cremate their loved ones and hold memorials when large gatherings are permitted once again. But demand for virtual funeral services is growing. Customers request virtual services once or twice a week on average, he added.
“It seems to be the new way of doing things,” Kirksey said. “I think a lot of the personal touch is not there anymore but that’s just my opinion.”
At the same time, business picked up significantly since the pandemic began. In a normal year, Kirksey and his staff of 10 work with roughly 400 clients. Since the pandemic began, that number jumped to the low 500s.
One thing remains constant, he added. A death is still a death.
“The pain’s still there,” he said. “It’s just different, the way they celebrate their loved ones.”
A life cut short
Jamesha Waddell was close with her grandmother, Janice Waddell, 67. The Livingstone College senior would come home and clean Janice Waddell’s house from top to bottom. There was nothing the 23 year old couldn’t do: she cooked, cleaned and helped her grandmother with paying the bills.
But in November, the two Columbus County residents shared something else: a coronavirus diagnosis that has landed them both in the hospital. Janice Waddell lived to return home, her granddaughter didn’t make it.
If not for coronavirus, the criminal justice major would have been the first among her siblings to walk across the stage in a college graduation gown just a few weeks later.
“I think about her every day,” said her grandmother, who is still on oxygen since her coronavirus infection.
One day soon, a Livingstone College diploma bearing Jamesha’s name will arrive in the mail. The family will likely frame the ornate document and hang it somewhere special. The diploma should have been the start of a promising career in law enforcement.
Instead, it will be the 23 year old’s final accomplishment.
A lonely end to a full life
Most of the people lost to the virus weren’t young like Jamesha Waddell or Dulce Garcia. Almost 3 in 4 people who died were over the age of 65, state health department data shows. For many in this group, the social distancing measures that preceded their passing meant no face-to-face family visits as they sickened and died.
Out in the western part of the state, 86-year-old Rita Hulkower spent the last year of her life in quarantine. There would be no visits to see her children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren. No outings on a sunny day. Despite these measures, however, she contracted coronavirus in December, during an outbreak at her nursing home.
She died roughly a week later. Had she lived another two weeks, Rita Hulkower would have become eligible to receive the vaccine that could have saved her. Her son, Steve Hulkower, got his first dose the following month. A family physician who heads a department at the Asheville-based Mountain Area Health Education Center, Steve Hulkower felt a rush of relief tinged with sadness.
His mother, a passionate early childhood educator who retired after a 30-year career, loved children, most of all her own. But she didn’t get to play with them, hug them or even touch them for almost a year. Because of his medical credentials, Steve Hulkhower was allowed to visit his mother before she died but no one else in the family could say goodbye in person.
“That’s quite a way to end a life, for people who had meaningful relationships to be basically in lockdown for the last year of their lives,” he said. “To die and to die alone is just a tragedy.”
This story has been altered to change the name of Jimmy Kirksey’s place of employment.