Families find solace in memories and mementos
By PETER PRENGAMAN and RAGHURAM VADAREVU, with illustrations by PETER HAMLIN
December 30, 2020
Long after the funeral or memorial, if one was even possible, and long after the condolence cards, the phone calls of support, there is simply the emptiness. That’s when the memories rush in.
They can come from the feel of wearing a loved one’s necklace, its closeness trying to bridge an impossible distance. Or the embrace of the teddy bear made from their old flannel shirts, familiar and safe. Or the sight of a heron, a symbol of a family’s heritage, regal and proud.
The search for solace takes many forms. But when a global tragedy, a pandemic, disrupts that most delicate of life’s moments — a loved one’s passing — finding comfort also takes on new importance. A single life can become lost among many, seemingly blending into an ever-growing death toll.
Over the last year, Associated Press journalists profiled dozens of ordinary people around the world who died from the coronavirus, aiming to tell the story of COVID-19, one person at a time. As the turbulent year comes to a close, the AP revisited the families and friends of 10 of those lost to see how they are coping.
In their stories, windows into private grief amid a public calamity, they are finding comfort in the act of remembering, whether it’s in the cradling of an item their loved one left behind, in a vow to fulfill a promise they would’ve blessed — or in imagining them, their strength, in better days.
The gray sandals Yurancy Castillo left in her family’s home in Venezuela sit next to her bed with a Tweety bird pillowcase.
Keeping the shoes there allows her mother to briefly trick herself into thinking that her spunky curly-haired daughter will return soon. But now, six months after her death at 30 from COVID-19, that grows harder to do.
“Life isn’t the same for me,” Mery Arroyo says. “Every hour, I’m thinking of my girl.”
Castillo fled Venezuela three years ago as her country’s economic and political turmoil worsened and her family’s fridge grew empty. By bus, she traveled across four countries to Peru.
It wasn’t long before she found odd jobs like selling sewing machines and waitressing – work that offered a measly salary, but enough to send money back home, so that her parents could buy food. She’d call her mother, telling her she dreamed of home.
Then, the virus took her life. Now, her ashes sit in a Lima apartment, where her sister is watching over them until she can return them home.
In Venezuela, Arroyo’s home is filled with reminders of her daughter. Photos of her smiling fill tables and walls.
And then there are the sandals, worn and faded. Arroyo imagines her daughter left them behind because they were too tattered to take on the journey to a new life. At first, they were a reminder that her absence was only temporary.
Sometimes, for a brief moment, Arroyo can convince herself that’s still true.
— Christine Armario
Saferia Johnson’s favorite chair, a rocker with a blue cushion, is empty. Clothes that she excitedly bought hang with tags, unworn. And the smile of the Thomasville, Georgia, native, so beaming and inviting, now lives on only in a heart-shaped photograph on a necklace her mother wears.
Tressa Clements has found herself continuing to talk to her since her daughter died from COVID-19 in August and hearing her voice echo in her mind. Sometimes it’s the mundane, like the Christmas lists of Johnson’s two sons, 5 and 7. Other times it’s the void that sends Clements into tears.
“She tells me, ‘Mom, stop crying,’” Clements says. “She tells me how beautiful it is where she is.”
The pain of the 36-year-old’s death is complicated for those she left behind by the absence that preceded it. Johnson had been serving a prison sentence in Florida on fraud charges and, though visits and calls and messages kept her connected, normalcy had already been upended.
Johnson’s loved ones are now trying to find their footing in a world that’s familiar and different.
Her aunt still makes macaroni and cheese, but it comes out of the oven without its most enthusiastic fan waiting. Johnson’s little boys are as inquisitive as ever, but now they’re asking if mommy might still be here if she only had a mask to protect her.
Holidays still come, but Clements was too sad to get out of bed on Thanksgiving and she wondered if a Christmas tree was right, too.
When Clements sees her grandsons upset, she shakes herself to cheer the boys. That’s what convinced her to put the tree up, complete with the ornaments Johnson made as a child – little bells she decorated, and a paper heart with a picture of her in the center from second grade.
“Mommy would want you to be so happy during Christmas,” she says she told the boys.
— Matt Sedensky
Dr. Amged El-Hawrani’s family remembers his hands.
His wife, Pamela, thinks about every scar, every shape, every millimeter of the hands that made her feel safe, protected and loved. His brother Amal recalls their strength — a reflection of the confidence that helped Amged become a respected ear, nose and throat specialist in England.
“You know, surgeons are supposed to have long, delicate fingers,” Amal says. “But his hands were made for boxing or something.”
When Amged, 55, died from COVID-19 on March 28, he was one of the first doctors in Britain to succumb to the virus, becoming a symbol of the danger faced every day by healthcare workers battling the virus.
His family recall simpler things, like his passion for cars. His son, Ashraf, remembers his father behind the wheel, talking about World War II and introducing him to the music of Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix.
There were deeper lessons as well. “He taught me the significance of respect and equality,” Ashraf wrote in a memorial honoring his father. “He also stressed the importance of not worrying about the things I cannot control, which he displayed to me right up until the end of his life.’’
That philosophy was forged early. Born in Sudan, Amged grew up in western England, where he and his brothers were often the only non-white children in the neighborhood. But he loved his new home, committed himself to medicine and never let anyone else’s opinion bother him.
He persevered. And now, so does his family.
“Life just takes you forward,” Amal says. “Regardless of whether you are ready or not.’’
— Danica Kirka
Amid profound heartache, Marc Papaj is looking to his roots for solace.
A member of the Seneca Nation’s Heron Clan, Papaj and his family have long drawn pride from the graceful bird. Since his mother, grandmother and aunt died of COVID-19 in late May and mid-June, he’s been drawing strength from images of herons.
“Friends and family have been sending drawings of three herons together,” says Papaj, while recently cleaning out his mother’s house in Salamanca, New York, on the Allegany Reservation. “Our tribe is matrilineal, so to lose three prominent members who were mothers is such a blow.”
Papaj’s grandmother, Norma Kennedy, and his mother, Diane Kennedy, both had long careers with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, taking on various roles that ranged from distributing funds to native communities to being a peacemaker judge on a tribal court. Papaj’s aunt, Cindy Mohr, was a long-time elementary school teacher.
Normally during the holidays, there are negotiations about where the celebrations will take place: Papaj’s home, his mom’s home or the homes of his grandmother or aunt. Before the pandemic changed everything, they all lived within an hour’s drive of each other in western New York state.
“It was always a great holiday no matter what,” says Papaj.
This year, there is just silence.
“I tend to well up first, get that tickle in my throat,” says Papaj, recounting how his wife, two teenage daughters and 10-year-old son took time at Thanksgiving at home to remember who wasn’t with them. “It speaks volumes because this would have been the Thanksgiving to lean on family.”
— Peter Prengaman
Since Raymond Millare’s football coach died from the coronavirus, there have been times when the Hawaii teen would sink into his own world.
Millare would throw on cordless headphones to listen to melancholy music and scroll through old photos with Willie Talamoa on his phone. Some afternoons, he would think back to how Talamoa would swing by his house to pick him up for practice.
“Honestly it’s like it’s not even real. But it’s reality. So I kind of just got to hang in there and stay strong for him, like he would do for me,” the 18-year-old high school senior says.
Talamoa died at 36 in August. Fellow coaches and players in the Honolulu neighborhood of Kalihi where he grew up remember him as a mentor and father figure who generously gave his time and money to provide young people opportunities he didn’t have.
Millare was one of them, and he’s felt his absence. Sadness has at times made it hard for Millare to control his feelings and focus in school. But his parents remind him that Talamoa is still with him, even if the coach is no longer present physically.
“That kind of motivates me and makes me want to be active again,” he says, adding he wants to finish the school year strong for coach.
The coronavirus pandemic prevents Millare and his teammates from holding group practice or playing. So Millare works out at home or a park. He likes to put on the pair of cleats Talamoa gave him because it makes him feel like he’s warming up for a game or going to practice.
And, most of all, he likes them because they remind him of “Coach Willie.”
— Audrey McAvoy
Anisha Khanna isn’t sure when her older sister Priya got the necklace, but it was clear she loved it — a pendant, with her initials, “PK,” inside, a flower and a symbol of an eye meant to ward off bad luck.
Now, it is among Khanna’s most cherished possessions, a reminder of her sister, a fellow physician in New Jersey, who she admired for her kindness and intelligence and who she lost to COVID-19 in April.
“It was something small, but I know she liked it a lot and that meant the world to me,” she says.
Dr. Priya Khanna died at 43 just days ahead of their father, Dr. Satyender Khanna, 77, who also succumbed to the virus. They both died in the same northern New Jersey hospital.
The ensuing months have compounded the pain, with the family’s Hindu burial traditions being upended by the pandemic restrictions and their mother, Dr. Kamlesh Khanna, overcoming the virus and then getting shingles.
“Every day is a struggle, a lot of ups and downs,” said Anisha Khanna, the youngest of three sisters who followed their surgeon father and pediatrician mother into medicine.
The family has found comfort in the company of others, both in person and virtually.
On Priya’s birthday in November, Anisha and several of her sister’s friends met at a restaurant, a rare outing during the pandemic, and ate some of Priya’s favorite dishes. Kamlesh Khanna joined a Facebook group of COVID-19 survivors, some of whom seek out her medical advice.
“It makes her feel like she’s not the only one,” Anisha says.
— Dave Porter
José Miguel Cruz da Costa has been busy. Since his grandmother Hannelore Cruz passed away from COVID-19 in March, he has been refurbishing the house she left behind in Portugal — and adding a very personal touch.
In a “special corner” of the living room, he’s placed her black upright piano, beneath a painting of an orchestra made by one of her uncles in Austria. It’s a tribute to the “angelic voice,” as he calls her, with a passion for classical music.
“I’m sure she’d approve,” he says.
Cruz, who died at 76, arrived in Portugal as a child evacuee from devastated Vienna after World War II. She eventually pursued a singing career in the northern Portuguese city of Braga, taught singing and performed at local weddings and church recitals.
Her grandson visited her almost every day after she moved into a care home for the elderly. He has lost, he says, a “cherished” routine — joining her for coffee after breakfast and, on Fridays, taking her to the hairdressers and then out for lunch.
The Christmas holiday laid bare another absence: her homemade pumpkin muffins and other traditional desserts of northern Portugal.
Her grandson says the family misses their “kitchen virtuoso.”
— Barry Hatton
The big green taco truck’s engine started to rattle, and Isaac Lopez thought of his late dad.
“I wish I could talk to him to ask him about it,” he says. “I’ll probably have to get a mechanic. He would have fixed it himself.”
Tomas Lopez died at 44 from COVID-19 in April. The jovial face of the family’s Taco El Tajin restaurant and food trucks in Seattle, he had long served Amazon employees, construction workers and other customers with a hearty “Hello, my friend!”
Isaac, 19, has taken over many of his father’s roles in the business.
“I didn’t know what to do with my life,” Isaac says. “Now I do, and I love it.”
Still, it’s hard work, especially without his dad’s companionship and guidance.
Isaac used to sleep until 7 a.m. before his shift in one of the trucks. Now he’s up with his mom by 4, making sure there’s gas and propane for the trucks, getting supplies at the store and preparing food at the restaurant before driving one of the trucks to Seattle.
More than anything else, Isaac says, the taco truck his dad always drove — the biggest one — reminds him of the old man.
He doesn’t usually drive that one, though. It’s too big, too scary to handle. He drives a smaller one to the same neighborhood his father served for years, dishing up burritos, tortas and flan to many of the same customers.
As they approach the truck, those customers hear a familiar greeting: “Hello, my friend!”
— Gene Johnson
When Tri Novia Septiani sometimes visits the Jakarta apartment of Michael Robert Marampe, her fiancée who died from coronavirus, the memories are so overwhelming that she has had to put away things that remind her of him — a teddy bear, books and some of his clothes.
“I cannot stand to see them around,” she says.
There are several items that she won’t put away: an electronic keyboard, a piano and several guitars he used to compose the song, “You Are The Last One,” for her. It was to be sung at their wedding in April, the same month he died at 28 of COVID-19 in Indonesia.
Music brought the couple together. Septiani, a fashion designer and singer, met him at the church where he played piano. They formed the duo, Miknov, covering popular songs and composing their own music they uploaded to Instagram and YouTube.
Over the last several months, Septiani has been working with musicians to produce the song. She sings the solo, just as they planned, but without the man she was to make a life with.
“It is very difficult to sing that song with a different pianist,” she says. It took her a very long time to finish the song because the recording sessions frequently ended with her in tears.
“I have accepted that he is gone,” she says. “But I do not want to say goodbye.”
Still, producing the song was a way to honor his love for music. When she sees his keyboard and piano, she is reminded that she will go on with her memories of him and the spirit he showed in the passions he pursued.
— Edna Tarigan
Meghan Carrier remembers how her dad, Cleon Boyd, loved his flannel shirts, how he’d wear them during ski season and how he couldn’t be talked out of them — even when the weather in Vermont warmed up.
Carrier has turned to her dad’s flannels collection lately as she wrestles with the sadness of losing him and his twin brother Leon to COVID-19.
She’s knitted a teddy bear out of her dad’s oversized flannel shirts, and included a collar from one of them. She can still smell her dad’s favorite cologne, Jovan Musk, on them. She sometimes pulls the bear out and gives it a hug.
“It just makes me feel closer to my dad. It still smells like him,” she says. “It gives me a little bit of comfort.”
The twins died a week apart in April, leaving a hole in everything from birthdays to musical jam sessions that are so important to the Boyd family. Another of Cleon Boyd’s children, Chris, says he can’t take listening to his dad’s favorite country songs.
“I don’t play my guitar as much as I should. Songs on the radio, I have to shut them off,” he says. “It makes me cry. I can’t do it.”
Relatives haven’t been able to have a traditional funeral for them, settling instead to spread their ashes around favorite haunts: the sugar shack where the brothers held court during maple syrup season; Haystack Mountain; and the summit of Mount Snow.
“It was the one spot my dad absolutely loved,” Carrier said of Mount Snow, where he groomed the ski trails for years. “To be able to watch the sun come up and feel the sun touch your face, it warms you up, and reminds me of my dad.”
— Michael Casey
This story is part of a yearlong series, “Lives Lost,” which tells the stories of ordinary people from across the world who died from the coronavirus and the impact they had on their loved ones and their communities.
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