Three Deaths in Three Weeks

Three weeks ago I had work-related travel to New Mexico. The timing was horrible. COVID-19 was starting to explode, but my career, at least in my mind, was tied to this trip. While many people were starting to cancel trips I planned to travel. There were no cases in my state and none in the state to which I was traveling. A few days before my trip things started to change.

Three weeks ago and a few days before my flight I received a text message that Bill Stokes had died. Bill was in his late 70s and had Parkinson’s. He had a profound influence on my young life. When I was a teenager he was the voice of reason. I can’t say how many evenings he stayed up past midnight talking to me and encouraging me to study, pray, work hard, and examine my conscience. He was my model of what a man should be and what a deacon of the church should be. His children remain my brothers and sisters and his wife will always be a second mother to me.  Throughout my life when I had a moral dilemma or needed advice or wanted to celebrate a success he was the person to whom I turned. My heart broke when his daughter called. I have never been good at expressing my emotions and was not able to tell them how much he meant to my young life, my young adulthood, and my faith.

Last week Jim O’Connor died after a long battle with cancer. Jimbo was a lawyer by education and a pianist by passion. He was known around Knoxville for playing at Club LaConte. He was the father of my niece and my twin brother’s best friend. When my brother was shot and killed my niece was the only person who seemed able to express her grief. While she was my brother’s stepdaughter she is the child I never had. She and Jimbo have been in my life since I was a teenager, but it wasn’t until my brother’s death that we truly connected. Jimbo played at my brother’s funeral and it was as if angels were singing. I could hear and feel his love through music. When I returned to Knoxville a couple of years ago I went to a faculty pub and the pianist was Jimbo. I spent the entire evening talking to him, listening, and grateful that fate had brought us together again. It was as if, for a brief moment in time, work didn’t matter. Family was first. I’m sorry I was out of town when he passed and sorry I didn’t have the special gift to offer him that he offered for my brother.

A couple of days ago a student in my Health Policy class at the University of Missouri – St. Louis died. Judy Wilson-Griffin was a shining star in nursing. She was a leader, an educator, and a loved member of the community. She was to lead us into the future. She died too soon from COVID-19.

I can accept that the mentor of my youth died in his 70’s after years battling Parkinson’s disease. I can accept that Jimbo died after fighting cancer for years. He led a life of love that was filled with music and left behind an incredible young woman that teaches English as a second language and has dedicated her life to immigrant children. But damn COIVID-19 for taking someone that should have been leading for years to come. A person who was the next generation of nursing leaders.

I was stoic when my brother died, stoic when my parents died, and remained stoic during the recent deaths. I find it hard to express my grief. Yet I don’t find it hard to express my anger over a wrong. My brother was murdered and I was angry. I’m still angry. Every time I read of a gun-related murder I’m angry all over again. And now I am angry about COVID19 deaths. I know we can’t prevent all gun deaths any more than we can prevent all COVID19 deaths, but we are all culpable because we have been too silent and too stoic. We have a government that has failed us and it has been failing us for a long time. We have counted the failures everything from income disparity to climate change, from ill-advised wars to an epidemic of gun violence, and now we see it in the rich and famous getting tested for COVID19 with minimal or no symptoms and the working class having to beg for testing and being denied. People will die because of the failures, but our Senators made sure to sell their stocks before protecting nurses.

In three weeks I’ve lost a mentor, a friend, and a student. I’m ready to stand up and fight for a better future because what is happening right now isn’t acceptable.


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