Echoes of one million lost in the spaces they left behind

Apr 12, 2022, 9:02 AM | Updated: May 13, 2022, 8:08 am
A chair sits at the nurses station where Jennifer McClung worked as a longtime dialysis nurse at He...

A chair sits at the nurses station where Jennifer McClung worked as a longtime dialysis nurse at Helen Keller Hospital in Sheffield, Ala., Monday, March 7, 2022. In November of 2020, McClung, 54, tested positive for COVID-19. "Mama, I feel like I'm never coming home again," she texted her mother, Stella Olive, from a hospital bed. Her lungs severely damaged by the virus, she died just hours before the nation's vaccination campaign began on December 14. Today, a decal with a halo and angel's wings marks the place McClung once occupied at a third-floor nurses' station. "It still just seems like. She could just walk through the door," McClung's mother says. "I haven't accepted that she's she's gone. I mean, a body is here one day and talking and laughing and loving and and then, poof, they're just gone." (AP Photo/David Goldman)

(AP Photo/David Goldman)

Put your son in Sherman Peebles’ barber chair and along with a buzz you could count on Peebles, a sheriff’s deputy who cut hair as a sideline, to issue a fatherly warning about staying out of trouble.

Now, seven months after the dapper sergeant died of COVID-19, life goes on at the Columbus, Georgia, shop owned by his best friend. But the aching emptiness of Peebles’ absence lingers. The brotherly affection he brought to each day, gone missing. The jokes and stories that go untold.

The pandemic has claimed nearly 1 million lives in the U.S., leaving empty spaces in homes and neighborhoods across the country, whether we are aware of them or not.

In portraits of these places left behind, emptiness claims a chair at a nurses station in a busy Alabama hospital, long occupied by a caregiver co-workers recall as “like everybody’s mama.”

It fills the Arizona bedroom of a 13-year-old lost to COVID, his action figures lined up just as he left them, on the dresser.

It floats, silent, over a wooded path that a retired teacher, who died in the pandemic’s early months, often visited with her daughter and granddaughter to enjoy North Carolina’s flowers.

You have to look carefully to see the emptiness left by the loss of 1 million souls. But in the shadows, it is all too easy to feel it.

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EDITOR’S NOTE — This is an updated version of a story released last month.

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Sherman Peebles worked as a barber on weekends, in addition to his full-time job as a sheriff’s deputy. He died of COVID in September, at age 49. His best friend Gerald Riley, who owns the barber shop, still arrives each Saturday expecting to see Peebles’ truck parked outside. At day’s end, he thinks back to the routine he and his friend of 25 years always followed when closing. “I love you, brother,” they’d tell one another. How could Riley have known those would be the last words they’d ever share?

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Donovan James Jones’ mother can hardly bear to go into the room of her 13-year-old son, who died from complications of COVID in November. Teresita Horne was in the hospital battling the virus herself and never got the chance to say goodbye to her only son. “It’s always difficult to go into his room because I always wait for the day for him to come back. I wait for him to come home after school,” says Horne, of Buckeye, Arizona. “I would say to the world if they could know one thing about Donovan, he was very kind, especially in today’s climate and culture where kindness is a lost concept. I would want people to show some type of kindness to someone for no reason at all, but to be kind.”

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Eddy Marquez spent 33 years cutting and arranging displays at his work station at US Evergreen Wholesale Florist in New York’s flower district. He died of COVID in April 2020 during the deadliest week of the outbreak in the city. His brother-in-law, who lived in the same house, died days earlier. Marquez, who was 59 and the father of three, loved plants, and the yard of the family’s home is filled with the hydrangea bushes and fruit trees he tended. His daughter, Ivett Marquez, recalls that her dad worked long hours, but always set aside Sundays for family. “He was an amazing father. He was an amazing husband, an amazing person. My father was just our best friend. You know, I guess his daughter’s first love,” she says. “He was everything to us. A supporter, a friend, just everything. He loved his job. He loved this family. He loved his house, his plants. That was just Eddy.” She now tends the plants in his place.

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Mary Jacq McCulloch loved to explore the paths that wind through the North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, often visiting with her daughter and granddaughter. McCulloch’s death in April 2020 at 87 came at the height of spring. With the season here again, daughter Karen McCulloch is reminded of their drives together around Chapel Hill to gaze at the trees in blossom. Mary Jacq’s favorite were the redbuds. “They are stunning magenta,” Karen McCulloch says. “I can’t see one in bloom without thinking, ‘Mom would love this.’ Kind of like her – brightly colored and demanding attention.”

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Arnie Kantrowitz got sick last winter when the omicron variant swept through New York, despite holing up in his home for most of the lockdown. The author, scholar and gay rights activist died of COVID in January. He was 81. “I’m not really grieving fully yet. That’s going to go on for the rest of my life,” said his long-time partner Larry Mass. “It’s like I’m still caring for him. He’s still with me.” Sometimes when world events make him angry, he thinks about what Kantrowitz would have said to bring him back to earth. He was always good at that. “He’s not totally gone,” Mass says. “He’s there in my heart.”

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Luis Alfonso Bay Montgomery worked straight through the pandemic’s early months in Somerton, Arizona, piloting a tractor among lettuce and cauliflower fields. Even after he began feeling sick in mid-June, he insisted on laboring on, says Yolanda Bay, his wife of 42 years. When he died, at 59, in July 2020, Bay was on her own for the first time since they’d met as teenagers in their native Mexico. In the months since her husband died, Bay, a taxi driver, has worked hard to keep her mind occupied. But memories find a way in. Driving past the fields he plowed, she imagines him on his tractor. “It’s time to get rid of his clothes, but … ” she says, unable to finish the sentence. “There are times that I feel completely alone. And I still can’t believe it.”

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Jennifer McClung, a longtime dialysis nurse, was a central figure at the nurses station in her ward at Helen Keller Hospital in Sheffield, Alabama. In November of 2020, McClung, 54, tested positive for COVID. “Mama, I feel like I’m never coming home again,” she texted her mother, Stella Olive, from a hospital bed. Her lungs severely damaged by the virus, she died just hours before the nation’s vaccination campaign began, on December 14. If only the vaccine had come in time, McClung “might have made it,” friend and fellow nurse Christa House says. Today, a decal with a halo and angel’s wings marks the place McClung once occupied at a third-floor nurses’ station. “It still just seems like she could just walk through the door,” McClung’s mother says. “I haven’t accepted that she’s she’s gone. I mean, a body is here one day and talking and laughing and loving and and then, poof, they’re just gone.”

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Larry Quackenbush worked as an audio and video producer for the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination based in Springfield, Missouri. He died in August after contracting the virus while caring for his then 12-year-old son, Landon, who came home from summer camp sick with COVID. “Even when he started feeling sick, he kept taking care of everybody,” daughter Macy Sweeters said.

“It just hurts so much. He was my best friend.”

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Neil Lawyer loved to sing while his son, David, accompanied him on the piano in his living room in Bellevue, Washington. The elder Lawyer died at 84 in March 2020, among the first residents of a Seattle area nursing home who succumbed to COVID during the outbreak. At weddings, he joined his sons, grandson and nephew to serenade brides and grooms in a makeshift ensemble dubbed the Moose-Tones. Last October, when one of his granddaughters married, it marked the first family affair without Lawyer there to hold court. The Moose-Tones went on without him. “He would have just been beaming because, you know, it was the most important thing in the world to him late in life, to get together with family,” David Lawyer says. “I can honestly tell you he was terribly missed.”

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Fernando Morales and younger brother Adam Almonte used to sit, always on the same benches, at New York’s Fort Tryon Park, eating sandwiches together. On the deadliest day of a horrific week in April 2020, COVID took the lives of 816 people in New York City alone. Morales, 43, was one of them. Walking through the park, Almonte visualizes long-ago days tossing a baseball with his brother and taking in the view from their bench with sandwiches in hand. He replays old messages to just to hear Morales’ voice. “When he passed away it was like I lost a brother, a parent and a friend all at the same time,” Almonte says. “That’s an irreplaceable type of love.”

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Associated Press National Writer Adam Geller contributed to this story.

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Echoes of one million lost in the spaces they left behind