“Her Assignment, It Was Done on This Earth”

The story of one death out of the 530,000 Americans we’ve lost to COVID-19.

A man bows his head as he walks through a line of small American flags planted in the ground.
A man walks through an installation of American flags on the National Mall representing deaths from COVID-19 on Sept. 22 in Washington. Win McNamee/Getty Images

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The past year has been a lot of things, for all of us. But when I think about what we all have in common, it’s loss. We all lost something during this pandemic. We lost money. We lost time. And a lot of us lost people, too. Counting up everything we’ve lost can feel enormous. More than half a million Americans are just gone.

On Tuesday’s episode of What Next, we tell the story of just one person who was lost—a mother, an aunt, a friend. Alicia Montgomery, Slate’s executive producer of podcasts, spoke to her cousin Yvonne. Alicia’s mom is one of 13 kids, and she and Yvonne spent the year looking out for all those older relatives. “We have a lot of older Black people in our family with preexisting health conditions. I also have cousins and other family members who are in jobs that are considered essential,” Alicia said. “So it was very clear to me early on that we would be lucky to get through the COVID crisis without anybody getting seriously ill and without us losing any.” 


Alicia’s family wasn’t as lucky as they would have liked. Alicia’s cousin Yvonne lost her mother to COVID earlier this year. In their family, when someone dies, Alicia’s used to just going over to their house— eating, telling stories. But one of the things this pandemic took from all of us was rituals like this one.

So instead, Alicia called her cousin Yvonne up. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Alicia: My mom used to babysit you when you were very little and she was a teenager, right? 

Yvonne: That is correct. My sister Jeanine and I would go to our grandparents house because your mom and my dad are siblings


Good old Aunt Joan.


Good old Uncle Charles. 

How about that?

So we’re going to be talking about your mom, Aunt Vernice. 

Aka  Ma.

Ma to you, Aunt Vernice to me. So I wanted to ask you when was the first time you started to hear about COVID and how your mom first started to hear about COVID?

I just remember the week of March 13, Ma had gone to the store. And she used to love broccoli coleslaw, and she told me she couldn’t find any broccoli coleslaw anywhere. I was like, “OK, Mom, don’t worry about that.” I had gone to the store that Sunday, which would have been the 15th of March, and we had gone to Whole Foods and they had some broccoli coleslaw. And we got on the Beltway, and I’ll never forget the Beltway was so deserted on a Sunday morning, about 11 o’clock. It reminded me of


Sept. 11, after the terrorists had hit. That’s what the Beltway reminded me of. And so when I think of COVID, those are some of my first very vivid memories of COVID as to how our life had changed, but I didn’t know how much it would change later.

I remember you started worrying about COVID on your mom’s behalf before she did. Can you talk a little bit about what it was like to talk to her about COVID at first? 

Well, talking to Ma about COVID, it was like, for Ma, it wasn’t here. So, we would just touch on it and again, because it wasn’t here, I don’t think that Ma focused on it, but I was just so concerned about COVID, and I needed to ensure that I was being careful and I needed to be safe because I wanted to make sure that my parents would be OK. That was my whole thing: I just wanted my parents to be OK. And I just—I don’t know how it happened. I just know that it happened, that Ma contracted COVID.


I think my heart dropped that day. But God was merciful, my spirit wasn’t troubled, I was very encouraged. Ma’s symptoms were displayed, and we responded within 48 hours. I was encouraged by that. There was nothing to indicate that my mom wouldn’t get through this. My spirit was calm. I was blessed in that regard.


I talked to my mom on the phone those first couple of days and everything.  Her first question always was “How are you doing?” But I’ll never forget that first day on the 19th. Oh, Ma was so bossy. She was so Ma. She was just bossy Ma, and I was good with that.

And then life just changed. I called Ma on the phone; she was gasping for air, trying to talk, and I told her, “Just don’t talk.” I was like, “Just listen. I’m just calling to tell you that I love you.”  She said, “OK.” The conversation was short. She hung up.


That Thursday, I didn’t get my mom at all.  And then that Friday, May 29, I was at work, and Jeanine called on my phone, and Jeanine was talking and fighting back tears, and I was like, “What is it? What’s going on?”  And then Jeanine just broke down and told me that the doctor said that Ma had taken a turn. And there was nothing more that they could do. They could put her on a ventilator, but it would just prolong the inevitable. Ma’s lungs has failed. Jeanine explained to me that Ma’s lungs had turned into, like, jelly and that if she went on a ventilator, the doctor had said, you know, you know what this is like, you’ve seen it. You know what happens. Ma would continue to be poked and prodded, and she wouldn’t have any peace as she transitioned out of this life. And so the decision was made.


So the doctors gave Yvonne a choice: She could come in and say goodbye to Aunt Vernice in person or she could do a video call. This is part of where life gets complicated because Yvonne is a caretaker for my Uncle Charles. And so she did not want to take the chance that she would end up losing both of her parents. So, she decided to spend the last few moments with my Aunt Vernice on this video call on a screen. 

We got to see Ma. She had oxygen, somewhat of a hood on to give her additional support for oxygen, so her voice was muffled somewhat. As we shared and talked with Ma, we were blessed to tell her that she had been the best mom for me and Jeanine. I thanked her for the time that we had.  We told mom we loved her, and even though her voice was muffled, it wasn’t muffled when she said she loved us. She said, “I love you. I love you.”


The call was short. Ma said she was tired. She wanted to rest.

Ma died about 1:01 p.m. It was quick. That was my concern. I was like, well, how long will it be. The doctor said, “We don’t know, it could be quick, it could be long, it could take a couple hours, it could be a day or so, we don’t know.” But it was quick.


Ma transitioned out of this life so quick. Her body was exhausted. She was tired. Her assignment, it was done on this earth.

So fast forward to today. I get angry when I think about the people who have died from COVID, because I believe that some of it was unnecessary. Had the Trump administration—and that would be one of the only times that I would mention his name because I refer to him as the impeached knucklehead—had he done his job instead of being selfish, self-centered, lacking compassion. Had he done his job and was honest? I’m not saying that my mother would be here, but she might. And all the other people who have gone on. Over 450,000 people died in the United States on his watch.  It makes me want to cuss. [Laughs.]


The good news is that they know more than they did when Ma contracted COVID, and that’s the blessing. And I’m grateful for that, even though my mom’s not physically here, I have more joyful days than I have sad days. I’m just grateful.

Uh, Yvonne, I really wish that it were entirely safe for us just to be in a room—just so I could give you a hug. 

That day’s coming and I’m looking forward to it. I will never, ever again in my life take touch for granted.


Oh, gosh, you OK, cousin?

I’m OK. I’m supposed to tell you to do something with the buttons [laughs] and stuff for this recording, and I’m trying to remember what that was. 

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