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Without a Farewell: A COVID-19 Story

| This is the 578th story of Our Life Logs® |

My story begins in 2018—well before COVID-19, quarantines, and public shutdowns. I was a university junior enjoying life under the big city lights of Las Vegas, Nevada, my birthplace and college town. My parents had just left the West Coast to try “country living” in eastern Tennessee and found 30 miles north of Knoxville to be a great fit. It was quaint and they were able to be closer to my older brother, who was then a graduate student.

Our quiet neighborhood.

Much to my surprise, my parents fell into the Southern way of life remarkably well. I visited them often in the peculiar, wondrous world of Tennessee, and got to know many of their acquaintances. I also met Wayne, their neighbor and, over time, my friend.

I liked Wayne right away. He was a pleasant, energetic person despite his age and health concerns. Whenever I was in Tennessee for semester breaks or holidays, I usually paid him a visit on his porch (A.K.A. his neighborhood lookout and HQ during fine afternoons). At a distance, Wayne and I seemed unlikely interlocutors—we had so little in common. But, I enjoy listening to people (I’m a history major trained in oral archives), and with each visit and afternoon chat, I learned more and more about Wayne.

Wayne grew up in the rural South and led a placid, country life. I had only been to the southern United States during road trips. Wayne was also a widower and retiree who had worked the coal mines in his younger years. He sure was a storyteller. His fast-paced, mile-a-minute reports were ready at a moment’s notice to help you learn everything there was to know about the town’s latest gossip and hullabaloo.

To be honest, though, I never imagined Wayne would become anything more than a family friend and casual acquaintance of mine. I certainly never thought he would be my own neighbor. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that the future has a hand full of wildcards.

In March 2020, I left my home in Las Vegas with every intention of returning within a fortnight. I was visiting my parents to celebrate my older brother’s birthday during spring break—nothing more and nothing less. I did not consider the steady approach of COVID-19 when making my plans. I happily, perhaps foolishly, booked a flight without a second thought.

Just a few days after I had arrived in Tennessee, the Oval Office declared a national emergency. University campuses shut down in rapid succession. My visit to Tennessee became an extended furlough. Then, a quarantine lasting months and months and months… Before I knew it, Tennessee was my involuntary home, and dear, friendly Wayne became my neighbor.

Home in Eastern Tennessee

Everything about the rural town seemed to drive me mad, but Wayne was one of the few people who made the quarantine at least bearable. I really had no friends in Tennessee save for the handful of locals my parents knew. Luckily, Wayne was a pleasant fellow to be around and I loved listening to him ramble on about his fishing escapades. The pandemic did not seem to affect him or lower his spirits in any way.

Over the dismal summer of 2020, Wayne was one of the few in town who smiled and seemed cheerful. He eagerly built up his garden of tomatoes, beans, watermelons, and squash to sell at the farmer’s market and stockpile for himself in case the pandemic turned for the worst. He kept his lawn trim and mowed other people’s properties for a little pocket money. He had started dating again too, his first romance since the passing of his wife six years ago.

I felt less sad and homesick whenever I chatted with Wayne or simply saw him out and enjoying life. He always had a tale to tell and a smile to share. By the time the summer heat was rolling away and Halloween crept closer, I certainly felt more hopeful and positive than I had in the springtime when the whole world seemed to be falling apart before my young, melodramatic eyes.

Sadly, I never could have imagined what would happen next, what would befall Wayne within three months’ time…

Cheerful Wayne, only 64 years old, contracted COVID-19 in the early weeks of January 2021. Towards the end of January, Wayne suffered a stroke. He was alone at home when the stroke debilitated Wayne, causing him to fall. Unable to raise himself or reach his cell, he lay on the floor for hours before his son came home to find him. I wish he could have called one of us. Maybe it could have saved him.

Wayne’s situation became more complicated because of the pandemic. With patience and proper care, the vibrant retiree might have overcome the infection coursing through his veins, but the local hospital was ill-prepared for the recent upsurge of COVID cases. With the stroke on top of it, they could offer him little assistance.

In the first week of February, Vanderbilt University arranged an air transport for Wayne, whisking him off to a care center in Nashville. Wayne was one of several rural Tennesseans taken in by Nashville’s medical community in this latest stage of the pandemic.

For a brief time, my family had hope. Wayne was in one of the best possible treatment centers in the region. What more could be done? My parents, nonetheless, grew anxious for an opportunity to visit Wayne in the hospital. Wayne was the type to feel lonely in a strange new hospital and unfamiliar city, and his son had to return to work. Sadly, COVID-19 complicated the situation. Since we were not family, we couldn’t go to visit. Wayne, for better or worse, was cut off from everything comforting, anyone familiar. He was very much alone.

When I finally received an update from Wayne’s son, in the second week of February, my news hit us all hard, like a bolt in the dark. Treatment had proved futile. Vanderbilt released Wayne to a hospice. Wayne would not be coming home.

In the hope of seeing him one last time, my parents, two brothers, and I piled into the only available car and dashed off into the darkness for the four-hour drive to Nashville. We wanted to have a proper goodbye.

The clock struck 2:30 AM as we entered Nashville in the dead of night on Friday, February 12, 2021. I always loved the urban scene. I remember the lights of Music City coming into view through the front window of my parents’ sedan. I was in the rear bench between my two (much larger) brothers who were fast asleep. I leaned forward to catch a better view of the city.

At around 2:48, my father’s cell rang. We were gliding along the I-40, searching for the right exit to Wayne’s hospice. Dad, our driver, fidgeted around for a little while before finally pulling out his phone. It was Wayne’s son.

“How is Wayne? Is he awake? Has there been a sudden change for the better?” My entire family must have contemplated the same questions at that precise moment.

Wayne’s son had no fortunate tidings that night. Any hope we had stoked through the long drive vanished like the road signs and neighborhoods we sped by. Wayne had died.

He had breathed his very last at precisely 2:30 AM. In other words, we had missed Wayne by just 18 minutes.

When the call ended, the hush of death and grief remained. Was he really gone? Just like that? Maybe I could not believe that death could be so sudden and unpredictable.

The Nashville skyline, 2021.

I looked out the car window. I’m usually the type to cheer others up, but I couldn’t think of anything positive. Outside, in Nashville’s streets, I observed a few familiarities: the distinct glare of streetlights, the reflections of glassy buildings, and the dim gray of opaque sidewalks. I grew up in a big city and never could give up my love for an asphalt jungle. That night though, the concrete and steel were of little comfort to me. Nashville was nothing of what it had been before. No matter where I turned, the gloom of the pandemic touched everything. All was sad. All was senseless.

Wayne’s death closed a chapter in my own life—my journey through uncertainty and loss in the first year of COVID-19. I was no longer the puerile undergrad concerned with trivial matters like grade point averages, the next internship opportunity, or Saturday evenings downtown in Las Vegas. Now, I had come to terms with the fact that life, no matter how carefully planned or anxiously dreamed, is always uncertain. In time, I would also learn that hope endures even in the face of tremendous loss.

Coming from a city, I certainly thought rural America was safe from harm. The open fields keep people apart without the need for government mandates. The population itself is limited, with so few people to catch the virus and pass it along to others. Yet, Wayne still caught it. Wayne died alone in a place far away from the hills he loved. Even a simple “goodbye” proved too much to ask for. How was that fair?

As we stopped in a hotel for the night, I lay awake in bed. I wondered how Wayne must have felt in his last hour. I hoped he had not felt abandoned. In his small hospice room, he might have been looking out a window onto Nashville, just as I was at that moment. Did he miss his log home, his garden, and his loved ones? I started to wonder whether I might die someday from COVID-19 and, like Wayne, spend my last day in a strange hospital.

That night, I realized that the friends we see every day, the ones who have become a fixture in our lives through simple conversations, their greetings of “good morning” and “see you soon,” could leave us at any moment. I have always tried to be a good friend, but after Wayne’s passing, I promised myself that I would put in a little more effort. It was time I stopped cutting conversations short because of a busy work schedule or saying, “Next time, next time,” when invited out by friends. I did not want to miss out on the beautiful things because, when all is said and done, those are the moments that fill us with happiness and compel us to hope for the future.

I am at peace—but not because I am confident that I can control what will happen next. I have merely accepted fate for what it is: chaotic, uncontrollable, uncertain, and yet, interlaced with beautiful moments. I never would have imagined living through a pandemic, but that same uncertainty is what led me to Tennessee and allowed me to befriend Wayne.

The cherry wood porch of Wayne Clutch is quiet now. Neighborly conversations have given way to melancholy memories. But I think we both found happiness in our simple, neighborly friendship. I am glad to have been the retiree’s acquaintance, if only for a short time.

Wayne’s porch.

This is the story of Meg Brown

Meg grew up under the neon lights of Las Vegas, Nevada, but was forced to move to the hills of eastern Tennessee due to the government-mandated shutdowns during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. In the uncertainty and displacement, Meg was able to befriend an energetic and talkative neighbor, Wayne. Their friendship was cut short when Wayne passed of COVID-19 upon other health complications. Wayne’s presence in Meg’s life proved poignant and taught her much about what she holds dear.

Meg’s early years were chaotic but adventurous as her family moved between apartments, picking up or settling down with the whims of opportunity. Meg developed a passion for literature, writing, and art at a young age, cultivated, no less, by her multiethnic home—her mother is a Malaysian immigrant; her father is a Caucasian American. She eventually found a true home in her travels. Meg has touched every state in the continental US and visited eight different countries before her senior year in college. Meg earned her BA in History in 2020, graduating with summa cum laude honors. Her first published work was her senior thesis, an award-winning research article on abortion politics. In January 2021, she scored in the 99th percentile of LSAT. She is set to begin a JD program in Fall 2021 although she has yet to decide on the right school. For the time being, however, Meg is ever the gypsy: traveling across states, living by her work as a writer and photographer.

This story first touched our hearts on March 8, 2020

Writer: Meg Brown | Editor: Kristen Petronio; Colleen Walker


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