Two months ago, her sister, Nicky Leake, and Nicky’s fiance, who lived together in Charles County, Md., were looking forward to their destination wedding in Hawaii. And on Feb. 29, Nicky, 45, and a dozen friends (“the Sly Girls Posse”) reunited for the first time since high school, laughing away on a Saturday night at the Bottom Line Bar & Grill in a D.C. suburb.
“They had plans to do so much this year, to continue their friendship,” Shanta, 40, said.
Now Nicky is dead.
In March, before Nicky got sick, their 74-year-old mother, Leslie Leake, a retired postal clerk, was passing her golden days in contentment. She could be found assembling floral bouquets, singing softly to herself, and doting on her grandchildren and great-grandchildren when they visited Ma-Ma’s immaculate old house in the District’s Congress Heights neighborhood.
Now Leslie is dead.
Her son John Leake Jr., 40, brother of Nicky and Shanta, moved into his parents’ Congress Heights home about a year ago — and what a cutup he was, always with the jokes. “The type of person, regardless of whether you’re having a bad day, you can depend on him to make you laugh,” Shanta said. “He was our clown. I mean, you just couldn’t help but be happy around him.”
Now John Jr. is dead.
Their 78-year-old father, John Leake Sr., a retired plumber and widower of Leslie, tested positive for the virus and is quarantined in the Congress Heights house. After some frightful nights, he is feeling better, but Shanta worries. Donte Leake, 34, a grandson who lives with John Sr., also is infected and holed up in the house, though so far he is asymptomatic. Shanta fears for him, too.
With Nicky hospitalized starting in late March, then Leslie and John Jr. beginning April 19, Shanta was the nexus of all family health news for weeks, the liaison between caregivers in scattered locales and loved ones desperate for updates. She works for a bank in commercial real estate. Suddenly she was fluent in nurse-speak.
After Nicky died April 11, just as John Jr. and Leslie were falling ill, it was Shanta and her brother Xavier who took charge of the stark, agonizingly perfunctory burial logistics in this awful season of socially distant mourning. On Monday, dead for 16 days, Nicky was laid to rest. On Tuesday, John Jr. succumbed. On Thursday, minutes past midnight, Leslie passed.
So two more interments to tend to.
“I honestly believe the average person wouldn’t be able to handle this,” Shanta was saying on the phone, quietly. In the background, her husband, Eddie Cherry, gave an amen. “I’m a woman of faith, and I believe in God, and I rely on God as the source of my strength,” said Shanta, and Eddie went, “Uh-huh, that’s right.”
As the weekend arrived, the pandemic death toll in Washington, Maryland and Virginia climbed above 2,000, and families throughout the region are mired in despair. But probably few, if any, have been more ravaged by the insidious contagion than the Leakes.
In the 600 block of Alabama Avenue SE, the tidy, two-story wood house that John and Leslie Leake shared for decades is painted pale green, with an elegant semi-turret on the front facade and a square of neatly trimmed grass. Relatives call it simply “the house,” a nickname for the place where they invariably gathered on holidays and special occasions.
Birthdays, baptisms, graduations and the big cookout every Fourth of July: When the Leakes got together, it was almost always at the house. Last spring, Nicky’s daughter Eniah finished high school, and, of course, Ma-Ma and Pa-Pa hosted a celebration, laying down a red carpet from the brick steps of the porch to the sidewalk. Folks loved it.
Amid growing concern nationwide that the coronavirus is disproportionately hurting African Americans, the District’s Ward 8, including Congress Heights and other neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River, is a case in point.
Historically riven with social ills — drugs and crime, inadequate health care and high unemployment, to name a few — the ward, nearly 90 percent black, has Washington’s worst rate of contagion fatalities, six per every 10,000 residents. By the end of April, 677 confirmed infections had been recorded in the ward, up from 259 a few weeks earlier, health officials said.
As of Thursday, 51 people in Ward 8 had died of the virus. Although the Leakes don’t fit the more dismal aspects of the ward’s demographics, they are experiencing a full share of the precinct’s outsize pain these days.
Nicky, a mother of three who worked in administration at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, spent a lot time visiting her parents at the house, until she developed a nagging cough and tested positive for the coronavirus.
That was mid-March.
She had no underlying health problem.
“She quarantined for about a week,” Shanta said. “She had fevers and stuff like that. She was resting a lot, but at times, she was up, eating, trying to do her routines.”
Then: “She just started having these chest pains.” She drove herself to a hospital near her Charles County home. Shanta, who lives in Prince George’s County, spoke with her by cellphone. Nicky was in the emergency room. “She said: ‘I’m good. My vitals are good. My oxygen is good.’ So I said, ‘Hang in there, you’re going to be fine.’ But her situation changed overnight.”
On March 30, Nicky’s condition grew so grave, so rapidly, that the suburban medical center transferred her to the larger MedStar Georgetown University Hospital. “We never got a chance to talk to her again,” Shanta said. “She was on a ventilator for about two weeks, and the virus kept attacking and attacking her.”
All the while, Shanta was on the phone daily, even hourly, with doctors and nurses, deciphering their jargon, Googling, jotting notes, then calling family members, including her parents, to fill them in and answer anxious questions — until April 11, when Nicky’s ventilator was switched off, and there were no words.
At the house, where Leslie had begun struggling with shortness of breath, she and her husband were inconsolable.
“Heartbroken,” Shanta said. “My mom wasn’t eating. She couldn’t sleep. I tried to encourage her; the whole family tried to lift her spirits, to let her know we were going to get through this with the grace of God. But she was devastated, period.”
Leslie had asthma, as did John Jr., who also was having trouble breathing around the time of Nicky’s death. They blamed it on pollen, on the allergies that aggravated their compromised respiratory functions every spring. Shanta wasn’t sure. “Often we self-diagnose,” she said by phone. “We shouldn’t.”
On April 19, they were wheezing, and ambulances were summoned to the house. One took Leslie to George Washington University Hospital, and the other carried John Jr. to Howard University Hospital. The mother and son both tested positive. Their illnesses followed different progressions in the days afterward but ended the same way, each with a flat line on a bedside monitor.
John Jr. worked in communications at the U.S. Postal Service headquarters and had part-time gigs at a grocery store and a hotel. He was a former culinary student, a foodie, and head chef for all events at the house on Alabama Avenue. “His entire time in the hospital almost, he was alert and talking,” and no doubt cracking jokes, Shanta said.
Leslie was another story. A day after her mother was admitted, Shanta got a call from the hospital, saying Leslie needed to be heavily sedated and intubated. From then on, she was never more than semiconscious as doctors tried hydroxychloroquine and, later, the experimental drug remdesivir. The treatments were halted after she developed an irregular heart rate, Shanta said.
Meanwhile, after days of searching in vain for a funeral parlor that would give Nicky a traditional service, Shanta had to settle for a pandemic version: closed casket, no wake and only a handful of people, including Nicky’s fiance and grown children, allowed near the grave. Shanta and other mourners, gathered 500 feet away, were out of earshot of a pastor’s parting words for the deceased.
“The absolute worst, most horrible thing ever,” Shanta said.
That was Monday.
Early Tuesday morning, John Jr. crashed. “They called my husband at 3 o’clock,” Shanta said. “They told us he coded, and they were trying to bring him back. Then they called back, 3:32 a.m., and said he didn’t make it.”
Wednesday night, Leslie’s caregivers phoned to say the end was near for her. “We did a Zoom visit,” Shanta said, “and we were able to see her and pray. And then after the Zoom visit, they called a little after midnight and told us she was gone.”
The house, that favorite place of the extended Leakes, will probably go on the market after the crisis, Shanta said. She doesn’t want her father in there without her mother because bad things, once unimaginable, can happen, she now knows. She said she plans to downsize John Sr. in the interest of safety and her own peace of mind.
“He’ll come live with us,” she said. “I want to keep him close.”
Julie Tate contributed to this report.