Tarah still remembers what he drew on the door of his aunt’s Chicago home: a rose with a mask on top of it and a falling teardrop. His Aunt Pat eventually took the door down, cut out the drawing and had it professionally framed. She kept it for more than 20 years, he said.
Tarah’s mother, Wanda Bailey, was Patricia’s older sister — the two were fifth and sixth out of nine siblings. Patricia didn’t have children, but often cared for her nieces and nephews, like Tarah, when their parents couldn’t get day care. Patricia, who was sent to live with her newly widowed grandmother in Arkansas as a girl, became a nurse and later returned to Chicago to care for her mother. When she developed disabilities that made it hard to get around, Wanda, who lived in nearby Crete, Ill., would pick her sister up. Together, the two regularly attended Progressive Beulah Pentecostal Church on Chicago’s South Side — the family’s church for years.
“They were two loving souls,” Tarah said. “I can’t recall when they weren’t around each other.”
One of the last events they attended together was a funeral in early March. Days later, Patricia fell sick.
“We heard about the virus going around,” Patricia’s younger brother Richard Frieson said. Patricia, who had severe asthma and lymphedema, had occasionally been hospitalized before but always emerged strong. “When she checked herself into the hospital, [the virus] was of course on my mind, but she had done this many times before.”
On March 12, Patricia’s breathing got worse, prompting family to take her to the University of Chicago Medical Center. At the time, there were fewer than 1,700 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the entire United States, and most patients were on the West Coast in clusters around Seattle and San Francisco.
Patricia was diagnosed with pneumonia and tested for the virus. Before her results came back, family members said they behaved normally around her and one another "[a]t the end of the day, hugging, kissing, just living life,” her brother Anthony Frieson told the Chicago Sun-Times.
By the time Patricia’s test came back positive three days later, she was quarantined and on a ventilator. The next day, doctors called the family, and one of Patricia’s sisters and a niece were able to see her through a glass window before she died that night. On March 16, the 61-year-old retired nurse was the first person in Illinois to die as a result of the novel coronavirus.
“She took care of everybody else at cost of herself,” Richard said. “She was just a caregiver.”
By the time Patricia died, family members in town were self-isolating and those out of state, like Richard and Tarah, were unable to travel. It wasn’t clear when they could hold a memorial.
“It was shocking that she was the first in Illinois,” Richard said. “You never expect it’s going to be your family that’s the first."
Faces of the dead
Patricia wasn’t the last in the Frieson family to die of covid-19, the disease caused by the virus. Richard had heard other family members might have symptoms; Wanda in particular had developed a bad cough.
Before the family could grieve one member, a second went to urgent care.
“I thought Wanda would pull through,” Richard said.
The night Patricia died, Wanda’s condition worsened and she was moved to intensive care. Like Patricia, Wanda didn’t recover. The 63-year-old former medical coder died on March 25, just 10 days after her younger sister.
Tarah said it’s been difficult to think about his mom’s death, isolated amid a growing pandemic, in contrast to her vivacious life.
“She was always the life of the party — the go-to person,” Tarah said. “She didn't deserve to die alone."
Wanda was the memory-maker of the family. Even when people would insist they didn’t want a party, she would craft a plan.
“My mom would go all the way out; she would decorate the house and secretly invite people,” Tarah said. “I’m not talking about 10 people — I’m talking 40 to 50. She would make everyone’s birthday an event."
Tarah’s most recent birthday fell on the day his Aunt Pat died and his mom moved to the ICU. Her absence hasn’t quite seemed real, he said. Weeks later, he struggled to recall a time in his life that his mom wasn’t there for him.
Wanda married about 10 years ago, but was a single mom when she raised Tarah. He could rely on her to dispense love and wisdom and never sugarcoat the truth.
“She was strong-willed, always wanted to help,” he said. “Even the days I tried to push her away, she was there.”
One test of wills Wanda prevailed in to the end was her insistence on calling Tarah, her only child, her “baby.”
“I tried to stop her from saying it,” Tarah said. “I’m a grown man! But she always would say it."
Tarah, who is in Texas, doesn’t know when he’ll be able to reunite with his family now that social distancing orders around the country have intensified. He said relatives check in with each other on FaceTime for now.
“It’s totally not the way we’re used to handling family situations and losses,” Tarah said. “But believe, when this is all over, we’re going to celebrate their homegoing. We just have to weather the storm.”