Pandemic’s earliest mourners in DC area search for hope on second anniversary

Through it all, they’ve honored those they’ve lost in big and small ways, while still reaching for a hope that, too often, has seemed elusive.

That hope dangles before the mother of two bright-eyed girls who, after her husband died, dares their daughters to dream big while, in her spare time, counseling others through grief.

It drives A District construction worker who has stepped into her dead father’s shoes, shuttling her younger brother with severe disabilities to his classes at George Mason University, a task that requires her to work overnight.

And it shines in the gold earrings that Carrie Kelley, a human resource manager at a Washington-area homeless shelter, puts on every day. They had belonged to her mother, who died of covid-19 in suburban Maryland on April 7, 2020, a day before her 72nd birthday — and eight days before Kelley’s stepfather died of the disease, too.

“I’m still somewhat in shock,” Kelley said. “Life hasn’t been easy.”

‘We’re all interconnected’

Our lives are made of moments, Nicole Boynes has concluded. What you do with them is what matters most.

Living that conviction is how she has honored the memory of her husband, Sean Boynes, who died in Annapolis of covid-19 on April 2, 2020, at the age of 46.

It hasn’t been easy. Sean, a pharmacist and former Howard University football player whose warm charm and sharp humor filled the room, left a huge void for Boynes, 46, and their two daughters, Gabrielle, 10, and Sierra, 13.

“We were a unit,” said Boynes, the director of institutional advancement at Holy Trinity Episcopal School, in Bowie, Md. “All four of us.”

During the empty days following Sean’s death, concerns about covid kept Boynes from hugging the two friends who came to their Bowie home to comfort her. They stood on the driveway instead, about six feet apart, as her grief thundered.

Family members also kept their distance, pulling up to their home in cars to let Boynes know she was not alone, though they were all apart.

“There was no comfort, or what we would traditionally identify as comfort,” she recalled.

Since then, Boynes and her daughters have moved in with Sean’s mother in Silver Spring, a help with the loss of his income. But as they’ve resettled, each new surge of cases and covid-related deaths arrive like a familiar tormentor.

“It’s almost like a PTSD,” Boynes said. But she intends to be a beacon for her daughters in the way that her husband was. She encourages them to be daring, even as they continue to mourn.

For Gabrielle, that means hurling her body into the air as a gymnast. Sierra lets her soul fly as an aspiring artist.

Through a weekly “prayer call” organized by her church in Silver Spring, Boynes also works to comfort others in mourning. In group phone conversations, they read Bible passages and work through the reminders of a dead loved one that come with a familiar smell or song.

The larger message, Boynes said, is that we’re in this together and to remember that, always, there is hope.

“And that’s hard,” she said. “It’s hard in the pandemic, and it’s hard in this political climate. The great thing is we’re all interconnected in this process.”

As the sun rises over Interstate 66, Ingrid Reyes can usually be found directing traffic in her orange reflective vest — part of a quiet promise she made to her father, Jose Mardoqueo Reyes, after he died May 12, 2020, at age 54.

Reyes, 28, took the graveyard shift on the highway expansion project in Northern Virginia so she could be free later in the mornings to drive her younger brother, Jason, to George Mason, where he studies economics and finance.

Their father, a former war refugee from El Salvador who founded a Spanish online radio station, had been the one to take Jason, 23, to school every day from their home in the District. He saw that as a way to ensure his youngest child would know success, despite the congenital birth defect that has made it difficult for Jason to walk, Reyes said.

In her father’s absence, when she finishes her 12-hour shift at 6 am, Reyes drives to her home in the District to get some sleep. Then she’s up at 11 am to take her brother to George Mason’s Fairfax County campus. Another brother retrieves Jason while she heads back to the District to get some more rest before again for Fairfax to start leaving work.

In between, Reyes has dealt with a lingering probate court case in which her family is seeking to transfer the title of the house to her mother. Because her father had no will, that has been complicated, made worse when District Courts were closed for several months, she said.

After the family scrambled to raise enough money to bury her father, who had no life insurance, Reyes said the experience has made her realize how important it is to get your affairs in order before you die.

“We’re preparing for my mom,” she said, referring to a nearly paid-off cemetery plot next to her father’s. She is also preparing her own will.

“This was a lesson that we have to plan for these types of things,” Reyes said.

Anger has often engulfed Anthony Cabbgestalk, a software analyst in White Plains, Md.

On March 2020, his mother, Minnie Cabbagestalk, a beloved minister in her South Carolina church, died at 82, less than two weeks after falling ill with covid-19. Three days later, his father, James Cabbgestalk, was suddenly dead of the disease, too, at 85, after doctors had assured the family he was healthy enough to be released from the hospital.

Then Cabbagestalk’s two brothers and three sisters each became seriously ill. Last year, an uncle and a cousin both died of covid-19.

Cabbagestalk, 56, got vaccinated and boosted as soon as he was able. But the constant dismissals of the virus’s severity from some corners have felt like a repeated “slap in the face,” he said. “I was very angry. It took a while for me to step out of that.”

In December, his son, Anthony Jr., 24, tested positive. The following month, Cabbgestalk and his wife, Crystal, 53, were both seriously ill.

As Cabbagestalk lay in bed with a 104-degree fever, worried he would wake up connected to a respirator, he thought about the pain his unvaccinated elderly parents must have endured.

The burning that he felt in his chest — how much more intense, he wondered, had it been for them?

The experience was a turning point. He vowed to emulate his parents’ loving nature, allowing his anger to soften, though it sometimes still clinches.

Now, Cabbagestalk is leading an effort to create a college scholarship fund in their name through his mother’s South Carolina church. Though his hands and feet are still swollen from his bout with covid, he tries to spread love in small ways, such as when coaching a local high school boys’ basketball team.

“Both of them were very loving,” Cabbagestalk said of his parents. “I want to carry on that same legacy. I try, every opportunity I get, to show that.”

The way that Carrie Kelley’s mother and stepfather both died, several days apart in April 2020, was painful enough.

What’s happened since, now that family cornerstones Minnette and Lawrence Nokes are gone, has been like a falling house of cards, leaving their children and grandchildren “kind of all over the place,” said Kelley, 47.

Fights over what to write on headstones, how to pay for burials and which possessions went to whom have caused deep rifts within Kelley’s family. Kelley’s 31-year-old son, Jzhy Thomas, who was very close to his grandmother, fell into a deep depression. Consumed by an alcohol addiction, he became homeless for a few months.

Kelley, too, became infected, though her symptoms were minor. Then her engagement ended, in part because of a fight over her ex-fiance’s reluctance to get vaccinated, she said.

Making matters worse, Kelley was forced to stop teaching dance in her spare time because of concerns about infection.

“I think it’s just hard for all of us to deal with the fact that they’re no longer here and how it all went down,” Kelley, who works full-time as a human resource manager for the Central Union Mission, said of losing her parents and the family fights that followed. “None of that stuff is who they were.”

Lawrence Nokes, a nursing assistant at a Maryland nursing home hit hard by the virus, entered a coma shortly after he tested positive in March 2020.

He regained consciousness to learn Minnette, his wife of 24 years, had suffered a heart attack and died April 7, a day before her 72nd birthday. She posthumously tested positive for the coronavirus.

After his wife’s death, Lawrence Nokes’s condition grew worse. He died eight days later, at 69.

“We’re already on Year 2, and it still feels like yesterday,” Kelley said.

She finds comfort in wearing something of her mother’s every day, usually a pair of gold earrings and a black sweater or a blouse. They were both the same size. “She had style,” Kelley said.

The ritual — and raising her 14-year-old son, Eirrac Kelley — has helped her stay centered, said Kelley, who lives in Anne Arundel County but works in both Prince George’s County and the District. She gets tested weekly as part of her job, has navigated a patchwork of pandemic restrictions in three jurisdictions and keeps a row of fresh N95 masks hanging from her car’s windshield-wiper lever, with a pack of surgical masks nearby in case someone else needs one .

But, after all that’s happened during the past two years, with the stress of pandemic life stacked on top of her grief, she feels a deep longing to let all of that go.

She years to dance again, to move, carefree, to a good beat in a crowded club. Recently, she started doing, for her, the next best thing: roller-skating.

The first time she strapped on a pair of skates again, a few months ago, “I fell,” Kelley recalled, laughing.

But, she said, “it just kind of filled me up” to hear the music playing and people laughing while they fell or glided past.

Rebecca Tan contributed to this report.

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