My voicemail ricocheted from Edna Clinton’s ears through her mind down into her bones and came to rest somewhere deep in her heart. I called to ask if she wanted to share memories of her brother, Delbert Van Young, a beloved ticket-taker at Hilton Coliseum who died from COVID-19.
As president of NAACP’s Ames chapter, Edna was vocal about taking the pandemic seriously, often highlighting how coronavirus has disproportionately impacted Black Iowans. But the hot anxiety that rattled around her body with this voicemail was new. My request wasn’t about statistics or curves or daily numbers.
My request was personal.
Speaking out would surely politicize her brother’s death, she thought, and Delbert was nobody’s cudgel. As the reasons not to talk with me amassed in her soul, Edna found herself asking one question over and over: Does anybody really care?
Did anybody care that her brother cooked the best soul food? Wait, sorry, soooouuullll fooooodddd, as he would put it, stretching out every letter like they were the sauce he slowly licked from his fingers.
Fried catfish, greens, cornbread; “food that sticks to your ribs,” he would say.
Did anybody care that Delbert played tennis and other ball games until a medical condition took his legs at age 19? Did anybody care that he never dwelled on that loss, instead becoming an uber-fan of his favorite teams, able to regurgitate players and rankings like a computer?
As a St. Louis Cardinals supporter, Delbert always managed to work the numbers so the Redbirds came out on top, Edna remembered.
Did anybody care that Delbert was a “bossy baby,” she says with a giggle? That when she got home from school, she could hear his little legs crawling her way? “Up! Up! Up!” he would say, flashing his pearly whites.
Did anybody care that after Edna had children, Delbert took his new role as a guardian seriously, insisting that his nieces and nephews call him “Uncle”?
“Because uncles do more for you than Delberts do,” he said by way of explanation.
Did anybody care that he made such an impression on his assisted-living facility’s staff that one nurse dropped by on her wedding day to let Delbert see her in her dress? When that same nurse later got pregnant, Delbert handed her a list of five names, his favorites, he said with his trademark grin.
No, nobody outside his circle cared, Edna convinced herself. But as she prayed over the next few days, Delbert’s smile kept appearing in her mind’s eye, and her thoughts kept turning to his ability to always find something good in chaos. It was his superpower, she said.
And she couldn’t shake the words her son said when he heard of his uncle’s passing: “To walk into Delbert’s presence was to walk into a quietness most don’t ever get to experience.”
We all need a little quiet now, she thought. A little positivity amidst the gloom. So she called me and shared memories for more than an hour. And she told me what had held her back, that question she couldn’t shake: Does anybody really care?
“I care,” I said. “And I think a lot of other people do, too.”
For the past two months, my Register colleagues, in partnership with journalists from eight other newsrooms across the state, have been working to identify Iowans who died due to COVID-19 and tell their stories.
The result of that research and those conversations is a collection of remembrances about volunteers and retirees, Cubs fans and cinnamon roll bakers, garage sale devotees and world travelers, mothers and daughters, fathers and sons. We’re calling this endeavor “Iowa Mourns,” and we’re making a commitment to continue telling these Iowans’ stories.
In these pieces,we focused on the light of each Iowan’s life instead of the darkness of their diagnosis. You’ll find little discussion of masks or test procedures. Instead, we sought to chronicle the essence of who these Iowans were, what they did and how they’ll be remembered.
As my colleagues and I spoke with surviving family members, we saw our grandmothers, our fathers, our sisters and our nephews in these lives. Co-workers emailed me as soon as they hung up with loved ones to tell me how compelling this particular person was, promising me, and themselves, they would do the best they possibly could for the families who had trusted them with humankind’s most sacred gift — our stories.
Over and over I saw an assignment turn into a labor of love, into a mission to honor those no longer here to write their own histories.
While every person’s life was singularly remarkable — as unique as their fingerprints — these Iowans were connected by quarantine’s isolation, a heart-wrenching solitude that meant those they loved and were loved by them in return many times couldn’t be by their sides as they took their last breaths.
In one story, a nurse held the hands of a dying patriarch while his family offered comfort over the telephone. In others, daughters and sons and wives waited in the parking lot of hospitals connected via Facetime to their loved ones — so close, yet so far.
And in another, a husband stood in the rain outside his wife’s nursing home window, telling her how much he loved her through panes of glass as she passed on.
Loved ones repeatedly spoke of being trapped in a purgatory of seclusion, unable to grieve with others and unable to reframe their pain into memories that bring a measure of peace.
Last year, a mother dolphin was photographed carrying her dead calf on her back, raising the corpse with her nose to keep it aloft almost as though she was asking passing boaters to help her — help share her grief, help carry her load of pain, help remember her baby. Elephants acknowledge their dead, too, touching them ritualistically with their trunks, carrying them on their tusks to scared grounds, revisiting their bodies over and over.
Deep in the animalistic parts of our brains, we are coded to mourn and to commemorate.
The pandemic may have stolen the ritual and routine of gathering, but we can’t let it steal our stories. We must snatch the memories of our dead from the silos necessitated by the pandemic and shout them from the rooftops. We must grieve loudly in all the ways we can.
With Iowa Mourns, we hope to not only memorialize the dead, but also to create a community of living mourners — a kind of broken-hearts club that promises to remember and offers a space to laugh, to cry and to just be present (virtually) with Iowans who are hurting.
When we break the bonds of sequestration, we can see ourselves not as one, but one of many.
Before Delbert died, Edna was allowed to see him in the hospital. Mummified in PPE, she asked her younger brother to smile for her. “Let me see your beautiful white teeth,” she said.
“I’m not going back to that place,” Delbert told her, referencing his home. She tried to reassure him. “Yeah, you are,” she said.
“No, I am not,” he replied.
At Delbert’s funeral, his pastor shared with Edna that, in their last conversation, her brother had talked about a dream he had a day or so earlier. In it, he was walking. He could feel the earth underneath his feet, his bones supporting him.
“He knew that in death he would walk again,” Edna said, “and there’s some comfort in knowing he had that sort of peace.”
Even on the other side, Delbert had found the good in the chaos.
For one last time, he flexed his superpower.
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