Memphians cope with lives turned upside down by virus

By , Daily Memphian Updated: October 05, 2020 10:43 AM CT | Published: October 05, 2020 4:00 AM CT

Six months ago, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee issued a statewide shelter-at-home order closing down all non-essential businesses and forcing people to remain at home except for necessary medical visits and trips to the grocery store.

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland had issued a similar edict for Memphis-Shelby County weeks before in an effort to prevent COVID-19 from spreading further in the community and potentially overwhelming the health care system.

It was a reality that put businesses and jobs across the county at stake and increased the possibility of widespread financial fallout, from loan and mortgage defaults to evictions, car repossessions and bankruptcies.

The emotional scars and damage to lives are evident here, not to mention the loss of more than 480 lives, leaving an unclear path ahead for many.

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Crushing losses

Sheena Barnett, 37, lost her job and her father to COVID-19 in one sudden, devastating week in May. She furiously cleans monuments at Elmwood Cemetery to cope, expecting she will never be the same. But somehow, seeing other people’s names and stories emerge from the grime on the stones helps her feel she will too, one day.

Barnett doesn’t talk about being depressed. She barely remembers anything from the month of June, a kind of psychological protection, she figures, from the tumult of May when, in the space of a few days, she lost her longtime job in Graceland’s marketing division and her father, Jesse Barnett, 68.

Her last visit with him was through FaceTime from his hospital room in Tupelo.

“He said he was deeply, deeply exhausted. I could tell by the way he talked that maybe he was having breathing issues, but he didn’t want me to know how bad he felt,” she said.

Barnett happened to mention the COVID-19 diagnosis to her father and cringed in horror when she realized he hadn’t been told.

<strong>Sheena Barnett</strong>

Sheena Barnett

“I thought he knew because I knew,” she said. “And from what I understand, within the next few days, he called all of his friends and asked them to be his pallbearers.”

But in a few days, he seemed better, and Barnett’s world steadied.

“He was sounding so much better. He said he felt better. And then he took a turn,” she said.

He died May 10 and his funeral was May 13; the family was allowed to have 10 people in the Senter Funeral Home in Fulton, Mississippi.

“When my grandmother died back in 2010, so many of my friends came to support me,” she said. “I couldn’t have anybody at this one, other than some other family members. It was very difficult.”

Graceland furloughed Barnett in late March because of the pandemic. On Sunday, May 17, a company representative called to say her job had been eliminated.

If the world could go black, it did. Suddenly the lack of money was not just a worry but a desperate, suffocating force. And the endless hours, day after day, of unstructured time barraged her senses to anxiety-ridden numbness.

She slept a lot.

“It was so difficult looking for a job in a pandemic,” Barnett said. “Many employers had great jobs listed online, but they were in a hiring freeze. So I applied for jobs and never heard a word back.

“Most of the jobs available were working directly with the public or in warehouses or factories” — where Barnett would likely be in contact with many people — “which is a terrifying concept when you’re trying to avoid the virus that just killed your dad.”

Barnett is single and lives with her beloved cat in Hernando. She has a boyfriend, but because of COVID-19, she has seen him only sporadically since March.

“There are no words for how terrified I am of this virus. I’m terrified it would kill me,” she said. “My boyfriend and I have had many conversations that we’re so scared we’ll get it and die.”

If that happens, “so be it. But I don’t want that to happen to my mother. I don’t want that to happen to my friends.”

And frankly, she said, dying of COVID-19 would feel like wimping out, like not being serious enough about life and living to take care of oneself and do what survival requires six months into the pandemic.

“Therapy helps,” Barnett said. “But, that’s also hard, in terms of COVID, because for the longest time (therapy) was over the phone.

“And even now, when I go for an actual physical session, everyone’s in a mask. And then it’s terrible because you are crying in a mask.”

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Keeping family first

Brenda Joyce Nichols, 64, a grandmother and a minister who is at-risk of COVID-19 because she’s immunocompromised, thought about buying a red sash to put over her front door, a sign to the angel of death to pass over her home. Instead, she paints olive oil on the threshold — routinely — to anoint the house and the grandchildren who come to be supervised while they attend school online.

The children’s parents are frontline workers: a teacher, a nurse and a firefighter.

There’s a fierceness to Nichols that people who know her tend to mention quickly.

“She just goes on,” the Rev. Sonia Walker, associate pastor at First Congregational Church on Cooper Street, said.

“She has health issues, but she has decided that things still need doing. She’s out there, doing what needs to be done.”

Three years ago, Nichols, the associate pastor at Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church on Willie Mitchell Boulevard in South Memphis and office manager at “First Congo,” learned she’d developed triple negative breast cancer, a particularly aggressive cancer with limited treatment options. The outcomes tend to be worse than other breast cancers because this cancer is often detected late, and it tends to come back.

It did. In 2019, she had a mastectomy after undergoing a second round of chemotherapy, followed by a second treatment of radiation. She is now in remission.

“It’s not a hormone-balanced or unbalanced type of cancer. It just has a mind of its own,” she said. “I am not sick. I have cancer, but it does not have me.”

That became her rallying cry. Then COVID-19 shut the world down, including her day job at First Congo, her preaching and time with her family.

“My doctors told me to be careful and stay put,” Nichols said.

She went six weeks without seeing her children and her grandchildren, a soul-wrenching deprivation that narrowed the span of her love circle.

“My children have to go out there and work,” she said, “and then come home to the grandchildren who I could not interface with.”

Her daughter was assigned to rotate through the intensive care unit floor. Her son, a Memphis firefighter, was encountering the virus nearly every day.

Dealing with that required a steadfastness to stop the walls from closing in.

“I’m a praying woman,” Nichols said. “I am an ordained minister and a preacher as well. I spent most of my days intercessing, going before the Lord to shield and take care of my children. I would rather have been out there myself than have them out there.”

She made her peace with FaceTime. And if she couldn’t see her family, she could still feed them, she figured, so she made mountains of casseroles and sent them out with her husband, Reginold.

But when school started, something had to give, because it’s nearly impossible to find child care around a nurse’s 12-hour schedule or firefighter’s four days on, four days off.

Depending on the week, Nichols now has two to three grandchildren in class in upstairs bedrooms and a toddler on the sun porch with her husband.

She lives with reality that COVID-19 may be walking in the door with them.

“I have a very high spiritual zone. I take the Word literally.”

She laughs when she says she wiped olive oil, not blood, on the threshold.

“I anointed my house; I anointed my door. I thought of going to Hobby Lobby to get a big red sash to put across my door.

“I bless myself. I bless my grandchildren. I believe that is 50% of my well-being, plus mindfully doing what has been put in place, so social distancing, washing our hands and all those things.”

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Making a bad situation work

Daniel Franceschini will turn 19 in a few weeks. He’s a freshman at the University of Memphis, but the experience is nothing like the college life he’d imagined. Instead, remote learning feels like a self-directed lesson in learning to cope, layered with the dull monotony that has become reality for millions.

Franceschini has as much to miss as anyone. There wasn’t a senior prom at St. Benedict at Auburndale, where he graduated in mid-June in a spaced-out ceremony on the soccer field. The lacrosse season ended unceremoniously, sidelining him and the rest of the school’s athletes.

He was accepted at Rhodes College but didn’t enroll because he thought tuition was too high for what would be a fall term of remote learning.

He spent the summer meeting friends in a parking lot, playing basketball with a home-schooled family down the street and working a few hours a week in his grandmother’s construction business.

Confined as it was, he managed, he said, because he was excited about being a student at the University of Memphis in the fall.

“I saw other schools already saying that there was a possibility of going back. I was pretty happy just to be going to college in general,” he said.

Three of his friends headed off to campuses in Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi and are still there, taking classes on campus.

“They all have a pretty close-to-normal college experience,” Franceschini said. “From what I’ve seen, they go to class every day.”

The U of M has postponed a phased approach to more in-person learning several times since July, which means 45 days after the term began, most of its 22,000 students, Franceschini included, were still learning online.

“It just seems like every week it’s the same repetition over and over, and it’s not fulfilling whatsoever. It’s not bad like, ‘Wow, this is terrible, I hate it,’ but it’s just repetitive.”

Only one teacher runs the online time like a regular class with notes and class discussion.

“I enjoy that class because he’s pretty good at his job, and he’s good at making it easy to remember things. It’s more of a personal interaction. But for the rest of my classes, it’s just self-learning. You get an assignment, finish it and go to the next.

“I have one teacher that records the lecture. But even that just feels like I’m watching a video online, and I’m just kind of a bystander.”

He pledged the fraternity Lambda Chi Alpha and then worried it would require socializing.

“We’re still not doing anything in person. It’s all on Zoom.”

In all, it’s disappointing, he says, but he doesn’t feel that way about his life because, in ways that matter to him, the pandemic has created other opportunities.

He got a job working a few hours a week in the university’s athletic department, making videos for the football team.

Franceschini was on the Zoom call with the athletic staff last week when job cuts were announced.

“I didn’t get cut because I’m only working five hours a week or whenever they need me, really. I knew people there who were full-time employees, supporting a family. Those people loved their jobs. And they lost their jobs. That’s pretty rough.”

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Looking to the future

Brigette Conner, 34, teaches kindergarten in person at Collierville Elementary, a blessing because it’s one of the few things in her life that has not changed. But, she’s also recently divorced. Dating in a pandemic is so rife with unknowns, she’s given up.

“You don’t know their exposures, and even if you try to go out to date and meet people, it’s just a very different experience because the environments are so much different. It poses a lot of challenges.”

<strong>Brigette Conner</strong>

Brigette Conner

Conner felt limited to online dating, but even that seemed quickly pointless.

“If you are interested in meeting somebody, you have to be very careful about meeting them in person because you don’t know what they are exposed to or who,” she said.

Asking pointed questions about what and where, she found, eroded the spirit of getting together.

“I’ve given up on dating.”

But the pandemic has offered her and her two young children a respite, she said, that has given her time to do things important for their future, including going back to graduate school for a dual teaching licensure.

“I slowed down a little to take it all in and get my life back together and things I needed to do for myself after the divorce,” she said. “I don’t think I had the time to do that before.”

Finding purpose in the stones

Barnett, meanwhile, apologizes because she knows it is odd to love cemeteries. She had volunteered to be a tour guide at Elmwood and helped out at some of the cemetery cinema events, but didn’t know anything about cleaning tombstones.

Kim Bearden, Elmwood’s director, brought it up in late June.

Barnett got her lesson July 1.

“I just haven’t stopped,” Barnett said. “I was going several times a week. I’ve cleaned 135 stones.

“It has literally saved me.”

Buying a marker is one of the last ways a family can show outward love to their departed, she said.

“It’s an act of love that you can do for them. And it’s permanent.”

She chronicles the stones and the stories that lay beneath on Facebook, Instagram and TikTok.

“I’m getting a ton of likes on there from all across the U.S.”

After months of feeling like she was drowning in loss, Barnett now has a full-time job with Ray Rico Freelance.

On her Friday afternoons off, she heads with near religious discipline to Elmwood with her cleaning supplies to brush way lichens, soot and time.

“I have so much respect for the people whose graves I’m cleaning. I hope, in 100 years, someone does the same thing for my family members, and that they say, ‘Oh, here is person who lived and loved and struggled and succeeded.’”

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Sheena Barnett Elmwood Cemetery Daniel Franceschini Brenda Joyce Nichols Brigette Conner Collierville Elementary University of Memphis COVID 6 months
Jane Roberts

Jane Roberts

Longtime journalist Jane Roberts is a Minnesotan by birth and a Memphian by choice. She's lived and reported in the city more than two decades. She covers healthcare and higher education for The Daily Memphian.


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