- By Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer
When my partner’s father died of Covid-19 in April 2020, what I found my thoughts lingering on, in the numb days and weeks that followed, were his text messages.
“I have the. Virus” is how we first found out he’d gotten it, a phrase whose typos and solemn tone initially struck us as both ominous and funny, but which later became almost unbearable. I couldn’t stop thinking, too, about the texts that had preceded that one, in which his father had aired his doubts about whether California’s emergency measures were over the top, and my partner had warned him to be careful. I hated that when Doug looked at his last exchanges with his father, he’d have to see those.
And I thought about his father’s very last messages. Later, during his weeks on the ventilator, we’d discuss these texts with other family members — how hard it had been to respond to his message about being intubated. “I didn’t know what to say,” one said. “I just sent a heart.”
There was something both poignant and very strange about these exchanges. In a way, it was reassuring to have a record of these moments to turn to — they were tangible and accessible in a way that last words exchanged in person would not be. But they were also horrible; these were records that existed only because Covid-related restrictions meant that Doug’s father had to die alone, without family around to comfort him.
Almost two years later, as colleagues and I were preparing for the day when the United States hit the grim milestone of one million Covid-19 deaths, it occurred to me: My family was almost certainly not alone in carrying around these strange artifacts of a terrible time. Perhaps readers would submit their own final text messages from loved ones lost to Covid? They did, by the dozens; we’ve selected 13 to present here.
These text exchanges are difficult to read: deeply moving, devastating in their intimacy, profoundly human. What makes them so effective, I think, in bringing home the reality of one million dead from Covid is not that the texts make each person more vivid to us, although they do. It’s that they make their deaths more vivid.
We asked readers who submitted these final messages why they decided to share. Most said they hoped they could serve to memorialize the person, often in a way that they weren’t able to at the time of death. But many said they also hoped their messages could make the pandemic feel real, in what seems like its waning days, for those who hadn’t experienced its toll up close, and in some cases, for whom one million deaths still wasn’t enough to make them believe.
MAY 19, 2022
A man in Washington State dies of complications from Covid-19.
Joe Vargo, 70, a retiree planning for a new life in Palm Springs, Calif., felt the beginnings of what he thought was a cold on March 14, a Saturday. He went to the hospital that Friday. “He didn’t have a fever, so we were concerned and scared but didn’t actually think he had Covid,” his husband, Thompson Lange, wrote.
Better – heart beat has been below 80 this morning, but currently up to 106, knit Michu better than the 140+
If it’s down to 80 maybe you’ll get out
I was told late last night that I am now testing positive for COVID
Oh. So I guess you’re not getting out
Not today me thinks, but soon
I guess that mean I need to get tested too. Since youve already been sick and your heartrate is down you must be on the other side of it though
3/22/20, 9:52 AM
Met with a lung doctor – I might have to under and be on a respirator with a breathing tube for a while to clean out my lungs – things getting hairy.
“He started to walk in to the hospital and I wasn’t allowed in so I stopped him and asked him to come back out and hug me,” his husband said.
“And those were our last moments together.” Mr. Vargo died on March 30.
Wilmard Santiago (known as Pete), 65, the oldest of five siblings, a father
of two and a grandfather, began to show Covid symptoms at the
end of March. When his wife called an ambulance on April 6, he was
initially told to stay home because his lungs sounded clear.
He was taken to the hospital the next day and within a few hours had
been placed on a ventilator.
Pete Work4/7/20, 1:56 PM
I love you. Kick this shit’s ass. We got your back. We are SANTIAGOS.
I know. But you will be good. How is breathing?
You got this. Lots of people praying for you. I won’t bother you too much but know I’m right there with you. Love you!!!
4/7/20, 3:25 PM
Untibstion soon love you all and love each other. Lookout for lucia
You will be healed!!! Love you!!!
I forwarded your message to the rest of the family.
God is with you.
He died eight days later.
Stephen T. White, 74, was a pediatric dentist in Austin, Texas,
who tested positive for the coronavirus on April 3. When he asked
to be admitted to the hospital, he was told to stay home and
monitor his oxygen levels, his daughter, Allison Sullivan, said. He was
admitted on April 8 and received convalescent plasma.
GGaggy4/16/20, 7:53 PM
Thinking of you all day!
Beautiful rainbow after
rain last week. I love
you, Dad ❤️4/16/20, 10:47 PM
I want to be in your
garden 🙉 🌸
You will be soon!!💐🥀 ❤️
Dr. White had seemed to be holding steady, his daughter said, but slipped into a coma on April 24. He died on April 26.
Zoraida Endo Li, 68, a mother, grandmother and great grandmother,
came to New York at age 19 from Peru. It’s not clear when she
got Covid, but by April 25, she was sick enough that her family called
an ambulance and she was taken to the hospital.
MamiApril 21, 2020 3:07 AM
Mami como sigues mi gordisApril 26, 2020 11:07 PM
I love you mommyApril 27, 2020 2:29 AM
Hi mommy I love you
Hay muy yncomodafa Me duele todo el cuerpo chiquitita chiquitita en la cama terrible cintura horrible mente
Me llamaste y no hablas no me escuchabas
Ms. Endo Li was intubated on April 29 and spent more than 40 days
on the ventilator before dying on June 12, 2020. “She would say
over the phone that if she got intubated, she knew she wasn’t going to
make it,” her daughter, Sandra Endo, wrote. “And it was true.”
Robert Shankerman, 58, was chief medical officer at a health care nonprofit
that serves disadvantaged communities in central California. He’d
spent much of the pandemic putting in place protocols to protect staff
and patients before he contracted Covid in early August 2020.
B Shankerman8/30/20, 2:52 AM
Wish I could be there and hug you ❤️
Things are stable, slow recovery- must be prepared to take a while, to rocover. Wish we could talk, kiss, and 🤗 hug – that wil be a while!!
He spent more than two weeks on a ventilator before dying on Sept. 19, 2020.
Joseph Zielinski, 78, spent 11 days in the hospital, where he finally
learned to use text messages, his granddaughter, Shelly Rzewuski, said. There
were a lot of ups and downs. “He would have a good day or two, where
he would be talking on the phone and even video chatting, seeming like his
regular self,” Ms. Rzewuski said. “Then things would get worse.”
GBGram & Bop12/29/20, 1:28 PM
Hey Bop, love you. Not
feeling so great today?
Soso hard to talk
Gotchya ok, don’t worry
about talking or texting,
just rest and get better
then🖤 we’re all sending
you love and luck and
positivity 💕12/29/20, 5:58 PM
Hi how are you doing sorry head
I’m ok Bop… Worried
about you today. How are YOU feeling?12/30/20, 5:36 AM
I love you so much, Bop
He died on Dec. 31, just 42 days after his wife of 57 years,
Frances, died of cancer.
Patricia Beddoe, 67, a mother, a grandmother and a retired nurse, contracted
Covid in February 2021, after going to an overdue doctor’s
appointment for her diabetes. When she went to the hospital, her daughter
Narita Beddoe wrote, she “knew she would not return.”
Mom Cell2/24/21, 11:04 AM
Keep fighting mom2/24/21, 12:20 PM
Don’t go to the hospital if you don’t have to remember you have to clear yourself to go back to dr biswas drink the ginger tea with honey this is very important and drink broth
I’m fine mom. How are you feeling. I need you get better soon!
Are they taking good care
Ms. Beddoe deteriorated in the hospital and spent a week on a ventilator before dying on March 17.
Lyle Hobart, 31 and an only child, had just started a new job in
grounds maintenance when he was exposed to Covid, his mother, Debra
Hobart, wrote. He went to the hospital five days into his symptoms.
Your Dad spoke to the doctor and said your oxygen level is getting better 😊
Yes it is 😊7/21/21, 5:58 PM
I love you 💕
I love you too ❤️7/22/21, 5:20 PM
How are you doing today? I heard you are doing better 😊💖
Yup just trying to get a lil better each day
Can’t wait until you are back home 😊💖
Yes, me neither 😊
He died the day after exchanging those texts. “I am never going to be the
same,” Ms. Hobart wrote. “He was my rock and my world.”
Norman Frederick Miller, 64, and his wife, Lori, became sick in late
July 2021. She was quickly put on a ventilator, but he seemed
to be steadily improving, his daughter Jenn Lilly wrote. He was moved
from the I.C.U. to a regular room and then into rehab.
DDad8/11/21, 11:08 AM
The doctor just came in and said there’s a good possibility that I might just go home in 3 to 4 days
Oh wow! That’s amazing!
But I will be going to a rehab place first to gain my strength back because I don’t want to be home alone with no back up
Good, that makes sense
If I go ride home I know I will overdo myself trying to fix too many things at one time
I’m sure that’s true. You shouldn’t do too much too soon.
Take the smart path
Good Dad, I’m glad you’re prioritizing your health!
Yes, I’d like to stick around a while
We all want that!
The day after he was moved into rehab, doctors discovered an air pocket in
one lung. The other lung collapsed not long after. He was placed
on life support the next day and died on Aug. 17; his wife died six days later.
Ashley Lanigan, a 36-year-old mother of two, started showing
Covid symptoms on Sept. 5; she went to the hospital five
days later. At the time, she was still making jokes about the quality
of the hospital food, said her sister Lyndsi Fitzsimmons.
No the one man just told me vent is last resort – he said I’m holding steady – we could do a bi pap machine
He said you know wanna hear that dr say that
Yeah – like it does not mean a death sentence at all. But it’s just not good.
Are you wearing the bipap now?
& I just don’t want to be on a vent. Period esp when the dr says some people don’t come off and we just make them comfortable! Like wtf
Yeah I don’t want you to be on one either
I’m scared. Just please pray my lungs will do something miraculous over night. I have a friend who’s sister is 39 been on a vent for 13 days & they might lose her. She has what I have
She was taken to the I.C.U. on Sept. 13 and died on Oct. 2.
Matthew O’Brien, 53, a lawyer and father of two who’d been vaccinated, came
down with Covid-19 shortly after Thanksgiving.
Matt12/04/21, 9:42 AM
New fence installation underway
Cool send pic updates. Had a tough nite.as my oxygen cannula came out and my blood oxygen dropped came back but still showed that I’m likely not ready to breathe on my own
Ok be better12/05/21, 10:56 AM
Hi how’s are you?12/05/21, 12:44 PM
What did doc say
“For a few days, we exchanged texts and spoke briefly on the
phone,” his sister, Kelly O’Brien, wrote. “And then all
communication stopped.” He died a week before Christmas.
Holly Redell, 74, a married mother of three and a grandmother, was
vaccinated and boosted, but was immunocompromised
as a result of her lymphoma. She went to the hospital on Dec. 14
but was sent home, then went into the I.C.U. on Dec. 30.
“Some days we thought Mom was going to make it,” her son, Bob
Redell, wrote. “The next day was doom and gloom.”
Mom1/2/22, 2:47 PM
Edmund was just in – know you talked – Dr McConnell is around and will call. Not as smooth a glide path today but still ok. Don’t want previous overachievement to cloud any decisions forward – not interested in any backsliding. If you see any “it’s my body” neighbors, please just cold-cock them and then stomp on their nuts for good measure – not sorry God 🤷♀️
She died on Jan. 18.
Data on Covid-19 deaths via The New York Times coronavirus dataset. All messages courtesy of the families of those lost.