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COVID'S TOLL: How to memorialize 303 lives lost in a year?

Eli One Year

Carolyn Henderson and her son Scott Henderson speak during funeral services for Eli Henderson in August 2020 at the Wellborn High School gym. Henderson's was one of many deaths area residents have grieved in the past year.

Not long after County Commissioner Eli Henderson died of COVID-19, county workers put a quote in shiny black letters on a wall in the hallway across from the commission chambers.    

“If you don’t see the world through the eyes of a child, you will miss all the best parts,” reads the quote, attributed to Henderson. 

It is perhaps the county’s first permanent memorial to a pandemic victim — but it was never planned as a memorial, fellow Commissioner J.D. Hess said.

“We were already planning to put that up before he passed away,” Hess said. “The letters were already on order.”

Calhoun County saw its first COVID-19 case on March 18, 2020. In the year since, 303 people in the county have died from the illness. More than 10,000 have died statewide. In an era when pandemic death tolls are reported as often as the weather, the numbers are at once mundane and impossible to fathom. 

Jimmy Smallwood of Weaver died Jan. 13, after refusing to leave the side of his wife, who survived the virus. Ed Whatley, a Vietnam veteran and much-loved local high school principal, succumbed to the virus on Jan. 7. Dr. Dennis Bonner, an Oxford cardiologist who loved hobby farming, died earlier this year.

Multiply those stories by 101, and you come to the county’s death toll as of Friday morning. But the heart doesn’t do math. Particularly when the pain is squared and cubed by empty chairs at the dinner table. 

Hess said he can imagine some future day when local people take some time to remember the dead and honor the helpers. The only question is when. When to even begin talking about some sort of vigil or memorial?

“Timing is everything,” he said.

Party in the parking lot

Dr. Raul Magadia, an infectious disease specialist at Regional Medical Center, has stood at the bedsides of some of the pandemic’s most serious patients for one year now. He has been known to joke, or maybe dream, about the party hospital staff will have when the pandemic is over. True to the spirit of social distancing, he envisions a shindig in the hospital’s parking lot. 

“I’ll have to have my wife pick me up because I’ll be too drunk to do anything,” said Magadia — who’s quick to note that he’s not much of a drinker normally.

Magadia says he’s heard talk of plans by the hospital to hold some sort of event to honor medical workers and remember those who didn’t make it. 

“The question is where and when,” he said.

It’s clear the vaccine has COVID-19 on the run. Magadia said there were 10 people in the hospital with coronavirus as of Friday, with one new admission every day or two. Two months ago, doctors and nurses were struggling with more than 80 patients.

The doctor is still not ready to declare victory. Spring break for many local school systems begins this weekend. Past holidays and public events have been followed by a surge in new infections.

Easter, too, poses similar concerns, although the growing number of vaccinations could help.

“If we have a spike, it’s not going to be a huge spike,” he predicted.

The virus will always be around, Magadia predicts, though by mid- to late summer, life may return to something like normal. 

‘Something we carry’

Anniston is a city of memorials. Governors and attorneys general have been known to make the pilgrimage to Centennial Memorial Park, home to the state’s official monuments to veterans and fallen police officers. Even German and Italian soldiers from World War II get a yearly ceremony, on the site of the old prisoner of war camp at McClellan.

City spokesman Jackson Hodges said the pandemic death toll is often on the minds of city leaders, though he’s heard no talk of plans for a memorial so far.

“It’s something we carry with us every day,” Hodges said. For his office, COVID-19 is still an ongoing concern, the subject of regular announcements about coming testing sites and vaccination clinics.

“It’s a beautiful thought,” said Pete Conroy, a Jacksonville State University administrator who was among those who campaigned for a site to honor the Freedom Riders, civil rights activists who were attacked in Anniston. Local efforts to create a park led to the designation of a Freedom Riders National Monument in the city’s downtown.

Conroy, too, said it may be too early to plan an event or a memorial. And, like others, he said he’d like to see an event that both mourns the departed and celebrates the endurance of survivors.

Who could be there

For Craig Bodiford, the toughest period of the pandemic was when crowds at funerals were limited to 10 people — including funeral home staff.

“It was hard for the families,” said Bodiford, funeral director at K. L. Brown Funeral Homes in Jacksonville and Anniston. “They had to decide who could be there and who couldn’t.”

Bodiford hosts a yearly memorial service just before Christmas for people who have lost loved ones during the year. It’s well attended, he said. The first holiday without a loved one is the hardest, and people are glad to hear from others who are similarly struggling.

“The main message of what we try to do every year is, ‘You’re not forgotten, and you’re not alone,’” he said.

That service didn’t happen in 2020, because of COVID. Bodiford said he plans a two-year event this holiday season. And he said he’s heard talk among pastors about a need for a memorial service.

Hess, the county commissioner, said missing funerals is one of the things about the pandemic that bothers him most.

“I’ve lost very dear, close friends,” he said. “And I’m going to miss them for a long, long time. But you’ve got to keep going. They’d want you to.”

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.