America hit a somber benchmark in the coronavirus pandemic, with the U.S. death toll reaching 100,000.
CHICAGO – As Easter approached, the Rev. Marshall Hatch anticipated a joyful season of rebirth, celebration and reunion for his family. Instead, it was a time of death, confusion and isolation as four people in his world died in one week after contracting the coronavirus.
On April 1, Hatch lost his best friend of 45 years to COVID-19, as well as a beloved member of his congregation. Three days later, he lost his older sister in the early morning. That afternoon, a man who did construction work at the church died.
Over Easter weekend, Hatch buried his parishioner and his sister. That Sunday, he preached a virtual service at his Baptist church on the city’s West Side, with light from the towering stained glass windows falling on rows of empty pews.
A few days later, his wife was diagnosed with the coronavirus. She recovered but has remained in her bedroom, quarantining.
“It was crazy. The whole thing was crazy,” Hatch said. Even seven weeks later, “it’s still all one blur of a reality.”
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With more than 100,000 deaths from the coronavirus in the U.S., millions of friends and relatives are working through a sense of suspended grief. They can’t clasp their loved one’s hands by their bedside. They can’t hold one another at the cemetery. There’s no ceremonial closure, no supporting embrace.
Members of the Hatch family are finding their own ways, alone, to process the losses.
Oldest of eight siblings was a maternal figure
Marshall’s younger sister, Josephine, 55, sat with her son in her late sister’s apartmentseven weeks after her death.
Rhoda Jean Hatch, 73, had lived in a four-unit building occupied exclusively by family members – a dormitory of sorts where no one locks their doors. Her bedroom was sparse and neat. Family pictures sat on the mantle along with artifacts from Kenya. Rhoda liked to travel light.
“When we walked in the door, we both said it smells like Rhoda’s here. Her presence is still here,” Josephine said. She had just helped her 68-year-old sister, Jennie, back to her unit upstairs and stopped by Rhoda’s apartment for a moment of peace.
There once were eight Hatch siblings – seven sisters and one brother, though several died before the pandemic. The family grew up in public housing and lost their parents at an early age.
“I was only 2 years old when our mom died, so I don’t even really have memories of her. And my dad died when I was 16,” said Josephine, the youngest surviving sibling. “So Rhoda, being the oldest, that’s who she was for me, a maternal figure.”
Rhoda was a trailblazer. The first to move out of the home. The first to graduate from college. The first to go to Africa. A scholar. An anti-war activist. A lifelong public school teacher. An avid Scrabble player and the church organist.
“Losing Rhoda in 2020 is really unreal. I’ve been trying to wake up from this nightmare for two months,” said Jennie, a retired customer service professional. “My brother and I took her to the hospital on that Wednesday. In a matter of days she was gone.”
Marshall said he kept up with news of the disease’s arrival in Washington state in January, then the outbreak in Italy in late February. By early March, he stopped doing funerals. By mid-March, he stopped holding in-person church services.
That’s when Rhoda fell sick, thinking it was another asthma attack.
The last time Marshall spoke to his sister, it was the evening before she was intubated – a decision he plays over and over in his mind. The last time he saw her alive, he and Rhoda’s son Joel donned gowns, gloves, face masks and shields and entered the hospital’s COVID floor.
“It was more like a space suit. Not very intimate,” Marshall said. “She was heavily sedated. There was no response. It was a ‘say goodbye’ moment.”
When the family learned she had died, “we were all standing in different corners of the room. We couldn’t console each other. Everyone just stood in their own grief,” Josephine said.
Marshall recalled Rhoda’s comforting touch when their sister Nancy died in 2009. As they stood at the casket, Rhoda looked up at Marshall with “that proud mother smile,” he said, and stroked his face from his forehead to his cheeks.
“She says, ‘Marshall, you look nice,'” he said, taking a deep breath and tearing up. “Boy, that was about as close to maternal as I’d been. … She was the matriarch.”
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Rhoda’s funeral planning sparked disagreements among the family.Should it be online? Who could attend? “Finally, we just shut it down and ended up going with a visitation and burial,” Marshall said.
He performed a funeral for his parishioner and “church mother,” Daisy Gee, in the same chapel where his sister lay the next day for her visitation. On the day of her visitation, Marshall sat with his sister late that night for a final moment alone.
As five cars pulled up to the cemetery for Rhoda’s burial the next day, Marshall panicked and got back into his car, calling on the family to return to their vehicles until they could agree who was allowed to exit.
“All these tensions, people not knowing what to do and looking lost,” Marshall said. “I looked like I lost it, but I just needed people to get back in their cars because it was looking like it was going out of control.”
Josephine recalled standing at a distance from her family at the grave. “We haven’t even been able to hug each other,” she said.
No time ‘to process my own emotions’
The loss of Marshall’s best friend, Larry Harris, 62, compounded the family’s grief. Larry grew up in public housing across the street from the Hatches and went to high school and college with Marshall. He worked as a cop and security guard. He was Marshall’s best man twice, when he got married and when he renewed his vows.
“He would always come over to watch Bears or Bulls games. He was just a comedian of the family. He would effortlessly make us laugh,” said Marshall Hatch Jr., who sang at Larry’s 10-person funeral service.
Marshall Jr., the 32-year-old reverend’s son, runs a community program for at-risk young men on the West Side. For him, the quick succession of losses made it even more difficult to support his father – let alone grieve himself.
“I didn’t really have time to process my own emotions. I was trying to be supportive,” he said. “You understand within yourself that it will take a while until you realize who you’ve lost – the voids that are in you as a result of those two individuals being gone.”
When his mother tested positive days later, Marshall Jr. was terrified.
“She had very mild symptoms, fortunately. I don’t know what I would have done if she had shared the same fate as Rhoda and Larry,” he said. “It would have been too much. It would have been an avalanche.”
‘I don’t know if that’s grief’
Marshall Sr., who has taken three trips to the same cemetery in the past two months to bury coronavirus victims, said he hasn’t been able to fully grieve for the people he has lost. He’s not quite sure what that would look like.
“There are deep phases of reflection that I’ve been in, but I don’t know if that’s grief or if that’s processing,” he said.
He has found some solace in cooking, prayer and Aretha Franklin. He shares photos of his sister with his son and recounts Larry’s old jokes. He keeps their eulogies close.
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Josephine is honoring Rhoda by continuing her work as a public school teacher. She’s reading “A Raisin in the Sun” aloud with her eighth-grade class over video, trying to envision Rhoda as she reads the lines of Lena “Mama” Younger, the mother and guiding light in the Chicago-based play.
As a child, Josephine saw Rhoda perform the role of Mama. “Reading along with the students, I almost became her in the characterization I saw when I was younger,” she said.
Marshall Hatch Jr. is honoring Rhoda’s legacy by diving into the family’s history.
“She was, to me, the holder of sacred stories for the family. She was really like our grail,” he said.
Marshall Jr. is building on Rhoda’s work of sankofa – a Ghanian principle of learning from the past – by becoming the family’s keeper of tales. How the siblings’ grandparents met below Chicago’s elevated train tracks. How their relatives moved to the city from Mississippi during the Great Migration, when millions of African Americans left the South in the mid-1900s.
Marshall Jr. recently stumbled across records that confirm an ancestor fought for the Union during the Civil War. He enlisted just after the Emancipation Proclamation.
Learning that spurred “a huge sense of pride. I don’t even think Aunt Rhoda knew that,” he said. “That new discovery has given us some type of strength in a strange way. We all knew that we had a liberation impulse in all of us.”
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‘Now she becomes part of this memorial tour’
Rhoda always encouraged the family to visit their ancestors’ graves on Memorial Day. Her son, Wesley, fought in the Gulf War. He was stationed in Texas when he was killed in a random act of violence on Mother’s Day in 1992.
“This year, it’s really, really going to be hard because now she becomes part of the visitation,” said Josephine after returning from a trip to buy flowers, gardening tools and American flags. “That seems a little surreal even saying it out loud right now. Now she becomes part of this memorial tour.
“I’m bringing my children,” she said, “so that another generation will come this year to carry on the tradition of remembering.”
As they celebrate those who came before, the Hatches are also celebrating life. Marshall Jr.’s daughter, Sofia, turned 1 year old on Thursday. The aunts drove by the house and played music as Sofia danced outside. The parents had a mini photo shoot.
Marshall Jr. spoke to USA TODAY in his living room just after Sofia finished smashing her birthday cake. He held a small folder on his lap – a collection of documents that Rhoda’s sisters had found in her room.
“Aunt Jennie began to put together what she thought Aunt Rhoda wanted to give to me. She gave that folder to me today, on Sofia’s birthday,” Hatch said.
Inside the folder, Marshall Jr. found a hand-drawn family tree. On the final branch, in Rhoda’s handwriting, was one last name: Sofia.
“I know our story is not unique,” Josephine said. “I feel like we’re all part of this tragic story, and it’s important for us to draw strength from each other. Eventually, this will end. But it feels sometimes like you’re digging out of a tunnel.”
Follow Grace Hauck on Twitter @grace_hauck.
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