A Grief Revisited

In 2013, 4-year-old Audrey Hoy died from acute pneumonia caused by an enterovirus that crossed into her nervous system.

IN GREEK MYTHOLOGY, Cassandra is a Trojan princess who is both blessed and cursed by the god Apollo. He gives her the gift of prophecy, but when she doesn’t return his affection, he adds a spiteful caveat to her powers: She will be able to accurately predict the future, yet no one will believe her.

As I sit and read the news about school children in Texas, Florida, Mississippi—everywhere—being admitted to the hospital for COVID-19, while school systems like Brownsburg and Hamilton County struggle to even pass mask mandates, I can’t help but feel Cassandra’s plight.

In 2013, my husband and I lost a healthy 4-year old daughter to a virus, in a similar fashion to how COVID can take out otherwise healthy people. Audrey had no congenital conditions, no comorbidities. She was just a cheerful and kind preschooler who skipped everywhere she went. 

For Valentine’s Day that year, she told me the favorite colors of every child in her class. We carefully braided friendship bracelets with embroidery floss and attached them to cards that said, “Our class would KNOT be the same without you!” One month later, we took her to the doctor in the morning for a slight fever, went for milkshakes after, and by the end of the day, she was dead.

Her official cause of death was acute pneumonia caused by an enterovirus that crossed into her nervous system. It’s not a lot of fun to Google a virus that kills your child, but obviously I have. An enterovirus is nothing special. You don’t hear about them on the news, because we have all had them multiple times in our lives. Essentially, in a cruel twist of statistics and bad luck, a virus that normally passes in a few days somehow killed my daughter.

And so, I find myself watching current events with Cassandra-like dismay. Instead of a Trojan Horse filled with Greek invaders rolling into my city, I am witness to the banal carelessness of my fellow citizens as a deadly virus comes for our loved ones.

It’s not the hardcore anti-mask, anti-vaccine zealots who I find most hurtful. Of course, they can do a lot of damage by spreading misinformation and blocking basic precautions. I don’t know what to “do about” them, but my hunch is that they are a minority. What’s the old adage about the 80/20 rule? In many situations, 20 percent of a group is responsible for 80 percent of the results. Perhaps that is the case with this loud fifth of our population. Their signs outside our school about “Mask Freedom” are largely ignored.

No, where I want to scream and shake people by the shoulders is when I encounter the casual indifference of people in my circle. We went to our elementary school ice cream social in Hamilton County before school started. Less than half of the kids had masks on. Even fewer parents and teachers did. Yes, the adults are probably (hopefully) vaccinated. Mayor Jim Brainard recently reminded us that 70 percent of Hamilton County is. But vaccinated adults can still pass COVID to their unvaccinated kids. 

Friendship bracelets and Valentines.
Audrey and her mother made friendship bracelets for Audrey’s preschool classmates.

Cassandra could whisper to some percentage of them or the 8,000 Brownsburg elementary school children, ‘Your child will get COVID. A few in this school system will be hospitalized for it. One will die.’ But they wouldn’t believe her.

When Audrey died, my husband and I noticed a macabre phenomenon. Acquaintances would ask probing questions about her health. Had she been ill for a long time? Did she have asthma? Was the family vaccinated for the flu? We realized over time they were all trying to find one answer: What is the distinguishing factor that guarantees the same won’t happen to their child?

We all do this all the time. The 50 year-old who had a fatal heart attack made poor lifestyle choices. The person who died in the car crash wasn’t wearing a seat belt. Whew! We would never make those mistakes! We’re safe. Unfortunately, pandemics don’t work that way.

The hurt, angry side of me sometimes thinks of Robert the Bruce in Braveheart. As the Scottish nobles sit around discussing in horror how some of their ranks have been targeted by William Wallace’s rebels, they wonder aloud who will be next. A disillusioned Bruce smirks, “Maybe YOU.” 

I want to tell people who asked us these questions, “There is absolutely no reason this couldn’t happen to you, to your child.”

Now, with unvaccinated kids and very few containment practices in place, the odds are even better. What will it take to make wearing masks seem worth the effort? Dr. Kris Box, the Indiana State Health Commissioner, expertly delivered Audrey (and her two sisters), as well as hundreds of other Indiana babies, but many of the same mothers she cared for won’t listen to her when she tells us to get vaccinated. Why won’t we protect our children in even the most basic ways? If I had known how to prevent Audrey’s death, I would have gone to absolutely any length. Yet, many of my friends and neighbors don’t think it’s worth even a minimal attempt.

It feels as though I’m walking around seeing a vision of some poor parent’s future, but few believe me. I know what it’s like to have two Lawrence Township firefighters (bless them) march into your living room and carry your daughter out of your house. I know how it feels to see your child on life support. I have had to find the words to explain to a sibling why their sister isn’t around anymore. I have lain in bed, reliving scenes I wouldn’t wish on my very worst enemy.

True, that nightmare is unlikely. Even with no mask mandates or vaccines for younger kids, few will have critical health outcomes. Most will feel under the weather for a few days and finish out their quarantine watching YouTube on an iPad. But some absolutely will not be so lucky. 

I am furious that I have been put in this position of not being able to protect my other children, when we know exactly how. Every single day, I wonder how I could possibly carry on if I were to lose another child to a virus. When people I interact with are flippant about their kids and wearing masks, it’s impossible to believe they care about people like me and Audrey.

Even people who know our story shrug their shoulders about COVID, and I will never be at peace with it. This is not a time to play the odds. Take it from me.