Families of 3 of Utah’s COVID-19 victims describe their new realities

Sometimes her absence sneaks up on him.

Like on Sundays. Aaron McKown will realize it’s Sunday, and maybe for a split second he’ll think about what that meant before COVID-19 stole his mother.

“She was just a stable presence in my life, you know,” said McKown, the second oldest of Becky McKown’s four children. “It was always Sunday dinners with her. I could always expect her to say, ‘I want to go see something cool, and I want you to go see it with me.’ And I just miss those simple, regular milestones, like a I have family dinner on Sunday, but now I don’t.

“I know what Christmas is going to be like every year, but now I don’t know what it’s ever going to look like again.”

Rebecca “Becky” Ann McKown was just 65 when she became one of the pandemic’s most grim statistics. As of Sunday, 1,055 Utah families understand the hole that’s been ripped in McKown’s life after his mother succumbed to COVID-19-related complications on July 24.

It took more than two months — 66 days to be exact — for COVID-19 to claim the first 100 Utahns. But as the state’s case numbers began surging this fall, with positive test rates now five times what they were in May and June, it took just eight days to go from 900 deaths to 1,000.

The numbers may feel too abstract to have real meaning for those who can still pick up a phone and call their mentors, walk with their heroes or share a meal with their best friends.

But for those like McKown, Jim Wankier and Bryan Mose, the numbers are profoundly painful.

“There is a hole in my heart that is never going to be filled up,” Wankier said of losing his father, Francis Wankier, on Nov. 16. “The world lost one the greatest men that has ever been, but the world doesn’t know it.”

An angel on earth

For 80 days, Suzi Yazzie fought for her life in a hospital hundreds of miles from the Bluff, San Juan County, home she shared with her husband. Larsen Yazzie got sick first, and then a few days later, Suzi Yazzie developed a cough. They both went to a free COVID-19 testing event in Montezuma Creek, but their results were negative.

It wasn’t until her husband’s symptoms worsened and she took him to the hospital that he tested positive for the novel coronavirus. He was flown to Intermountain Medical Center in Murray on May 8. Two days later, Bryan Mose took his mom waffles, an omelet and bacon to celebrate Mother’s Day.

“I just wanted to tell her I love her, and that I was thinking about her,” he said. “She was OK. She didn’t open the glass security door, but we stood there talking.” The next morning, his siblings began calling him because she wasn’t answering their calls. He tried to call her with no luck.

He went to her house, but she didn’t answer.

Suzi Yazzie died after battling COVID-19 more than two months. She is one of more than 1,000 Utahns to lose their lives to the virus.
Yazzie family photo

“I was banging on that back door for 10 or 15 minutes, just beating on it,” he said. “Absolutely no sound, no response. I was just thinking, ‘Holy cow. I hope she’s not home.’”

He was just about to call police when his boss arrived, and they began discussing how they could break into the house.

“Then she came to the door,” he said. “It had been about 40 minutes. She looked like she had no strength, like she was falling asleep when she was standing. I have never seen her like that. She said, ‘I’m fine. I just need to get some rest.’ I said, ‘Mom, you’re very, very sick. You could possibly have COVID.’”

They took her to a hospital and she was then flown to the same hospital where her husband was in intensive care. Mose said his mother fought for more than two months, and at times, it looked like she might just win her battle. They kept in touch through FaceTime, although there was some visiting in June because Utah COVID-19 numbers were low enough that many facilities relaxed their visitation policies.

“I was driving to Salt Lake every chance I could get,” he said. “But when the numbers spiked in July, the visitation became more strict. But we visited by FaceTime.”

He was in Navajo Mountain when he got a call that his mother was critically ill.

“The doctor said, ‘We don’t think she’s going to be alive much longer,’” Mose said. “Your brothers and sisters probably need to try and make it here if they can.”

Mose and his sister Suzette showed up at the same time. They sat with their mother until their other two siblings arrived.

“We were all there when she passed,” he said.

The life she lived echoes through the lives of those who loved and relied on her.

“She wasn’t selfish,” Mose said, trying to do the impossible — put his mother’s life into a few sentences. “She was passionate about teaching. She had a master’s degree from Weber State University.”

He laughs to himself, and then adds, “She loved being with children she could teach, especially her grandchildren. … We are Navajo, and she was a very traditional woman. She spent a lot of time teaching us our traditional background. … She was part of the LDS Church, too.”

He pauses. There is so much more, so much to acknowledge, so much that’s now lost.

“She did a lot for us,” he said. “The best way I can describe her is just that she was loving and caring. She would take her shirt off her back and give it to you. … Here at San Juan High, everybody called her mom.”

His sister Cozette Mose takes a deep breath and laughs before trying to tell a stranger what kind of woman their mother was.

“She’s the most pure human being you’ll ever meet in the entire world,” she said. “My mom is literally an angel on earth.”

The bravest man

Just the other day, Jim Wankier was thinking about the times his dad would pull him up onto the horse he was riding when he was just a child.

“I remember I used to ride on the back of the horse behind him (just behind the saddle),” he said. “I was maybe 5 or 6 years old, and I would hang onto his coat, lay my head on his back. I could never see where we were going, but I always knew it was going to be OK.”

He now sees those rides in the foothills outside their home in Levan, Juab County, whether they were headed to count cows, hunt elk or go fishing, as a metaphor. If Francis Wankier was in charge, good things were bound to come.

“He always saved the day,” Jim Wankier said, his voice softening. “He was the bravest man I ever knew. … He was the best dad there was.”

The night of Oct. 29, 82-year-old Francis Wankier drove himself to the hospital because he felt anxious and couldn’t sleep. He knew something was wrong, but he had no idea that he’d contracted COVID-19.

Francis Wankier, 82, died on Nov. 16, after battling COVID-19 for more than two weeks. He’s one of more than 1,000 Utahns who’ve lost their lives to the pandemic.

Francis Wankier, 82, died on Nov. 16, after battling COVID-19 for more than two weeks. He’s one of more than 1,000 Utahns who’ve lost their lives to the pandemic.
Jill Wankier

“He called me and said, ‘Jim, I’m in the hospital,’” Wankier recalled. “I said, ‘Are you all right?’ And he said, ‘I’ve got the virus.’”

At first, Jim Wankier was hopeful. The worst experiences they’d heard about from friends who had contracted it were described as “a bad flu.”

“Some didn’t have any symptoms, maybe just losing a sense of smell,” Jim Wankier said. “I was worried because of dad’s age.”

But Francis Wankier, an old-fashioned, small-town guy met the world on his terms. If there was anything he knew how to do it was fight through difficulties.

Francis Wankier seemed to be holding his own, but then he developed a blood clot. Doctors told him he only had about a 10% chance of surviving the surgery. He elected to fight for a few more years.

“The next morning, he was awake, the breathing tube was out, and he was doing well,” Jim Wankier said. “Then he just started to decline with his lungs.”

They talked about the monotonies and milestones through a screen, and a nurse working in the Provo hospital from New York became his “ice cream angel.” The family talked on Saturday, Nov. 14, and they all thought that was their last conversation.

“That was a tough day, all of us saying goodbye,” he said. “And then Sunday, he told his nurses he wanted to FaceTime us again. We gathered the whole family together, and we just had a wonderful conversation. We could see him smiling, and he talked to every member of his family. I thought, ‘It ain’t over. He’s going to pull out of this thing.’”

The next day, the video call revealed a harsh reality.

“We knew it was close,” he said. His three children went to the hospital and donned gowns, gloves, two face masks and clear face shields. Then a doctor told them their father had decided to turn off his oxygen machine.

“I turned to Dad and said, ‘Is this what you want?’ He grabbed me by the hand and said, ‘I’m not going to get any better, Jim. This is the way it’s got to be.’ We visited and cried and shared some things. Dad wanted ice cream, his favorite thing, so he ate some ice cream.”

Francis Wankier looked at the boy who used to bury his face in his coat on those long, cold rides and said, “I’m ready if you’re ready.”

He pauses, and then says what just doesn’t feel enough to describe the man who was the last of his generation.

“I thought he was the bravest man I’d ever known,” Jim Wankier said. “He was proving it to me again, right there in the hospital. I got to hold his hand. I got to give him a priesthood blessing. We took his mask off, made him comfortable, and … he was gone in a matter of minutes.”

The nurses wept with the family.

After they said their goodbyes and shed their gowns and gloves, Wankier and his sisters walked down a hall lined with health care workers who offered them a nod, a glance, the only comfort they could, for which he was grateful in a way that defies description.

“There are 30-something beds, and 30 of them were COVID patients,” he said. “Room after room of (breathing) machines, you could hear them. The (nurses and doctors) lined the halls, look at us. They knew what we’d been through. They’ve seen too much of it.”

When Francis Wankier lost his retirement, he worked odd jobs and did what he could to help himself and those in his small town. He worked hard and gave liberally. Sometimes he’d drive around town looking for a friend or neighbor so he could strike up a conversation.

The friends and neighbors who shared his ZIP code were his concern. He saw them. He loved them. He made sure they knew, whatever they were dealing with, small annoyances or life-altering tragedies, they weren’t alone.

“I’ve heard from so many people that that’s what they’ll miss — the visits, him checking on them, stopping to talk, just seeing how they were doing,” Wankier said. “Dad was just so casual about the way he helped people. He’s one of those unsung heroes, just the little things he did, and he never sought recognition. The world lost one of the most kind, compassionate people it has ever had.”

His family used to joke that time had passed Francis Wankier by, but looking back, his son believes that’s how his dad wanted it.

“His death is the end of a legacy,” Wankier said. “He was the youngest of his family, and it was kind of like closing the door on a time long forgotten by many people.”

Make time for beauty

Becky McKown’s determination wasn’t loud or brash.

“She was a pretty strong, stubborn woman,” Aaron McKown said. “She liked having adventures, and she always just had this kind of determination to do what she needed to get things done, to accomplish things.”

She returned to graduate school in her 50s and earned her master’s degree. That helped her secure a job at BYU’s Harold B. Lee Library.

“She loved working there,” he said. “She loved just doing things. … Like she’d call me and say, ‘Hey, you’re around. Let’s take a day and drive to the middle of nowhere in Utah, go on a hike, and then drive back in the same day. Yeah, that’s her.”

McKown was in high school when his parents divorced. He said their house was always full of kids and activity. At the center of that beautiful chaos was his mother.

“I was probably in middle school when she was like, ‘Hey, I’m going to get a paper route,’” McKown laughed. “So she had a paper route, and she’d enlist us to help her roll the papers and drive out into the middle of winter in Missouri and chuck them out the window in the driveways.”

Becky McKown loved music, and she played the flute, piano and organ. She taught her daughters to play piano, and all of her children chose different instruments to play. After her divorce, the only change McKown saw in his mother was an even more determined woman.

“It kind of hardened her resolve to set goals and to achieve them,” he said. “This is what I have to do to take care of things, and this is what I’ve always wanted to do, and now I’m going to do it.”

Her children were thrilled when she decided to go back to school at a time when most people are thinking of winding down their careers.

When Becky McKown learned she’d been exposed to COVID-19 she immediately went to be tested, and she checked into a hotel so she wouldn’t endanger her 94-year-old mother who lived with her in Holladay. She called her children to let them know her symptoms were mild.

“You’re just kind of worried because she’s on the borderline of age,” he said. “We didn’t know if she had any underlying health conditions that might interact poorly (with the virus). … Me and my sister, the ones who live closest to her, kept in touch with her.”

She’d make requests — Gatorade and Tylenol — and McKown would pick them up and drop them at the side door of the hotel. They’d wave at each other from a safe distance. After a week, she called her daughter and said she needed to go to the hospital because she was having trouble breathing.

Becky McKown spent a week in the hospital, but she seemed to be recovering, so she was released.

“I think she thought she was going to get better because she’d ask me, ‘Can you go to the store and buy me these things? I think that will make me feel better,’” he recalled.

But the corner his mother thought she was turning never came.

About a week and a half after that, she died unexpectedly at home on July 24. Her mother found her and called Aaron and his sister.

“She was by herself,” Aaron McKown said, sucking in his breath. “That was kind of the hardest part, the shock and surprise of it all.”

Becky McKown left four children and 11 grandchildren behind. She had a grandchild she never got to meet who was born in November.

“She spoiled her grandkids like any good grandmother would,” he laughed. “I was jealous every Christmas because I was like, ‘Why are you spending more on the grandkids? I’m right here.’ She just loved them. She showered them with presents, took them on special trips, and just couldn’t get enough time with them. She just loved all her grandkids to the utmost.”

The best thing McKown learned from his mom was that life requires resolve. But she also instilled in him a sense of wonder and adventure.

Becky McKown embodied “just a sense of — there are exciting things out there and you should want to go see them, and you should make time to do it.”

He continued, “She was someone who was like, ‘If you want this, you’re going to have to go out and find a way to make it happen.’”

Aaron McKown understands why some may not take the health precautions as seriously as they should.

“You’re not sure,” he said, pausing. “You think it’s not widespread enough or it’s not close to me, and then all of a sudden it’s right there on your front door. It feels like it came at you sideways because you feel like you can see it coming. But then all of a sudden, it just kind of sneaks its way in.”

Looking at daily statistics is no longer something he does without thinking of the families like his that have been changed forever, the communities that are now different.

“I just don’t realize what happened until it suddenly hits you,” McKown said. “And it’s kind of scary. There are 1,000 other families who thought they would have had a normal year, normal traditions, normal family moving on, and then all of a sudden, it has to change. And it’s hard to find a way through that.”

So much uncertainty washes over him. But, thanks to his mother, he knows what he has to do.

“Like my mom,” he said, “I have to figure out a way to make it happen, and make it work, and find the next good thing.”

The Deseret News is chronicling some of the stories of those who’ve died of COVID-19. If you have lost a friend or family member to COVID-19, please email us at covid@deseretnews.com.