The Fight to Remember the Pandemic's Dead Before They're Forgotten

Angela Kender, holding a portrait of her mother, documents the toll COVID-19 has taken.
Angela Kender, holding a portrait of her mother, documents the toll COVID-19 has taken. STEVEN DUONG

The scene: the intensive care unit at Barnes-Jewish Hospital.

Gaye Griffin-Snyder lay in an ICU bed as the rays of a late-afternoon June sun gave way to dusk.

Two days had passed since Griffin-Snyder had been admitted to the ICU with symptoms of COVID-19: rapid heart rate, shortness of breath, fever.

Griffin-Snyder, a retired psychologist, stared upward, her eyes focused on a large monitor bolted to the wall. A woman's voice emanated from the speakers; Griffin-Snyder listened intently.

She was having her last real conversation, a video chat with her daughter and only child, Angela Kender, of Oakville.

Griffin-Snyder's voice was faint, her breathing labored.

The video chat neared its end.

"I'm fighting," she said to Kender. "It isn't going to win."

Kender felt apprehensive, but optimistic.

"I got off the call, and I said to my husband, 'She's sick, but she's going to be OK,'" Kender recalls.

The next day she tried to video chat with her mother once more.

"And it was like a 180 [degree change]," Kender says, "a totally different situation. She was no longer putting sentences together. I could no longer understand what she was trying to say to me. It was the lack of oxygen. She was so low on oxygen for so long. She couldn't think straight."

Gaye Griffin-Snyder grew up in Springfield, Missouri, a devout Christian and a proud liberal in one of the reddest slices of the American pie.

She raised her daughter as a single parent, and she spent her career counseling people with addiction problems. In her final years she lived in a Glen Carbon, Illinois, nursing home while she battled multiple sclerosis.

A few days after those video chats with her daughter in June, Griffin-Snyder passed away. She was 71.

In the months since her mother's death, Kender has tried to make sense of this sudden, profound loss.

To honor her late mother, she has started a campaign to convince Missouri's Republican governor, Mike Parson, to issue a statewide mask mandate.

Kender so far has not succeeded in making contact with Parson or his staff. During the General Assembly's special session in early August, she held press conferences and handed out fliers pushing for a mandate, but so far Parson and his fellow Republicans, who control both of the state's legislative chambers, have shown zero interest.

"It is just basic human decency to try to take care of each other," she says. "Let's say it helps protect only 20 percent of the people you come into contact with. I think that's still worth it. Especially for people who claim to be such good, socially responsible people, right?"

Parson, who is running for his first full gubernatorial term after being appointed to the job in 2018 following Eric Greitens' resignation, has been accused by Democratic challenger Nicole Galloway, the state auditor, of doing "so little" to fight the lethal pandemic in Missouri. As of late September, Missouri was ranked fifth nationwide in COVID-19 case rates, with the addition of 179 new cases for every 100,000 residents, according to the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

A recent TV spot for Parson's campaign, which is airing only in St. Louis, shows the 65-year-old governor touring a hospital while in a face mask. The ad touts his handling of the pandemic with a "balanced" approach.

Nonetheless, Parson has been widely lambasted for refusing to impose a statewide mask mandate, as well as leaving it up to local officials to decide on measures such as requiring masks in public spaces and the closure of bars and restaurants.

Kelli Jones, Parson's spokeswoman, wrote in an email to the RFT that "Governor Parson is sorry to learn of Ms. Kender's loss. He sends his condolences to her and to all families and friends who have lost loved ones."

Jones added, "Governor Parson reminds and encourages Missourians, almost daily, that they need to social distance, wear a mask, and wash their hands. He has always supported wearing a mask."

Parson has made no secret of his devotion to and support for President Donald Trump.

The governor's choice of a role model matters greatly for Missourians, since Trump — obsessed with reopening an economy that he sees as key to his reelection in November — has used his global pulpit to lie about and downplay the dangers of COVID-19. As recently as September 21, the president told an arena full of tightly packed fans at an Ohio campaign rally that the coronavirus "affects virtually nobody," even as the number of Americans dead from COVID-19 closed in on 200,000.

Trump has bragged about slowing down coronavirus testing efforts, installed officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to censor COVID-19 reports and mocked reporters and elected leaders for wearing face coverings. Trump himself has resisted wearing face masks, donning them in public only rarely.

In addition, Trump has continued to hold mass campaign rallies during which thousands of true-believer fans are crammed together with few bothering to wear face coverings — occasions that some public health experts label as "super-spreader events."

Trump himself is a super-spreader of misinformation about the pandemic, according to a new Cornell University study.

The study's authors found that out of 38 million news articles about the pandemic in English-language media around the world, mentions of Trump made up 38 percent of the overall "misinformation conversation," making Trump the single largest source of falsehoods about the epidemic, according to the New York Times.

Sarah Evanega, the study's lead author, told the Times that Trump's lies and frequent promotion of quack cures "have real-world dire health implications."

This past Friday morning, most of America woke up to the stunning news that Trump and his wife Melania had tested positive for COVID-19, followed shortly after by an announcement that the president was being airlifted to Walter Reed National Medical Military Center. Trump and his team of advisers have spent the days since in a jumbled attempt to project an image of strength, even as it was revealed Trump had been treated with experimental drugs, typically reserved for those who are severely ill.

U.S. senators, advisors and journalists who were with the president, have now tested positive as well, adding new angles to the story.

By the time Trump was transferred back to the White House on Monday evening, the 74-year-old was battling not only COVID-19, but perceptions that he was far sicker than he was willing to admit.

That howling sound you're hearing off in the distance?

The gods of karma laughing in sheer, unbridled glee.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson has repeatedly refused to mandate masks. - TOM HELLAUER
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson has repeatedly refused to mandate masks.

Kender is once again trying to get the attention of the governor. On Sunday, she began what she is calling a Week of Mourning, recognizing the victims of COVID-19 at the state capitol in Jefferson City.

Meanwhile, more than 133,000 Missourians have tested positive for the virus and more than 2,100 have died from it. Nationwide, more than 210,000 have died — the highest death toll worldwide — with another 200,000 projected to die by early 2021. The estimated number of Americans who have tested positive has surpassed 7 million, also the highest in the world.

To help with her lobbying efforts, Kender has printed out dozens of fliers with photos of some of the Missourians who have died of COVID-19.

She also helped make a short documentary, Sunsets and Me, about her mother's life and Kender's subsequent fight to pass a statewide mask mandate.

The documentary closes with Kender looking fatigued and exasperated. The scene is filmed at the end of a long day of fruitlessly trying to meet with Parson and other GOP lawmakers during the August special session.

Kender stares into the camera wearily, her face a mask of frustration and disbelief.

"It's really shocking to me how many people at the capitol don't care and aren't taking it seriously," she says.

It's not a big ask, she adds.

"Treat people with the same decency you want them to treat you with," she says. "Actually, I am infuriated I have to say these things. That it's even necessary to go and do this is insanity to me."

Kender sometimes wonders why so many people — intelligent, educated, decent people — choose not to wear face masks, a decision that puts themselves and loved ones at such an easily avoidable risk.

"It's a big thing, but also a small thing, I guess," she says.

There are many reasons for the refusal to wear face masks, including politics, even though the masks have been conclusively proven to be the single most effective way of deterring the virus' spread and keeping people safe. But the bottom line is that many people have come to believe they can't control the virus, along with other things in their lives, she says.

"So you just choose to believe, 'Oh, well, it's not that big a deal,'" Kender says. "Because it's a more comfortable way to live. Instead of living in fear, people want to live comfortably, I guess."

One image sticks with Kender after her frustrating day of lobbying at the state capitol. She was eating lunch in the building's cafeteria. A short distance away sat a group of Republican lawmakers. None of them practiced social distancing or wore face masks.

"It is offensive when you lost someone to the virus, and you've seen what it does," Kender says. "And to know you are looking at me from across the room without a mask on, and you know putting a mask on could protect me and you're choosing not to."

Kender pauses, seeming to search for the words to describe how she feels.

"It is a slap in our faces, those of us who lost someone."

The Missouri COVID-19 Memorial helps document, at human level, the loss. - STEVEN DUONG
The Missouri COVID-19 Memorial helps document, at human level, the loss.

Kender's efforts to memorialize her mother and other COVID-19 victims are part of a fast-growing movement nationwide to preserve memories of those lost, as well as tell the story of what life was like for everyone else during the worst American health crisis in more than a century — a human catastrophe that has upended every facet of life.

Most of these efforts flow from inspired amateurs like Kender, who want to preserve the legacies of the people who left life too soon.

But there is also a political motive. The people pushing this campaign want to remind the public and politicians of a crucial fact: Those lost to COVID-19 were real people who loved and were loved, who mattered, who left behind devastated friends and family.

And in their honor, they are demanding that politicians pull together and demand that everyone wear face masks — the surest way to prevent COVID-19's spread and save lives until an effective vaccine arrives.

Kristin Urquiza, of San Francisco, founded the national group Marked By COVID on July 8 — the day she buried her 65-year-old father Mark Urquiza, a Mexican American aerospace worker who had caught the virus a few weeks before at a Phoenix karaoke bar.

The elder Urquiza, a lifelong Republican, made the mistake of believing Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and President Trump, both of whom proclaimed it was safe to return to normal activities at a time when COVID-19 cases were spiking in Arizona, according to Urquiza.

"I launched it because I wanted to personify the loss of life that we're seeing," says Urquiza, who told her story to the nation during the Democratic National Convention in late August.

She caught the attention of the DNC after the searing obituary she wrote in honor of her father was published in a Phoenix newspaper and went viral.

Urquiza blamed her father's death on "the carelessness of politicians who continue to jeopardize the health of brown bodies through a clear lack of leadership, refusal to acknowledge the severity of this crisis, and inability and unwillingness to give clear and decisive direction on how to minimize risk."

She later told a newspaper that "Despite all the effort that I had made to try to keep my parents safe, I couldn't compete with the governor's office and I couldn't compete with the Trump administration."

Urquiza started an ofrenda, an altar with photos of those lost to the pandemic, outside the Arizona State Capitol. The public was invited to bring their own pictures of those suffering from the coronavirus' effects or who had died from it.

One goal of Marked By COVID — a play on her father's first name — is to bring greater honesty to obituaries written to honor those who've died from COVID-19.

Marked By COVID is raising money "to sponsor the obituaries of folks who want to tell the truth about how their loved one died," Urquiza wrote in a recent essay for the Huffington Post. "It's important to me that we find ways to uplift the stories of people like my dad: everyday people whose lives were cut short because our leaders refused to lead or put politics above human life."

Kristin Urquiza speaks to supporters of Marked by COVID in a Facebook video. - SCREENGRAB/FACEBOOK
Kristin Urquiza speaks to supporters of Marked by COVID in a Facebook video.

The efforts of Kender and Urquiza to remember those lost to the pandemic and to call leaders to account flow into a swelling torrent of collective memorialization.

It seeks to document and explain this seismic moment in American history — a volatile inflection point in the national narrative that encompasses a monumental loss of life; political chaos and attacks on democracy; lockdowns and quarantines; Zoom for school, work, weddings and funerals; economic collapse and mass joblessness; and a far-reaching reckoning on racial justice and police accountability that has resulted in violence in America's major cities.

An era of cheap and super-abundant social media and high-speed internet coincides with a time when almost every cellphone has a camera. It all adds up to a list of resources to document life and national history that is many magnitudes greater than was ever available before.

The comparison to the storytelling tools available during what's been termed the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 — when almost all news traveled by telegraph, newspaper and handwritten letters, and when women were forbidden to vote — could hardly be more stark, according to Kender.

"My ultimate view is that we are much better documenting things in a variety of ways," Kender says. "Women now have a voice. We didn't have a voice back then. We have more people from different heritages. And more of us will be able to do something to keep this remembered and visible. And hopefully in the next 100 years when something like this happens, we'll have a better response."

Professional historians and preservationists have also started collecting artifacts to memorialize COVID-19.

Angie Dietz, the director of digital initiatives for the Missouri Historical Society, began five months ago to collect first-person accounts and photos to document how the pandemic is affecting people in the St. Louis area.

See Also: COVID Diaries

As part of her research for this project, Dietz says she's been reading diary entries of people who lived through the flu epidemic of more than a century ago.

"There is some resonance there," Dietz says. "I think when we go through these kind of moments when we try to figure out our place in this moment of history, how to deal with it as a family, as a community, as a society, we just need to be able to tell stories about it."

Stories are important, Dietz adds, because "I think it's a way to try and make sense of a moment. It helps to understand that you're not the only one going through that. That there are other people who have similar stories."

The vast outpouring of materials about the pandemic being collected and displayed is thanks to the super-proliferation of online resources such as emails as well as social media platforms including Twitter and Facebook.

Abby Eich's submission to the Missouri Historical Society: My oldest daughter Emily (7 years old) and I heard people were trying to find ways to spread joy to others while keeping distance. She had the wonderful ideal of making a rainbow suncatcher and hanging it in the front window for others to see." - COURTESY MISSOURI HISTORICAL SOCIETY
Abby Eich's submission to the Missouri Historical Society: My oldest daughter Emily (7 years old) and I heard people were trying to find ways to spread joy to others while keeping distance. She had the wonderful ideal of making a rainbow suncatcher and hanging it in the front window for others to see."

But it's also an effort to avoid the memory hole that came to surround the 1918 pandemic, which killed nearly 700,000 Americans within a few years, and as many as 100 million people worldwide.

Part of the reason there is so much collective amnesia about the 1918 pandemic stemmed from the fact that the U.S., early after the first cases were reported, kept this information secret out of fear of giving an advantage to military opponents during World War I, according to Dietz.

Another reason for the collective amnesia was the federal government and the news media's relentless focus on the war, said Katie Foss, a professor of media studies at Middle Tennessee State University.

Foss is the author of the newly published book Constructing the Outbreak: Epidemics in Media and Collective Memory, which focuses on how American society is affected by pandemics and recalls them.

"Why we didn't see more in the moment is just because it was overshadowed by war discourse," Foss says. "There was so much emphasis on World War I at the time, that to do even a little bit of coverage on the pandemic, it was perceived as taking away from it."

Case in point: President Woodrow Wilson never once mentioned the Spanish flu — even though it was killing on average about 7,000 Americans per week — in any of his public utterances, according to the Washington Post. Wilson caught the flu himself during the pandemic and nearly died in 1919 while negotiating the Treaty of Versailles.

Another case in point: As part of the research for her book, Foss says she bought a 1919 University of Kansas yearbook. The only mention of the 1918 Spanish flu in the yearbook was confined to one page, "as to explain why the football season was delayed," she says. "There was nothing else in there, even though a number of students and faculty died from influenza and a number were quarantined on campus. They didn't mention it at all."

When the Spanish flu peaked in late 1918, the public's focus was on celebrating "the end of the war, rather than to dwell on the tragedy of the pandemic," Foss says. "Even during its worst months the focus was on the war."

As they collect materials for future exhibitions and to help the public make sense of this era, the professional preservationists are careful to keep politics out of the mix.

"At this point what we're really trying to do is capture as much as we can," says Chris Gordon, the historical society's director of library and collections.

When it comes to the reasons politics played such a big role in America's response to the COVID-19 crisis, "Historians will make those judgments. They're going to assess and interpret this down the road," Gordon says. "But it is our duty as historians now, as archivists, as preservationists, to really grab as much of this material as we can to give as clear a picture of what's going on now for future historians, whether it's five years down the road or ten years. We really have to be as unbiased as we can in pulling all this stuff together."

No one could blame preservationists like Gordon for trying to go about their task in a neutral way that averts controversy. That's just the nature of their work.

Still, it's tempting to consider how future historians will look at this moment we are living through and try to make sense of it.

What, for instance, will the historians, social scientists and journalists of a future age say about a president who, obsessed with his reelection, continually lied to the nation, promoted quack cures, drew thousands of maskless supporters to campaign rallies and caused the needless deaths of tens of thousands of the very people he had sworn an oath to protect?

How will they remember a president who absurdly downplayed the crisis, and then relentlessly hawked crackpot cures like the drug hydroxychloroquine, even suggesting that bleach injected into the bloodstream could be a possible cure?

The historical record will surely reveal more bombshells of the kind that surfaced in journalist Bob Woodward's book Rage — a recorded conversation of the president admitting that he knew COVID-19 was far more infectious and deadly than he was telling the public.

And of course there will be the role of social media to dissect, especially giants like Facebook and Twitter, whose business models prioritize rage, fear, hate speech and unmoored paranoia. All of which has provided a gold mine, both literal and figurative, to an army of scam artists, kooks, trolls, Russian intelligence agents and bonkers conspiracy theorists.

On that subject, how will the future researchers explain the right-wing, pro-Trump conspiracy cult QAnon, which claims, absurdly, that Trump is the leader of a secret campaign against enemies in the "deep state" and a child sex-trafficking ring run by satanic pedophiles and cannibals?

An artifact that future historians will surely pick over and analyze to make sense of how far America went off the rails is the viral documentary Plandemic, released in May of this year.

It's a steaming crockpot of lies and claptrap featuring a discredited medical researcher named Judy Mikovits. The film makes a number of absurd claims, including such false assertions as vaccines and face masks make people more susceptible to COVID-19, and that hydroxychloroquine is an effective way to prevent the virus. Plandemic has been yanked many times from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other mainstream platforms.

No problem. Crazy finds crazy. So far, nearly 10 million people have viewed Plandemic.

Will any of this look less depraved with the passage of time?

Will any of it somehow make sense to future generations?

Or will it look even crazier and more out of control than it seems to our numbed-out and over-stressed brains?

President Trump announces Judge Amy Coney Barrett as his Supreme Court nominee during a Rose Garden ceremony that is suspected to be a super-spreader event. - Official White House Photo by Amy Rossetti
Official White House Photo by Amy Rossetti
President Trump announces Judge Amy Coney Barrett as his Supreme Court nominee during a Rose Garden ceremony that is suspected to be a super-spreader event.

However they choose to answer these questions, future historians will be sure to focus on the crucial role that political polarization has played in America's disastrous response to COVID-19./p>

Political journalist Ron Brownstein has described the great fault line in America today as the "coalition of restoration" — the 40 percent or so of Americans consisting of cultural conservatives in rural areas and small towns seeking to protect white privilege and supremacy in an era of rapid change — versus the "coalition of transformation," the growing majority of Americans who are OK with the fact that non-Hispanic white Americans by 2040 will be a numerical minority after 400 years of social and political dominance.

Because they feel left out and left behind, under siege and betrayed by such key American institutions as the news media, universities, science and the Washington political establishment, these culturally conservative Americans feel "their status quo has suddenly reached a point of instability," says Foss, the author of Constructing the Outbreak. "Whenever anyone feels their status quo is threatened, it leads to a questioning of everything held up as truth — and a kind of clinging desperation for promises of return to that position of power or position of status quo."

Also contributing to America's pandemic catastrophe is the Republican Party's "ability to ignore and dismiss the truth about Trump and his campaign," Foss says. "To kind of sweep away and gaslight all the things that happened there — that absolutely set up what we're seeing now."

Urquiza, the co-founder of Marked By COVID, wants to keep the public focus on America's failed leadership in combating the pandemic. She notes that a big part of her group's mission consists of calling out "failed leadership, failed policy, and connecting those dots to real-life, on-the-ground impacts which are incredibly profound for the nearly 200,000 people who have passed to the 6 million people who are survivors."

Urquiza says it's become alarmingly obvious that America needs "to have a leader in charge who is really the head cheerleader for the strong, coordinated response."

Trump has been anything but that.

"As you can see, there has been misinformation and lies running about," she says. "He's creating a culture of confusion which is basically a petri dish for the virus to flourish."

It's hard to overstate the depth of the horrors that the Black Death, otherwise known as the bubonic plague, inflicted on Europe nearly seven centuries ago.

When it emerged on the continent in 1347, it swept through its central and southern regions like a ghastly wildfire, wiping out entire villages overnight in the form of a disease whose symptoms include bleeding from every orifice, blackened body parts, painfully swollen lymph nodes, and hellacious vomiting and diarrhea.

The Black Death killed an estimated 50 million people in Europe — at a time when the population was only 80 million — in a four-year span, and another 150 million or so elsewhere around the world. The plague would periodically ravage Europe for the next four centuries, touching off waves of murderous reprisals against Jews and suspected witches and heretics.

In 1665, the Great Plague of London killed as many as 100,000 people in a single year in Britain's largest city at a time when its population was about 460,000. The plague ended after a great fire destroyed much of the city.

Yet, despite the immense death toll, there are virtually no monuments to the Black Death in Great Britain. The closest you will find are weather-worn, usually barely legible stone crosses erected centuries ago in churchyards to mark mass graves or serve as simple memorials to the victims. In addition, the English countryside is dotted with "plague stones," monoliths erected outside local markets showing where people could meet and transact business without fear of infection.

"People have a very hard time, I think, wrapping their head around an invisible enemy," says Gordon, with the Missouri Historical Society.

It's easy to vilify another country, or another group of people, he says.

"People you can point to and say, 'These are bad people,' or, 'These are the enemy,' or what have you," he says. "And it's just a lot harder to just sit down and think about something that they cannot see. That doesn't personally affect a friend or family member, then they don't get a true sense of how serious the situation is."

Some pandemics are so awful and so crushing to the human spirit that people just want to move on, according to Foss, the author of the book about pandemics. She thinks that could happen with COVID-19 in the years ahead.

"I think you will have collective amnesia overall," she says. "Because people will try to forget, since it's been highly politicized."

But there will also be a strong pull in the direction of seeking to remember, Foss predicts.

"I think there will be others who will tell that story," she says, "and document what's going on so we won't forget the people who died."

Gordon says his department is seeking to make sure that doesn't happen when it comes to documenting the COVID-19 pandemic. A major focus for his department is to collect primary source material.

"We really jumped on this quickly, hoping we could capture their feelings, their thoughts, their experiences during the pandemic. And this is common across the country.

"So the idea is, 100, 150 years from now, when people look back on this, hopefully we'll have a much better understanding of what the country was going through at the time," he says.

The collective amnesia when it comes to pandemics even extends to the 1918 crisis' greatest heroes, including Max C. Starkloff, the visionary St. Louis health commissioner. An early promoter of the concept of social distancing, Starkloff doubtlessly saved thousands of St. Louisans' lives through his adamant demands that businesses and schools shut down and St. Louis residents practice social distancing to slow the influenza virus' spread.

Starkloff "was willing to stand up and push for so many restrictions when, just like now, people were angry and thought it was outrageous and counterproductive, and [that] sort of thing," Gordon says.

Yet no statues or other memorials have been erected to honor Starkloff's heroic legacy.

One example of the primary sources the historical society is collecting is a political flier Gordon received in August before the vote to expand Medicaid in Missouri. On the flier was the image of a man wearing a face mask with the Mexican flag printed on it, he says.

"It was anti-immigrant, as well as anti-mask," Gordon says. "It was interesting."

What happens when we die?

Leave it to the Canadian sage and actor Keanu Reeves, the star of those Matrix and John Wick movies, to give the truest answer you could possibly give about this most quintessentially human of questions.

It happened in May 2019, when Reeves made an appearance on "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert."

"What do you think happens when we die, Keanu Reeves?" Colbert asked.

Reeves pondered the question for a moment. Then, oracle-like, dropped this pearl: "I know that the ones who love us will miss us."

So it is with Gaye Griffin-Snyder.

The woman who sent Angela Kender on her mission to make face masks mandatory in Missouri was born in 1948 in Springfield, Missouri. She loved sunsets. In the documentary, Kender recalls that's "how she finds peace in the world: sitting and watching a sunset. She'd just do it every day."

Mary Ellison, who knew Griffin-Snyder for 23 years after meeting her at a church function in their native Springfield, has one word to describe her old friend: fierce.

"She was a fierce friend," Ellison recalls. "She was tremendously faithful. ... She was tough as a mule. She'd get something in her head, this was the way she'd do something and she'd do it."

Another of Griffin-Snyder's loves: long road trips.

"She loved to drive," Ellison says, "to take road trips and look at the scenery. Eat a chocolate chip cookie. Eat a hamburger. She loved to do that."

More than ten years ago, Griffin-Snyder began experiencing problems with her balance. After a diagnosis of MS — a progressive neurodegenerative disease that causes the loss of muscle control — she tried as hard as she could to keep it to herself, her friend says.

"She struggled with that and tried to beat it at every turn," Ellison explains. "She described it as evil. 'If there is evil in the world' is one of those things she'd say."

Her worsening struggle with MS sometimes sent her to the hospital.

"She'd end up in the hospital and be near death," Ellison says. "But then she'd come back. She attributed that time and time and time again to her faith in God."

Griffin-Snyder was also a proud Democrat in a part of Missouri full of hardcore conservatives, including members of her own family.

"There was sometimes a bit of a rift there," Ellison says. "Those were fun conversations and rantings."

In the end, she saw everyone as people because she believed "there is good in all of us. We tend to survive. And get mad," she says. "That's one of the beauties about having good friends and talking things out."

Griffin-Snyder was cremated and her ashes collected in an urn that rests in her daughter's home.

A funeral has yet to be held. A church service was originally scheduled for July, but Kender decided to postpone it because COVID-19 cases were surging in Missouri at the time.

Angela Kender keeps her mother's ashes in an urn and hasn't been able to hold a memorial service yet because of the pandemic. - STEVEN DUONG
Angela Kender keeps her mother's ashes in an urn and hasn't been able to hold a memorial service yet because of the pandemic.

The scene: the backyard of Kender's home in a subdivision located in Oakville.

Kender approaches the fence that stands at the edge of a steep, tree-filled ravine. She tries to make sense of the last six months. She had given birth to her infant son just before the COVID-19 lockdown began in March, which meant she and her family were prevented from visiting her mother in the nursing home or the hospital in the last months before her passing.

So during the last six months of her mother's life, the only way Kender could communicate with her mother was over the phone or through a computer screen. No touching, no hugs, no in-person contact of any kind.

Kender points toward the ravine. Soon after bringing her mother's ashes home in a red-colored urn, she scattered some of them in her yard and over the fence.

"By putting her in the backyard, to me it feels like she can see our family," Kender says, "her grandchildren growing up. She's right there. I walk out there and talk to her several times a week."

As for her two young children, Kender knows what she will tell them about the coronavirus pandemic when they are old enough to understand.

"I think I will emphasize the importance of listening to the science community," she says, "even if it's not what you want to hear. Listening and doing whatever you can to be a good planet citizen, to take care of each other."

Kender stares raptly into the ravine. She admits it's been a hard week. Just the night before, at his Ohio campaign rally, Trump made his infamous remark about how COVID-19 "affects virtually nobody" — words that only exacerbate Kender's grief.

The subject turns to Governor Parson, leading Kender to muse about why, after the deaths of so many Missourians, Parson still refuses to impose a statewide mask mandate.

"I just think he's listening to the wrong people," she says. "And he's trying to appease a very ignorant base."

Two days later, Parson reveals to the media that he and his wife have tested positive for COVID-19 and will quarantine in the governor's mansion.

When texted about this development, Kender replies that she's already heard about it.

"Sadly not shocking," she texts.

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