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Gym owner: ‘I knew it was bad, I knew people could die. But it’s a horror.’

January 20, 2021

This community reporting project documents the coronavirus pandemic by recording the personal stories of Minneapolis residents and workers whose daily lives are in a state of flux. All interviews are conducted over the phone, and conversations are edited for length and clarity.

Jen Wilson, co-owner, True Grit Society gym

My mom, Apryl, passed away last week, and I’m still very emotional. It was horrible. The virus can give you hope and then take it away very quickly. 

A month ago she was responding to commands — she’d wiggle her toes, squeeze her fingers. When I FaceTimed with her in December, her eyes were kind of open, she kept trying to say something and maybe she heard my voice.

Shortly afterward she developed a GI bleed, and then her kidneys stopped working entirely, which is normal for COVID patients. They did a chest X-ray, and your lungs are supposed to be completely black, but hers was completely white — the virus ravaged her lungs and there was no tissue to help her breathe. And then she went back into her coma. They gave her a tracheotomy and gave her a stomach tube, and during that surgery, her lung collapsed again and they had to back out. They did it again a week later, which was successful, but after she awoke from the sedation, there was nothing there. She wasn’t responding to comments. They went back in and said they could see on the brain scan the six seizures that caused the brain damage. Her kidneys still weren’t working; she was doing dialysis. At that point my family was discussing comfort care. And then — honestly, thankfully — on Jan. 8 her heart just stopped. 

It seems like it was just yesterday. It’s been the longest week of my life and at the same time the slowest week of my life. It’s been a struggle. Grief is a weird, funny thing. She didn’t move a muscle in the hospital for 60 days. In my head, I’ve gotten to the point where I think, “Would I prefer that she died quicker?”

Apryl Davenport

She was 73. My mom was very kind and giving. She did a lot for her community in terms of volunteerism after she retired from teaching for 40 years. She was a first-grade teacher, and she helped a lot of student teachers and taught a lot of kids who still remember her. She was a military wife and taught the majority of her time at the Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota. She was born in California and got a degree in art in Idaho, and today a lot of people in North Dakota have her artwork — she’d paint Santa Clauses and ornaments. 

We had our difficulties, but she was a very good person. She served on a lot of committees and passed out food to families who didn’t have enough. When the Souris River flooded in Minot, she volunteered. She also volunteered to help seniors at the local church. 

She was a busybody, for sure, and I know she didn’t quarantine because there’s absolutely no way she would have ever stayed at home and done nothing. She felt that because she was wearing a mask, she was OK but I know others didn’t. There’s no funeral or memorial service planned now — my mom just wanted to be cremated — but I think they’ll probably do something to recognize her when the time is right. 

I’ve been coping with prayer, with therapy and by clinging to my own family — my husband, my daughter — and friends who can provide support. I think people still don’t understand how devastating this disease can be: seeing your loved one go through this horror. I knew it was bad, I knew people could die. But it’s a horror. 

Anything with COVID at this point hits me pretty hard. I look at Trump and I think of my mom’s death. I do. People died and he played golf. It triggers me because I feel like there was not a great plan and it was left to so many states to institute mask requirements and come up with solutions and that, were it handled differently, that could have saved her life. 

At the end of the day, though, we’re Christians, and believe that everyone has a path in their life and, at some point, will die. I just saw a picture from last night of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris standing at the Lincoln Memorial [paying tribute to the 400,000 Americans who have died of COVID-19], and I get really choked up when I see that because my mom is a statistic. 

The statistic sort of impersonalizes her death to me, I think. I’m still trying to figure it out. When I see the recorded number, it also makes me cheer up. In my head, knowing that 400,000 people feel the same way I do provides some solace. It’s really staggering that my mom was just one person, but you have an entire population feeling this same grief and loss. It seems like so many people, but I don’t really know anyone else who lost a parent. So it’s a hard thing to comprehend. 

With my mom dying, that pandemic fatigue is just not there with us. It’s made us more vigilant about what we need to do to protect our family and the people who come to our gym. When we reopened on Jan. 4, it was a punch in the gut. Opening up at 25% is ridiculous; we don’t pay our bills at 25%. How do you grow a business running at 25%? You don’t. When we closed the first time, we had 60 people. When we closed the second time, we had less than 30 people. Right now we have maybe 10 people who have opted to come back.

At some point we’ll need to look at it stone cold in the eye and ask: Where is this going?

Marcus has been really great about trying to take over a lot of the stuff so I can have time to grieve. But life does go on. I still have to be a mom; I can’t cry all the time or else I upset my almost 6 year old. Sachi has had three grandparents die in the last year. The woman she’s named after had a stroke, Marcus’ mom had cancer and now my mom has died of COVID. So making sure she’s OK is a big portion of our focus. 

We had some kids Sachi was playing with whose parents have decided to send them back to school when elementaries open up for in-person learning in early February. Now we have to tell Sachi she can’t play with them. It’s tough that people are put in this position. We have friends who are single parents, and they need to send their kids to school. We also have a lot of friends who are teachers and are really upset about going back. It’s a hard decision, but we’re limiting our risk at this point by staying at home on our consistent routine. Our daughter may lose the teacher she’s had since the beginning of the school year if that person is put in charge of in-person learning. We’re still not sure what it will look like. 

Sachi doesn’t love online learning, of course, but knows she has to do it. We keep positive and bribe her with Dairy Queen, but she misses her friends and hates the snow. Distance learning with a kindergartner is … butterflies and off they go running. Of course, you don’t want a 5 year old’s focus on an iPad at all times, but that’s what we’re saying she should literally be doing. 

It’s hard to wrangle a 5 year old into an hour of homework and learning reading. It’s not something I personally know how to do. I’ve felt like I’m not doing a very good job for my daughter and that it’s my fault she’s struggling. Marcus and I sat down around Christmas and he said, “You need to get it together, Jen. We’re all doing our best. She’s not failing. She’s super smart. We’re all doing OK.” Yes, she doesn’t know the difference between “B” and “V,” but who cares? She has time, she likes school enough most of the time. Everybody’s doing the best they can. 

We agreed at the beginning of the pandemic that we need to be intentional with our daughter. We need to create time where we give her all our focus without distractions or phones. I’m hugging her a lot more than I used to, holding her a lot tighter than I used to. Why did it take my mom dying?

It’s hard to be happy in these times, but you have to cling to things that make you happy. Marcus and I celebrated our sixth wedding anniversary this past Sunday. We swim in our apartment’s pool every night. We went for a hike at Hidden Falls. When we took Sachi to DQ, we let her eat her cone before her hot dog, which is exciting for a 5 year old. 

Sanjay Gupta of CNN released a book about brain health that talked about how processing difficult events and having difficult conversations is really how your brain stays healthy. Having to process the stresses with the gym, with finances, with our daughter, with my mom dying, with the relationship I have with my family — frickin’ A, my brain must be super healthy. 

I miss my mother. I’m sad she’s no longer on this earth. This woman who birthed me is gone. 

It’s a brutal fact, one that I’m still grieving and still struggling with. This ridiculous silly stuff still pops into my mind: “Why didn’t she quarantine? Who gave it to her? Who? Who is the person who breathed into her face and gave her this horrible disease?” I have friends whose parents have passed and they say it’s normal that you think these crazy thoughts but that they will go away.

I look at myself and think how I don’t have any other option but to get healthy and move forward from this because I have a husband and a daughter who need me as much as I need them. I can’t crumble down into a space where I’m no longer capable of moving forward.

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