Walter Edward Stokes Jr. grew up in a family of 12 children in West Baltimore, and spent his life serving the people around him.
A devoted member of the Legion of Mary, an international Catholic service organization, the 70-year-old deacon at St. Gregory the Great Parish in Sandtown-Winchester loved visiting hospital patients and nursing home residents to talk, pray and lift their spirits.
“That’s how he contracted the virus, being active in other people’s lives,” said his brother, the Rev. Al Stokes, chief of staff at the nearby First Mount Calvary Baptist Church on Fulton Avenue.
The deacon is among the more than 5,000 people in Maryland and more than 300,000 other Americans who died as the coronavirus ravaged the United States this year. The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t just rip loved ones from their families and friends. It forced survivors to grieve from afar, often deprived of both the chance to say goodbye and the usual comforts of memorial services and family gatherings.
“This thing hit quick and hard,” Al Stokes said. “It just tore our hearts apart, losing Walter.”
Across the Baltimore region and the D.C. suburbs, in Western Maryland and on the Eastern Shore, families endured the torture of grief, crying and helpless, on phone calls and video chats, unable to visit bedsides and hug dying partners, parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends.
The virus’ victims included Mary J. Wilson, the first African American senior zookeeper at what is now the Maryland Zoo, and Dorothy Krug, who went from being a secretary to first female vice president of T. Rowe Price Group. George Nock, a bruising Morgan State and NFL running back, had become an acclaimed sculptor. Antwion Ball, a respected former Baltimore City Schools math teacher, had encouraged Black students: “You can be somebody.” Dar’yana Dyson, 15, had been a force of energy and a leader who set an example for younger girls.
Three dozen parishioners had died at the Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish, a primarily Latino church in Southeast Baltimore, as of mid-November, a devastating illustration of the pandemic’s disproportionate harm to minority communities. Dr. Joseph Costa, the chief of the critical care division at Mercy Medical Center, treated patients battling the coronavirus before contracting it and dying in July.
As vaccines rolled out this month, one of the first Marylanders to receive one found herself wishing it had arrived in time for her father, a poultry worker who died in May.
“One of the first things I thought was, ‘I just want to call him and tell him what I just did,” said Daisy Solares, a respiratory therapist at the University of Maryland Medical Center.
Several Marylanders who lost family members to the coronavirus in 2020 shared memories of their loved ones, in hopes that their stories will reinforce the excruciating reality of the pandemic to a public increasingly numb to the numbers and weary of mask-wearing and other restrictions.
‘When you care about somebody, it’s not about you’
Emily Rosenthal Levitas, a doting grandmother with impeccable taste, once owned stores that sold designer shoes and handbags in Baltimore’s Mount Washington and Hampden neighborhoods.
The 84-year-old Park School graduate had been a Baltimore tour guide, volunteered with the League for People with Disabilities, and enjoyed taking art and Jewish studies classes at the Community College of Baltimore County, said her daughter, Lisa Pickus Roche.
Levitas loved bringing her grandchildren and great-grandchildren to visit the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the Maryland Zoo and other city attractions.
“She would always take them all over Baltimore,” Roche said.
An avid card player with a contagious laugh who grew up with two siblings on South Road in Mount Washington, Levitas went to Sinai Hospital’s emergency room with coronavirus symptoms in an ambulance on Nov. 10. She died six days later.
The pain Roche felt, not being able to go to her mother’s side, was exacerbated by having to make the decision for doctors to remove her from oxygen when it became clear she would not recover.
“I had to take myself and my children and her husband and her step-daughter out of the equation, which was agonizing,” Roche said. “When you care about somebody, it’s not about you. It’s what’s so infuriating about all these people who won’t wear a mask. Why doesn’t it matter until it happens to you?”
Six family members gone in three weeks
Pastor Aretha Scruggs’ big family doesn’t bother with titles like “in-law.” They’re all like brothers and sisters. And the 51-year-old preacher at the Kingdom Celebration Center in Gambrills lost six of them in New Orleans in about three weeks this spring.
Evelina Johnson, 70, died on March 29. Then, Larry Hammond, 70. Then, Yvonne Johnson-Green, 67. Mary Ellen Coney, 71. Charles Johnson, 74. And finally, on April 20, Hilda Mae Williams, 85.
Hammond, Johnson-Green and Coney died over a four-day stretch. Zoom funeral followed Zoom funeral. There was no time to appropriately grieve.
“For me, it’s almost numbing, really,” Scruggs said.
She dressed up only to pay respects in the makeshift home office in Hanover where she works as a sign-language interpreter. Family members forgot to mute their mics and emotions interrupted. The few who attended wore masks, their voices muffled and faces difficult to recognize.
The viewings hardly felt personal. None of the pastor’s experience had prepared her to mourn this way.
“You get somebody to bring their phone over the casket so you can see the person,” Scruggs recalled. “It’s like, ‘I can’t believe I’m doing this.’”
‘I wanted him for the rest of my life’
The Rev. Marsha Spain Bell and her husband, Cecil George Bell Jr., battled COVID-19 in hospital beds, quarantined two rooms apart at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Western Maryland, in Cumberland.
She was discharged after six days. He spent his 73rd birthday, Nov. 10, in his hospital room. The reverend was allowed to visit her husband to call his daughters, perform the Commendation of the Dying and sing “Steal Away” to him before he died the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.
“That’s torment,” Bell said. “People don’t want to go through that.”
She’d known the career Air Force radar operator, piano refinisher and “meat-and-potatoes guy” from her hometown of Sweeny, Texas, most of her life. After earlier marriages ended in divorce, they reconnected at a high school reunion and married in January 2016.
He built their patio, volunteered at two feeding programs at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church and cherished his new Cub Cadet riding lawn mower. The couple had traveled together, entertained Baroque musicians from around the world at their home in La Vale, and enjoyed barbecues with the “Bible Bunnies,” Bell’s group of women clergy friends, and their husbands, the “Hares,” a nickname Cecil wore with a grin.
“I wanted him for the rest of my life so bad,” she said. “Now it’s just like I had a five-year gift.”
‘A giant pine, magnificent and old’
After a double-pneumonia diagnosis, difficulty breathing and losing all taste and smell, Walter Stokes was hospitalized at the Baltimore VA Medical Center in mid-March. Doctors intubated the West Baltimore deacon to help him breathe as his condition worsened, and he died on April 18.
An Edmondson High School graduate who grew up during segregation, Stokes earned the Purple Heart as an enlisted Marine in Vietnam. His nephew Patrick Stokes recalled the way he would drop “jewels of wisdom” to teenagers while clipping hair at Ross’ Barbershop in Ellicott City in the 1970s and ’80s, before heading into work on the U.S. Postal Service night shift.
Stokes married the love of his life, JoAnn, in 1975, and he had four children.
After his retirement from the postal service, he was a constant presence at St. Gregory. He raised money for a senior center and drove his beloved “Golden Ages,” the church’s seniors, to Mass. He led parishioners in praying the rosary and the Stations of the Cross, and helped with soup kitchens and food pantries, said the Rev. Ray Bomberger, St. Gregory’s pastor.
“There was that quiet energy he brought to things,” Bomberger said.
Stokes’ family and other volunteers at his brother’s church have launched a weekly, neighborhood “Angel Monday” food drive, in his honor.
“We just thought, ‘Let’s do something to give back to this community,’” Al Stokes said. “He always raised money to make sure people had food to eat.”
In Stokes’ funeral pamphlet, his son Walter III dedicated a poem by Georgia Harkness to his father:
A giant pine, magnificent and old
Stood staunch against the sky and all around
Shed beauty, grace and power …
It fell one day.
Where it had dauntless stood was loneliness and void.
But men who passed paid tribute — and said,
‘To know this life was good,
It left its mark on me, Its work stands fast.’
And so it lives. Such life no bonds can hold —
This giant pine, magnificent and old.
A hopeful, bittersweet moment
In late March, not long after Daisy Solares, the respiratory therapist, had volunteered to help out with COVID-19 patients at the university hospital in Baltimore, her father started having cold-like symptoms. Her mother assured her everything was all right. The 28-year-old had no reason to doubt: Juan Gabriel Solares was a strong man.
Born in Guatemala, her father didn’t make it past elementary school, Solares said. He and his wife, Griselda Maribel Vasquez, moved the family to America in 1992 in search of a better life. With two girls in tow and a boy on the way, the family settled in Georgetown, Delaware, where he worked on a Perdue Farms production line for 23 years.
Shy to strangers but affectionate when he warmed up, Solares said, her dad enjoyed watching his children ride horses and compete in swim meets. He worked hard, and it took some convincing before he retired in January. His family hoped he would spend more time painting and playing with his grandchildren.
By mid-April, Solares said, her father could barely talk and battled for breath. Her mom took him to the hospital, and Solares kept telling herself it couldn’t be the virus sickening the patients’ whose ventilators she monitored. She was at work at the hospital when her worst fear came true: He tested positive for COVID-19. Solares felt helpless.
She got regular updates from the doctor in Delaware and called her dad to help him understand. Her expertise made the process torturous because she knew what each technique implied about his declining condition. Solares comforted her father over Zoom as doctors inserted a tube into his throat, she said.
Juan Gabriel Solares died on May 19.
Seven months later, Daisy Solares rolled up her sleeve and became the second person in the university hospital system to be inoculated with the coronavirus vaccine. The hopeful moment reminded her of a voicemail her father left in March.
In it, he wished her a happy birthday and told her he was proud.
“He mentions, ‘I’m saddened that we can’t hug each other right now, and soon, hopefully, I can give you a hug, and all this will be over with.’”
Baltimore Sun reporters Frederick N. Rasmussen, Jacques Kelly, Glenn Graham, Edward Lee, Stephanie Garcia and researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.