At the time, tucked in the backseat behind her husband and his daughter, Myrtie Peterson didn’t know how important this day would become.
To kick off Wayne’s 84th birthday on that last, hot day of July, Myrtie had run to get lunch at Wendy’s. Then she climbed into the backseat of the couple’s white Honda Pilot so Kelli and Wayne could talk, joke, tease, remember. For Wayne’s birthday, Kelli had given him an elephant figurine, complete with a baby elephant. He was particularly fond of the animals and the close familial ties they develop.
Wayne drove over Casper Mountain, down to Alcova and eventually a cemetery nearby. Myrtie listened. There was plenty for father and daughter to remember. His first wife died more than 30 years ago; he’d been a journeyman — the Army, jazz DJ, potato picker. He’d lived an active life.
Now Myrtie looks back on the drive as a memory blessed upon her for the weeks and years to come because there would no more moments like it, not with Wayne.
None of them — not Myrtie, not Kelli, not Wayne — knew that in 15 days, Wayne would get sick. They didn’t know that in 23 days, Myrtie would see him for the last time as he was wheeled into the emergency room. She called out that she loved him, and he said he loved her, too. Less than two weeks later, Wayne would die.
No, they did not know. So this moment at Alcova, they enjoyed it for what it was.
The couple’s story — one that’s played out 201,000 bitter times across America — is inseparable from the moment. Wayne is a statistic, the 43rd of 50 Wyomingites to die of the virus. But Myrtie doesn’t want to focus on the COVID side of this. She is serious about the virus: Both she and Wayne limited their travel, they took breaks from work — Myrtie was about to take a long-term substitute teacher job, Wayne picked up mail for AMBI. They knew the risks, and Myrtie will never know how the disease burst into their lives.
But she’s not bitter, and this is the crux of her recovery, of the positivity she’s shown even in the face of lightning-fast tragedy. Her faith — she was saved in the 1970s — has guided her and strengthened her.
Their relationship was near-perfect, beautiful. She isn’t a coronavirus widow. She is a widow whose husband died of coronavirus. She trusted God to see Wayne through an eventual recovery.
And if he never did?
“Wayne talked often about wanting to go home to the Lord,” she said. She looked through her tortoise-shell glasses out the window as she spoke, and when she talked about God, sitting on her couch in her east Casper home, her eyes tilted higher up. Her house is adorned with testaments to her faith: quotes from the Bible, a photo collage in the shape of a cross, a print urging her, via the book of Joshua, to be strong, to be brave, to be fearless, to know that you are never alone. Large letters spelling out “peace” sit above the folded military flag and single shell casing from Wayne’s military funeral.
She trusted God to take Wayne when he was ready. If the coronavirus was the vehicle, then that was God’s plan.
Not that it made it easy. She wept as she talked about how active Wayne was, how he first noticed he felt sick as they settled in to watch a movie. He tested positive, then she did, too. Myrtie hung a sign on their door announcing that they were a COVID-positive home. They isolated, and Wayne got sicker and sicker, until that day that she dropped him off at the ER.
As Wayne grew sicker, a nurse asked him if he wanted to be placed on a ventilator.
Yes, he said. But not for very long.
Each day, Myrtie posted updates on Wayne’s condition to her Facebook, alongside Bible quotes and pictures she’d taken of flowers. She didn’t describe every detail of the ordeal. She’s open, but there are still parts of this tragedy that are hers and her family’s alone.
Wayne’s condition worsened, and his brother called Myrtie.
“I know my brother,” he told her. “I know he wanted to see the Lord.”
She prayed hard and then called Wyoming Medical Center to tell them to cease life support. She told the nurses that she didn’t want to see a video of him in his hospital bed. She wanted to remember him as he was: a caring man, a man who didn’t look 84, a hard worker, a man who retired and then started another job picking up mail, a loving husband, a man who will be remembered by his grandchildren for playing dominoes and taking them fishing.
Wayne had written his obituary years before, and he’d already settled on what items to give to his relatives: his watch from 30 years at Marathon Oil, certain prints in the house, fishing rods. Myrtie gave Kelli the two elephants she’d gifted Wayne on his birthday.
Even in the immediate wake of Wayne’s death, Myrtie was grateful. She was grateful for the neighbors who mowed her lawn, for the stranger who left an angel figurine outside her door. She was grateful to the nurse who stayed with him at the end.
“It was a privilege to walk through this life with him,” Myrtie said. After Wayne passed, Edwin, the couple’s Dachshund-Schnauzer mix who has trouble seeing and sniffs incessantly, began sleeping on his side of the bed.
Weeks before, on that hot July day, at that cemetery near Alcova, Myrtie and Kelli walked as Wayne drove behind them. Just as they were about to pile back into the SUV, Kelli looked down and saw a perfect arrowhead at her feet. She was delighted, Myrtie said. She had dreamed of finding one.
Now, Myrtie and Kelli talk frequently on the phone. The arrowhead and that day come up frequently. But sometimes, Kelli isn’t calling to talk to Myrtie. Sometimes she calls the house just to listen to the answering machine. She wants to hear her father’s voice again.
That July night, Myrtie and Wayne went out to dinner at the Rib and Chop downtown. He drank diet Pepsi, she water with lemon.
He leaned across the table.
“You are the best gift God has ever given me,” he told her. “I just love you with all of my heart, I’m so thankful for our marriage, I’m so thankful you’re my wife.”
It meant a lot in that moment. But like the trip to Alcova, it means so much more now.
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