Mallory Dunlap thought her father was getting better.
Earlier in the week, on that Tuesday in November, he had started feeling sick. Her mother, Julie Wallace, was wearing a face of constant concern, and so Mallory, who was 17, was worried, too, although she tried to hide it from her little sister, Camille. Suddenly, everyone in the house was wearing masks and the girls were told to stay away from their father, who was quarantined upstairs.
By Saturday, Mallory sensed that her mother was feeling a bit relieved. There was a lightness in her voice. Her face had relaxed, and sometimes she smiled. So, Mallory was relieved, too.
Even as her parents left that day for their trip to urgent care, Mallory wasn’t too worried. Their mother had insisted that he go, and he had relented. Mallory stayed behind with Camille as her father walked on his own to the car.
How sick could he be?
‘It was all on the line’
He was a big and strong man, Lewis Dunlap. He was 51, six-feet-three and 280 pounds of power and might with a laugh worthy of his stature. Even his job was big: He ran a garage in Elyria, Ohio, that had been in his family for 74 years, fixing semis. He’d been busier than ever during the pandemic. Trucks needed to transport, and he was the point man to keep them moving.
Lewis had been Mallory’s softball coach for the last eight years, and the man she’d wrapped around her finger since the day she was born. Fatherhood was his calling, Julie says. “From the moment Lew found out I was pregnant, he was all in. After Mallory was born, he was an insane dad the minute we got home.”
Lewis insisted that school come first, but he was a fun dad, too. He loved to surprise the girls with day passes to the amusement park Cedar Point and coaching them in the many skills of softball for hours in their yard.
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“As a father, my dad was everything he didn’t get as a child,” Mallory says. “He was always there for me. Once, when I was six or seven years old, I told him I wanted to go to Disney World. That I just had to go. Next week, we were on a plane.”
Oh, and this story: Once, she was at school having really bad menstrual cramps. First, she texted her mother.
“My mom’s message was, basically, ‘Tough it out.’”
Then she texted her dad.
His response: “On my way.”
“Yeah,” Mallory says, nodding. “I was a Daddy’s girl.”
Julie says Lewis was always a germaphobe. When the pandemic hit, he did everything he could to keep everyone in his orbit safe, including himself. He was terrified of what would happen to his family if he got COVID.
“My senior year of high school was the worst year of my life,” Mallory says. “We were all being so careful not to get COVID. My education, my dad’s work, his dream of taking over the family business one day – it was all on the line.”
At work, he required face masks and temperature tests, and installed plexiglass to limit contact with customers. If someone felt sick, they were to stay away and get tested. For ten months, the precautions worked.
Then one person got sloppy, and Lewis Dunlap, who was just weeks away from qualifying for the vaccine he was so desperately wanted, came down with COVID.
The symptoms started on Tuesday. Immediately, Lewis quarantined in the bedroom, and was so worried that he could spread the virus to his family that he asked Julie to cover the room’s air return vent with cardboard. Their Boxer, Waldo, was Lewis’s only constant companion.
By Saturday, Mallory believed her father had outrun the deadly virus.
She believed it on that Sunday, too, on Nov. 29, 2020, until about 4:30 p.m., when she came in after having stepped outside.
Her sister was running down the stairs, crying.
Waldo was sprinting throughout the house, confused and barking.
And her mother was screaming from the bedroom. “Call 9-1-1! Call 9-1-1!”
Measuring a father’s worth
Julie Wallace and Lewis Dunlap had known each other since high school, but they didn’t fall in love until years later, when they played on a co-ed softball team after work. She was a journalist for the local paper. He worked at the family garage he hoped to one day own.
Julie wasn’t fooled by his gruff exterior. “He’d burst out with a huge glorious laugh,” she says. “He was a big softie despite his size and scowl.”
In 2002, they bought a house. The next year, Mallory was born. Seven years later, they welcomed daughter Camille.
Lewis was determined that his girls would know how to play the game he loved. For eight years, he coached Mallory’s travel softball team. As soon as Camille could toss a ball, she joined them in the almost daily practices in their yard. Mallory, her mother would want you to know, is a phenomenal hitter. She told me this on a Zoom call from her car, at Camille’s practice.
Julie and Lewis talked several times a day, no matter how busy they were at work. “For me, he was my person,” she wrote in an email. “I told him everything, we talked over every decision.”
He tried to learn more about her world, too. “I was proud that he really was getting into following politics and taped all the Sunday morning news shows to familiarize himself with issues and started reading my electronic version of the Washington Post. He was hungry for knowledge about current events. Lew, Mal and I would have pretty intense political debates here as none of us see eye-to-eye on everything. Looking back, I didn’t realize how awesome those evenings were.”
For Lewis, a father’s worth was measured, in part, by how well he knew the longings of his children’s hearts. As Mallory got closer to graduation, she and Lewis spent countless hours talking about where she should go to college, which schools had the best softball teams.
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“My whole life, except for one season, my father had been my coach,” she says. “This was something we were going to decide together.” After a lot of discussions, they had made their choice.
There were a number of reasons Mallory ended up at a different college, but the worst one involves what a teammate was willing to say after Mallory had summoned the courage to share that her father had died of COVID.
We’ll get to that.
‘We couldn’t do anything’
On Saturday, Nov. 28, Lewis agreed to visit an urgent care, where he was given a COVID test and told to take Mucinex. Around 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, his phone dinged with a text alert. It was official: He had tested positive.
Any relief Julie may have been feeling on Saturday was gone by Sunday. Lewis’s complexion had changed, and he seemed weaker. At her urging, he agreed to go back to urgent care. She helped him dress and was bending down to tie his shoes when she suddenly felt him leaning against her back, hard.
“Lew,” she said, “you can’t breathe on me.”
He fell onto her back.
“He was just gone,” she says. That’s when she started screaming for Mallory to call 9-1-1.
“I saw my father turn blue before my eyes,” Mallory says. “I’m crying and yelling into the phone, ‘He’s dying! He’s dying!’ The dispatcher kept saying, ‘Help is on the way.’”
Julie knew she had to get Lewis onto his back. She and Mallory shoved the bed against the wall to make room for him, and then pulled his legs to get him to the floor.
“We finally got him on his back,” Mallory says. “The dispatcher gave us instructions as I did chest compressions and Mom did mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.”
When they heard the sirens in the distance, Julie took over chest compressions so that Mallory could run down to unlock the door and direct the firefighters upstairs.
From that moment on, Mallory’s memory is a bundle of moments. Watching firefighters preparing to enter a house with COVID. Waving away neighbors as they approached, telling them not to get close, don’t hug her, “because, COVID.” Her uncle telling her to stay on the phone until he gets there, because he didn’t want her to feel alone.
She remembers a doctor at the hospital saying, “We couldn’t do anything.” Nurses staring as her, not unkindly, as she walked down the hospital hallways. Her boyfriend and his parents arriving at the hospital. Her uncle holding her and her sister tight, as her mother tried to keep her distance. Julie had placed her lips on Lewis’s mouth performing CPR. When they most needed one another, she had to quarantine from her daughters. It feels like a small miracle that Julie never got COVID.
And Waldo, Mallory remembers. For nearly two weeks after her father had died, the boxer sat outside the closed bedroom door, waiting for Lewis to let him in.
‘I try not to cry in front of them’
Soon after Lewis had died, Camille looked up at her sister and said, “Who’s going to take me to softball practice?”
“My role changed overnight,” Mallory says.
For the past three or so years, Mallory had worked at a restaurant to make spending money. Now she works to help keep the family afloat. (The garage her father ran, in his family nearly three quarters of a century, closed after his death.)
“I could see the lines of worry in my mother’s face every time I talked about college. Right now, my father’s life insurance is paying for it. But I don’t know what I’ll do when it runs out.”
She was talking to me on Zoom from her dorm room at John Carroll University. This is where she decided to go after she withdrew her commitment to another school and ended her plans to play college softball.
The decision came in stages. She had been struggling over how to attend a school that her father had helped her choose. This was going to be their adventure, with Lewis always in her peripheral vision as she played. Now he was gone, taking their dream with him.
She tried to forge a way. She joined an online chat with her future teammates. Most of them were wonderful, she says, but one of them seemed hellbent on taunting her.
“She posted that COVID isn’t real,” Mallory says. “She was very aware that my Dad had died, and she said I was spreading misinformation by saying that he had died from COVID.”
Her teammates were supportive, but it made easier her decision to leave. “After you lose someone to COVID, you just can’t believe anyone could do this.”
Mallory has a kind habit of smiling even as she describes the most awful moments of her life. She is automatically polite – part of her habit, perhaps, of trying to avoid making others feel bad for her.
Most students at John Carroll don’t know that Mallory’s father died of COVID. “I don’t tell them because I don’t want to be that girl who everyone pities. I was that girl in high school. I hate ‘I’m sorry.’ That’s pity. My father died. It’s something that happened.”
What does she want to hear when someone finds out her father has died?
Her smiled vanishes. “I want them to ask, ‘How?’ I know that sounds intrusive, maybe, but I want them to ask how my dad died. It wasn’t his fault. My dad was a man who protects others. He did everything he could to stay safe and keep everyone around him safe, too. And then one person infected my dad. And now he’s gone.”
Mallory worries about her mother and sister. Lewis’s absence looms ever larger, but it’s her job to stay positive, she says. “I try not to cry in front of them because then they cry, too.” She mentions that she scrolls through her father’s texts. How often does she do that?
“All the time,” she says. “It’s a way of remembering him.”
There’s that smile again.
USA TODAY columnist Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize winner whose novel, “The Daughters of Erietown,” is a New York Times bestseller. You can reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter: @ConnieSchultz
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: After COVID death: The grief loved ones feel is life-changing