By Gregory Smith, Howard University News Service
For TyQuarian McCullough, losing his mother has been the hardest thing he has ever experienced. Nothing is the same now that she is gone, he said, especially when he visits the family home in Lubbock, Texas.
He misses how his mother, Lataiya White, would meet him to the door to greet him with a warm hug and kisses on the cheek when he came home.
“When I opened the front door, my mom would be right there waiting on me,” McCullough, 19, said. “Since she passed, the house has felt empty and depressing.”
McCullough hadn’t lived with his mother in the last few years because he moved to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, during high school to be with his biological father who was sick. Still, he said, he felt her love and warmth through phone calls and family visits. He would visit her during the summer and holidays, he said.
She gave him and his siblings the warmth and comfort that they needed, he said, and when he needed someone to talk or vent to, she was always one call away.
“My mom was the glue of the family,” he said.
Now, her nine children are each wrestling with their grief.
“The family doesn’t get together as much as we used to,” McCullough said. “Everyone coped with the pain differently. I was closed off and didn’t really talk to anybody.”
The world was in the 19th month of the coronavirus pandemic, and the Rev. Michael White II, pastor of Pilgrim Baptist Church, and his wife of four years, 36-year-old Lataiya White, were holding fast to their beliefs.
They eschewed COVID-19 vaccines for themselves and their younger children. Instead, the parents said, they would put their faith in God.
And then Lataiya White, affectionally nicknamed “Tai,” got sick.
The father and their blended family, Laterrien McCullough, 20, TyQuarian McCullough, 19, Ty’rejuana McCullough,16, Zy’rejuana McCullough, 13, and Stephanie McCullough, 11, from Lataiya’s first marriage and, Natalya White 23, Trenton White, 18, Michael White, III,15, and David White,12, from her husband’s previous marriage, waited anxiously and prayed.
“My mom would always say, ‘God is protecting me,’’’ Trenton White said. “But once things began to escalate, she called me and said that me and my siblings need to take the vaccine.”
A month later, in October, they all did, but it was too late for his mother. She died Sept. 13, 2021, of COVID-19 related illness.
With White’s death, her family became one of thousands in the U.S. who have experienced the loss of one or both parents to COVID-19. According to the National Institute of Health, a child loses a parent or guardian in one of every four COVID deaths, a devastating consequence that is affecting the lives of an estimated 140,000 children.
It also affects the remaining spouse. Rev. White said losing his wife was “gut wrenching” and “unreal.”
“My wife made our house a home,” White said. “She provided the love that a mother and wife need to keep things afloat.
“Having to learn how to eat alone at restaurants is heart wrenching. I’ll miss the love and comfort from her. She was someone that I could lean on.”
White, 42, is now taking care of new responsibilities that he never had to consider when his wife was alive, like the time his distressed 13-year-old daughter called him from school because she had broken a fingernail at school, “and my dad can fix it,” she told school administrators.
“I have had to take on duties that I normally wouldn’t think twice about,” he said. “I have to make sure that clothes are washed, the house is cleaned, kids get to school on time, meals are planned and cooked and everything else in between to ensure that everyone has everything to be successful.”
White said not only misses his wife in his personal life, but also as the first lady of the church. He and his members are in the process of building a new church, he said, and his wife oversaw all the interior designs.
“The church is just about complete, and every time I enter, I thank God for what he has done, but at the same time I wish my wife was alive to see everything come into fruition,” he said. “Everything that you see as far as the paint, tiles, highchairs, built-in fireplace and furniture was all of her ideas.”
White said his wife oversaw the church’s annual breast cancer awareness event held in October. This year was difficult, he said, because everyone was so used to his wife managing the event.
“She was in charge of the food, gift bags, speakers, decorations and more,” he said. “The women of the church came together, so that the event could be a success. Her presence will always be missed.”
Ty’rejuana McCullough, 16, said she misses the small things that her mother did for her.
“I was such a momma’s baby.” McCullough said. “I would go with her everywhere. We went shopping, church and attended football games together. She was always trying to help and donate to others.”
The house is quieter since her mother passed, she said. Her mom would have music playing while cooking meals in the kitchen, and the smile on her face was affectionate as it projected onto others, she said.
“I’m going to miss the small knocks on the door and seeing her smile as she woke me up for school.”
McCullough said that she still gets emotional at times when the family goes to church, and she sees the empty seat where her mother sat.
“Some days I cry myself to sleep just thinking about her, but I have friends and family that encourage me to keep going,” she said.
Pammie Harris met Lataiya White at a football game in 2018 when they realized that their sons played for the same team.
“My son was the quarterback, and her son was the running back,” Harris said.
After a few games, they began to sit together, and as they cheered their children on, their friendship blossomed. Soon, Harris said, she was attending birthdays and holiday parties at the White home.
Their relationship led to Harris joining pastor White church.
“She was always helping a family in need,” Harris said. “I would receive calls from her asking for extra clothes, food or supplies, because there was a family who needed an extra boost.
“I admire her children because they are involved as well. Not only do they encourage their friends to come but one plays the drums, the girls are in the choir, and another helps with media.”
Harris said that she lost her mother at age 11.
“I know what it’s like to lose a parent at a young age,” she said. “So, I tell them all the time that I’m here for them and that they can always call me.
“I know that most of their friends can’t relate to what they are going through, so I pray and talk to them.”
Trenton White was the star running back this year for Monterey High School. On the day of his mother’s funeral, his school football team had a game. He played and scored three touchdowns and rushed for over 200 yards.
“I had a lot of different emotions that day,” White said. “I just wanted to play to the best of my abilities.”
The spectacular performance by White was significant because his mother, according to her obituary from the funeral just three hours earlier, described her as “a football fanatic,” and said her favorite teams were the Alabama University Crimson Tide, the Dallas Cowboys and her son’s team.
To show support for the White family, two rival high schools came together in solidarity during a football game. They asked attendees to wear white to honor the family.
Trenton said wants to live a life his mother would be proud of, on and off the football field. He will be attending the United States Military Academy West Point in 2022 on a football scholarship. “My mom wanted me to go to West Point,” he said. “I had offers from Stanford (University), Navy (the U.S. Naval Academy) and other places, but West Point felt most like home, and she agreed.”
Black and Brown families have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic. So have their children. According to the National Institutes of Health, tens of thousands of children have lost at least one parent or caregiver to COVID-19. Half of them are Black or Brown. This is one in a three-part series looking at how their lives have changed.