Eunice Conley shares her experience during the COVID-19 pandemic in Madison. She starts by talking about the beginning of the pandemic and the information that was being shared, how it seemed like another flu. She then talks about how her family experienced COVID, from sudden symptoms, hospitalizations, loss, and assuming care of her nephew when her sister died. Eunice shares how her family also lived through losses from gun violence and accidents in the midst of the pandemic. Apart from their personal losses, she speaks about how the loss of human touch has affected everyone and her experience as a person living with multiple sclerosis. She recounts some of the needs and wants that were exposed during the pandemic and her hope of creating a new way of doings things.
Narrator Name: Eunice Conley
Interviewer Name: Karen Dreyfuss
Date of interview: 2/18/21
[00:00:05] Start of interview
[00:00:47] What was happening in your life when news of COVID-19 was starting to break?
[00:05:20] When your daughter got sick, did you think at the time that it was COVID?
[00:14:30] What was a day like for you in April 2020?
[00:19:40] Did your family panic when you thought you had been exposed?
[00:23:45] You’re taking care of your nephew and doing virtual learning?
[00:30:43] How do you keep hope alive?
[00:46:05] Is there anything else you’d like to share?
[START OF RECORDING]
Interviewer: All right. Good morning. My name is Karen Dreyfuss. I am here with the Madison Public Library’s Project, Stories From a Distance. Today's date is Thursday, February 18th, 2021. And I will let the narrator introduce herself.
Eunice Conley: I am Eunice Conley, Odyssey graduate and–or Odyssey Program, UW Odyssey Program graduate. And I have a story to tell.
Interviewer: Awesome. I can't wait to hear it, Eunice. Well, as you know, we're kind of documenting what life during this global pandemic has been like. And if you're okay with it, I'd like to kind of start at the beginning. Thinking back to last January, February, can you recall when the news was starting to break, what was happening in your life? What were you starting to understand about COVID-19 and what was going on?
Eunice Conley: Well, because I have been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and I got the–I refused to get the flu shot. I can't stand it. I got it one time, and I instantly got the flu. And then I got it another–the next year and again instantly got the flu. So I refused to take it a third time. And so, you know–President Trump was calling it the Chinese disease or something like that. And then I hear that it comes from bats and all the–just all kinds of crazy stuff. And so I'm thinking, Yeah, I don't have to worry about that. It's all the way over in China. I ain't got to worry about it. And I paid no attention to it. And then I started hearing that someone over here has it, and I'm like, Okay, shut down the borders, hello. And so it's like, Okay, we'll get rid of these two people and then go ahead and shut the borders down, close the door. And we ain't got to let that in. However, we could not shut down the borders because it started popping up in different places and it was from people that were supposed to be over here or lived over here or from here and had gone to other places and contracted it. So that, you know, made me start being–what's the word? Anxious about it.
And then my daughter called me and she was so very sick. And she lives in Nashville. And she was so very sick and I could not figure out what's wrong with her. What was going on, because, you know, she–she called mom instantly and mom's supposed to have some doctoring, where she could be able to tell her how to fix this and how to fix that. You know, that's what mamas do. And so I had to relay this doctoring over the phone. I could not. And so I told her to go to the emergency room, and she went ahead and went to the emergency room. And a little background on her–she is athletic, very athletic and views her body as a temple, and so she refuses to put anything that could be bad in it. And she works out and–you know, she's a health nut, so to speak. And so for her to go down and exhibit all these symptoms of this flu that they're talking about, I could not be there and it was just, oh gosh–
Interviewer: Were you thinking, Oh, this must be COVID, or not yet?
Eunice Conley: No, I'm thinking this is the flu.
Eunice Conley: And oh, I just–I did not know really how to help her from Wisconsin and she's in Tennessee. And so I debated, should I, you know, try to go down there, but then that puts me at risk. And I know firsthand what the flu can do. So uh-uh, I'm not–Okay, I love you, and you're grown and so you can handle it yourself. So to speak. I'm going to be praying for you. (laughter) And so I did, went in prayer, fasting and praying for her. Meanwhile one of the–she coached basketball and one of the parents was who had taken her to the emergency room. One of her kids' parents took her to the emergency room and was there seeing about her, was relaying back and forth to me what was going on. She agreed to be my eyes and ears in Nashville. And she said, “Eunice, I've never seen CeCe like this, ever. I mean, she's really sick, and mama to mama, these doctors have this look on their face, like they haven't seen the flu before.” And I said, “Well, what do you mean?” And she's like, “This is like something different. They're not treating this like the flu.”
Because Celisha would get migraines, and she had had this migraine headache for at least a week or so. And she was–she couldn't keep anything down food-wise. And this girl drinks water like it's going out of style. So I'm like–(sigh) and the doctors are saying, We want to push fluids, and I'm like, Okay, she can't possibly be dehydrated. Not her, because not only does she drink a lot of water, she drinks that smart water and stuff like that with the electrolytes and all this extra stuff that we need so very much.
And so–you know, I was genuinely, at this point afraid. And when I was able to talk to her and she sounded–her voice was so thin and so–I mean, like she was knocking on death's door and it was crazy, because not even three or four days before that, she was fine, other than her telling me about this headache and the stomach problems and stuff like this. She's like, “Ma I done had this headache for so long to the point I can't be in the room with the lights on. I just–I can't.” And I was like, Oh my gosh. So because of that, I'm already praying, because I'm Mom, so fifty different worst case scenarios are coming to me. Aneurysm, blood clot, all kinds of things are going through my head. So she made it through that though, but that was in December.
Interviewer: Wow. Okay.
Eunice Conley: That was prior to January, when everybody was saying something. So nobody even knew of COVID, really, here at that point. And so that's why all these other things are going through my head. So then when they started telling–giving more about the symptoms and stuff of this Chinese disease, as it was called, it was like–Okay, Celisha has checked all these boxes. She's never been over to China. I mean, she went to Germany–no, Bosnia. She played ball in Bosnia, but that was at least a year or two prior to this happening. So she never came in contact with–so I'm like, you know, trying to figure it out. She got better, so I was kind of okay. Okay, okay, okay, and crisis averted.
And then next thing you know, it was Martin Luther King celebration and stuff like that. And me and my girlfriends had gone to Atlanta and did a girls' trip at one of our other friend’s–spent time there. I came back and everything was okay, and then all of a sudden everything was like–really be careful with your traveling and, you know, all these different things. And then the April election came and my daughters called me and was like, Mom, if you leave the house–because I run a polling place. I'm a chief inspector. And so they were like, Mom, sorry.
Interviewer: Not this time.
Eunice Conley: But at that time I had run the polls for about five years, and I'd never missed an election. And I have been involved with the whole election process since–I know the 90s.
Eunice Conley: So it was like the first year–first election that I was not a part of. I was not allowed to run my polling place–it was kind of devastating for me, and it was so hard, because I'd never checked the election stats and all that. That's all I could do. So imagine all day long, I'm–
Interviewer: Checking it.
Eunice Conley: -- you know, checking, checking, still checking. I'm googling, I'm watching TV, and all this. But normally, I'd never check the election stats or anything until a couple days after the election, because I'm usually in the polling place and I don't have time to be seeing and all that. And then I don't want to be electioneering or, you know, be biased in any way and influencing anybody's decisions that they make on Election Day. So I just don't–I absentee vote because of the fact that I want to get that done before. And I can't change anything, none of that. It's already done. So normally, as soon as they open up the polls, as far as absentee voting– the first day I absentee vote, send it in, and I'm done.
Interviewer: You were ahead of your time with the absentee vote.
Eunice Conley: Yeah.
Eunice Conley: So it was like, Wow.
Interviewer: So January and February, you're just kind of hearing things and then come April, this big thing that you do all the time, you can't do. Are you leaving your house? What's like a day– [multiple speakers]
Eunice Conley: I didn't leave my house. I was not around–you know, I was quarantining before they told us to quarantine.
Interviewer: You’re really ahead of things.
Eunice Conley: So come May and I had already– every year, I have a trip. My birthday is in May. My mom's birthday is in May. My father's birthday is in May. My little brother's birthday is in May. And then that’s Mother's Day.
Eunice Conley: Most of my family is in Alabama. So what I do is, beginning of May, I go down to Alabama and I'll stay until after my birthday, which is the end of May. So for the month of May, I'm usually in Alabama. This time, I had these tickets already, and they hadn't banned travel or anything. And so I'm suited and booted, mask, face mask, hand sanitizer. I got a whole container of wipes with me in the airport. I mean, me and my daughter are like walking hazmat suits, and it's–a little side note, this guy–we were in the terminal waiting to get on our plane, and I get assisted. They wheelchair me to the gates. So I'm sitting at the gate in a wheelchair, and this man on the other side of me coughs, and the airport went silent. I mean, you can hear crickets. And when he coughed, I literally shrink into a (unintelligible). My daughter just bust out laughing at me, because I'm like, Oh my God, you know, this man done coughed. Oh Lord, is that the rona?
Interviewer: Yeah, you were afraid. Yeah.
Eunice Conley: It was so crazy. But my god sister, she's like a sister. She's my sister. And she drove us to Milwaukee to the airport, and she dropped us off. And then she said, Well, I'm going to leave from here to go to Chicago because I want to see–she want to see about–her husband's mother-in-law was just getting released from the hospital, and so she wanted to go and see her. And we hugged and kissed and said our goodbyes, and that was the last time I saw her.
Interviewer: Oh, no.
Eunice Conley: She went to Chicago and picked up the rona while she was there. And by May 15th, she made a Facebook post. She had been talking back and forth with my mom, but she made a Facebook post. If you have not been tested, please go get tested, because I have COVID-19. If you've been around me, please go get tested. And so me and my daughter are like, we just rolled from Madison to Milwaukee in the car with you.
Interviewer: Right. And hugged and kissed her.
Eunice Conley: Yeah. And so instantly, we are quarantining. However, my mother is bedridden and my mother has an extremely compromised immune system. And because she's bedridden, she can't even get up and go–you know. So everybody has to come to her. So if we go around her now–but see, we've already been around her.
Interviewer: Right. So has everyone panicked in Alabama?
Eunice Conley: We were kind of panicked, because we don't know what is going on. So me and my daughter kind of quarantined and stayed pretty much in the house. And because we were showing no signs, no symptoms and everything was okay, when we found out that Lolita had gone–we found out that she went to pick up her mother-in-law from the hospital. When we found out that what the mother-in-law was being released from the hospital from being there for Corona, that's when, you know, ding dong, bells went off with me. I said, No, we got to hold to her prior to this happening. So that's probably when she got it–where she got it from–
Interviewer: Yeah, because–
Eunice Conley: –because she was fine up until she went to go get this woman. And so the day we were supposed to leave, it was May 25th, and Lolita's daughter called and said that the mother-in-law just died. And Lolita was still–had been in the hospital prior to this, all this time. And then that's when they put her, Lolita, on the ventilator. And so we were kind of crazy at that point and stressed out, because the mother-in-law just died, the person she got it from. So what does this mean for her, for one? And for two, who's going to pick us up from the airport now? Because she was in the hospital.
Interviewer: Yeah, right.
Eunice Conley: And I don't want to really be around the husband, because he had been around the mama and her–eh, no.
Interviewer: Didn't want to take a taxi, exactly. So do you stay? Do you go? What do you do?
Eunice Conley: No, we did. We left, and I called my cousin and she came into Milwaukee and picked us up. But two weeks later, Lolita passed.
Interviewer: Oh, God.
Eunice Conley: And I was then watching and taking care of my nephew, because his mommy is gone. He's six years old, a little boy, and mommy's gone. So now it's, Come on, let's get you–you know, we're doing Zoom, virtual learning.
Interviewer: Oh, he's with you? You're doing virtual learning and–
Eunice Conley: Yeah, he's living at my house.
Eunice Conley: It was–you know, how do you grieve but not grieve? Because I know he's grieving, and he's trying to figure out–you know what I mean? His whole world is gone. So what do I do now? To give him a semblance of normalcy and to make things a little easier for him, you know, you grieve when he goes to sleep. You deal with things. And then I have my daughter grieving, who has just lost her auntie, and they were pretty close. Dealing with a teenager in a pandemic, grieving the loss of her auntie and then her friends die. Her friend, Anisa, was shot and killed in the car, riding down the street with her dad.
Interviewer: I remember that.
Eunice Conley: And then right after that, her friend, Kyla, is killed in a car accident on Stoughton Road, where she's ejected from the car.
Interviewer: Oh my God.
Eunice Conley: Kyla was Tony Robinson's little sister.
Interviewer: You know, as you're talking, I'm just remembering reading these news stories. I went to a balloon release in honor of Anisa. Yeah, and just–you know, I can't believe this is all happening to your family at the same time.
Eunice Conley: And this all happened to my daughter who has now lost the aunt. She has lost two friends. And then, you know, you've got to realize for a teenager that already doesn't have the social piece because of the pandemic and the quarantining and all this, so she's lost her life–way of life as well as family members.
Interviewer: And you're caring for a six year old boy–
Eunice Conley: –that's trying to figure out what to do, how to do. And yeah, it's been–Corona has done–I call it the rona. And the rona, I have personified. I said, If I could catch the rona walking down the street one day, me and the rona is going to have a whole talk. I'm going to let him have it. I also see that the rona has opened up so many things, so many avenues that God is speaking, and people are not listening. Rona is a distraction from what God is saying. And he's saying, Look, I've gotten rid of life as you know it.
Interviewer: Pay attention.
Eunice Conley: Now, pay attention. Either you're going to love each other, and y'all are going to do what you need to do to help mend the broken fences that you have created throughout this world. Y’all have messed up the land. I mean, y’all have demolished a lot of the things that I've put in place for you to have such a beautiful life. Y’all ain't doing it. Y’all don't get it. So I'm going to take everything I can to get your attention to see y’all ain't doing it. This ain't it. Let's try again. I'm giving you another chance to fix it, to get it right, to understand that the basis of all this is love. And if you can't love genuinely, then you need to address your issues. And a lot of people are not heeding. And so we have a breakdown of systems. We have a breakdown of communication. We took for granted the social piece, the ability to touch, the ability to embrace. Now, everything has to be through gloves, has to be through sanitizer. At this point, the world has to be sanitized.
Interviewer: Yeah. Cleansed, if you will. Yeah.
Eunice Conley: Yeah, it has to be cleansed before you can even–I can't touch you. I can't hug you anymore. I have to fist bump you, or–and I can't even fist bump you. I can only do the elbow thing, and this is not what God intended. And I honestly, I don't care what anyone believes in, this cannot be what your higher power has intended life to be like for you.
Interviewer: Yeah. So with that–I think you've spoken to it, but in your life, what has changed or it sounds like you've thought a lot. And you can't control other people, which is really hard. But how do you kind of get up every day and keep hope alive?
Eunice Conley: I control my space. I know that. And so nothing comes in my door to my house. There's a sign on my door saying, “Compromised immune system here. Leave packages at the door on the porch.” I don't want no trouble. We good. And I literally have a vaporizer at the door to help combat the particles, because I've read that the steam molecules are smaller and the virus molecules are larger. So the steam actually can grab a hold of and bring those big things down. And then I also micro-man my surfaces. I don't know. I have paper towels and sanitizer and hand soap in every bathroom, in the kitchen, wherever. I got disinfecting wipes all over. Also no one goes upstairs. Upstairs is where we sleep. Upstairs–the way my house is set up, I have a townhouse, upstairs is where our living quarters. I've, all my children's life, instituted that your room is your sanctuary. And you have to be peaceful in your sanctuary. You look at it as a place to regroup, nourish, strengthen, and redirect all the wolves of the world. When you close your door, all that stays out here. It's somewhere that they can recharge and get some sleep and–pretty much, that's their war room, you know. So nothing comes up. No one comes upstairs in our living quarters, period. So I don't have to carry none of that extra stuff upstairs.
I control this environment, but I can't control outside. So when I go outside, I'm pretty much–it's hard for me, because I'm a hugger. I'm not a person that shakes hands and stuff. I've never been that person. “Oh, baby, come here.” You know, get some of this oxytocin here, you know. Let me hug you. Let me love on you for a second. Because sometimes–one thing that I've learned during my time that I pretty much was a resident of UW Hospital, when I was initially diagnosed with MS, I lost my sight. So I was blind, and I could not walk. I was on a floor where the neurology impairments were. And one of the patients that came in was a burn victim. There was a really bad accident, car accident, and the patient had to be medevacked in with the mom, both of which were burnt catastrophically in that accident. And so this child could not be with the mom. And I didn't realize until–we had to have group sessions that we would come in the morning and just talk about our diagnoses or we would just talk about what we're going through and what we're dealing with. And so in that session, the mother was like, “I really–I just really need my child. It's like it's a physical need at this point that I need to be around my baby.” And so the–I think he was a doctor, maybe he was a therapist. I don't know. But the guy that led the group, he was saying that the one thing that humans need is touch. Touch is healing. And that's why this loss or this rona, or whatever, is so significant, because we can't touch each other like we need to. We can't, “I'm with you, I got you,” you know. Or I'm praying–whatever. You can't embrace. So you don't have that sense of touch. And then one of the other people in group brought up the fact that touch is so important because–like when we first have a baby, the first thing that the doctor does is put that child on the mother to touch, to feel the mother, period. They need that. I don't know whether they are listening to our heartbeats or whatever, but they need that. We need that. And when a child does not get that initial touch, it breeds psychosis.
Eunice Conley: And we are missing that. And that's one of the things that God, I don't know, created to heal our land. You know how people that till the soil or that are farmers or whatever, they get that dirt in their hands, they feel that earth in their hands. It is–I don't know what the word is. Not symbiotic. But just to have that–that tactile, just–
Interviewer: Visceral. I'm thinking of visceral, or–
Eunice Conley: –or something. But they need to get in there, to feel that land, to touch, to smell that earth. You need to use as many of your senses as possible to connect. And because we don't have that touch, we're missing something.
Interviewer: We're missing a lot. Yeah.
Eunice Conley: I hate it, you know, but it's necessary. But you don't know what you've got till it's taken away, till you lose it.
Interviewer: I'm so impressed–you've endured so much and yet you seem so hopeful and so wise about what's happening, really. I appreciate you sharing your story.
Eunice Conley: Yeah. Yeah. I honestly think that we as a people have to reclaim life, but not do it the same way. Because if we go back to what we used to be, we end up with what we used to–we end up in the same spot. If it ain't the rona, it'll be something else.
Eunice Conley: So I don't want to go back to doing things the way we used to. The way we used to is gone. We need to create new avenues of doing things, helping people. We need to create new avenues of–new systems, because the old systems, obviously, wasn't working.
Interviewer: Yeah, not serving us.
Eunice Conley: No. At all.
Eunice Conley: And so, you know, I listen to people saying this about the stimulus payments and all this, and I say, Okay, but you know what? At the end of the day, it's really not throwing money at a problem, it's giving you something that you didn't have.
Eunice Conley: And giving you a chance to do what you didn't do or need to do. I mean, if you look at, this last stimulus payment was $600. And they were like, Oh, that's nothing, and this and that. And I'm like, honestly? To somebody that didn't have $600, to somebody that was raising their children without–didn't have nothing, $600 is just as close to a million.
Eunice Conley: Might as well be.
Eunice Conley: You know, if that is going to get my rent paid one more month, that's keeping me from being homeless one more month. It's a down payment for whatever. Maybe my rent is 1500, but at least 600 is more than half, or at least somewhere near half.
Interviewer: Or, you know, you can put food in the fridge and have food every day without worrying about it.
Eunice Conley: Period. If the $600 is such a penance to you, do me a favor and send that check over to somebody that don't have it.
Interviewer: Yeah, those were some of the–I read about some of those stories and I'm heartened to see people that did do that. But certainly, we know there's a lot more that could be sharing.
Eunice Conley: Can you imagine what the people in Texas are going through right now? You have pandemic, which means everything needs to be set–what do you call it? Sterile. And then you have no water, no power. You freezing your butt off.
Interviewer: Day and night in the dark.
Eunice Conley: In the dark. Can't go nowhere, because the roads have froze closed. You know, if this is not a wakeup call that we can't do stuff like we used to do it, we got to do stuff different. Period. I don't know what is.
Interviewer: I know. I mean, I imagine these stories archived and people five, ten, you know, many years from now listening, and I just -- I guess it gives me hope to think, maybe when they're listening, something's different. I don't know what that is, but–
Eunice Conley: Maybe a light will go off or something. Even if you don't do things or if you continue to do things how you did them before, but you change one thing. Well, truthfully, you can't do things the way you did them before, because the more you do it, the more God takes away. Okay, you all want to keep on? Okay. Say no more. I got you. Now I'm going to flip the weather.
Interviewer: Right. Yeah.
Eunice Conley: Now in the desert it's going be snow and freezing rain. And in the north or, you know, in the Arctic tundra, it’s going be below zero and close to minus 50. It's going to be even colder.
Interviewer: If that doesn't make you pause and wonder what's happening.
Eunice Conley: Right.
Interviewer: Yeah, I hear you.
Eunice Conley: In other words, God is going to go knock a pause at you. Okay. (laughter) Make you say, Uh, wait. Yeah. Mm-hmm.
Interviewer: I think you should write a book and then we can all read it. I feel like you have more stories to tell and more wisdom to share. I'm really enjoying talking to you today.
Eunice Conley: Well, thank you. Thank you.
Interviewer: Yeah, our time is coming a little bit to an end, but I wondered if there's anything else you'd like to conclude with. If there's anything else you'd like to share today.
Eunice Conley: Honestly, if I could influence someone to love on themselves a little more, inspire themselves a little more, laugh at themselves a little more. Stop taking yourself so seriously. And remember it's not about you. Every single thing that you encounter in this world, every experience that you go through in this world is for somebody else. Even you stubbing your toe is for somebody else. It truly is. Because now, since this has happened to you, you're expected to turn around and say, Uh-uh, don't do that, because this is what could happen, you know. Everything that we encounter that happens in this world is always for someone else. If nothing else, the day happening the way it did today is letting you know how tomorrow might be or how to deal with today. I don't know. My big thing is that I've learned from my son, it ain't about you. Stop taking yourself so serious, and please laugh. Please laugh. If you can't laugh at yourself, why would you expect somebody else to?
Interviewer: That's true.
Eunice Conley: Yeah.
Interviewer: Well, I feel lighter. I feel like I'm going to have a much better day now that I even just got to meet you and hear your story.
Eunice Conley: Well, thank you.
Interviewer: Yeah, I'm excited for other people to hear your story too. So.
Eunice Conley: Thank you. Thank you. But to God, be all glory. I owe it all to him.
Interviewer: Awesome. All right Eunice, I'm going to pause us and say thank you once again for sharing your story today.
Eunice Conley: Thank you for the ability.
[END OF RECORDING]