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Mary Ellen

I made a mistake the other day and it gave me a glimpse into the reality some people are living.

I messed up a number in regards to the Covid-19 count in Dubois County and didn’t catch it before publishing it.

A little bit later I got a call that I sent to voicemail because I was on another call. When I got off the call, I checked the voicemail. A small voice named Mary Ellen told me politely that she thought there was a typo in my post. She called me by my first name as she explained that the number I had published was way off of what was on the Indiana State Covid dashboard.

I jumped onto the Dubois County Free Press site and fixed it. I didn’t call her back figuring if she was still worried about it, she would call me back.

Then, about a half-hour later, I get a call from the health department. “Matt, I’m just going to let you listen to this voicemail because it has to do with the Free Press,” the director said adding that he didn’t understand why she called him.

“Shawn,” Mary Ellen’s polite voice came across my phone speaker from Shawn’s voicemail as she explained my mistake to him as well.

“Oh, I got that call and I fixed it,” I told him and we laughed and spoke about the difficulties during this time.

Not wanting Mary Ellen to worry anymore, I called her back to let her know I had fixed the issue with the post. The same voice from the voicemail answered and after introducing myself, I told her I had fixed it and spoke to the health department as well.

She said she appreciated me fixing the typo. “I have a ledger here and I am tracking those numbers every day,” she said before telling me why.

Mary Ellen is an 81-year-old widow. She lives alone next door to the home she was born and raised in. She takes care of herself.

Mary Ellen’s four children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren live outside of the area.

“I watch the numbers every day because I haven’t seen any of my kids or grandchildren since December of 2019,” she said adding that one son did come down and meet with her in the yard one day.

She told me she was celebrating when I was reporting no new cases or only single-digit increases back in July. But she’s watched them go up by leaps and bounds over the past month. And she’s remained alone.

I asked if she had friends locally she saw or could see. “I have a fellow that mows my yard,” she said.

She’s the oldest of four siblings in her family. The only one who is close is her brother whom she sees every once in a while. He drives her down to Evansville sometimes to get her to certain appointments but she assured me she can get around on her own.

“I wear my mask when I go out,” she told me.

She stays in touch with her family by a chat room they’ve set up on Facebook messenger and has done some video chats as well.

Late one evening she got a call from her daughter. “Mom, are you okay,” her daughter asked exasperated.

“Yes, of course, why,” Mary Ellen said.”Well, we’ve been sending you messages all day and you know how it says you’ve received them,” her daughter said.

Mary Ellen explained to me about the little bubbles that say “received” in the messenger app before continuing her story.

“It says you’ve received them but you haven’t responded to a single one,” her daughter continued.

“I have been out all day, running errands and grocery shopping,” Mary Ellen told her daughter. “I know it is late but I’ve still got some groceries in my car.”

So her family is keeping in touch as much as possible, but it isn’t the same. Even though they are vaccinated, they have other health conditions that won’t allow them the comfort of a personal visit with Delta raging.

Which one of Mary Ellen’s children could pass her the virus with an embrace or by simply sitting in her living room talking?

Mary Ellen has a two-and-a-half-year-old great-granddaughter now – about a year old when the pandemic began. “She doesn’t even know who I am,” she explained. “I used to go up there six to eight times a year. Things sure are different now.”

When the pandemic was bad in the beginning, I would get calls from people who were alone and afraid. I always tried to talk to them. Fortunately, it doesn’t happen very often because I would spend a lot of time searching for words to say to comfort them.

When the words fail, I usually fall back to what I know. I ask them questions. It’s what I do professionally but the reality is they just want to be heard. To be seen. Asking questions lets that happen. It’s how I learned about Mary Ellen.

I didn’t really know what to make of that moment. I really didn’t. In light of the negativity online, I wondered if you would want to hear about Mary Ellen?

I interviewed Dr. Nick Werne for the first time that same week. Before talking to Werne, another doctor told me not to write a story about how hard this has been on them. “They’ll just say it is our job, we signed up for this,” she told me.

I wondered what would happen with Nick’s story yesterday. Would anyone care about his story or would it feed the rage seething online?

Then, the silent majority who are doing their best quietly in the background spoke up after “It’s been years since it’s been clear” was published and I knew Mary Ellen’s story was important as well.

An 81-year-old grandmother sitting on her porch in Huntingburg doing her best to be responsible while recording the rising Covid-19 numbers by pencil wondering when she will be able to embrace her family again deserves to be heard.