Families and friends that have succumbed to COVID-19 in northern Michigan will live on forever in the memories of those who loved them.
Every passing was a blow to the tight-knit communities throughout the region.
Interlochen Public Radio spoke with loved ones and friends of three northern Michigan residents who died from coronavirus over the last several weeks.
Michael Watson forever lending a helping hand
One of the first to pass away from COVID-19 in Michigan, was likely Michael Watson, of Gaylord.
Lisa Watson had heard her brother was dealing with a chest cold. It didn’t go away after a week or two.
In mid-February, at the doctor’s office, he got an initial diagnosis of bronchitis. On Tuesday Feb. 25, Mike drove himself to Otsego Memorial Hospital to get another chest X-ray.
But Mike didn’t make it inside. In the parking lot, he collapsed and died. He was 51-years-old.
Mike died two weeks before Gov. Gretchen Whitmer first announced positive cases of the virus in Michigan, but his family is certain COVID-19 contributed to his death. They showed his health records to medical professionals after his death, who confirmed he had the virus.
Mike was a firefighter and EMT for over 20 years in Otsego County. It was his colleagues who immediately responded to the scene of their fallen friend.
They didn’t know it then, but soon they too would have to fight the virus.
An early outbreak in Otsego County led several EMS workers to fall ill. Two were put on ventilators. As of April 24, one recovered enough to be taken off of it.
At Mike’s funeral, weeks before the stay home order, his colleagues called in a final goodbye on the EMT scanner.
“Hearing no response from unit 5505, Lt. Mike Watson has responded to his last call on earth,” a voice said over the radio’s speaker. “Thank you for always answering the call. Thank you for unselfishly always lending a helping hand.”
Mike was a big guy — 6 feet, 2 inches tall — and warm, like a teddy bear.
Lisa says he was known as a helper, and family, especially his daughter, Michaela, was everything to him.
“He taught her so many things that a lot of daughters don’t learn,” she says. “(Michaela) can back up a boat in a trailer. She knows how to repair the brakes on her car.”
Mike used his handiness to help his elderly parents, who lived nearby. It brought comfort to the whole family.
“Just the fact that he’s not going to be there to help with the things they need,” Lisa sighes. “He helped.”
A few weeks later, more cases of COVID-19 began appearing in Northern Michigan.
Larry Cummings’ light-hearted humor shines on in memories
Harbor Springs residents, Shannon and Larry Cummings, stayed put at home, even before the governor ordered it.
But, by then, they had already caught a fever. They both came down with it one night, but Larry was having a worse reaction.
Larry had diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis, which Shannon knew put him at higher risk.
But when she drove Larry to the hospital she didn’t realize it was the last time they’d talk.
He died on Tuesday, March 31, with Shannon at his side in full protective gear. Larry was 76.
At home, Shannon is filled with reminders of the life they haven’t yet lived together.
The couple was supposed to vacation in the Balkans, in southeast Europe. He was also looking forward to reading On the Plain of Snakes by the travel writer, Paul Theroux, that she had bought him.
This year was Larry’s 50th anniversary teaching Geography and History at North Central Michigan College in Petoskey.
He was beloved by many students, who signed up for multiple classes with him. Shannon credits Larry’s lighthearted humor and non-judgemental attitude.
He was a world traveller, and wanted his students to see beyond northern Michigan. For years, he and a fellow educator took students on trips to Mexico — sometimes the students’ first visit outside the country, Shannon says.
“I think he enjoyed helping people to see other parts of the world and seeing bigger than themselves,” she says,
Over the years, Larry received many letters from his former students, Shannon says — several of whom were inspired to become teachers themselves.
She says reading about the lives he touched has helped in his absence.
Ed Brehm’s love for wine and Boyne City second to none
Later, in nearby Boyne City, the community was rocked by local business leader, Ed Brehm’s, sudden passing at age 55.
Scott MacKenzie was the director of the Chamber of Commerce when he met Ed many years ago.
“I kind of credited myself for one of the reasons they moved to Boyne, because I sold them on this community,” he says. “Both he and Kristine (Ed’s wife) became actively involved, became staples in this town.”
Scott says he watched Ed move his wife and two children to town, switch careers and build a successful business. The family bought the local party store about 10 years ago and expanded it to a wine emporium and tasting room. Ed loved wine and became a certified sommelier.
Scott says the family is one of the most giving in the town. He says Ed loved Boyne City and always saw potential.
“There was always some brand new great adventure,” Scott says, “He was game to take it on.”
His death cut short his latest dream. Ed and Kristine had planned to open an event space, a community place for parties, located above the wine shop.
Since Boyne Country Provisions posted notice of Ed’s passing, Scott says people have put up signs on the shop windows, mourning his loss.
He says the community will remember the fun theme parties Ed would throw, and they’ll think of him when they drink the unique wine he recommended.
One of Ed’s customer’s, Melissa Agawa, says Ed taught her a lot about wine. One of his great qualities was his patience, she says.
“Ed knew a great deal about wine, spirits and business but more so than that,” Melissa says. “He knew a whole lot about people and treating them honestly, fairly and compassionately.”
She says he will certainly be missed in the Boyne community.