JONESBOROUGH, Tenn. (WJHL) – When COVID-19 deaths slowed to a trickle and Independence Day had arrived, Marat Moore thought she might lay to rest the COVID memorial on her property and its 1,000-plus flags — one for each Northeast Tennessean who had died from COVID during the pandemic.
Moore, who spends several minutes with each flag placement in the small field on the 300 block of Spring Street just outside downtown Jonesborough. had grown weary during the winter surge. Some days the reported deaths had been so high she’d broken the work into separate time blocks.
“I give thanks for each of their lives, for their contributions, for the love that they shared,” Moore said this week as America marked the passing of 800,000 people from COVID.
“I pray for their families, I pray for the health care teams and the health care workers who have tried to save every one of these lives.”
By July the flags were worn and a bit tattered — representing, she thought, the general condition of the community after a brutal winter of COVID and all its negative consequences. Deaths in June had averaged about three a week, compared to more than 50 a week in December.
“It seemed to be subsiding, and the weeds were growing up and I couldn’t keep up with (the landscaping),” she said.
But Moore hasn’t quit the project she began last Thanksgiving with the initial planting of more than 400 flags and the process has continued almost daily during the delta surge.
‘I wonder if our uncle is here’
The Fourth of July is a big day in downtown Jonesborough, and people who had parked up the road from Moore’s were streaming by on Spring Street. Some lingered to look at the memorial, others strode past, seemingly oblivious.
Moore was outside when she noticed a family observing the flags.
“I heard one of the teenagers say, ‘Well I wonder if our uncle is there. Can we stop and maybe we can put a flag in his memory?’”
Moore spoke to the family and learned their loved one, a man named Robert, was among those whose flag had a special inscription. His neighbors, Ralph and Karin, had written their names on the dark green flag along with: “Robert: You’ll be missed – April 2021.”
One of the adults in the party told Moore Robert was his brother.
“He told me the story and he showed me a picture of his brother,” Moore said.
“His wife was a healthcare worker and she got vaccinated, but he was only 60 and at that time could not get vaccinated, and he died.”
Moore took the encounter as a message. “I was not supposed to take it down.”
Since that day, the region has experienced 550 more deaths and those numbers have risen again in the past couple of weeks.
“I’m not going to take it down until this is behind us, truly behind us, and we can breathe free,” Moore said.
Making visible what is often not understood in a number
Moore started the memorial as place to honor both COVID victims and health care workers. On a small rise above the multicolored field of flags is a smaller patch of ground covered with 100 white flags.
Those “guardians on the hill,” as Moore calls them, represent health care teams that worked to try and save each of the lives represented below them.
“I always honor them and pray for them too, when I plant the flags.”
She said several nurses began stopping by the site early on, including, “one dear ICU nurse” with whom Moore has forged a relationship.
“I was just hoping it would be a comfort for people and also to make visible what often is not understood when you hear a number, you see a number,” Moore said.
She said experts estimate each death of a loved one affects at least 10 other people, family wise.
“So, that would mean more than 16,000 people are grieving,” Moore said of the 1,648 deaths tallied in the region’s eight counties through Tuesday. “And then you add the congregations along with all of the friends and family, and all of the ways in which our community has connections with each other. So, that was my hope, to personalize this for people.”
Numerous people have come out and inscribed remembrances on flags of friends or loved ones.
One nurse wrote the last words of a patient she cared for.
“‘I’m not afraid to die — Jesus is here.’ That’s what he said,” Moore said as she held a green flag. “She heard many of their last words, and had to call the families.”
Another nurse wrote on numerous flags after first coming out and meeting Moore, who was struck by her experiences.
“I just saw her walk, and then I went to meet her,” Moore remembered. “She introduced herself, and she said, ‘I know so many of them,’ and we just talked for a very long time.”
One of that nurse’s flags is inscribed with, “chocolate milk and phone calls.”
The patient loved chocolate milk, and the nurse would bring it to him because it helped him get his medications down.
“Then he would call his family and talk and talk and talk, and he would notice that his oxygen was going down to dangerous levels, and she said, ‘Can you just hang up for about five minutes, and then you can call again?
“So, those kind of messages. The health care teams get very close to them very fast.”
The same nurse also told Moore of asking one patient what she could get for him.
“He said, ‘Give me 10 more years of my beautiful life.”
Until ‘the light is here’
Moore said Wednesday morning she’s glad she didn’t retire the memorial this summer. That morning she had updated the sign across the road from the field that reads “Our Neighbors Lost to COVID-19.”
The number was 1,648 — more than one in 500 of the U.S. total that surpassed 800,000 that same day. Later Wednesday, the total grew by seven with the report of three new deaths in Sullivan County, two in Washington County and two in Hawkins County.
Moore is behind on flag plantings and running out of stock, but said she doesn’t see herself stopping the project any time soon.
“Our community is going through this together. Despite any differences we may have in our approach, grief is grief and love is love and so I wanted to have a place where when the sun is shining on them and they’re waving I think about this community of people who have been lost.”
Moore said people are tired, but persevering as the pandemic drags on.
“As a friend told me today, ‘the light is coming.’ We don’t know when. We can’t just say, ‘It’s over,’ or ‘The light is here,’ but we know that it’s coming. It’s just that these families will be living with their loss for the rest of their lives.”
She said families are invited to come and inscribe a flag for their loved one.
“I do feel it is a field of peace, love, and remembrance and so I always welcome each person into this field.”
Arrangements to honor a friend or loved one can be made by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.