MARION, Va. (WJHL) – Lois Gardner had a grin on her face and Yahtzee luck on her side when she bid her daughter Dawn Babcock farewell in late August.
In a video made by Babcock’s boyfriend, Mike Reilly, the 80-year-old Marion woman can be heard responding to Reilly’s promise to “whup her at Yahtzee next time” with, “you better do some practice.”
Babcock and Reilly never got a chance for a rematch, something she was planning for late September or early October when they would make another trip down from Akron, N.Y. to see her beloved mom.
Instead, she, her two sisters and brother, 10 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren are among family and friends who will spend Christmas without the sassy family matriarch who had a way with the cats that would gravitate to her home.
“Christmas is not gonna be the same,” Babcock said Friday. “Nothing’s gonna be the same anymore without her here with us.”
Gardner, who would have been 81 Dec. 27, won’t be with the family because she’s one of about 200 Southwest Virginians in the News Channel 11 viewing area who have died from COVID-19 contracted in a long-term care facility.
Not many days after Babcock and Reilly headed north from Marion, Gardner fell at home. Babcock’s daughter, Shannon Hueber, headed down from Maryland.
“She was messing with a recliner in her house because it wouldn’t close and she fell backward,” Hueber said.
So after a second trip to the hospital — the first time diagnostics were unclear — Gardner was diagnosed with a fractured pelvis.
After a few days as an inpatient it was time for rehab and then, so everyone thought, a return home to her cats, puzzles and fiercely independent life.
“Mom had some chronic health problems but she still had a good quality of life,” Babcock said. “She was up moving around and yapping with us when we were there. She was just her normal self. She would go outside and walk around the yard and hold her kittens that were out there.”
Picking a facility wasn’t easy, but the family settled on Valley Health Care in Chilhowie. An outbreak that would eventually yield a total of 179 positive COVID cases and 26 deaths was just starting at Valley.
Hueber said the family was told there were five patients with COVID when her grandmother was admitted.
A tough first marriage
A young Lois Widner had a “great childhood with her siblings” according to Babcock. They were raised by a very religious mother, Isabelle Widner, and Curtis Widner.
“Her father was somebody not to mess with,” Babcock said.
Her marriage to Babcock’s dad, a Marine, resulted in a lot of moves and very little harmony.
“All four of us kids were born in different states,” Babcock said.
The couple eventually divorced and like she had even when her husband was in the picture, Lois provided all the support, Babcock remembers.
“My mom always raised us,” she said. “Made sure there was food on the table. She’s the one that took care of us, no child support, no nothing from my father. She did everything she possibly could to raise us girls.”
In addition to normal domestic duties, that included working long hours in jobs at a drug store in New York and several gas stations in Florida.
Daughters Dawn, Sherry and Debra and son Bobby grew up and had their own kids, while Gardner eventually returned to her native Smyth County and married a widower, Graham Gardner.
A fortuitous roll of the dice
Graham Gardner treated his new wife like a queen and her children like they were his own, Babcock said.
“Him coming into our life was the best thing. He was like our father. He’s the one that if we needed anything we could ask him. He was just the best thing that ever happened to her.”
After Graham Gardner died and left her with their home, Gardner enjoyed frequent visits from her growing bunch of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
They included Hueber’s daughter — named Isabelle after Gardner’s mother. Now 13, she was born with a heart condition (she’s fine) and was Gardner’s first great-grandchild.
They were particularly close, and a drawing Isabelle made of her great-grandmother is being incorporated into her gravestone.
“We would talk a lot,” Shannon Hueber said. “We’d go down there on long weekends, we’d do Christmas there, and they bonded. She would always call and tell Isabelle, ‘you’re my girl.'”
Gardner had plenty of room in her heart for Hueber’s two younger children, all her other grandkids and the menagerie of cats. Babcock said she was “a cat whisperer.”
It was Hueber who headed down from Maryland after her grandmother called to tell her about the fall and the difficulty she was having moving around.
“She said, ‘Oh, I fell. Don’t tell nobody.'”
The worst kind of whirlwind
From the time the fracture was revealed until Gardner’s death, only a couple weeks passed. A few days in the hospital, the transfer to Valley, and eventually, with family concerned about her care and the COVID outbreak, a decision to have her transported to Florida to be nearer some of her children.
It was too late. Hueber had had to return home because her kids were starting school, and the family was trying to arrange things from afar when they got the news she’d tested positive for COVID.
Babcock said Gardner was rushed to the hospital having breathing problems.
“The next thing you know the doctor told us all to come in, he’s gonna keep her alive as long as he could for us to come down and see her.
“We were all in our vehicles on our way down, but within two-and-a-half hours of driving time for all of us … she didn’t make it, she passed away. So we never got to see her before she passed.”
Babcock and Hueber have plenty to say about their perceptions of what went on at the nursing home, but Babcock mostly just misses her mom.
She’s also sad for Gardner’s one local relative, her nephew Allan Tolbert, along with his wife Vanessa and their daughter-in-law Melinda.
“Allen would take her to Walmart, and Melinda would make sure her pills were in order every week,” Babcock said. “He was really close and he really took it hard.”
Up in Maryland, Hueber, Isabelle and Hueber’s other children are getting ready for Christmas in a year made weird by the pandemic and sad by their grandmother and great-grandmother’s death.
They have a living memory, though — a gray kitten Gardner was caring for.
“My daughter took the little gray kitten and now it’s at her residence with two pit bulls and it’s spoiled rotten,” Babcock said.
For her part, Babcock has already missed coming down for Thanksgiving, when she would cook and Allan and Vanessa Tolbert would come over.
And this coming week will be yet another sad milestone as not only Christmas passes without her mother, but what would have been Gardner’s 81st birthday comes two days later on the 27th.
“I mean, it’s just hard to say goodbye,” Babcock said. “Mom had beautiful blue eyes. She was a strong woman. She always told us if anything happened to her she wanted to be in her home.”
Lois Widner Gardner died Sept. 22 at Johnston Memorial Hospital in Abingdon. She is buried at Anderson Cemetery in Marion, her spot of ground soon to be crowned with her favorite great-granddaughter’s artistic rendering of her smiling face and beautiful blue eyes.