'Unimaginable' pain: Coronavirus robs Michigan woman of whole family

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News
Sandy Brown touches the forehead of her late husband, Freddie Lee Brown Jr., after she cries over her late son, Freddie Lee Brown III, right. They both recently died from COVID-19 three days apart.

Grand Blanc — Sandy Brown tried to calm her son, Freddie, alone and scared in a hospital intensive care unit. His father had died a few days earlier. Freddie, just 20, was worried he would die, too.

Sandy Brown cries between paying respect to her son then her husband.

Talking on FaceTime throughout the night, Sandy recited Scripture and tried to slow his breathing. She sang spiritual songs to coax him to sleep, like a mom singing lullabies to her baby.

One day later, Freddie died.

Imagine awakening from one nightmare only to slip into another.

In three days last week, Brown lost her husband and son, Freddie Lee Brown Jr. and Freddie Lee Brown III, to the novel coronavirus.

“There’s not even a word created to describe my pain. It’s unimaginable,” she said.

The younger Freddie — her "Boopie," her "Sonny Redd" — was her only child, so Brown’s family is all gone now.

If the two losses weren’t excruciating enough, COVID-19 comes with other tools of torture.

It has ravaged every stage of Brown’s torment, from the illnesses to the deaths to the grieving. She couldn’t comfort her husband and son. She couldn’t say goodbye.

Even in death, the virus hasn’t relinquished its hold.

It made a mockery of funeral arrangements Friday. And it deprived Brown from receiving what she needs most right now, which is a hug.

“You feel helpless,” said Andy Torok, who coached the younger Freddie when he played football for Grand Blanc High School. “You can’t go to the house and tell them it’s going to be all right.”

'Honey gone, now Sonny'

Sandy Brown cries as she pays respects to her son, Freddie Lee Brown III, who dreamed of playing football at Michigan State this fall as a walk-on.

Sandy and Freddie Jr. of Grand Blanc were married 35 years. He was a gentleman from the olden days, holding the door for her, showering her with compliments, she said.

She is a real estate agent while he was a retired produce clerk who was a church elder and national service member with the Church of God in Christ.

Freddie, 59, was such a fashion plate that Flint-area ministers frequently sought his advice to look their finest, his pastor said.

“He took me to a tailor to get some suits adjusted,” said Kiemba Knowlin, pastor of Jackson Memorial Temple in Flint. “And he made sure he was there, guiding her.”

After two miscarriages, Sandy had given up on having a child when, at 40 years old, she became pregnant with Freddie III.

She called him their miracle child.

The online obituary for Freddie III, written in the first person, described the pregnancy.

“Listen y’all,” it reads, “my mom prayed and waited and waited and prayed 15 long years before God blessed her to conceive me.”

Sandy chuckled as she described her son, who was a student at Mott Community College.

He was sweet and shy but had a funny sense of humor, she said. And he was always positive.

Freddie III also was a football fanatic who dreamed of playing for Michigan State University next year as a walk-on.

“He ate, slept and drank the football team,” she said. “‘Mama, I’m gonna be on the football team, I’m gonna be on the football team.’”

Freddie L. Brown Jr. and Freddie L. Brown III. Honey and Sonny, she called them.

“Honey gone, now Sonny,” she said.

Jackson Memorial Temple Church of God in Christ Pastor Kiemba Knowlin and his daughters Nehderi Knowlin, center, and Zhenya Knowlin, all of New Baltimore, enter the funeral home to pay respects as other invited guests wait in their cars for their turn.

How virus struck husband

Freddie Jr. began to feel sick in the middle of March.

He went to bed ice cold and woke up sweating through the sheets, Sandy said. He became tired and nauseous. His muscles felt like they were being stabbed by knives.

When he couldn’t keep anything down, including sips of water, she brought him to Ascension Genesys Hospital in Grand Blanc Township.

Freddie Jr., who had a kidney transplant in 2012, had contracted the coronavirus.

On March 22, he began to have trouble breathing, so the staff prepared to put him on a ventilator. An emotional Sandy fought the move, knowing it required him to be put into a medically induced coma.

“Calm down,” he told her on the phone. “I’ll be fine. It will just be a few days.”

It was the last time they spoke.

Three days later, his lung collapsed and, the next day, at 1:19 a.m., she received a call from the hospital telling her to get there right away. Her Honey was dying.

By the time she got to the intensive care unit, Fred Jr. was dead. COVID-19 is such a contagious disease that nurses told Sandy she couldn’t go near him.

But the nurses didn’t know Sandy Brown.

“I’m going in that room,” she told them. “I don’t care what I have to do. I’ll sign whatever I need to sign.”

So the staff swaddled her with protective gear: mask, gloves, gown and glasses.

She walked up to her husband, who looked like he was sleeping. She touched his hair, pressed his cheek, rubbed his neck. And she said goodbye.

Tonya Brown, center, and her children Rochelle Pompey and Ronnie Pompey Jr., all of Flint, cry as they leave the funeral home. Brown is Freddie Lee Brown Jr.'s sister.

Anticipating getting better

On March 27, one day after his dad died, Freddie III, who had asthma, became sick. A slight fever was growing. He began to cough.

While sleeping that night, he began to pant heavily, causing his mother to wake him.

She took him to Ascension Genesys the next day, and a day later he was feeling better.

He texted back and forth with his cousin, Morgan Blue, who also was in the intensive care unit with the coronavirus.

They talked about how they were improving and looked forward to moving to a regular hospital room and then home, Blue said.

“It was like we both were anticipating getting better again,” she said.

Blue did eventually make it home.

Sandy Brown was relieved over her son’s initial progress. She celebrated on Facebook, writing she was rejoicing like a crazy woman all over her house.

“Every church I enter I will be shouting down the aisles!” she wrote. “So please excuse me now for my disruption! Do you hear me! I will be shouting the victory in your face!”

But just as quickly as Freddie III’s condition had improved, it began to deteriorate.

The morning of celebration turned into an afternoon of consternation as his breathing became troubled.

By 10 p.m., the hospital was asking Sandy the same question it had posed a few days earlier: How quickly could she get there?

Standing in the doorway of her son’s room, she tried to make sense of the unimaginable, which had just happened twice in one week.

“In three days, I lost my husband and son to an ugly plague,” she said later. “I watched my son go from completely well and whole and happy to being gone in three days.”

Shadow of virus looms

Jackson Memorial Temple Church of God in Christ Pastor Kiemba Knowlin, second from left, conducts the graveside service in the funeral home parking lot instead of the cemetery, due to COVID-19.

Despite her contact with her husband and son, Brown has no signs of COVID-19.

She felt exhausted, but that was because she had been awake for 50 hours lurching from one crisis to another.

If she thought the coronavirus was done with her, she was quickly disabused of the notion.

Friends and relatives brought over dinner, but because of the disease, they couldn’t come inside or even hand it to Brown. Instead she opened the garage door and they put the food on a table there.

They then walked to the front steps and she opened the front door, leaving them separated by a glass screen door. They placed their hands on the screen door, they looked at each other and they cried.

This is grieving in the time of COVID-19.

"This is so hard to sit through, knowing I can’t love on my family,” said Cassandra Dukes, who is Sandy’s goddaughter.

While Brown was alone in one sense, she felt surrounded in another.

As she prepared to bury her husband and son on Good Friday, she was enveloped by her faith, she said. God has his arms wrapped tightly around her, she said.

It’s the only way she has been able to deal with the grief.

“Medical science says I should be traumatized,” she said. “I had a traumatic experience twice. I should be banging my head against the wall.”

“But God said no. I’m standing here in the strength of the Lord, not strength of my own. God has got me.”

Sandy Brown waves over close friends and family members to the gravesite as others pay respects from their vehicle to adhere to social distancing guidelines put in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

'It seems so unfair'

Here is what normally happens with the death of a church elder and national member of the Church of God in Christ.

Church officers from across the country gather for a two-day celebration that includes memorial and home-going services filled with speakers, remembrances, Bible readings and music from a 60-person choir.

Here is what happens when a contagious, lethal disease spreads around the globe like a wildfire. Air travel is curtailed and the size of gatherings are limited.

During the Browns’ Friday service, which was livestreamed over Sandy's Facebook page, 25 local people wearing masks walked, one by one, into the empty funeral home. After paying their last respects, they cleaned their hands with sanitizer.

They then drove to the cemetery, where they weren’t allowed to leave their cars.

Instead of pallbearers, groundskeepers carried the casket. Instead of the minister performing the committal service beside the grave, he did it at the funeral home parking lot.

And Brown watched the burial through a car window.

A Michigan State University block "S" and his Grand Blanc High School No.  97 is seen on the casket lid of Freddie Lee Brown III. According to family members, Brown III dreamed of playing football at MSU as a walk-on with hopes of someday playing in the NFL.

“It seems so unfair,” she said. “I can’t even give them a proper burial. I just have to put them into a box and put them into a hole.”

Brown was the first person to enter Dodds-Dumanois Funeral Home in Flint.

She wore a flowing green dress with a purple hat and corsage. She said she had to look her best or her Beau Brummel of a husband would be chiding her from heaven.

His casket smelled like Aramis cologne, which he had worn for their entire marriage.

“You were loving, you were caring, you were my lord, and I’m going to miss you so much,” she told him.

The interior lining of her son’s coffin displayed a photo of a football and the “S” symbol for Michigan State. An MSU football jersey was draped across it.

Both caskets contained one more thing — a purple stuffed bear. It was a family tradition Sandy had started with the death of her grandmother in 1999.

The bears represent her, showing she will be with her loved ones forever, she said. That made the farewell a little easier to endure.

After her husband died, she had talked to her son about the elder Freddie watching over them from above. Now that her son has joined him, Sandy Brown has acquired two guardian angels.

“You guys are going to be looking over me,” she told them. “And I’m going to need it. I’m going to need it.”


Twitter: @francisXdonnell