Alyssa always wanted to be a doctor. Then her dad died of covid and her dream fell apart.

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. - Alyssa Quarles long dreamed of becoming a doctor.

So when her dad, Theodis, became ill with covid-19 while Alyssa was home from college last year, she helped nurse him as he struggled to breathe, quarantined in his home office, away from her mom and four little sisters. When he died 10 days later, Alyssa's world shattered. She could no longer bear the idea of medical school, which had been everything her dad had wanted for her, and everything she had wanted for herself.

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"He was my first patient, and I couldn't save him," she said.

Theodis, 48 and otherwise healthy, had been the center of his family of seven - the chef, disciplinarian, mentor, cheerleader and organizer.

Without him, they were lost. For months after his death, Alyssa, her sisters and their mom, Vickie, lived as if they were "stuck in time," as Vickie put it, closed off in their home in southeast Memphis. A Christmas tree with frosted pink snowflakes, the last project Theodis had worked on with the girls, remained in the corner of the living room.

Alyssa and her sisters had become a statistic, part of the more than 140,000 children in the United States who lost a parent or grandparent caregiver in the first 14 months of the pandemic, 65% of them children of color, the journal Pediatrics found in a recent study, childhoods scarred by tragedy that will have an impact for years to come.

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As summer approached and the magnolias bloomed, Vickie began contemplating how she was going to manage the girls' schedules when Alyssa, now her chief helper, returned to college in the fall.

Alyssa faced a choice. Should she go back to school at Arkansas State University and continue her studies, or stay in Memphis and help take care of her sisters?

Staying in Memphis to take on more family responsibilities would be a lot of pressure for an 18-year-old, Vickie told her one day while the two were curled up on the sofa. Vickie had her phone out, filling out an application for an au pair service.

"When is your life going to begin?" she asked.

"It is. Now," Alyssa said.

"It's like you're a second mom," Vickie said. "It wasn't like that before because your dad and I had such a strict routine."

"I just like to help out a lot," Alyssa said.

Vickie was thinking of going back to work part-time as a health care consultant, as the school year loomed three months away. It was time for them to break out of their cocoon of grief. They couldn't wait until the last minute to decide everything. Babysitters had to be hired. Forms had to be filled out for a dorm room and for financial aid.

She would never have called it a return to normalcy - because without Theodis there would be no normal - but rather the formation of a new routine, a "new new," as a family friend put it.

"I want your decision by July," Vickie said.

A shadow flickered across Alyssa's face.

"Why?" she asked.

         

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At that point, Alyssa was down to just one friend she could talk to, her pal Tierney, who had recently lost both her grandparents and was the only one who listened with a sympathetic ear. Alyssa had withdrawn from others whom she felt were unable to relate to, like the friend who compared her father's death to an aunt they'd lost two years ago, or those who pushed her to go out and party to take her mind off things. Instead she snuck away to the gym every day for an hour. Squats and lifts became her respite, a way to calm her mind.

Theodis had been Alyssa's mentor and sounding board since he came into her life when she was 2 and he met Vickie, a single mother. He was district sales manager for an insurance company and mentored colleagues, a role that extended to his daughters and three grown children from a previous marriage. When Alyssa, a budding entrepreneur, had tried to sell chips and candy at her high school he had counseled her, with a twinkle in his eye, to "just be smooth about it." She got caught anyway, but went on to more success selling false eyelashes and lip gloss. She made extra money over the summer with an online clothing store.

Theodis was big on positivity and rising early to meet the day, a legacy from his time in the military. Now Alyssa made sure she made her bed tight the way he always did and fluffed her decorative pillows. One had been a present to him. It says, "Any Man Can Be a Father But it Takes Someone Special to be a Dad."

Theodis was not going to be there to see her graduate from Arkansas State University, as he had promised when he dropped her off at college in the fall of 2020. It had been her dream school. She cried when the acceptance letter was slow in coming. She had wanted to get away from Memphis and broaden her horizons. Her first semester was during the height of the pandemic, but she had stayed in her dorm room taking online classes and made it work.

In high school, she volunteered at a family practice clinic and attended a symposium called "Determined to be a Doctor Someday." Her mom posted photos on social media with the hashtag #FutureDr. Her dad joked that she'd be taking care of him when he grew old.

Now, as she faced this momentous decision about her future, she wasn't sure who she could turn to for advice. Her grandfathers were dead, and she wasn't close to her local grandmother. She ended up calling her academic adviser at Arkansas State. She asked if there was any other major that she could be as passionate about. Were there any other careers she could pursue besides medicine since her goal was helping people?

"Social worker?" the adviser suggested.

"No," she said.

"Teacher?" the adviser continued.

"No," she said.

Deadline day arrived in late June at the family's Concord Estates subdivision, the sky heavy with rain clouds. Alyssa needed to get her financial aid application in by midnight, and if she was going to take classes at the University of Memphis, she needed to decide that as well. She and Vickie again curled up on the couch, Alyssa still in her pajamas and sleep cap. Vickie pulled out a notebook.

"Let's list the pros and cons," her mom said. "Your con is you don't want to be stuck in Memphis. What are the other cons?"

Aryah, 3, was tottering around the living room, crying, and Vickie called for Asia, 11, to help.

"Asia, we're trying to hear our thoughts right quick," she said. Asia, the horn on her unicorn hoodie bobbing, brought the toddler an alphabet puzzle and sat down to play.

Pros for Arkansas State, Vickie wrote, were "more bonds with admin" and "already at the school." For Memphis, she wrote, "close to home" and "less money."

"I've got an idea of why I want to go [back to Arkansas State]," Alyssa said.

"OK, why do you want to go there?" Vickie asked.

Silence.

"I don't know how to explain it."

"Just say it," Vickie said.

More silence. Alyssa buried her head in a pillow.

"What is it you're looking for? Do you even know? It's like you're searching for something, but you don't know what you're searching for," Vickie said.

Vickie picked up the phone to call Khandy Bryant, a close friend in North Carolina. The two had bonded in 2018, when they both had babies in neonatal intensive care. Vickie had given birth to Aryah, who has cerebral palsy.

Alyssa fled to the powder room.

"She just went and hid from me, I think, because she doesn't want to make a decision because of her dad. I'm really in a Catch-22 with her," Vickie told Bryant.

"Alyssa is not going to go and leave you if Alyssa does not feel you are capable of doing it on your own," Bryant said on speaker phone. "Daddy taught her that the people under this roof are what matters, and Alyssa knows that until Mommy is good, I'm not going to be good. So even if Alyssa is at school and she's stressed about what you've got going on at home, she's not going to be able to focus, babe."

Vickie sighed and put her hand on her forehead.

"But I don't want her life to stop," she said.

She hung up with Bryant, got up and followed Alyssa into the bathroom. When they emerged, their eyes were wet. Vickie went to the kitchen and poured herself an inch of rosé.

"My friend Khandy, she gives it to you raw," Vickie said. "Made me think."

"I don't feel like nobody's ready, me included," Alyssa said.

Vickie turned to Asia.

"How would you feel if Alyssa went back to college?"

"I would be sad," Asia said. "It wouldn't be the same."

"Guess you'd be trying to get my room," Alyssa said. "I'd come back and the toy box would be in there."

It was the summer when everything changed, with life filled with distracting events designed to keep their minds off their loss. Vickie took them to the bookstore for two-for-one cookies, Jumpin' Jelly Beans to play in the ball pit, to Nashville where they went to one water park, and Myrtle Beach where they went to another, stayed in a big hotel and rode on a plane for the first time.

"Do you want to go on a carriage ride?" Vickie asked them one day. "With a real horse?"

Back home, the days had a way of sliding by, with no structure but the unrelenting press of grief. Theodis, who called himself "Chef Blacka Jacka," had loved to cook - mac and cheese, big pots of gumbo from his native New Orleans - for sit-down family dinner every night. With Vickie overwhelmed, the girls grazed on Cheez-Its and juice boxes and syrup sandwiches until late afternoon when she faced her hardest decision of the day on what to have delivered for dinner.

On this particular day, Alyssa ordered from Friendly's, but by the time the food arrived Vickie was upstairs for her online therapy appointment. So Alyssa made sure the younger girls had their hamburgers before she headed off to the gym.

Asia, Anaya, 14, and Allie, 6, sat down in chairs at the kitchen table. Aryah was in her high chair. Nobody sat in Theodis's seat, closest to the door. Above their heads hung twin paintings of toasting wine glasses their parents had made at a paint-and-sip date night.

It had been a good day, Asia said. The quality of their days now depended upon the mood of everyone in the house, she said. Some days it was good, and some days it was bad.

"Grieving is hard. It has a lot of steps," she said. "The step I'm in right now is confusion. How like he stayed in the house. He never went out. How did he catch it and pass and we didn't?"

                      

- - -

         

W hen Theodis came down with covid in December 2020, he sequestered in his upstairs "man cave," trying not to infect the rest of the family, although eventually they all got the virus. Alyssa brought him water and Gatorade, monitored his heart rate and counted his respirations for signs of distress, coached on the phone by her aunt, Katina Hawkins, a nurse in Louisiana.

"She really pitched in and put her nurse hat on, trying to make sure he had everything he needed," Hawkins said. "I don't even know if that child slept."

As his condition worsened, Theodis begged Alyssa not to let him die. But he was too stubborn, too hardheaded, to go to the hospital, his family said. He didn't want to leave his girls, he told his wife in a text from upstairs.

"I can't afford this at my age," he said. "I need to be here for my kids and you. Covid is taking people out. I'm really sorry, but I'm hurting so bad."

On Dec. 17, he slowly ventured downstairs to try to take a shower, Vickie recalled. He sat on the side of the marble tub and prayed in tongues, something she had never heard him do. She moved to help and he held up his hand to stop her, as if it were a prayer so deep he had to finish. He finally let her call an ambulance around 11:15 p.m.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he said as they wheeled him away. Alyssa followed the vehicle to the hospital and watched him go into the emergency room. She texted him that everything would be OK, but he never responded.

Just after 4 a.m. the doctor called. Vickie couldn't bear to hear the news so she handed the phone to Alyssa. The way the doctor delivered the news became a traumatic event itself.

"He didn't make it," the doctor said.

"It was kind of rude how he said it," Alyssa recalled. "It was not how I would have said it if I was a doctor."

         

- - -

         

A lyssa's decision about her future came without fanfare on July 2.

Vickie had gotten up early to go to the grocery store to buy ingredients for dinner, determined to begin cooking more. The "new new" was starting now, it seemed. She pulled out a bubbling pan of chicken from the oven, with Anaya, the baker of the family, holding her arm so Vickie wouldn't burn herself.

"Mama's a good cook, isn't she?" Anaya said softly.

Vickie also was trying to track down the contractor she'd hired to redo the powder room and the backyard, who had disappeared with her money and left a hole in the vanity and a hole in the fence where the dog, Bentley, kept escaping. She dialed his number, and it rang and rang.

"I'm so used to my husband doing all of this," she said. "He always did the negotiations and now I see why. They try and get over on women."

Alyssa came downstairs with a stack of dishes from her room and began washing them. She said that she had made her decision. She'd stay in town and go the University of Memphis if she was accepted. The relief was palpable.

Crimson roses blazed in a vase on the granite counter in front of her. Vickie bought them for herself that morning at the store. "Self care," she said. Theodis always made sure she had fresh flowers and once, after an argument, filled the house with 24 bouquets.

"Who got you flowers?" Alyssa asked when she saw them.

"I bought them!" Vickie said.

"I could have bought you flowers," Alyssa said.

"Yes, but I wanted to get some for myself. I wanted to do it for me, me, me," Vickie said, laughing.

I n August, Alyssa moved into an apartment a block from the iconic John S. Wilder Tower at the University of Memphis with two roommates she didn't know. On the first day of school, she drove off to algebra class in her father's blue Nissan Altima, even though it was just a few blocks away. She'd changed her major from the placeholder "undecided health" back to biology, with a minor in Spanish, one more step toward getting back on the road to her dream. She plans to finish her degree there.

"I don't want to be a lawyer, I don't want to be an assistant, I just don't want that the first person I really had to heal was my dad and he didn't make it," she said.

She's still caught up in the "What ifs?" What if they had taken him to the hospital sooner? What if they had forced him to go?

"Every time I try and get past it a little bit, there's always something following me behind," she said.

Alyssa was at the apartment packing for her first getaway as a college student, heading to Nashville to see her friend Tierney for homecoming weekend at Tennessee State University, a big event with a parade and football game. Tierney was talking to her on video chat, making sure Alyssa made it out the door.

Alyssa was late because she had gone by the house earlier to check on everyone and stopped to send dinner for the family on a delivery app.

Renting a campus apartment for Alyssa had been a way to try and ensure she would have her separate life as a college student, her mother said.

"She doesn't have to do anything," Vickie said. "I don't want her to feel like she has to step into his role. That's not her responsibility."

But the reality proved more difficult.

"They know I'm not a man, but sometimes they want me to fill the role he played and it's hard for me to do that," Alyssa said.

At home, everyone was in a mood, just trying to breathe, dreading the coming holidays. There was Halloween (no costumes, please) and Thanksgiving (for which Theodis always cooked). Then there was the anniversary of his death on Dec. 18. The Christmas tree, still up, will finally be seasonal again.

Tennessee's third coronavirus wave, when Shelby County's seven-day average of reported cases soared to near record highs on Sept. 1, had been difficult on everyone, especially Vickie. It started just as she was trying to manage school drop-offs and train a new caregiver for Aryah.

"I have been such a wreck everything has been a trigger for me. With the numbers rising again, ambulances riding up and down the street, hospitalizations at capacity and school starting back. I feel like I am relieving my trauma Alllllll over again," she wrote on Facebook.

Alyssa had stopped after school during homework and snacks. Vickie was mopping the floor and the dryer was making a horrible thumping noise. She had already called the repairman. Asia put Aryah into her high chair with milk and Lorna Doones, and was on a tablet, working on fractions.

When Alyssa saw Vickie mopping, she quickly pitched in to help. Then she paused after hearing the thumping dryer.

"It sounds like there are too many clothes in it," she said.

She and her mom investigated, and Vickie pulled out a large, leaking bottle of detergent from the wad of clothes.

"Really ya'll? Oh my freakin' God," Vickie said.

"How did that get in there?" Alyssa said. The little girls hooted with laughter.

"I wish your father was here," Vickie said. "He would say, 'What genius did this?' "

As Vickie began to pull out the gooey clothes, Alyssa stepped away to the living room to call Tierney and tell her when she would be arriving. Asia momentarily lost track of her older sister in the chaos.

"Alyssa, where did you go?" she called out.

"I'm right here," Alyssa said.

         

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The Washington Post's Jacqueline Dupree and Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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