November 30, 2020

“The most alone I’ve felt in all my life.” Love in the time of COVID-19 for one Mississippi husband

Her voice cracked as she spoke from her hospital bed. “I want to go home,” she said.

More than 40 miles away, her husband sat in their living room, looking intently into his phone as they spoke on a video call, trying to soothe her. Bonnie Bishop had been in the hospital since early July. She’d been on a ventilator. She’d had surgery to put a tube down her throat. She’d been in a coma for six weeks. On this October evening, she started to weep silently.

“You are coming home,” Mike Bishop, 63, said firmly. He seemed to be speaking as much to himself as to his wife. “You know you are.”

This is a love story.

It’s a love story about coronavirus, the people it strikes down, and a big quiet house outside of Jackson, Mississippi. It’s about those who take COVID-19 seriously, those who don’t, and how that divide breaks uncomfortably along racial lines.

Mostly it’s about Bonnie and Mike Bishop, an African American couple who met more than 25 years ago when she was organizing a basketball game to support an adopt-a-school program run by AT&T. She worked there until retiring a couple years ago. He still works there as a technician.

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This story was produced with the support of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
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We met Mike on an Associated Press road trip across America that three of us are taking to try to make sense of a year like no other, with a global illness, protests over race and virulent politics.
Mike is tall and handsome, with a beard going grey and a gentle voice that’s almost musical. He radiates decency.

For him, Bonnie is everything. She’s the woman in oversized sunglasses who hates to have her picture taken. She can be quiet, Mike says, but once she knows you she’s a talker.

When they met, they’d both been married and divorced. Neither had kids. They’ve been married now for a quarter-century.

“I am so empty and lost without her being here,” Mike said. “The most alone I’ve felt in all my life.”
But in his own gentle, self-controlled way, he’s also angry.

“When I see people say that it’s a hoax? This is real!” said Mike. “I washed my hands so much I joked to the guys at work: ‘Pretty soon I’m going to be as white as y’all.'”

Early in the pandemic, about 60% of infections and deaths in Mississippi were among African Americans, who make up 38% of the state’s population. At Black churches there are often carefully enforced mask mandates, multiple disinfectant stations, parishioners sitting far apart, and pastors who don’t let anyone forget the disease is serious.

But masks remain a rarity in many white neighborhoods. At the annual Mississippi State Fair, the vast majority of Black people were wearing masks on an October evening. Most white people were not.

“Big parts of the white community, especially in areas that weren’t as hard affected, have not been as compliant or engaged actively with social distancing and masking,” Dr. Thomas Dobbs, the Mississippi state health officer, recently told reporters.

Mike pauses repeatedly as he talks about how race plays into the response to the virus.

“I think that if it had hit the white community like it hit the African-American community, it’d be a whole different ballgame,” he said.

In early July, Mike began to feel run down. It was just a minor dry cough, but he took a coronavirus test and it came back positive.

Soon, Bonnie also tested positive.

A couple days later, she woke him up at 3 a.m. “I cannot breathe,” she gasped. “911.”

Mike, who couldn’t go with her to the hospital because he was positive for the virus, helped strap her onto a stretcher. He held her hand as they walked to the ambulance. Then he watched it disappear into the night.

“I was empty. Scared. Terrified,” he said. “And I was praying.”

Doctors quickly put Bonnie on a ventilator. Then into a medically induced coma.

For weeks, Mike called the hospital continually: 6 a.m.; mid-morning, early afternoon; mid-afternoon; dinnertime; just before bed.

After about six weeks, doctors took Bonnie out of the coma. She awoke disoriented and scared, with a breathing tube down her throat. They sedated her again and cut a hole in her windpipe for the tube.
Back home, Mike was living alone, in their big suburban house with pillars out front and a perfectly kept lawn. At night, he would sleep with the TV on. He’d wake up confused at 2 a.m. when she wasn’t beside him.

“If I don’t have the TV on I hear the clock all night. I hear the ‘tick-tock, tick-tock.’ If it rains, I can hear the rain dripping,” he said.

He couldn’t imagine losing Bonnie, even if he always believed she’d survive.

“There were nights that I just prayed and prayed that she’d just make it to the next day,” he said.
After she was brought out of the coma, she needed regular dialysis. Fevers would spike. She was disoriented and sleepy from all the drugs.

At home, Mike still spoke to her, speaking aloud into the silence.

“I would talk to her at night,” he said. “I’d have these conversations just like I’m talking to you.”

Slowly – very slowly – she started to get better. She couldn’t feed herself for weeks because she was so weak. The breathing tube meant she could only speak with a small electronic voicebox.

There were sparks of hope: when she could hold a conversation; when she first spoke without the voicebox.

But it was not until late September, maybe early October, when Mike’s fears subsided. After more than three months in bed, she’d be going into a rehab facility soon. In mid-October, he hoped she’d be back by Thanksgiving.

This week, he got even better news. Bonnie’s recovery was going far faster than expected. The weeks of rehabilitation could be done at home, doctors said.

She’ll be home this weekend. Mike is almost giddy.

“I love that woman.”