2018 Primetime Emmy
& James Beard Award Winner

A Death in Harlem

After losing her grandmother to COVID-19, marketing executive Tamika Hall then had to take over for vanishing hospice services in Harlem and help lead her father to the best death she could.

It seems to me that the story of this pandemic is as much as anything, a story of the failure of technology. Not just the big healthcare failings or smaller infrastructure glitches like the busy signals I’ve been getting while trying to make calls from my New York apartment, but social technology, the innovations that we built to specialize society and to put distance between us and some of our oldest enemies: sickness, fear, death. Those social technologies seem to have withered away in so many places when we needed them most.

That is what happened to Tamika Hall, who lost her father to cancer and her grandmother to Coronavirus in the same terrible stretch this month. In these days, our city, New York, is stretched thin as tape. More than 15,000 people have now died of COVID-19 in the five boroughs, disproportionately black and Hispanic, and the way that they have had to die and the things that we have asked of their survivors, well… may we all be forgiven when it’s over. Here’s my interview with Tamika from The Trip Podcast Episode 87: A Death in Harlem. The Trip is no longer behind a subscription paywall: you can listen to Tamika’s story on  Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Nathan Thornburgh: Tell me about your father.

Tamika Hall: My dad’s name was Vivian Charles Wesley Hall. He came here to the States and when he was maybe 14 years old, and his family, my grandmother, my grandparents, they lived in Harlem, so he pretty much grew up in Harlem. My grandfather was born in Cuba, in Santiago I think, and hopped to Jamaica from there. From Jamaica they came to the States.

Thornburgh: I’ve seen you’ve made pilgrimages down to Cuba.

Hall: Yeah, so in the middle of all of this, I returned on March the 10th, right when all of this started happening and I had to self-quarantine because I was on an international flight. We were actually going to extend the trip. But as you know, WIFI there is a little crazy—trying to find a park with a little card and having to go to ETECSA in the morning to get a new card and then you’ve left your passport at the AirBnB—it’s a whole other experience.

Thornburgh: If I never darken the door of an ETECSA office looking for a WIFI card again in my life, I’ll be a happy man.

Hall: But I still have my WIFI card in the back of my phone [laughs]. So I would call home and you know, check in with my mom and she’d be like, there’s going to be a travel ban. Every time I called there was some next elevated news, and we weren’t hearing any of this when we were over in Cuba. You didn’t hear nothing about the virus when we got to the airport. No one took my temperature. No one was checking to see if I was sick. But it was the same way coming back to the US. They were like, do you have anything in your suitcase? Did you bring anything back? And I was like, no. Meanwhile my luggage was like 50 pounds.

Thornburgh: They shouldn’t worry about the rum. Worry about the virus.

Hell no. My dad would be mad as shit if he was with all these people in some mass grave

Thornburgh: All right, so you come back to New York and all hell is about to break loose.

Hall: To give you a little insight from the beginning, my dad was diagnosed in early 2018 with stage four gastric cancer and we knew it was terminal. We went through palliative chemo and when he outgrew that, we knew that it was time for hospice. So fast forward to January, 2020 after we did a short stint in and out of hospitals, we decided that it was time to go the hospice route. So I came back from Cuba and we noticed that there was a shift in even trying to get home health aides to come to my dad’s.

Thornburgh: You would think that in-home hospice would be somewhat immune from this.

Hall:  There’s just no contingency plan when something like this happens. Hospitals aren’t prepared. Agencies aren’t prepared. And people are afraid to do their job because they’re not adequately covered. So I get it.

They weren’t coming into the home anymore. It was just virtual visits and he would have to “manage his own care.” And I was like, what? So now I’m like, okay what am I supposed to do now?

And while that’s happening, we heard about my mom’s aunt, who I call my grandmother because my grandmother died when I was young and it’s my grandmother’s sister. She was 89 years old and now, now was a very active senior citizen. She was in the casino twice a week, at the senior center every day, you know, hanging out with her friends, like doing her thing independently. She didn’t have any particular health conditions. But she was in Rockaway, which is a hot zone for the virus.

Well she started saying she was tired, she didn’t feel well, which isn’t like her, because she’s pretty active. And then we just noticed the steady decline in how she sounded on the phone. So my mom’s first instinct was like, I’m going to go there. And I had to tell her, no, you can’t go there, because we don’t know what’s going on. So we were talking to her son trying to get some headway and he was just saying, you know, she’s not responding, she’s just laying here, you know, she stopped breathing well and I was just like, Oh my God, it sounds like she might have it.

So now I called her daughter who lives in California and I told her she needs to come ASAP. So she got a flight, she came, next day we go to the house and my grandmother was definitely was not well. So I quickly backed out of the house and I just kind of talked to them like from the door.

Thornburgh: So you came back from Rockaway and then were trying to work the phones and get her at least some kind of healthcare.

Hall: It weighs on me. You think shoulda, coulda, woulda, but it really wouldn’t have changed the outcome at the end of the day. We later found out that her senior center was largely infected. Five of her friends also passed positive from the virus.

Thornburgh: So all these things that made her so remarkable in life—her active social schedule, her independence—ended up costing her life. That just feels like the story of this city. It’s a very sociable city, by choice or by force. And that has proven our undoing.

Hall: Yep. So now I have to backtrack to Harlem, and hospice came to meet me. Okay, good. But they’re not coming upstairs. They’re like, you have to meet us downstairs. So right on the corner of 142 and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, it’s myself, the nursing supervisor, the other nurse that was with him and on the phone was the social worker. The four of us are having this conversation on the corner and they basically pulled out this book called Gone from My Sight. It gives you all the details of how the person you’re caring for is going to transition into death. They said, you know, start making arrangements, start calling funeral homes and we’ll call you later.

Thornburgh: Just on the street corner, dropped off like a package. My goodness. So you started calling funeral homes. What was that like in the middle of this pandemic?

Hall: We had a funeral home that we were scheduled to work with already, I called them and said that dad is nearing the end. This particular funeral home also cared for my grandparents when they passed. So it’s sort of like a family go-to. [But] the initial conversation was: we are at capacity and we just don’t have the space. The alternative to storage for a lot of these places was the city morgue. Now, I don’t know if you’ve seen the city morgue lately. It’s now extended into the parking lot and there are several big giant tractor trailer freezers that they’re using to store bodies.

I was like, hell no. This is not what we’re doing. First of all, my dad would be mad as shit if he knew that he was with all these people all over the place and some mass grave.

We literally called maybe 50 different funeral homes. I spoke to people in New Jersey, some in Connecticut. Everyone was full. This was before they relaxed rules for crossing state lines for cremation. So I was also getting the answer “we don’t take bodies from New York city.” It just got exhausting.

Tamika Hall in Cuba, March 2020

Hall: It just so happened the next day was when he passed. That night he spiked a fever of like almost 106 and I started to panic a little bit because I’m like, I don’t even know what to do. Like, I don’t know what this means. I called the visiting nurse service and I started spazzing on the phone cause I was like, I’m not a nurse. What am I looking for? What’s happening? So they call you back, you’re on FaceTime and you have to show them the patient and do things that they’re telling you to do.

It’s bizarre. So we did that and then she’s explaining to me, you know, the time is coming near, you know, make sure you do this. You know, make sure to continue to give him his morphine.

I didn’t really sleep that night. You’re constantly with one eye open in case you miss something, you don’t hear something. What if he’s choking? I don’t know. There’s no comfort in any of it.

In the morning I just started giving him the OK talk. I’m telling him, you know, I’m going to be okay. The girls are okay. He settled down a little bit and then it was time for the virtual call with hospice. And as I was on the phone is the exact moment that he passed.

From a spiritual aspect… He lives in my grandmother’s old apartment and I felt like my grandmother was there. Like I could smell her a couple of days before. I know it sounds bizarre, but I know she definitely was in the house, like I could smell her. I was in the kitchen and I went to walk out and it made me turn back around and look. She definitely was present.

You had to be the child first before you could get back to being the nurse, the funeral director, all of that.

Thornburgh: So in this kind of duet between you and him, how quickly did mind have to switch to all of the strange particulars of this moment? To the fact that he had died in the middle of the pandemic?

Hall: Well, on the call, the nurse said, okay, now you have to prepare the body. I was like, what? I actually hung up the phone and called my mom and just started to cry. I called my boyfriend and told him I don’t want to do this. But I still had medical things to do. I had to just stop for a second and then suck it up.

Thornburgh: You had to be the child first before you could get back to being the nurse, the funeral director, all of that.

Hall: Yes. Then I had to get instructions on how to tie his jaw up so that it wouldn’t gape open. Because if rigor mortis sets in with the mouth open, they have to break the jaw to shut it. So I had to tie his head with a towel. And the one nurse’s aide that stuck with us the whole time. So he came that day and he helped us give him like a wipe down. We changed his clothes and we had to straighten him out so that he wouldn’t set, you know, crooked.

Thornburgh: My goodness. That’s all funeral director work basically.

Hall: We didn’t have the funeral home [locked in] until we called them. They called me back said, yes, we can take him. So it wasn’t until at that moment that it happened that we knew that they were going take him.

Thornburgh: It’s a crazy combination. FaceTime and all this technology, but it’s a very old thing that you went through, taking care of your father on his death bed.

Hall: I had a conversation with Karlie Hustle and she said that to me. She’s like, wow, this is horrific how it played out, but think of the beauty, you know, this is old school shit. This pandemic is forcing us to do things like grow our own food and birth our own babies. And in some instances, you know, even seeing our loved ones through death and even beyond, you know, prepping bodies.

Thornburgh: This happened a little over a week ago. How are you feeling now?

Hall: Some days are definitely better than others. I’m still looking for him to FaceTime me. Like it’s still hasn’t really set in yet. I didn’t internalize that part when I was taking care of him. We just got a cremation date May 8th. And there was no funeral.

Thornburgh: When you can have it, what is your vision for his memorial?

Hall: So my dad was an artist, a long time visual artist. My idea for his Memorial is going to be a gallery. His ashes will be present. I know my family is like thinking of church and all this stuff, but I’m just like, yeah, we’re not doing that.

Thornburgh: Well, I don’t know if this gallery exhibition is going to be a public thing, but if it is, I will find a way to be there.

Hall: Definitely. I’ll send an invite. He would be beside himself to know that people from outside were coming and looking at his art and his work.

You can listen to the full episode, for free, on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

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