DONNA PERRY: My conversations with God are as if I'm talking to a best friend. Because God is my best friend. And so my conversations with him are very like "What are you doing?" you know? "I don't get it. I don't get you. What are you doing?"
This is Death, Sex & Money.
The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot…
...and need to talk about more.
I’m Anna Sale.
YASMEEN KHAN: As we were hitting this one year mark of the pandemic, I wanted to talk to Donna Perry. Because I had been thinking of her all year.
AS: This is Yasmeen Khan, producer at DSM, who a year ago, was reporting on COVID in NYC in the WNYC newsroom.
YK: I first spoke with Donna almost exactly a year ago. This was a time when I was reporting by phone, from home… calling around to different neighborhood groups trying to get a sense of how people were doing on the ground. I got Donna’s number through an organization called East Brooklyn Congregations—it’s this coalition of mostly black activist churches. They told me about one of their churches—Brown Memorial Baptist Church—that was experiencing a wave of infections. And they asked if I would like to speak with a woman named Donna Perry, who had just recovered from COVID.
AS: So you get this name and this phone number of a woman named Donna, and you call her up and you are saying, like right as she's in the middle of all this, and you say I'm a reporter who you don't know, tell me what's going on in your life.
YK: Yeah, pretty much. Um, and she was very open. She was like, sure. I'll talk to you. Actually, first I got her on the phone when she was out delivering meals with her husband, you know, she had made it through COVID and I think it was her first day really out and about. And she was accompanying her husband delivering meals to people who needed them.
You know, we chatted first about the meal delivery and I learned that she and I were the same age, 41. That was last year, 41. We're now 42. She has two daughters, just like I do. Um, we talked about schools being closed and how she was dealing with that.
And she told me about her illness -- that for her, it was like a bad flu. That her mother, who lives in the same household, contracted COVID from Donna. And just how this all came as kind of a surprise… because it seemed like, at that time, the coronavirus was something you got if you traveled. So Donna was telling me how she felt like she needed to announce publicly on her Facebook page that she had the coronavirus. This is what she told me then:
DP: I went public because I was annoyed. I was annoyed because, Hey, I was a black woman with coronavirus who had not traveled right. Who to her knowledge had done everything, right? Who to her knowledge had done everything right. Who to her knowledge was not exposed to anybody that would have travelled or had coronavirus. But yet when I turned on the television, the only faces that I saw that I was supposed to get answers from, um, in terms of the experience were people that did not look like me. Were people who were quarantining and 2,000 and 3,000 square foot homes.
YK: And this was a time, Anna, you know, when illnesses and hospitalizations were just starting to really climb in New York City. And -- but we didn't have data yet on coronavirus cases by race, um, or on COVID related deaths by race, those numbers weren't you know, showing up in city data yet, at least in the numbers that they were making public. But here I was with Donna on the phone and she's telling me, you know, at that time, about five or six members of her church, a predominantly Black church, who had already died, she told me that one of her best friends died of COVID just two days before Donna and I spoke. Um, this was a woman who was 40 years old with three daughters. And these deaths raised a lot of questions for Donna.
DP: It was something that just really made me wonder, like, you know, why, why was I spared? So it's, it's been difficult, but then it's just kinda like, you know, you're going from day to day, holding your breath to make sure, to pray that you don't receive any more news.
So, one year later—as we are all trying to deal with the totality of the pandemic—I just wanted to catch up with Donna. After her own illness, after losing a close friend and others, I wanted to hear more about her experience this last year. So I got her on the phone. Well, actually, I got her on Zoom.
YK: Donna. It's nice to see you.
DP: I know, right? I usually look a little better than this, but, uh, sorry.
YK: Why? I think you look great.
DP: Thank you.
We were both wearing sweatshirts.
YK: So, where are you right now?
DP: Today I am home, um, in my, small little office space that I created...
Donna had just finished a parent teacher conference for her 9 year old. And we just caught up on family life. She had a job for a non-profit last year around the census, but that was only temporary.
DP: This is the first time in my life that I've ever been on unemployment.
A couple of years ago—after a long career at Verizon—she started her own business: an online clothing boutique called "Courageously Curvy." And when the pandemic hit, she had to put that on hold.
DP: It really didn't make sense to sell things with a whole bunch of sequins and stuff like that because people just didn't have anywhere to go.
Her husband works, though and Donna is someone who points out over and over again that her family has not suffered financially, the way that she knows others have. But, of course, her family has had to grieve. And I wanted to hear more about Donna's close friend who died, just days before she and I spoke a year ago. Her friend's name was Selisha Johnson. And she and Donna had been friends since they were kids, and they were still part of each other’s everyday lives.
DP: Selisha was a powerhouse. Selisha was a force to be reckoned with. Um, she was a preacher, um, she was a doting mom. She loved her children immensely. She loved her friendships and she would always say that friendships are covenants. And every day we would speak at seven o'clock in the morning because that's the time where she would be on her way to work and I'd be on my way to work. But I drove so, you know, I had road rage and it would just, you know, be comical.
YK: Every day?
DP: We spoke every day.
And last March, both friends contracted COVID at essentially the same time.
DP: She didn't complain much, you know, um, even up until the day that I saw her on a FaceTime, I was like, you really should go to the hospital and she's like, "Oh, I'll call you back. The kids are getting on my nerves." I think the last time I spoke to her the next day, she went to the hospital and she passed that night.
YK: I'm sorry.
DP: Yeah. When I found out that Selisha died I, I must admit, I threw quite a few things in my house. My mom just moved out the way and she just allowed me to, you know, be in that moment. Um, my husband, you know, he just kind of stepped back and allowed me to be in that moment. And, it was just a moment that I had where I was just, I was just pissed off. I was pissed. I was just, I was just done.
YK: What did you throw?
DP: I can't even tell you. I know, I think I threw a vase. Thank God it wasn't really an expensive vase because then that would have probably been a problem, but I think I threw a vase. Wow. What did I throw? I know I threw a plate. I can't remember. Like I just threw what was available. And you know, the interesting thing about it is, you know, when you live in a house with children who play all day, toys are always available stuff. Animals are always available.
YK: So many options.
DP: So many options. Um, I probably threw a couple of dolls and a couple of Teddy bears.
YK: And that moment of anger was that just about the loss of your dear friend or was it also about you having to process your own survival after contracting COVID?
DP: No, I was just angry. I was angry about losing my friend. I was angry about so much loss because I felt like what we were going through as a country did not have to happen. And so have I had like a weeping moment? Yes. I think my weeping moment was when, I did go to Selisha’s funeral and I had to leave. And, um, my best friend called me, my other best friend called me because, you know, we all grew up together, but she's just like, Are you okay? And I was just like, no, I'm not okay. She's like, okay. Because I'm usually the one that's okay.
YK: Do you, do you still have her number in your phone?
DP: I do, I still have her number in my phone. She's still my friend on Facebook. Um, there are moments where -- and I call her husband. Every time I think of her I call her husband just to check in on them. For the most part, there are days where I'll send her a message on Facebook just to say, I miss you, or I wish I could talk to you.
Or, you know, I picked up the phone to call you to ask you a question about dot, dot, dot. And then I realized I couldn't.
YK: You lost a dear friend, and you've lost many members of your church community. Have you had any, been able to have any kind of feeling of closure around these deaths? And I guess I'm just wondering how you've, how you've been able to grieve? Like what that has even looked like in the past year?
DP: You know, to be honest, I don't think anybody has been able to adequately grieve, you know, um, the culture of the Black community, there is a way that we grieve. When we grieve and somebody dies, you know, people come over to your house, they sit with you, they bring their chicken, they bring this, they bring food, right. And you sit and you talk and you memorialize the person. And this is before the funeral. And then, you know, you have your funeral arrangements, you know you have a home-going celebration and you have your repass and, you know, you do all of these things and then you go into like the reality and the realistic grieving process.
And I feel like, we've been robbed of the tradition of grieving. We've been robbed of the tradition of closure. And then, let's not talk about the, you know, Zoom funeral.
YK: Have you, have you been to those?
DP: I am Zoom funeral-ed out.
YK: How many do you think you've been to?
DP: Oh, at least about 15.
AS: All of those funerals were for people who died of illnesses related to COVID-19. Coming up, Yasmeen and Donna talk about how all this death has made her think about her faith.
DP: Am I angry about COVID? Yes. But in addition to that anger, I also feel a sense of hope.
ANNA SALE: This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I’m Anna Sale, here with producer Yasmeen Khan. And, Yasmeen, you met Donna Perry first through her church. When you talked to her about faith, after going through this tough year, what did she tell you?
YASMEEN KHAN: She says she’s back at church in person, which is a comfort to her. And that she still has a close relationship with God. Though her conversations with God are pretty candid.
DP: I’m very honest with God, with like, "I don’t get what you’re trying to show me? I don’t get what you’re trying to teach us. And I need you to help me so that I can continue to trust you." Like, "if you want me to trust you, I need you to help me."
But she says, then, she’ll be reminded of a passage of Scripture and feels like God is showing her she’s not on her own. And through prayer, she says she’s gotten clarity about what she calls "the blessings of COVID."
DP: The definite blessing for me is, COVID has allowed me to slow down. COVID has allowed me to, um, refresh my marriage. Um, because we were both home. COVID allowed me to really appreciate time and not take time for granted. I heard Les Brown say one day that, um, procrastination is the arrogance in believing that God has to give you another day. And I'm really starting to believe that now more than anything, that every day that I have is a gift and I have a responsibility to live my life in purpose. COVID has helped me to embrace my own ideals and how I think, in how I view the world and how I view the importance of legacy.
YK: When you think about legacy, what do you think about?
DP: For me I think legacy is, you know, what, what people, what -- not even what people will think about you, but what will your children think about you? Um, and what will you leave to them? What will you leave for them to be able to speak of? Or what will you leave for them to be able to feast on in terms of home ownership or businesses or, you know, things that they'll be able to not only feast on, but be able to feast on and be a blessing to other people for generations to come.
And she listed off for me a number of really great things that have happened to her and her family this year: Donna has refocused on her business, Courageously Curvy. She's just started working with a business coach during COVID. Her sister bought a house during the pandemic and it has a yard and the family has gathered there. And Donna just got her first dose of a vaccine.
DP: I actually got really emotional when, um, I took the vaccine.
YK: What, what made you emotional about it?
DP: I thought of all of the people who would have literally given anything to have an opportunity to get the vaccine. Um, I thought of Selisha. I thought of all of the people from my church, I thought of all of those people. I thought of my own mortality.
YK: I'm curious about how you have, basically kept up with other people over the last year? Either in your church community, you know, or how you have offered support to other people, um, who are grieving or who just maybe have been feeling isolated and alone?
DP: You know, it's interesting that you asked that question because someone posted something on social media and one of the things that I said was that we have to go back to the old school way of doing things. Um, I think that a lot of times we have allowed social media to change the way that we, that we human, if that's even...you know? Um, and that we do life. Right? And I think that social media, has put us in a position where we think that just because somebody took a selfie that they're doing well. Um, or that just because, you know, somebody went on Instagram and posted something cute that they're doing well. Not realizing that every smile is not happy.
And so I've just made it my business to pick up the phone. If I haven't heard from you in a while and you ran across my mind. No longer will I just say, "Oh, I wonder how so-and-so is doing?" and go about my day. If I know that I thought about so-and-so, I'm going to stop what I'm doing. I'm going to pick up the phone. I'm going to call so-and-so. And if so-and-so doesn't answer, then I'm going to text them.
Is it always reciprocated? No, but I think that, you know, sometimes it's not about what's reciprocated. It's just about, um, doing your part.
YK: I like how you use human as a verb. We need the human better.
DP: Right. Right. We need to human better. Right. Because I think that we've forgotten how to human. We've forgotten how to do that.
YK: Are there ways you wish people had reached out to you over this last year?
DP: I do. And I must admit that, um, the pandemic has definitely changed, um, my relationship with certain people. Yes, I can honestly say that the pandemic has caused me to really, really, stop and pay attention to certain relationships that I've deemed valuable in comparison to, um, to what relationships are super important to me.
YK: But do you feel like anyone helped you? I understand that people turn to you for support. I get that. That makes a lot of sense to me. But do you feel like someone helped you over this past year?
DP: Yes, I do. Um, I think that my husband was a great help and some, you know, some unexpected support from unexpected sources. Yes, definitely.
YK: Were there any particular conversations that stuck out, even with your husband, that helped you move through something this past year?
DP: Oof. Uh, Hmm. I would really have to kind of dig deep a little with it. Um, but you know, it's hard when you are always the giver. Um, it's hard to, to really hone in on that when you're always the giver. Um, I don't really know how to say that any differently, because you don't know how to identify when people are giving, because you struggle with receiving in the first place.
YK: Can I ask about, um, those phone calls that you had been making? Um, you know, like when you, you said that you have, you know, this whole past year been reaching out to folks with phone calls or texts and I'm wondering if you have any advice for how to do that.
DP: So, let me tell you, um, there's actually a shirt that I've been thinking about producing, um, that just simply says "Die empty." Right? And what that means is like, you know, there's so much of what we could have said or what we would have liked to have said, or, um, what we could have done or what we would have liked to have done so many dreams, so many visions and aspirations for our lives that go into the ground, that go with people into the grave.
Um, and so, I just want to die empty. I want to, when I go into the ground, I want to, I want you to be able to say that I did every single thing that I ever wanted to do. And I said everything. That I said, "I love you," even when I felt like I would've felt foolish saying it, I said, "I love you." That even when I felt like I would have felt vulnerable saying, "I'm sorry" that I said that, I'm sorry.
There are so many people in this pandemic that are isolated, that are quarantining alone, and there's not one person in their life that's available to say, "I love you." Just those three words. I love you. Extend grace to people.
You know, if, if you know that the person hasn't picked up the phone and call you it's okay. If you thought about them, pick up the phone. You know, pick up the phone.
AS: That was Donna Perry, and I love how she’s just telling people to pick up the phone and call.
YK: This is actually something we’ve been thinking about at Death, Sex and Money: that idea, as Donna says, that it’s on us to reach out to someone we’ve been meaning to over the last year. You don’t have to wait for someone to call you. So we’ve got a project going. It’s called “Pick Up the Phone and Call Day!”
AS: It is a holiday that we have made up and it is scheduled it for Friday, March 26th. If there is someone who you’ve been meaning to reach out to but just haven’t, we want to encourage you to do it. Maybe it’s someone who's had a major loss in the last year and you’ve put off calling cause you're not sure what you'll say. Or maybe there’s someone in your life who you think, might just be lonely and appreciate a call -- we heard about that a lot during our series about aging and being over 60 right now.
YK: And if you don’t have someone in your life that immediately comes to mind to call—we’ll also share some ideas with you about how to reach out to someone who needs it.
AS: We know it can be hard to actually pick up the phone and make the call, so we are going to do this together—again on Friday, March 26th. But, in the meantime, text the words “call day” to the number 70101 and we’ll send you bits of encouragement and advice to make it a little easier, and a reminder when the holiday is actually here.
Yasmeen Khan, thank you for introducing us to Donna Perry and for calling her back.
YK: Thank you!
AS: Die Empty. Man, I’m gonna remember that.
YK: I know, right?