Ellen Ward was always with her daughter Diana.
Almost 60 years ago, Ellen gave birth to her eldest of two daughters when she was 15.
Ellen and Diana lived together in Janesville until one Monday in April when Diana looked sick. They went to the farmers market and fairs together. Vacations, too.
They attended Faith Community Church on Lucerne Drive. As a young child, Diana brought her mom and dad to Christianity, Ellen said last week.
“She was like my sister probably,” Ellen said.
But Diana died away from her family.
COVID-19 forced Diana onto a breathing machine at Janesville’s Mercyhealth Hospital and Trauma Center in April, when Ellen last saw her being taken away in a wheelchair.
“They said I had to go to the car or go home,” Ellen remembered.
Later, a ventilator left Diana unable to tell her mom she loved her. She could only listen to the prayers coming from her mom and sister as nurses placed a phone by her ear.
Diana, affectionately known as “Dee,” would have turned 60 on Aug. 2.
“I was just devastated. She was gone,” Ellen said through tears, just a week after her first Thanksgiving without Diana since she was a child.
Diana was caring, a word repeated by both Ellen and her other daughter, Brenda Mellom.
That trait showed in her work as an occupational therapy assistant on the front lines of the pandemic. She spent 21 years working at Fort Atkinson Memorial Hospital, but more recently she worked at Amberwood Nursing Home in Rockford, Illinois.
Diana is one of nearly 100 Rock County residents confirmed to have died from COVID-19, according to county data reported through Sunday.
Ellen also tested positive for the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Brenda, who lives about two hours away, worried she would lose both her mom and her sister without being able to say goodbye in person.
But Ellen, who is 76, said she had only one day when her fever reached 100 degrees. Otherwise, she didn’t get seriously sick.
Ellen said she is “pissed.” She’s angry, although she’s not entirely sure at what. She just wants the pandemic to be over.
“I’m so upset that she’s gone,” she said, her voice breaking.
Ellen said she is not certain where Diana contracted COVID-19. She had previous health issues, including cancer, Brenda said.
Her loved ones were more confident about what was important to Diana: family. She cared for her father when he got sick and ultimately died in 2012.
Although she didn’t have children of her own, she cared deeply for her three nephews, who Brenda said are now in their 20s.
One time when Brenda was doing lawn work, a neighbor said Diana watched Brenda’s kids better than she did, Brenda said with a laugh.
“They were her life,” Brenda said.
Brenda fondly remembered growing up with her sister, who was four years older and graduated from Craig High School in 1978.
The games of Clue and Monopoly. Playing Red Rover with other kids on the block. The summers filled with trips to Six Flags and cruising Milton Avenue in a little yellow Chevette.
As much as she loved her family, Diana also worked incredibly hard, Ellen said.
Brenda said Diana could have taken a furlough, but she decided against it.
“Her job was important to her,” Brenda said. “Her patients were important to her.”
Even if that meant she would be late.
“She never got home when she was supposed to,” her mother said. “She was a very caring girl, and she went the extra mile with her patients.”
A similar chorus of praise has been heard for other frontline health care workers over the last several months.
“Heroes work here” signs have been erected outside hospitals and nursing homes. But communities are losing many of those heroes.
The staff at Mercyhealth didn’t brush off Diana’s family. Her caregivers never said they didn’t have time for a call in the morning and another at night.
Brenda said it was “reassuring” to know that when she couldn’t be with her sister—she even asked if she could “suit up” for one final visit—that her sister was still surrounded by people who cared like she did.
“The one nurse,” Brenda remembered, “She goes, ‘We’re not with our family. So your families are our family.’”