1 Swim Team, 3 COVID-19 Deaths: A Widow’s Story
The swim team at Chandler High School, in Chandler, Ariz., has suffered deep losses from COVID-19. In July, its beloved head coach, Kerry Croswhite, who also taught history at the school, died of the virus. Then one of the team’s captains, Brisa Vasquez, 17, lost both her parents to the virus within 24 hours, on Dec. 2 and 3. On Dec. 5, Chandler High held a ceremony to rename the pool for Croswhite. His widow, Laurie, carries on as an assistant coach and 1st grade teacher in the Chandler Unified school district. She told her story to EdWeek senior contributing writer Catherine Gewertz.
I knew I had to go back to my classroom this fall. My elementary school is such an amazing family, so supportive. I needed them. Our HR person offered to give me time, and I said no, I don’t want to. I was in need of some normalcy in my life. We went back virtually, so I didn’t have a room of 1st graders right there staring at me. I timed it; I’d put on a happy face, and on breaks I’d break down. A couple of times I didn’t turn my video on because I’d been crying.
By late fall, we were back in person. I was a little nervous about being with them all day. But my principal said, anything you need, just let us know. He’d come and check on me, and he offered to take over if I needed to step out for a while. It was wonderful to be with the kiddos again. You kind of get lost with them. The day goes so fast. I don’t have time to think about anything but their needs. They’re so loving and innocent. It was just what my heart needed.
I wasn’t sure if I could coach again. At first I said I can’t come back, I can’t do this. So many memories at the pool. But eventually I did. I’m still a part of the team. I felt the need to go back because I knew the swimmers wanted me there. It’s been really good to be with them so we can grieve together. We all needed this.
The first time I went back to the pool this fall was very emotional. I cried. I could feel Kerry’s presence still there. Once I was coaching again, it was the hardest place for me to be at first. He’s supposed to be there. Sometimes I could only be on deck for a short time. His classroom is right there by the pool, and I had to go back in there, just fall apart, before I could come back out again. A lot of the swimmers used to eat lunch in his classroom with him. Kerry was a coach, teacher, and mentor to them.
Going to the pool for the dedication wasn’t as difficult. It’s neat to see his name on the building, to know how he will be remembered. I was proud and honored. There was plenty of space to socially distance, so we had about 100 people there, and another 150 watched on the livestream. Kerry was a bagpipe player, and one of the bands he played with, the Emerald Society Pipes and Drums, played for the ceremony. There’s a tree planted in his honor at the pool now too.
It’s just been a lot in such a short time. Right before the dedication, we lost Tony and Lisa. It was so sudden. Tony was there at our awards night, running around doing everything. Then a week later, he isn’t feeling well, he’s in the hospital, and then in the ICU, and Lisa is admitted two days after he was. It’s just a crushing blow to our swim team that was already so affected by Kerry’s passing.
Tony and Lisa were always there, always doing something, for the team. We host two big meets each year, and Tony was in the hospitality industry and was the kind of guy who jumped into everything with both feet. He always made sure there were great meals for the officials and the coaches. There was one day Tony and Kerry spent the whole day smoking a pork butt for a meet. I was just in shock when they both died. Brisa is one of our swim team captains. She is an only child, and the apple of her dad’s eye.
Kerry died on July 21. He had a lot of ups and downs in the hospital. He fought. He tried. The Friday before he passed, the hospital called us and said his blood pressure was dropping, you need to get here. Two of my two stepchildren, Kagen and Ky, and our kids, Dusten and Bristyn, and my sister went. They bent the rules so we could all go in. We talked with him. We held his hand. We rubbed his head. He was on a ventilator, so he couldn’t respond. His kidneys and organs had too much damage. Four days later, they called. It’s not good. So just me and Dusten and Bristyn went. We told him we knew he’d fought hard, and if he needed to go, it would be okay. We would be okay. We told him how much we loved him.
I thought he’d make it through this. In the first few days he was in the hospital, the parent of one of my former students suggested we needed a hashtag. We decided on #lungsofsteele. It’s his first name. His whole name is Steele Kerriden Croswhite. And my daughter’s middle name is Steele. He plays pipes, he was a swimmer, he’s got these strong lungs. So we used that hashtag. Kids had face masks with #lungsofsteele. Our swimsuits this year said #lungsofsteele, too.
He coached for 18 years, and now people he coached are coming around taking care of us. Telling us such nice stories about him. People brought meals from July until Thanksgiving. So many people gave donations, some I didn’t even know. And so many plants and flowers. We have a little lantern we turn on in his honor. Someone gave us wind chimes in his honor. Our Congressman, Greg Stanton, wrote and read a congressional record of honor for him.
I really thought Kerry was going to get through this. In one of the last texts he sent me, he said, Laurie, you can get the family through this, you’re the rock of the family, you can take care of everything, I love you. He was talking as if he wasn’t going to make it. I wasn’t accepting of it then. But a few days later he was in ICU and on a ventilator and we couldn’t communicate any more.
Evenings are the hardest now. We usually sit down together at the table. That’s when his presence is missing. The kids and I have a little routine. We have a big family hug. We just need to do that, and we do it often. This isn’t how it was supposed to be.
Now I start my day by listening to Van Morrison’s “These Are the Days.” That was the song he was listening to as he passed. One of his nurses used to FaceTime with us. She was there with him when he passed, and she told us. When you listen to the words, it’s perfect. It’s about how these are the days we need to savor.
We haven’t done a [memorial] service for Kerry yet. We won’t until it’s safe and family can travel safely. It’s so hard that I can’t be around a group of people safely. It’s one thing to lose someone, but the fact that I can’t hug people or have people hug me makes this grief process extra difficult.
We still need to go and clean out his classroom during the [winter] break. That will be difficult. He’s got all kinds of memorabilia in there, notes from students. But we need to do that to have closure.
I know I can’t stay in bed curled in a fetal position. I have to keep going. That’s the main thing.