It was hard to hear through the glass, so Kimberley Burrage called her 85-year-old mother on the phone while standing outside of her room at an Exton rehabilitation center.
They looked at each other through the window, both placing a hand on either side of the pane.
This wasn’t the Christmas Day they expected not long ago. The pandemic separated Burrage and Annabelle W. Jackson at a time they most wanted, most needed, to be together. The coronavirus had already taken part of their family.
Burrage’s daughter, Jeanette Matthews, died on Nov. 28 of complications from COVID-19. She was 31 years old.
As she stood outside her own mother’s room, Burrage reached into her bag and pulled out ornaments that normally would be hanging on her Christmas tree. Each had been made by a young Jeanette.
“This is supposed to be the Grinch,” she said while bringing the ornament toward the window so her mother could see. She pulled out another: “I guess this was an angel.”
“You’re so special to keep those things,” Jackson said, clutching the phone to her ear. “It means so much more now.”
This Christmas, thousands of Pennsylvanians mourned loved ones who died from the coronavirus. Like Burrage and Jackson, many families were also separated this year, unable to gather in person because of restrictions at nursing homes and other public health recommendations.
Still, Burrage and Jackson were determined to find a way to celebrate. Jackson dressed in an elf top, and set up her window display with more than a dozen cards, flowers, chocolates and a Bible.
Burrage, of Downingtown, packed a bag full of memories, including photos of her daughter and the poem about motherhood that she read at Matthews’ homegoing.
She also brought Christmas cards, one for her mother, and one for daughter, reading them out loud as if Matthews were listening.
‘I need to go see my daughter’
As a respiratory therapist, Burrage knew the feelings of shortness of breath and loss of taste meant she probably had the coronavirus. She tested positive, and after a week, her symptoms only seemed to worsen.
Her daughter felt sick, too, and asked to see a doctor. “She hates doctors,” Burrage thought. “This must be bad.”
Jackson drove them to Chester County Hospital, where they were both admitted the Monday before Thanksgiving.
Burrage knew being overweight was a significant risk factor for serious reaction to the coronavirus, and was worried about her daughter, who was obese and had high blood pressure.
Jackson called every day to pray and offer encouragement, asking for strength and good health.
By the weekend, Burrage was getting better, but her daughter was worse. Health-care workers told Burrage that Matthews’ oxygen levels were declining. She was on a ventilator, they told her, and there was nothing else they could do.
“If you’re telling me this is it,” Burrage recalled saying from her hospital room, “I need to go see my daughter.”
They let her stand at her daughter’s bedside in the intensive care unit. Burrage held her hand, caressed her foot, reassured her that everything would be all right. She saw her daughter take her last breath and told her that she loved her.
Burrage spoke at the homegoing service about how her daughter was her best friend.
They lived together, and Matthews was her mother’s fashion consultant and stylist, who also made sure her nails were manicured and polished. She would often bring home lilies just because she knew they were her mother’s favorite flower.
“I will always remember her kindness,” Burrage told the 10 people in attendance at the service, and the hundreds of others tuned in on the livestream.
As a devout Christian, Burrage knows her daughter is in heaven, reuniting with her late father, Jerome Francis Matthews.
At home, Burrage is reminded of the life they shared. If her daughter got back from her job at Best Buy, she would always wait until they could eat dinner together. They swapped stories of their days, and watched their favorite shows, like Dancing with the Stars. Burrage wishes she could make lasagna as well as her daughter’s recipe.
On Tuesday nights, they went to the Movie Tavern in Exton for $5 movies and popcorn. Matthews loved Disney and Marvel movies, and although they weren’t Burrage’s favorite, she loved seeing how happy they made her daughter.
Burrage will miss Matthews asking her “You wanna cuddle, cuddle buddy?” or the times when her daughter would chase her around the kitchen saying, ’'Someone looks like they need a hug.” She keeps thinking of her daughter remarking that they would live together forever.
On a recent day, Burrage sat down to write her daughter a Christmas card.
“This is not the end,” she wrote. “I will see you in heaven one day. When I join you there, please greet me with a hug of squeeze and your special kisses, as I did when you made your departure.”
A different Christmas
It was cold outside, but Burrage wasn’t going to let that stop her from seeing her mom and sharing memories of her daughter. All week, Jackson had said to Burrage: “Oh Kim, it just isn’t going to be the same without Jeanette.”
So Burrage drove to PowerBack Rehabilitation, where Jackson is recovering from recent surgery. In front of Room 127, she rolled out a blue tarp, the grass still damp from the rainstorm the night before, and weighed it down with everything she brought to make this Christmas joyful.
“Hang on, I have to get the wind to go the right way,” Burrage said to her mom as she tried holding up a large blanket printed with a photo of her daughter. She also displayed clay imprints of her and Matthews’ hands when they were both children, and pointed out how they looked about the same size.
“Kim, this has been wonderful, a wonderful Christmas for me, I thought it was going to be very sad,” Jackson said. “You really made my Christmas special.”
They reminisced about past Christmases, with big family dinners and Jackson’s delicious turkey. Burrage thanked her mother for everything she did in the last month, all the calls, encouragement and prayers.
Burrage recalled how every Christmas she would procrastinate dragging the box of ornaments up from the basement to decorate their tree. But her daughter always insisted. If the tree wasn’t up by Christmas morning, Matthews would not let her mother open any presents.
After visiting her mother on Friday, Burrage went home and decorated her Christmas tree.
Staff writer Stacey Burling and photojournalist Tim Tai contributed to this article.