Dianna Long was waiting for a hospital bed when her daughter texted her: “Are you being admitted?”
“Yes,” Long responded.
A Columbia resident of nearly 20 years, Long had just missed the family’s Thanksgiving Zoom call. She said she wasn’t feeling well, but she didn’t think it was the virus.
Eleven days later, on Dec. 9, Long died from complications of COVID-19. She was 66 years old. No family or friends could be by her side.
As the nation reflects on a year of losses and enforced distance, millions of Americans are adjusting to a new reality without the people they loved most in the world — a reality that was unimaginable a year ago. The magnitude of more than 500,000 deaths in the U.S. is nearly impossible to comprehend. But for the families of the 83 Boone County residents who have died from COVID-19, the number is real.
Michelle Windmoeller, Long’s only daughter, sat at home as her mother’s life support was shut off at University Hospital. Although she was just three miles away, she may as well have been on the other side of Earth. Hospital rules kept her from saying goodbye in the final moments.
Windmoeller, a Columbia resident and mother of two, said life has been turned upside down.
“I look out the window at the world and people and think, ‘How are they just going on with their normal day-to-day?’”
Not long ago, Windmoeller’s days were quite different. In December 2019, she and her husband, Steve, embarked on a cross-country road trip. The two, who describe themselves as travelers, wanted to escape the winter chill of the Midwest.
Before they left, they sold some belongings and packed others. So six months later, when they learned that the lease on Long’s apartment was ending, it seemed logical to invite her to move into their house in south Columbia.
So she moved in and brought many of her belongings with her — the books she loved, the fourth-generation wooden table and an array of framed art. She also brought the family archives, including every one of her children’s report cards.
That was the space Windmoeller returned to after racing home from Texas when she learned her mother had been admitted to the hospital. The home she had long shared with her husband was now filled with reminders of her mother.
“That’s her spot,” she said pointing to the right side of the smooth, brown leather couch. “She is sitting right there with a book. She is watching a scary movie.”
There’s an indentation in the leather seat. The reading lamp is perfectly placed to light a late-night read.
Although she is surrounded by her mother’s presence — the vast, crowded bookshelves, the handmade collection of miniature figurines and even the silverware — it’s little things like movie references and that indentation in the couch that remind Windmoeller. When she thinks of her mother, though, she doesn’t picture the grandmother to her children. Instead, she recalls an outspoken, 18-year-old mother with two children by her side.
‘She was whimsical’
Dianna Coy Long, born Sept. 26, 1954, in Texas, was raised in Springfield in a house that was always a refuge of music, laughter and storytelling.
At a young age, Long loved sneaking to the movies with her aunt. She quickly became a connoisseur of horror films, a fascination that never faded, Windmoeller said.
While raising her two children with her now ex-husband, Patrick Long, she studied sociology and religion at Missouri State University, previously Southwest Missouri State University.
“I remember going to the college with her,” Windmoeller said. “I sat in the back of the room coloring with my brother while she was in class.”
Windmoeller also recalled standing on the steps to the post office with her mother to protest the Vietnam War. Windmoeller held a sign that read: “Don’t take my dad.”
“As kids, my mom taught us fairness, equality, equity and acceptance of anybody in any situation,” Windmoeller said.
Long wrote dozens of articles and essays about the Equal Rights Amendment, the proposed constitutional amendment that would guarantee equal rights to all people regardless of sex.
She carried that spirit with her to MU’s School of Law in the late ’80s, where she earned a degree, eventually becoming a prosecutor, a public defender, a judge and then a bankruptcy attorney.
Among family and coworkers, it’s an article of faith that “she could have been a rich attorney, but she was always cutting her fees to help people and be fair.”
In recent years, Long was active in Columbia’s theater scene and had gone back into miniature making, a side business of 25 years, said Dianna Harmsworth. The two had been best friends since the early ’80s.
Harmsworth moved to Columbia just two years ago to be closer to Long. The two liked to meet every weekend to play Bananagrams, catch up on Ancient Aliens or laugh together at bad horror movies.
“Dianna loved spontaneous day trips and quirky things, and she had a flair with sarcasm,” Harmsworth said, her voice cracking with emotion. “She was whimsical.”
Harmsworth said she will miss seeing Long perform in musicals like “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Annie.” She remembers how Long lit up the stage.
But if Long was known for anything, it was her appetite for books.
“When I was little, I went to friend’s houses absolutely confused,” Windmoeller said. “I would ask them, ‘Where are your books? Why don’t you have books?’”
Her family didn’t always have money, but there was always enough to buy books.
Long had a book for every purpose and was always lending and giving books to people. Looking for ways to reconnect with Judaism? She had a book. Need to mend a pair of pants? She had a book. Want a novel to lose yourself in? She had a bunch of those.
In memory of her mother, Windmoeller has delivered and mailed more than 50 books to friends and family across the country. It felt like the perfect way to honor Long’s generosity and offer thanks to people who have been especially supportive since her death. She even matched the book to person, or vice versa, as her mother would have done.
Stacy Wegley in Ohio received a Pulitzer-winning photography book. She does photography on the side. Elizabeth Jordheim in Columbia got two beauty school textbooks from the 1960s. She had been Long’s hairdresser for years. Jackie Brandhorst in Lee Summit received a biographical book about prisoners and guards. Brandhorst, whose father was a federal prison guard, studied mental health in prisons. Frank Santoro in Chicago got a Hebrew poetry book. He recited the mourner’s Kaddish, a Jewish prayer for the dead, at Long’s memorial.
Long was no longer able to lose herself in a book after she contracted COVID-19 — the headaches were debilitating.
“I’m being tortured,” she said in a chain of texts to her daughter. “I can’t sleep.”
Her final breath
The last time Windmoeller and her mother saw each other in person was in late October, before Halloween, Long’s favorite holiday.
Thinking back on the conversation now, it feels so ordinary, so mundane to her.
They discussed holiday plans, the 2020 presidential election and, as Long would say, voting out the former president.
The last time they spoke was much different.
A blood clot had formed in one of Long’s legs, raising the risk of a heart attack or stroke. She had been sedated for a few days.
“The nurses and doctors helped me, and they tried to shield the harshness,” Windmoeller said.
The same nurse would call at 7 in the morning and 8:30 at night to update her.
But Dec. 8, when she opened up about the quality of her mother’s life, the medical staff told her what the future might hold: a leg amputation and a tracheotomy at best.
After talking with her brother and father, the family decided to say its goodbyes. Windmoeller asked the hospital’s chaplain to set up a phone call for her. He held an iPad to Long’s ear.
“I told her that if she wanted to go, she could go,” Windmoeller said. “But I couldn’t go see her, and not like that. ... That couldn’t be the last memory of her.”
The breathing tube in Long’s throat stopped her from speaking, so Windmoeller wasn’t sure her mother could truly hear her.
The nurses told the family it would be mere minutes once life support was removed.
On the afternoon of Dec. 9, after a 5-minute visit from her son, Long took her final breath.
‘I’m not alone in this’
Windmoeller sat on the couch and cried the day her mother died. Her husband seemed to know what to do effortlessly.
“Did someone give him some invisible book?” she asked. “He was always sitting right there, ready to take care of me.”
Last weekend, the two packed many of her mother’s belongings into Long’s light-green Prius to give to her brother.
Windmoeller wants to sell the house soon. But she will never part with her mother’s favorite menorahs, sacred candle holders used on some Jewish holidays.
On Dec. 17, the second-to-last night of Hanukkah, dozens of friends, grandchildren, in-laws and coworkers joined a Zoom call for Long’s memorial service, led by longtime friend Jeff Neff. The holiday, known as the festival of lights, didn’t shine as bright for the family.
“That was the most difficult thing I’ve probably ever had to do in my life,” said Neff, who compared his 20-year relationship to Long with a love between siblings.
At the end of the service, Windmoeller, her husband and their two children, Cora, 20, and Tate, 23, lit eight of the menorahs while a friend in Chicago recited the Hanukkah prayers.
That night, Windmoeller put the menorahs back on the shelf, but she can’t bring herself to clean the wax from them. Although she tells people she’ll do it next year, she doubts she ever will.
On her 50th birthday, Windmoeller picked up her mother’s ashes and placed the urn in a Hanukkah gift bag the two had passed back and forth to each other for nearly 30 years.
“My mom would have loved that, she would think it was hilarious,” she said. “When I got in the car, I thought to text her, but I couldn’t. We always texted each other when funny things happened.”
Long didn’t have a will or end-of-life plans. Windmoeller, who decided with the family to cremate her mother, scattered her ashes near the trees surrounding the home and near family graves in Springfield.
Every day, Windmoeller goes on walks, passing her mother’s favorite tree. Sometimes, as she listens to her podcasts, she can’t help but cry.
“She just disappeared,” Windmoeller said. “It’s just hard to believe that I don’t have a mom anymore. I have to learn how to live in a world without her.”
When the 400,000 American deaths became 500,000, she said she felt a pain in her chest.
“This will always be a cultural and historical point of reference,” she said. “I never would have imagined that my family and, more importantly, my mom would be a part of that reference. But she is.”
“What helps is that I’m not alone in this,” she said. “There are half a million other families that are dealing with this right now.”