Ella Mae Gordon used to tell her children that when she died, she wanted her casket brought to one of their homes so she could be with her family.
At the time, they didn’t get it – they told her she was crazy. But on Monday morning, as a Black Cadillac led a hearse with Gordon’s casket past her daughter’s Gainesville home – the last home she ever lived in – her family watched and cried with joy.
“That’s what she wanted,” said her youngest daughter, Dorothy Christian. “And it happened for her.”
On Monday, dozens of people – many of whom wore face masks and stood at a distance – gathered at Hawthorne Community Cemetery for the burial for Gordon, who died in UF Health Shands Hospital April 23 following a nearly month-long battle with COVID-19. The 78-year-old is the second known person to die from the virus in Alachua County, which now has five recorded COVID-19 deaths, according to the Florida Department of Health.
Gordon, the matriarch of a sprawling family that includes nine children and more than 200 grandchildren and great-grandchildren, was not able to be with any of them the morning she died. Instead, she said goodbye to her children through a Zoom conference call, Christian said.
The call ended when Gordon told her children she had to go. She was tired.
“After everybody hung up, at 10:45, I got a call from the doctor,” Christian said. “She gave up. Her life had ended.”
In 2016, the year Gordon became an amputee after suffering an infection in one of her legs, she was moved into the care of Palm Garden of Gainesville, a nursing home located at 227 SW 62nd Blvd. After nearly a year there, she was brought to Parklands Care Center, which sits off SW 13th Street.
It was there that she contracted the virus.
There are 29 confirmed cases of the virus at Parklands Care Center among 20 residents and nine staff as of Thursday, according to the state health department. Of the five recorded COVID-19 deaths in the county, four are linked to the Gainesville nursing home.
Elliot Williams, administrator for the nursing home, declined to comment on any of the facilities’ recorded deaths or cases.
Long-term care facilities in Florida have been hit hard by the pandemic, claiming nearly one third of the state’s COVID-19 related deaths as of Saturday morning. According to the state health department, more than 400 nursing homes and assisted living facilities have confirmed cases of the virus, including four in Alachua County.
But despite the susceptibility that many older people have to the virus, Sandrea Norman, one of Gordon’s granddaughters, said her grandmother’s death shouldn’t be brushed to the side simply because she was elderly.
“If she didn’t get COVID-19, we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now,” Norman, 38, said.
Gordon came down with a low-grade fever at the nursing home on April 1, just a few weeks after the facility stopped all visitation, Norman said. Shortly after, she called Norman on the phone to complain about pain near her ribs when she breathed.
For Norman, a registered nurse with the Florida Department of Health in Gainesville, this was worrying.
On April 3, Gordon was admitted to Shands after her fever and other symptoms worsened. The following day, a doctor called Christian and confirmed what she feared most: Her mother had tested positive for COVID-19.
Christian said the doctors at Shands kept her updated daily. While they said her health showed promise during the first few weeks in the hospital, it gradually declined in the weeks following as her lungs filled with fluid. Doctors started talking about the possibility of getting her on a clinical trial for sarilumab, a medication used to treat arthritis.
All the while, Gordon’s family waited by the phone at home for answers and updates.
By April 18, her lungs had grown increasingly weak and doctors decided that she would need to be put on a ventilator. Her grandchildren and doctors planned a Zoom conference to see her just hours before she was intubated.
They weren’t sure if she could hear or see them, but they saw their grandmother through the video call and reassured her that she was strong and loved. Norman said it was difficult to see her in that fragile state, hooked up to tubes and machines.
They told her they were there for her. But really, they were each miles away, watching through a screen.
“That's the hardest part,” Norman said. “How can you fight without someone there helping you and encouraging you?”
‘We inherited so much strength from her'
Norman doesn’t have much recollection of her childhood years, but her most vivid memories are of her grandmother.
She remembers the dark brown sofa they sat on together in the mornings while sipping decaf coffee with a dash of cream. As they sat, each with their own cup and saucer in hand, Norman said she would watch her grandmother closely and mimic her every move.
Gordon, a woman who was devoted to God and read the Bible often, taught Norman the importance of religion. She tore out scriptures from the book and kept them around her home. First thing in the morning, before their coffee, the two would kneel by that same brown couch and pray.
“Just irreplaceable memories,” Norman said.
Most prominent in Norman’s mind is her grandmother’s cooking – her famous homemade biscuits that tasted best dipped in syrup, the Snow White coconut cake she baked with a cherry on top for her birthday.
Gordon rarely allowed visitors to leave her home empty-handed. It didn’t matter who you were – her grandchild or a stranger – she always ensured her guests left with something.
It was always random, Norman said. Sometimes she’d give away a blanket from her sofa. Other times it was a Reader’s Digest magazine or bowl from inside her cupboard.
“She’s been like that since I’ve been born,” Christian said. “That’s the type of woman she was.”
Gordon, the daughter of a Florida Pest Control employee and a homemaker, was born in Camilla, Georgia in February 1942.
She attended Lincoln High School in Gainesville and later became the sole breadwinner for nearly 10 children at her rural property in Hawthorne. As a young mother in the 1980s, Gordon awoke at 4 a.m. every morning and walked down a long, dirt road to work at The Truck Stop. There, she would spend her days baking her famous biscuits from scratch.
In 1985, Gordon got a new job working as a human service worker, Christian said. She was employed at Sunland Center off Waldo Road, a state center for people with developmental disabilities that is now known as the Tacachale Center.
She worked there until she suffered a massive heart attack while at work. She was 52. After that, she had to undergo open heart surgery, which forced her onto disability as her health steadily declined — something she was always reluctant to do, Christian said. She never wanted anyone’s help.
But despite the struggles Gordon faced, she was always content, Norman said. She overcame life’s hurdles with grace.
“A lot of my other cousins feel the same way that as females, we inherited so much strength from her,” she said. “If I could have just a portion of that strength, which I do feel that I’ve been granted, I’ll be good.”
Around two decades ago, Pedro Torres was drawn to Gordon, his late fiance, for that same reason: she was tough. The 72-year-old Puerto Rican laughs when he talks about the way she used to wave her right fist at him whenever she got mad.
Before they were each placed in separate nursing homes in recent years, the two lived together in Torres’ Gainesville home for close to 20 years, he said. Though they planned to marry dozens of times, they never found the right time — either they didn’t have the money or one of them was sick in the hospital.
Until Gordon recently fell ill, Torres would visit her at her nursing home and sit by her side for hours, chatting with her and keeping her company. After both their facilities stopped allowing visitation in mid-March, their relationship continued through daily phone calls.
Signature Healthcare of Gainesville, the nursing home where Torres lives, allowed him to attend Gordon’s burial Monday accompanied by one of her daughters. Now, he’s quarantined for the next two weeks to prevent spread of the virus at the facility, where one resident has already tested positive, according to the state’s list.
Torres said he’s passing the time by watching TV, praying and thinking of Gordon, who he calls his “Mami.”
“I don’t know how to get to where she’s at now,” he said. “I’m going to have to pray and pray that she’s at peace.”