“The one thing that has terrified me after my sweet Willard suddenly passed away in January was fear of the unknown length of my new journey. It wasn’t a fear of being single or how to take care of myself, I know how to do that, I was and did for many years after my divorce from my first marriage. But then I found my sweetheart, my love, my echoing heartbeat. He was my reason to live joyfully. He brought so much happiness, joy and laughter into my life in the few short years we were blessed to be together.
What I don’t know now is how to live without him.”
— Teresa BlueEyes
Her name grabs attention:
“Hi, I’m Teresa BlueEyes,” she said on that first day of work about a decade ago, when I was introduced around the office and came to meet her in the finance department here at the Deseret News.
The surname comes from her husband, Willard BlueEyes — the proud son of the Diné (Navajo) Nation and of the clan Táchii’nii (Red Running Into the Water Clan) through his mother and Hash tł’ishnii (Mud Clan) through his father — when they were married in 2009.
Hers is a blended family, back then merging teenagers, long work schedules and health challenges for Willard, whose heart attack was instrumental in Teresa and Willard marrying after a two-year friendship-courtship.
They first met in a church Sunday School class back in 2007. She had not been a regular churchgoer for years, but felt change was needed in her life. He had recently moved into the Ogden, Utah, area, a widower whose second marriage quickly ended in divorce.
“On the day we met I was sitting in gospel doctrine class and the missionaries walked in with Willard and introduced him to the class. ... I turned around, stuck my hand out. ‘Hello I’m Teresa Shackleford,’” she said. “There was a deeply spiritual reaction. I knew he was going to be an important part of my life, and he told me later he felt the same thing.”
They connected with a group of others who were single, divorced or widowed in the Sullivan Hollow First Ward of the church, enjoying each other’s company and building strong relationships.
In October 2008, Teresa received a phone call. Willard was having a heart attack. And she said she was amazed that of all the people in the world, he called her to help.
“I came home that night, was saying my prayers, and was thanking Heavenly Father for my sweet friend and asking if he would please watch over him and help him.” Then she said words came clearly into her mind: “What more do I have to do to get your attention. I knew right then that he was who I was supposed to be with.”
They were engaged a month later — a true love story, but one (like all) that came with challenges. Willard’s heart attack led to quadruple bypass surgery. But the bypass surgery failed. Three months later they went back in and did it again, struggling to find quality veins in his legs to use in the bypass.
But there was no question she would marry him.
Months grew into years, and health remained a concern. It led to fainting at work, which cost Willard a machinist job and put him on disability. When the pandemic hit the world, news reports repeatedly discussed the danger for those with preexisting conditions. But Teresa’s work in finance could be done from home, a blessing during the past year for her.
“It enabled me to be home and have that time with my husband. When we went out, we wore masks. But we still really tried to live our lives. I’m so grateful that we did because some of my most favorite memories are from the last year,” she said.
A July road trip to take a car to a son on the East Coast took them to Texas, Louisiana and up through Mississippi, Georgia and the Carolinas. “I have a video of him rolling around in the ocean because the wave knocked him over,” she said through both laughter and tears.
COVID-19 hit at Christmastime. She doesn’t know how they contracted it, but they both got sick. He was tested on Dec. 29. It was positive. Fevers and body chills followed, and he was coughing up “gunk” Teresa said. His birthday was on the following Sunday, Jan. 3, and they both “celebrated” by just reading or sitting in front of the TV, thinking next year will be better.
“By Tuesday morning I got him up and helped him walk around and I just remember holding his arm and helping him walk. And I helped him get back in bed,” Teresa said. But within an hour everything turned. His breathing was labored and his coloring wasn’t good.
She called 911, but by the time they got there, he was gone.
So many stories, including those written by our staff, detail how the pandemic has impacted every aspect of life. But as the year anniversary approached this week, I could only think of Teresa.
Willard’s brother died of complications from COVID-19 a month later, on Feb. 5. He had gone into the hospital on Thanksgiving Day, and the family lamented not being able to be with him as he struggled for a month in the hospital, and later trying to rehabilitate. Teresa said she first had guilt for not getting Willard to a hospital, but later felt gratitude for being with him when he passed; he might have gained a few days, but likely not much else.
Today her faith carries her forward. “I waited for a long time to find him,” she said. So now she’s learning to live without him. She said she has the hope and confidence born from the faith that she’ll one day see him again.
“We as a society, we are so afraid of talking to people who are going through hard times, because we’re so worried about offending them. But one thing that I have found is there are so many people around me that have been where I’m at, who have lost their spouse, and they have reached out to me. ... There is a whole society of people who are able and willing to walk with me on this journey because they’ve been there.”
Perhaps that’s the lesson of the past year of COVID-19. Sometimes we walk into a Sunday School class and extend a hand. Sometimes we walk into an office and hear an interesting name. When we learn each other’s stories, we learn that we don’t walk alone.