WASHINGTON — A D.C. family had to celebrate Thanksgiving this year with three empty seats because of COVID. Shanta Leake-Cherry lost her mother, sister, and brother to coronavirus in the spring.
It started when her older sister, 45-year-old Enekee (or "Nicky"), got sick and died from COVID-19 on April 11. Then, her older brother, 44-year-old John Jr., and her 74-year-old mother, Leslie (who live together), contracted the virus and died at the end of April...two days apart.
Since then, Leake-Cherry said she has been taking it one day at a time.
“It’s heavy, it’s heavy, but we’re pressing on," she said. "That’s all we can do.”
According to CBS, more than 2,200 COVID deaths were reported Wednesday in the United States -- the highest one-day toll in six months.
On that day, Leake-Cherry's sister would have turned 46.
Typically, Leake-Cherry said all of her family would gather at her parents' house to celebrate together. But this year, they came up with a creative and safe solution, which she's calling meals on wheels.
She said she and other family members have cooked at home and then they're going to set up a delivery station at her parents' for people to roll through and pick up food to eat in their individual homes.
Her mother, brother and sister, of course, are top of mind.
“It’s heavy, as expected, and I’m just taking it one day at a time and just trying to push through, as my family would want me to do or want my entire family to do," Leake-Cherry said. "And allowing myself to feel every emotion, allow myself permission to feel every emotion, whether that’s sad or joyful whatever the emotion is, just allowing myself to feel that. And not staying there, but basking in the memory with my family to kind of bring us some sense of comfort.”
She said she especially feels her mom and brother's presence in the kitchen. She said John used to cook a special stuffed chicken for Thanksgiving -- so she did her best to replicate it in his honor.
"It brought some sense of comfort because I was talking to him as I was making it and I was like please guide me and help me to remember the recipe," she said. "I’m just grateful for those moments and memories that we shared together.”
She said since their deaths, her family has continued to get closer and support each other day-by-day.
"I want to be intentional about continuing our family’s legacy," she said. "It’s pretty much about living, laughing, and loving, because we did a lot of laughing. I’m going to miss those moments where we would just come together laughing and going down memory lane."
As coronavirus cases surge again, and thousands continue to travel for the holidays, she's pleading with people to be smart -- and selfless.
“We would rather sacrifice gathering than to spend your next holiday without a loved one because you were selfish and wanted to have fun, so I think we need to be mindful of that, because COVID is invisible," she said. "You just have to follow the rules...and just know that you're doing it because you love yourself and you love your loved ones and everyone in the community, and I just think it’s selfish for people not to think about others.”
She said she's looking forward to creating new traditions with her family, like hosting a virtual paint party -- which they started Thursday.
Even though it's tough, Leake-Cherry said she's grateful for the wonderful memories she was able to make with her mom, sister, and brother before they passed.
“Even though this year looks different for everybody, many families are gathering around the table with empty seats, so just try to make the best of it," she said. "Try not to argue. Try not to fight.”
And -- wear a mask, she said.