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"The Creator Let Them Go Together:" A Family Remembers Three Loved Ones Lost To COVID-19

The extended Wheeler family of the Wind River Reservation has been hit hard by COVID-19. Several family members were infected in early March after visiting a relative at Lander's Showboat Retirement Center, where it was later announced there was an outbreak. Before long, 14 family members had tested positive for COVID-19, and five were hospitalized.

On April 20, the family lost three loved ones to the disease. Larry and Gloria Wheeler, who had been married more than 50 years, passed away hours before their 55-year-old daughter Dawn Wheeler. A dozen of their relatives shared memories of Larry, Gloria and Dawn in this audio remembrance.


The Wheeler Family is asking for the community's help to purchase headstones for Larry, Gloria and Dawn.

Larry and Gloria Wheeler

Julia Antelope: For the past two months, it's kind of been like a big blur since my aunt Gloria got sick, because she was the first one to get sick out of us all. A week before they got sick, my mom was with Larry and Gloria. So everybody in my household got it.

Charla Moss: And I remember texting my mom [Gloria] and asking her how she was doing, after I found that out. She said, 'I'm pretty sick. It hurts to move,' she said to me.

Julia Antelope: When I first got [to the hospital] they had to take me through the ICU. And I looked to my left, all I could do was peek, but they wheeled me past all 4 of them and they were all intubated. Nobody could come in and see them.

Ashley Wheeler: I was in there for 26 days. And I was intubated for ten. I guess some people don't remember, but I remember a lot. And it was basically just a really long nightmare and I couldn't wake up.

Regina Antelope: And it kept going on and on and finally I started realizing that we were losing Larry and Gloria. I didn't think we were losing Dawn. I thought Dawn was going to come out of it. It was hard. I got on my knees a lot of times. This is just the ugliest thing a family can go through. And it was really hell because we couldn't even go to each other's house.

Dawn Wheeler

Regina Antelope: I'm Larry Wheeler's younger sister. You know, because of him being my brother, I always seen him as fighting things off. You know, that's the kind of person he was. And then he told me that, when I talked to him the day before he went to the hospital, I called him and I asked him how he was doing and he said, 'I told Gloria I can't just lay around and be sick.' He said, 'I need to do something. So I jumped in my truck and went to the mountains.'

Cheryl Oldman: My dad's always hunted, fished, everything, and they always took us everywhere with them. So we went all over the place with them, to the mountains.

Mike Nomee: He taught me a lot about the outdoors. Fishing, hunting, hunting sheds.

Curtis Wheeler: I remember when I was young he would always take me fishing.

Cherish Nomee: He taught me everything about fishing. How to put your hook on, how far to cast, when to start fishing in a lake, fishing in a river.

Elden Oldman: And Gloria was our cook. She knew how to cook game meat.

Cheryl Oldman: Like deer, she knew how to cook it real good. She knew how to cook fish real good.

Cherish Nomee: And when we'd come home with our fish, grandma would already be ready, she would already have everything to fry those fish up, she would already have her sides ready.

Regina Oldman: I think they were married 53 years, was it 52 or 53? He would always go out as a teenager, and they were always together going down to the river. He was always fishing then, too, and she would be there with him. That's kind of like how they met.

Regina Oldman: You know, I hardly remember, but I remember her being pregnant. And I remember Larry announcing it to us, he came in and he said 'Hey, Gloria's gonna have a baby!' and we were just little kids, me and my other brother, we were kind of young and naive I guess and my brother said, 'Is it yours?' *laughter* Cause we were young, you know? 'You mean you're gonna have a baby too? You and her?' And he just looked at my brother and said, 'Yeah, it's mine!' But that's when they had their baby together, and he was real proud of it. Dawn, she came into the world, I remember her. She was just a big cute baby.

Cheryl Oldman: I guess kind of the way we were raised, we didn't cuss around them, didn't smoke around them *laughter* and my mom was real strict.

Laurencine Felter: You know, they still parented us all the way up until they were gone. They still got after us. I'm glad they did, because they had us to where we knew what respect was and we respected them.

Charla Moss: I got to know my mother really well after my marriage. She was always there for me when I needed advice on a lot of stuff that was going on in my life and down through the years, she became my best friend. Same with Larry, my stepdad. When I came for a visit, he said to me 'Charla, whenever you need a place to stay, this home is always open to you. You don't have to worry about anything. And I've always held that close to my heart because I knew Larry cared for me.

Cheryl Oldman: When we were younger, me and my cousins we got together in a choir and my mom was like, telling us what we could do what we couldn't do, how to walk in our heels and everything *laughter* Dawn, she's kind of soft spoken, her voice is softer, so they would get her to sing all the high songs. But they were really pretty, I wished we could have recorded them. But they were real pretty songs, and she had a real pretty voice.

Dawn Wheeler

Cherish Nomee: Oh, Auntie Dawn was just the sweetest, kind soul. Just like her mama.

Curtis Wheeler: My auntie was a pretty good artist. Every time I'd see her she would always give me some sort of painting.

Gretchen: She would always paint something, and then she would just give it away. She would be like 'Oh, I made this for you.'

Charla: She would always be reading her bible, or she would say something out of the bible, coming from the bible. She would share that with me.

Julia Antelope: Dawn was my cousin, but she was more like my sister. Growing up, she always took care of us younger girls and our brothers.

Charla: My sister Dawn, she loved babies. She would get them from your arms and just carry them around. You know, and she would just baby them.

Whitney Lopez: My auntie Dawn, she was very very close with one of my daughters. She always went out of her way to get them gifts and snacks and everything all the time. She was probably their favorite grandma.

Julia Antelope: After she had Ashley, all of her time was with her daughter. And they were like best friends.

Ashley Wheeler: Dawn is my mom. She was quiet, but she had a lot of love in her. She was really caring, she was really gentle. She was my favorite person and I really miss her. Larry and Gloria were my grandparents, and they were basically like my other parents. They cared about everyone, and they adored everyone. You know, the whole family. Everybody looked up to them. Everybody really loved them, and I think everybody just feels lost.

Larry and Gloria Wheeler

Cherish Nomee: Grandma and Grandpa's house was our safe haven.

Gretchen Nomee: We would always meet there. And food would be cooking, we'd all be around the table visiting and laughing and there was always laughter in that house.

Mike Nomee: My grandma, she was always kind of the matriarch. The go-to person, whether it be for prayer or advice or just a shoulder to lean on and to talk to.

Cherish Nomee: Grandma knew how to turn everything right with just a phone call.

Whitney Lopez: They did everything they could for their grandkids and great grandkids. They did everything for everyone in this family.

Regina Antelope: They were the elders in our family and it's like, what are we gonna do now? The creator let them go together. And they even waited for Dawn. And they took Dawn before the day was over, they took her with them. So God was in control all that time, and to me the way I can look at it to get some comfort is, Larry and Gloria and Dawn sacrificed for everybody to look and start changing their ways and see how serious this virus is. And you know, they didn't go in vain.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Savannah Maher, at smaher4@uwyo.edu.

Savannah is a Report For America corps member. 

Savannah comes to Wyoming Public Media from NPR’s midday show Here & Now, where her work explored everything from Native peoples’ fraught relationship with American elections to the erosion of press freedoms for tribal media outlets. A proud citizen of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, she’s excited to get to know the people of the Wind River reservation and dig into the stories that matter to them.
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