'He had a heart of gold': CMU freshman reflects on loss of father due to coronavirus

Jessie Smith, 69, died at 4:33 a.m. April 5 from COVID-19. (Photo Courtesy of Jasmine Smith)

Jessie and Patricia Smith were admitted to Henry Ford Hospital just like they lived most of their lives – together. 

They had been celebrating Patricia’s 69th birthday at the Motor City Casino in Detroit, but when they began showing symptoms of coronavirus, they were taken to the hospital. Jessie, also 69, was admitted for his respiratory symptoms. Patricia couldn’t get out of bed and suffered a severe headache. 

Jasmine Smith, their youngest daughter, a Central Michigan University freshman, had just moved back to her Detroit home after students were told not to return to campus after spring break. In a matter of days, Jasmine found herself without her parents and her university, struggling to keep up with classes while at home. 

"I didn't want to do anything without them home," Jasmine said. "I would just lay in bed and sleep or call my parents."

Jasmine thought of her father as her best friend. Since she was the youngest of six sisters and three brothers, Jessie was always very protective of her. 

"I am 19 years old, and I still do not know how to drive, simply because my dad would take me everywhere," Jasmine said. "We would do everything together.

"My dad has never told me no for anything. He was such a loving and caring person."

When it was time for Jasmine to come to Mount Pleasant for university, Jessie was not happy. His little girl would no longer be by his side every day. 

"Jasmine said, 'I am going away to school.' Jessie said, 'No, you aren't," Patricia recalled. "You gotta let her go, I said. Oh boy, he was not happy.

"When we got her all settled in, he was happy that she was there." 

Jessie rode alone to pick up Jasmine from CMU before spring break. It was the last time they, Patricia said, that they would make the trip home from CMU together.

Life at-risk

Jessie knew he was at risk from the start. He was diabetic, has asthma, other health concerns and he was over 60. He even warned Jasmine about coronavirus weeks before his death. 

On March 10, Jasmine and Jessie spent the day together. Jasmine had a six-hour salon appointment that Jessie had driven her to. Instead of dropping her off and picking his daughter back up, Jessie stayed in the car and used his free time to stream some old Westerns, his favorite movie genre. 

When Jasmine returned to the car the two had a candid conversation about the risks of coronavirus. 

Jessie told Jasmine that this virus was serious, and they needed to start taking precautions. The retired Ford employee warned that if he were to die, he wanted to be buried, not cremated. March 10 was the same date that the first coronavirus case was confirmed in Michigan. 

“He told me, ‘Jasmine, when I go to heaven, do not allow me to be cremated. I want to be properly buried so that my soul can fully rest and be released,'" Jasmine said.  "That stuck with me. He literally just told me that and nine days later he was in the hospital.” 

Fighting the virus

The Smiths were hospitalized in separate rooms, yet spoke every single day on their phones. At one point, Patricia could only speak to Jessie – a nurse told her that Jessie could hear her, but he couldn’t reply. Patricia knew his breathing was being aided by a respirator. 

About a week after the Smiths were admitted, both received positive COVID-19 tests. Patricia was released from the hospital on April 1. Her family immediately booked a hotel room to self-quarantine for 14 days to stop the spread of the virus. 

Meanwhile, Jessie’s symptoms were getting worse. He was having seizures and there was concern of kidney failure. 

Three days later, Jasmine woke up to receive a phone call that she never expected. It was her sister. She asked Jasmine not to look at her phone and to go downstairs.

Shanier Smith, Jasmine’s sister, turned to her and explained that their father, Jessie, died at 4:33 a.m. April 5 due to breathing complications caused by COVID-19. 

Jasmine was in shock. She couldn’t, and didn’t want to,  believe that her father died just three days before her April 8 birthday. 

Breaking bad news

Patricia was still quarantining in a hotel room in Farmington. The whole family had been keeping constant contact with Patricia to keep her spirits up while she was in the hotel. She would often lay on one of the two beds and speak to family members for hours at a time. 

One of the couple’s five daughters booked a room with two beds so Jessie could stay there after he was released. 

Breaking the news to her about Jessie’s death just wasn’t something that her family wanted to do over the phone.

The sisters drove to the hotel and went to Patricia’s room. They held back tears as they expressed their love and asked how she was feeling. Patricia knew something was wrong when Jasmine and Shanier broke into tears. 

“What is it?” Patricia asked. 

That’s when Jasmine told her about Jessie’s death. She had lost her partner after more than 50 years of marriage. 

“I am still fighting the battle, myself. I don’t think I’ve really accepted it,” Patricia said. “He was more than an intricate part of this family. He was this family.”

‘He had a heart of gold’

Jessie Smith, 69, died at 4:33 a.m. April 5 from COVID-19. (Photo Courtesy of Jasmine Smith)

Jessie was his wife’s “ride or die” sidekick. He was someone who was kind, compassionate and “wore his heart on his sleeve.” She knew it from the first day they met when Patricia was a 15-year-old girl living in the Detroit area in 1966. They became great friends over the next two-three years, and when Patricia turned 17, Jessie asked her mother if they could get married. 

“My mother said no,” Patricia said. “He came in one day and said ‘I got a job at Ford, I found an apartment and we’re moving.’ I was so mad at him – I was not ready to move.” 

Though it took some convincing, Patricia’s mother agreed to sign the marriage papers. They immediately went to the county building to get the marriage license and celebrated their new, lifelong commitment with a couple of hamburgers in downtown Detroit. 

Jessie’s commitment to his wife is the stuff of many family stories. In 1968, Patricia was rushed to the hospital to give birth to their second child. Jessie was not with her. As Patricia was going into labor, Jessie ran/walked for miles to be there for her and their child. 

“I remember he walked all the way to the hospital huffing and puffing,” Patricia said. “That must have been about 10 miles away – it was a distance.”

One of his favorite pastimes was going down to the boxing gym. Some of Patricia's favorite memories are about Jessie teaching his kids, and his grandchildren, how to box.  

“He thought he was Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier rolled into one,” Patricia joked. 

The entire family relied on Jessie for support. In his retirement, he would often drive family members to appointments, volunteer his time taking care of children and run errands for family members while Patricia worked 40-50-hour weeks. 

Jessie Smith, 69, died at 4:33 a.m. April 5 from COVID-19. (Photo Courtesy of Jasmine Smith)

“He has touched so many people over the course of his 69 years,” Patricia said. “Now, in this unprecedented situation, that all of us are in, we have to sacrifice being together in order to prepare his burial. 

“The power of feeling for someone that you love and that many years… it has no expression.” 

Jasmine and Patricia both told stories of Jessie taking off his shoes in the street to give them to a homeless man. He also purchased entire outfits for the homeless in the winter. 

The coronavirus has turned the lives of the Smith family upside down. During this time of mourning, Patricia is self-quarantining in a hotel room. Jasmine is trying to find the motivation to do her CMU schoolwork while staying with her older sister. 

The only thing the family has been able to do is visit with each other over the phone. 

Both Patricia and Jasmine are appreciative of the respects that have been paid to their family over the last few days. Primarily, Patricia is now worried about the big picture. Everyone, Patricia emphasized, needs to take precautions to protect their health and practice social distancing. 

“This is about us a human race,” Patricia said. “Love has no price. Kindness has no price. We all need to help one another.”