Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Jimmy Walters was an old-school “hellfire and brimstone” pastor at a Baptist church on the Navajo Nation.
His wife, Rachel Walters, was equally devout and spent her time caring for their children, tending to their home and weaving Navajo rugs to sell.
Their son, 48-year-old Davis Begaye, lived with them in a four-bedroom house overlooking the mesas, plains and Ute Mountain in the small community of Cudei, outside Shiprock. He worked at the Home Depot in Farmington for several years.
That’s where the family suspects Begaye got infected with COVID-19 – the illness caused by the coronavirus – in early April.
Over the next three weeks, Begaye, and then his parents, died of the disease, one after the other.
Now, three siblings are left, still in quarantine after testing positive themselves.
“Out here, it’s quiet,” said Marvin Walters, who lives in Albuquerque but is staying in the house at Cudei for at least the next month. “I just sit out here with my thoughts and wonder what’s next. And at the same time remember my family.”
Marvin said he took leave from his job to return to San Juan County and help his parents, who were making arrangements for Begaye’s funeral and caring for his other brother, Murphy, who has cerebral palsy.
Shortly after Begaye died, his mother, 68-year-old Rachel, started feeling sick and was admitted to the Indian Health Service Northern Navajo Medical Center in Shiprock. A couple of days later, her husband, Jimmy, 71, joined her there.
The couple died four days apart, first Rachel and then Jimmy.
“My mom’s burial was already set for today,” Marvin said Wednesday. “The funeral home, I talked to them, and they said they could do a double burial. Today they were both laid to rest.”
San Juan County deaths
Jimmy and Rachel Walters and their son Davis Begaye are three of the 38 people who have died of COVID-19 in San Juan County since New Mexico saw its first death caused by the disease a little over five weeks ago.
San Juan and McKinley counties, which include parts of the Navajo Nation, have been hit hard by the virus, with infection and death rates far higher than in any other area of the state.
McKinley County has reported 953 cases of COVID-19 – almost 200 more than Bernalillo County, whose population is nine times its size – for a rate of 1,294 reported cases per 100,000 people.
San Juan County, where the Walters family is from, has a population of 128,000 and 576 reported cases, for a rate of 449 per 100,000 people.
On Wednesday, state officials announced 239 new positive tests statewide, bringing the total to 3,213. More than 200 of the latest cases were in the two northwestern New Mexico counties.
It was by far the largest single-day surge in new cases so far, though the state has been expanding its testing.
Officials also announced two additional deaths, a woman in her 50s from McKinley County and a man in his 50s from Sandoval County, bringing the total to 112.
The state also announced that 163 patients are hospitalized and 734 people are designated as having recovered.
Second employee death
Begaye is at least the second employee of the Home Depot in Farmington to test positive and die of COVID-19. Vladimir Keeswood, 35, died of the disease on April 15, two days after Begaye.
A spokeswoman for Home Depot would not say how many other employees at the store have tested positive for the virus.
“We are heartbroken over the loss of our associates and friends, and our hearts go out to their families,” spokeswoman Sara Gorman wrote in an email.
Gorman said the company reached out to all of the employees at the store to inform them of the death and offered additional paid time off and counseling to those who may need it.
“We’re taking this very seriously and have been working with local health authorities and are taking their guidance for the safety of our associates and customers,” she said. “For several weeks now, we’ve taken additional steps to clean and disinfect our stores and continue disinfecting high-touch and high-traffic areas several times a day. This store has received additional deep cleaning and disinfecting.”
Begaye’s cousin, Surina Whitehorse, said he knew Keeswood from work, and knew he had tested positive.
Whitehorse said she texted with Begaye frequently while he was quarantined in his bedroom in his parents’ home, trying to cheer him up.
“He just said he was not feeling too good, he was getting tired of lying down, he was tired of being in that room,” Whitehorse said. “I would tell him to open the window, look out the window, or go for a walk. … Sunday is when they took him to the ER because of the weakness, and he was having a hard time breathing.”
Marvin Walters said that although his father didn’t sugarcoat anything, he also had a reputation for being incredibly kind and encouraging. He said that since his parents’ deaths, he’s been getting messages from all over the continent from people who knew them through Navajo Baptist Temple, where Jimmy was a pastor for decades.
Marvin said that when his father and mother married, his father adopted her two children, Davis and Ermalinda, as his own, bringing them into a large, close-knit family.
He said that growing up, he idolized his older brother, although he was frequently a guinea pig in his pranks and tricks. One time, Marvin said, Begaye persuaded him to stand against a wall while he threw dirt clumps all around him. Another time, the two were playing around with a BB gun and Marvin was shot in the chest. The little metal ball can still be seen on X-rays.
The two remained close as adults, with Begaye coming to Albuquerque to celebrate the birth of Marvin’s son, and in February making the trip so the two could watch Marvin’s favorite team compete in the Super Bowl.
At Begaye’s funeral, which Marvin and his sister were able to attend in person, he said he was struck by the way the mourners had to stand away from one another and not hug or touch.
“It’s a new type of hurt,” Marvin said. “You have family and friends standing in front of you crying, and you can’t hug because you don’t want this virus to keep on spreading.”
Journal staff writer Dan McKay contributed to this report.