by Joshua Seemungal

Vernise Theresa Byer-Lodge was Victim Number 4.

The day after she died from the coronavirus, her children, Tricia and Carlyle, collected the death certificate of their 65-year-old mother and the cremation license from police.

They rushed home, got a few minutes rest, then went to the cremation. Only two family members could be present. They were not allowed to see their mother’s body. They were not even allowed to touch the coffin. Flowers they brought to put next to her were placed there by people in hazmat suits.

COVID-19 has claimed eight live so far in Trinidad and Tobago. In all, 114 citizens have been infected from the virus, which has roiled societies across the globe.

Local authorities have offered a few details about victims. Guardian Media got an inside look into the Lodge’s case from her four children who shared their tragic story

Her loved ones said she was a selfless, caring and God-fearing woman with unwavering faith.

“Mommy had three things: God, love, and forgiveness. She never said it was her motto, but she lived it,” her son, Carlyle, recalled.

To him and his three siblings, Tricia, Colin, and Kalisha, their mother was also a friend.

Many were the times spent together in the patio of their family home, just talking. From picong to politics to church, the subjects were wide-reaching, lasting well into the night.

On occasion, they even talked about life and death. Little did they know that one conversation, one decision, would end up being, quite likely, the difference between the two.

For her 65th birthday on March 14, Lodge went on a cruise across the Caribbean Sea.

“She has always wanted to go on a cruise. She talked about it. She dreamt about it,” said her daughter Tricia.

As part of a retiree group, Vernise travelled every other year, but this trip was particularly special to her.

Aware of the potential risks the family discussed whether she should still go, or not.

“It wasn’t something easy for us. The thing is, remember, that it didn’t hit Trinidad as hard as yet. Eventually, we were like, you know what? Go ahead. It so happened, of course, that this whole COVID-19 came, but reality is, it was a tough decision telling her go,” Tricia said.

Driving that decision was an insistence by Carnival Cruise Line, owners of the Costa Favolosa ship, that it would not provide a refund to passengers who cancelled their trip.

Seeking to take as many precautions as possible, the retiree group’s members did medical checkups before departing. They also took extra medication in an effort to boost up their immune systems.

On March 6, Lodge left T&T for Martinique. Before leaving her home, as she always did, she told her children she loved them and kissed her grandchildren goodbye while they slept.

Her son, Carlyle, dropped her to the airport. On the way there, they struck up a conversation.

“She asked me, she said, ‘Be honest with me. You don’t think I should go on the cruise?’ Now, at that point, I was really feeling I tell her no, but I knew she was excited and she had never been on a cruise, so I say, ‘You should go.’ But deep down inside, I didn’t want her to, “ he recalled.

He thought to himself, if it’s fate, it’s fate.

The Costa Favolosa

Launched in 2010, and with a capacity of 3,780 passengers, the Costa Favolosa is part of the fleet of Costa Crociere, a subsidiary of Carnival Cruise Lines.

Offering fine dining, bars, shops, and just about anything someone on board could need, it is essentially a city at sea. At the beginning of Lodge’s trip, it was everything she dreamt of.

She lept her children up to date via WhatsApp and sent them pictures of her adventures.

Things did not remain picture-perfect for long, however.

On March 13, the day before Lodge’s birthday, passengers found out there were at least two positive cases of COVID-19 aboard the cruise. The two confirmed cases were escorted off and all other passengers were told to isolate themselves in their rooms.

Medical professionals tested all the passengers and the T&T nations in Lodge’s group all tested negative.

However, there was a problem— no country was willing to allow the Costa Favolosa to dock.

“Stuff started to get worse. They were unable to dock in Martinique. Then they weren’t allowed to dock in Sint Martin. Basically, they were just circling the sea, “ Tricia said.

Miles away, Lodge’s children could do nothing but pray and hope.

“It was the most tormenting thing we went through as a family. Just knowing you cannot get to her. You felt helpless. Because, at this point in time, nobody could have helped, “ Tricia said as tears filled her eyes.

Lodge’s childen didn’t sleep for days. The patio of their Carenage house where they used to converse with their mother became a chapel. There, they prayed together for their mother’s safe return.

Tricia said: “You know they talking to you, and you are hearing the drama so you could hear the depression in their voice because they want to come home

“Everybody would have their moments of feeling like this is just crazy. This is not happening.”

Their prayers were answered when the Guadeloupe government permitted the Costa Favolosa to dock, allowing passengers with confirmed flights to leave. However, the T&T nationals had flights booked out of Martinique which had denied the ship entry the day before.

While arrangements were being made between the governments of both countries, the 75 T&T nationals remained on board the ship. For one day, they were the only people on the Costa Favolosa.

Eventually, according to the Lodge family, the Favolosa’s owners intervened amd chartered a flight back to Trinidad.

“The owners of the Costa Favolosa paid for everbody to come back home, so they handled them for the flight back. The government gave them the clearance to come back home, “ Tricia said.

The family got confirmation that their mother would return on a March 18 flight. The flight touched down at Piarco, shortly before noon. Lodge was one of 68 nationals onboard.

Desperately hoping to see his mother, Carlyle drove up to the airport but was unable to see her. Straight off the plane, the nationals were escorted into vehicles and taken to a quarantine site, Camp Balandra.

“It was a sense of relief. We knew that she would have to go through that quarantine process, and we were hoping it would have just been that, and she would come back home, “ Carlyle said.

Balandra to Couva

Balandra offered a much-needed sense of comfort for Lodge, according to her children.

“I remember Mom saying the fresh breeze was therapeutic. But, she did say the social distancing practices were not always followed,” Tricia recalled.

On Thursday, the day after their arrival, everyone was tested for COVID-19 and told they would have results by the Sunday.

Just after 11 pm, on Saturday, 40 of the patients were woken up from their beds, then washed with water outside of the building.

Lodge and the 39 others had been hearing rumours they had all tested positive for the virus but had not been officially informed.

Eventually, they were placed into buses and taken to the Couva Hospital.

“It was heartbreaking. It was a lot of mixed emotions because it was all over the place. One moment you are feeling angry. The next moment you are feeling sad, “ said Kalisha.

Lodge’s health soon took a turn for the worse. She had no pre-existing conditions, apart from mild hypertension.

On Monday, she was placed on a ventilator. That night, her children heard her voice for the last time.

“While she was on oxygen she wanted to call us and her roommate was repeating everything she was saying to us and then she came off the oxygen quickly and said she loved us, that she loved everyone,” Tricia said.

The following day, Lodge collapsed and was taken to the Intensive Care Unit.

That afternoon, Lodge’s body started shutting down and just after 8 pm, the call her children had all feared the most came.

She didn’t feel a thing. She did not suffer, the doctor told them.

Just like they had done every night since they first heard their mother was stranded on the Costa Favolosa, the family was on the patio praying for a miracle. Everyone stopped praying when Tricia got the call, Carlyle remembered.

He knew what had happened based on the expression on his brother’s face. It’s an expression he had seen 22 years earlier when their father drowned on a family trip. His body was not found until days later.

Whenever the family had spoken about death, Lodge, a staunch Catholic, had made it clear she wanted to be buried. It was not possible for her to have that wish, however.

The day after she died, Vernise Theresa Byer-Lodge was laid to rest.

A life of purpose

When she lost her husband, Carlyle Lodge Sr, Lodge struggled immensely with the loss. Then one day she had an awakening and dedicated her life to God.

“A lot, a lot of people that I didn’t even know my mother impacted so much, called me in a state of shock. When they told me about their story of how mommy told them to come to church and changed their lives, I didn’t know she played such a big role in people’s lives. I think that is a big part of us being comforted, “ Tricia said.

Lodge was a member of the Society of St.Vincent de Paul, a religious instructor at Point Cumana Government Primary School, a eucharistic minister, and FirstCommunion teacher.

Not a single day has gone by without visitors sharing their memories of Lodge with her family.

Forgiveness

While the Lodge family was going through their bereavement, there were people, on social media, fiercely criticizing the nationals who went on the Costa Favolosa cruise.

“It felt inhumane. Inhumane. It was so demoralizing. They were just degrading. I mean it’s like, you don’t know how our family is feeling,” Tricia said.

“Yes, people went on the cruise and the decision was wrong, but you have to remember that these people belonged to families. With COVID-19, nobody is invincible.”

While the family has some issues with the treatment their mother received at the hospital, they acknowledge that many of the doctors and nurses, as well as the Chief Medical Officer and Health Minister are doing their best.

After all the Lodge Family has been through in the last six weeks, they want the country to understand one thing— that the key to defeating this deadly virus rests in our hearts.

“Just bring some humanity back. It’s not about politics. It’s not about power or status. Just bring humanity back.

“COVID-19 is not judging anyone. It is not picking or choosing. Who would have thought our mother would have gone like this?”