When 94-year-old Saymon Jefferson died from complications due to the coronavirus on Wednesday, he believed that his younger brother, 86-year-old Willie Lee Jefferson, still lived.
The brothers were admitted to the same Baton Rouge General facility one day apart. Both eventually succumbed to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus: Willie Lee Jefferson on March 26 and Saymon Jefferson days later on April 1.
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In the midst of their grief, Saymon Jefferson’s family made what they described as the “heartbreaking” decision to not tell the patriarch about his brother’s death, afraid the news might cast him further into decline.
“We wanted to tell him, but we didn’t think it was the best time,” said 62-year-old Belvin Jefferson White, his daughter. “We wanted to get him out of the woods first.”
Following the diagnosis of both brothers, no other family members have experienced symptoms of COVID-19.
Though it is not known if the virus spread between the brothers, they spent every Sunday together, White said. Like clockwork, Willie Lee Jefferson would get dressed up and join his brother each week, traveling the 15 minutes to his home to tell jokes and reminisce.
"My grandfather loved all of his brothers, but he and my uncle were particularly close," said 44-year-old LaTrenda Jefferson, his granddaughter. "That was his running buddy."
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When “Uncle WL” — as they called Willie Lee Jefferson — grew so weak and fatigued he could not get out of bed, paramedics arrived to take him to the hospital the weekend of March 20. Saymon Jefferson was admitted after a small cough developed into deep exhaustion and dangerously low oxygen levels.
During his hospitalization, Saymon Jefferson insisted that he not be placed on a ventilator. LaTrenda Jefferson said she believed he wanted the opportunity to speak with his family until the very end — he wanted to be alert and aware, even if it was painful.
“My grandfather was a social butterfly,” his granddaughter said. “There wasn’t a story he couldn’t remember. He amazed people with his quick wit, with his ability to recall any situation.”
Instead, Jefferson was placed on oxygen and was able to make nightly phone calls to his many family members. His daughter, White, said he remained upbeat during every call and in their final visit.
“He’d say, ‘I’m doing good. I’m doing good,’” she recalled. “‘I might wear out, but I’m not going to give out.’”
This unfailing optimism, steadfast faith and deep love of family defined Saymon Jefferson’s life, which began in Natchitoches Parish as one of nine children. When the eldest child died young, Jefferson’s parents instructed him as second in line to always look after his siblings.
He became known to all of them as simply, “Brother.”
Jefferson joined the Army and served in World War II around the age of 16 — embracing brotherhood in a time when the military remained racially segregated, according to his granddaughter.
“My dad was a military man,” said Charles Jefferson, his son. “He brought discipline and order; he instilled that, and it definitely resonates today.”
After his four years of service ended, Jefferson found his way back to Louisiana where he started a job at a local company called Jenkins Construction, working his way up from an entry-level position to foreman across the decades. In the course of his life, Jefferson married Arcenia, a young woman he met at a church fair, and had five children.
According to his family, Jefferson’s sunny disposition in the face of a lethal illness was not a surprise given his history of near-death experiences, from being buried alive while on a construction site to getting into a head-on collision in his early 50s.
The wreck left him paralyzed from the chest down, and Jefferson was given little hope that he would walk again. But when he returned home in his wheelchair, Arcenia Jefferson looked him in the eye and said, “I’m going to need you to get up, and I’m going to need you to fight.”
Her husband eventually progressed from a wheelchair, to crutches and finally to a cane. He became a common sight around the neighborhood, where he would take daily walks.
“His will was just so great,” White said. “He still had problems with his legs every day, but he called it ‘talking to his legs’ — he’d just say, ‘Come on legs, you’ve got to move.’”
White saw this same perseverance and faith in her father on the last day of his life, when she arrived at the hospital to visit him for the final time. She rubbed his head, spoke to him and promised to wait for his call later that evening — a call she never received.
Before she left, father and daughter prayed together.
White said her hope now is that people will take the virus seriously as the family faces “a tremendous loss.”
“Take all precautions. Listen to your officials,” she said. “Trust God, because I do believe God is going to bring us through this. We just have to be careful and mindful of other people and of each other.”