Seven-year-old Willie Edwards Jr. talks animatedly as he points out all the photos on the walls of his Harrison Twp. home.
Some are group shots of his smiling family, others are of him and his siblings playing sports.
Willie Jr. pulls out a photo book of his father titled ‘Coach Will’ that a family friend put together and describes each photo, page by page.
“He’s in my heart,” Willie Jr. says.
Willie Edwards Sr. died in late August from COVID-19 at age 37.
The RTA bus driver’s death left a gaping hole in the lives of his fiancée, five children, family, friends and the peewee football team he coached.
‘I’m still in shock’
“It’s hard for the kids to talk about it. They say they miss him sometimes. So I have to go in a room when I’m crying,” said his fiancée, Ira Butler, a preschool teacher in Dayton. “To be honest, I’m still in shock because of how young he was. I would have never thought we would lose him to COVID.”
He is part of a recent spike in deaths of those younger than 50.
While people younger than 50 still make up a minority of serious illnesses and deaths from COVID-19, they are dying more than ever during this wave driven by the delta variant, according to a Dayton Daily News analysis of Ohio Department of Health data.
Another son, William “Liam” Edwards, 4, says he misses his dad but he doesn’t really understand where his dad went.
Anira Jacko, 14, and D’Angelo Jacko, 15, are more withdrawn when they talk about Edwards. They’re Butler’s children by another partner, but Edwards has raised them most of their lives.
“It’s hard. He taught me a lot. Every time I think of him, I want to break down,” D’Angelo said. “He made me the man that I am today.”
‘Hard-working family man’
Edwards and Butler graduated from Trotwood-Madison High School. They reconnected in 2012 on Facebook. By then, she had two children and he had one, Kayla Edwards, now 13.
“He was really, really good with the kids,” Butler said. “Kids loved him, all kids, not just his own.”
Butler said they were a close family that did everything together. Edwards liked spending time with Butler, playing with his youngest sons, taking his daughters on “girls trips” somewhere special, and coaching D’Angelo. Edwards also coached fifth-grade peewee football in Trotwood.
“He was a hard-working family man that really reached out to the community when he could,” Butler said.
Whole family got COVID
In late July, the whole family got COVID-19. Butler suspects Edwards brought it home from work. The kids showed few symptoms. D’Angelo felt sick and Butler felt worse. Edwards complained his chest hurt. After four days, he went to Miami Valley Hospital and was told his oxygen was low.
Edwards already had some health issues, including asthma, high blood pressure and sleep apnea. But he was young and otherwise healthy so none of them imagined what would happen next.
He was admitted and put on a CPAP machine but it wasn’t enough. After a few days, Edwards was transferred to UC Health so he could be put on life support and a ventilator. He would need to be put in a medically-induced coma.
Because his family had COVID-19, they could not visit him in the hospital until they were clear of the virus.
“That made it even worse because he was fighting it alone at first,” Butler said.
‘They say that he could hear us’
Edwards called Butler before he was put into a coma. He told her he was scared and he loved her and the kids. Machines would keep him alive for the next three weeks.
After she cleared the virus, Butler would visit Edwards as often as she could, although it was difficult to be away from her kids and make the two-hour round-trip drive. Sometimes she brought the older kids but she never took Willie and Liam.
“I didn’t want them two to see him like that,” she said.
When they couldn’t make the trip, staff would place a phone by Edwards’ ear and allow the family to talk to him.
“They say that he could hear us,” Butler said. “So we talked to him. The kids talked to him. They said it would help.”
‘I cry so much’
Hospital staff asked Edwards’ family if he died, should staff resuscitate him?
“At first we did,” Butler said. “It’s like, ‘We want you to do everything you can to save him,’ but then they started telling us, if they did compressions, or CPR, it would break his ribs and it would just make it worse and he would die a painful death. ... He wasn’t getting better, he was only getting worse so that’s why we had to take him off the machines. We ended up taking him off everything and he died as soon as we did.”
Edwards died Aug. 28.
“I cry so much,” Butler said. “Even a month later, it’s still hard to deal with.”
Edwards had talked about getting the coronavirus vaccine. After he fell ill, he did not express regret about not getting the shot. He didn’t have much time to think about it, Butler said.
A fundraiser for Butler and her kids can be found at gofund.me/d7f4256f.