GROVE CITY — The hiccups that punctuate her sobs, the moments she must take to try and summon her next word, underscore the unimaginable fear and grief that have swallowed Kelly Conkey Billups in the days since the coronavirus killed both her parents and her brother and left her husband clinging to life.
“It has destroyed my family. It has broken my family,” Conkey Billups, 54, said Wednesday night by phone from her Grove City home, where she is quarantined.
“It’s like a nightmare. It’s like … knowing that a big winter storm is blowing in and you get prepared and you hunker down and you just wonder how bad it’s going to get, how long it’s going to last, and what happens when it’s all over and how you dig yourself out,” she said. “But I don’t know how to dig myself out now.”
Conkey Billups’ brother, 51-year-old David Conkey, died on Sunday after having fallen ill following a family weekend gathering March 7-8.
“He was my best friend,” she said through tears. “And he’s gone.”
But life would only too soon prove even more cruel. On Tuesday, Conkey Billups’ parents, Lewis and Judith Conkey — high-school sweethearts who married in 1963 and who had devoted a lifetime to their children and grandchildren — died just a couple of hours apart at Mount Carmel Grove City Hospital.
Now, with her husband Don remaining at the hospital on life support, Conkey Billups finds herself alternating between hysteria and the need to stay steady and accomplish so many tasks she never dreamed she would face.
There will be no funerals, not yet anyway. The coronavirus pandemic and its ban on mass gatherings won’t allow for the kind her family deserves. A celebration of life service will simply have to come later after all this madness ends, she said.
Her concern for now is praying for her husband’s recovery (he is critical but stable, doctors tell her. She hopes that she and her three daughters and sister-in-law will be okay, and is just trying to make it through every next moment.
The last few weeks, she said, run together and time is but a blur.
Judith Conkey, 75, had had a recent surgery and needed some rehabilitation, so on March 7-8, David and his wife, Karen, drove to Columbus from their home in Austintown in northeast Ohio to see his parents and help get his mom settled into Mill Run Rehabilitation Center in Hilliard. For two days, the family spent precious time together.
“We laughed and joked and just had a ball,” said Conkey Billups.
But the day after her brother returned home, David Conkey fell ill. And things deteriorated rapidly. On Tuesday, March 10, he was at the doctor, diagnosed with double ear and sinus infections, his sister said. Two days later, he was on a ventilator and fighting for his life.
By Friday, March 13, their father was sick and within a few days, their mother was, too. And on March 23, Conkey Billups called an ambulance for her own husband. Two days later, 51-year-old Don texted her saying he couldn’t breathe and was scared. Soon, the recently retired Honda of America employee was on a ventilator.
Conkey Billups said she could never imagine her family not whole. And she thinks that her brother and God couldn’t see it that way, either.
So after she lost her brother on Sunday, and she had watched her parents wither away with weakness as machines breathed for them, she made a request.
“I prayed to my brother to come with God to take them together because our parents would never have survived knowing that we lost him,” she said, sobbing again. “They would not have been able to recover. Not ever.”
Conkey Billups’ friend and fellow realtor Michelle Santuomo helped to start a GoFundMe campaign for the family. By Wednesday night, it had raised almost $33,000 of a $50,000 goal.
Santuomo, of Bexley, said Conkey Billups always steps up to help others in need, whether it is for friends or for strangers or for the women of Franklin County’s West Side she helps through her volunteer work with a street outreach mission for victims of sex trafficking. Now, Santuomo said, it is her friend who needs to be lifted up.
“I called Kelly and asked her what she needed and she just kept saying ‘Prayers, Michelle. We need prayers,’” she said. “It wasn’t easy for her to let us do something, but so many people are touched by this and feel helpless. This is a way to care.”
Conkey Billups said she and her daughters and sister-in-law have felt wrapped in love these past few days, and the kindness has been overwhelming.
Her parents, she said, were a love story for the ages. Lewis Billups — just Lou and Judy to those who loved them — had been a maintenance man at St. Mary Magdalene Church and School in Columbus for a long time and worked for White Westinghouse as well. Judith Conkey worked in the office of the old International Harvester plant and earned two bachelor’s degrees while a working mother of two.
“My parents were absolutely amazing,” Conkey Billups said. “They did everything — everything — together for 57 years. Really we all just did everything together as a family. It was all of us or none of us.”
The Conkeys are big into drag racing, with both Lou and David winning national titles with their Chevrolet Camaros and Chevelles. The family had a place on Lake Erie for probably 30 years, and they hunted together, fished together, played together all the time.
As Lou and Judy aged, it was time to settle more at home on what their daughter calls ” their five acres of paradise” in Madison County. It was there where her father tinkered with his antique tractor and tended to the apple trees he planted, and where her parents fed the birds and watched the deer gather and romp every evening.
These were, Conkey Billups said, supposed to be her parents’ golden years.
When the family gathered earlier this month, the most anyone was talking about the coronavirus at that point was the importance of hand-washing. No one had been ordered to “socially distance” or stay home and away from others.
Now, Conkey Billups finds anger mixing in with her grief.
“Most importantly I want people to understand the urgency of staying home and social distancing. That’s what I want to drive home,” she said through sobs. “I want to spare another family the pain and trauma that we are living.”
So even as she prays for her husband to recover and waits for this pandemic to pass so that she can hug her daughters again and properly grieve, she cannot yet begin to imagine what life ahead will look like.
She takes some comfort that her parents and her brother are together. For now, that’s really all she has to cling to.
To help the Conkey Billups family, visit www.gofundme.com/f/the-conkeybillups-covid-19-fund