She Was Dying of COVID. But She Made Damn Sure She Voted.
Elaine Cunningham White-Gardner went into the hospital at the same time as Donald Trump. Only one of them came out.
Elaine Cunningham White-Gardner was admitted to the Jersey City Medical Center with COVID-19 on the same weekend President Trump was in Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
Trump also had COVID-19 but he was released after three days and helicoptered back to the White House. White-Gardner remained in the ICU in her New Jersey hometown from Oct. 3 through the following week and into the next.
While 74-year-old Trump was exulting in his own good fortune, declaring “I’m immune,” 80-year-old White-Gardner became sicker and sicker. Her every breath became a struggle. She had no way of knowing for certain how it would end.
But whatever might happen, she was determined to perform one more all-important civic duty in a life devoted to bettering the lives of others. She completed an absentee ballot and arranged for a nurse to deliver it from her bedside to the Hudson County Board of Elections.
“She was having a lot of trouble breathing, but for her it was, ‘One way or the other, I’m getting that vote,’” her niece, Nichole Taylor, told The Daily Beast.
The white envelope from the hot zone joined an ever-growing number of identical envelopes awaiting Election Day. White-Gardner got to where she could no longer talk and could only listen during her daily phone calls with her sister, Dyanne Cunningham, who is Taylor’s mother.
“My mom read Psalms,” Taylor told The Daily Beast.
At 8:40 a.m. on Thursday, Oct. 15, White-Gardner posted on the family’s private Facebook page.
“Breathe into me the BREATH OF LIFE AMEN.”
She posted a final time on the family page at 5:27 a.m. that Friday.
“I feel Him breathing for me.”
Five minutes later, at 5:32 a.m., White-Gardner sent Taylor a last text.
“The Lord is with me, of whom shall I be afraid.”
The following day, a Saturday, the doctors told the family that White-Gardner might have to be intubated. She was on a ventilator by Sunday.
As that Monday evening approached, the family was told that the end was near.
“Her organs were shutting down,” Taylor recalled the doctors saying. “Now would be the time to come.”
One of White-Gardner’s sons, Peter White, was able to get to the hospital around 7 p.m. He gazed through a window to become the first and last family member to see her in the 15 days she had been hospitalized. She was unconscious and still attached to the machines that could no longer keep her alive. She died minutes later.
On hearing though a family text that her aunt had “transitioned,” Taylor’s first thought was of the vote that White-Gardner had been so determined to cast. The question remained whether her ballot would be counted, as those who are not among the living on Election Day are technically disqualified. But the fact was that she had succeeded in voting, and if she could do it in those circumstances then nobody has an excuse not to, as well.
“Through the haze of the virus, she managed to arrange to have someone cast her vote,” Taylor noted. “Yes, on her deathbed.”
Taylor added, “And while her vote may not be counted, she had the presence of mind to vote.”
White-Gardner took her last breath having made voting all the more an honor as well as a duty. She had taken her first breath in 1940, when she was born into poverty in Jersey City, the seventh of nine children.
“They were poor people,” Tayor said. “Valuing education, we were able to rise up.”
The woman who would enlist a nurse to help her vote had herself become a licensed practical nurse after graduating high school. She also began raising four sons: Troy, Derrick, Darryl, and Peter. She developed a mother’s deep concern about the state of the school system and decided one way she could make it better would be to become a teacher.
She made sure to help her sons with their homework before she did her own as a full-time student at New Jersey City University (NJCU.). She also worked at a breakfast program run by the Black Freedom Society, tutored scholarship pupils, served on the African-American Student Advisory Board, and performed with the Black dance workshop. She remained on the dean’s list the whole time and became the first person to graduate from NJCU with a major in Black Studies.
White-Gardner went on to teach African-American history at Henry Snyder High School and at McNair Academic High school in her home city. Taylor got a firsthand sense of her aunt’s teaching style when White-Gardner helped her with her schoolwork White-Gardner did not just tell you, she showed you, seeking to infuse you with the lesson, sometimes with help of song and dance. You wanted to retain it.
“She came to where you were, as a child or as a student and as a person in this world,” Taylor said. “
White-Gardner subsequently served as the assistant principal at Public School 39 in Jersey City and as district supervisor of social studies. She also became the affirmative action officer of the Jersey City Board of Education. She continued on as a consultant after her retirement in 1996.
“She ‘educated the educators,’ providing intense diversity and sensitivity system-wide training for teachers,” the family’s obituary would note. “Her methodologies are still employed in classrooms today.”
In the meantime, her brother, Glenn D. Cunningham, served in the Marines and then the Jersey City Police Department, rising to captain before President Bill Clinton appointed him to head the U.S. Marshals in New Jersey. He made some African-American history when he was then elected Jersey City’s first Black mayor.
At the time, politics in Jersey City and the rest of Hudson County were largely controlled by the local Democratic machine, whose supposed practice of lodging votes with the names of the dead inspired a famous joke by former Gov. Brendan Byrne:
“I want to be buried in Hudson County so that I can remain active in politics.”
The newly elected Mayor Cunningham proved to be a maverick who bucked the machine, meeting its wrath with the shrug of a leatherneck-turned-street cop. He seemed sure to make a major mark when he suffered a fatal heart attack at City Hall. He was just 60.
White-Gardner had been active in her brother’s campaigns, which had been lessons in the importance of the moment. Her study of history had taught her the import of what had come before. Parenthood and teaching had imparted intertwined insights into the determinants of what is to come.
And it was with her keen sense of the past, present, and future that she followed each twist and turn of the current presidential contest.
“This is a woman who lived and breathed the election every day,” Taylor said.
White-Gardner bought to it the passion of a lifelong champion for social justice.
“She was just a firecracker,” Taylor added.
On Sept. 29, White-Gardner watched the first presidential debate as if she had a ringside seat.
“I can say she watched it with the excitement of somebody watching a boxing match, literally talking to the TV,” Taylor said.
Two days later, on Oct. 1, White-Gardner began to fall ill. A measure of how sick she felt that night came when she missed the weekly virtual Bible study group headed by her sister, Taylor’s mother. Taylor and the other members of the family were not unduly alarmed because White-Gardner had been unfailingly conscientious in following the CDC guidelines, wearing a mask and maintaining social distance and washing her hands.
“Nobody connected it with COVID,” Taylor recalled.
At 1 a.m. on Oct. 2, the president who had routinely ignored the precautions revealed he had tested positive for COVID-19. After being given an experimental antibody cocktail, he was hospitalized that evening.
White-Gardner was at home in Jersey City. Taylor texted her that Sunday morning to ask how she felt. White-Gardner responded by sending a picture of herself in bed. She was uncommonly good-looking even when she was ill.
“I thought the pic was beautiful, but it was to show me that she looked under the weather,” Taylor recalled.
White-Gardner told her niece that she was not at all well.
“She told me and others she’s feeling things she doesn’t recognize,” Taylor remembered.
White-Gardner arranged to see a pulmonologist the next day, Monday.
“She never made it,” Taylor said.
By Sunday evening, she had begun to have trouble breathing and reported experiencing a serious pain in her back. She went to the hospital and soon after was in the ICU, cut off from family and friends and everyone else save the medical team in full PPE.
That same evening, Trump emerged in a motorcade from what should have been quarantine at Walter Reed. He was quite likely still infectious as he sat with Secret Service agents inside an outsized black SUV. Video footage that Taylor saw showed him waving from behind the tinted windows to what he called “the great patriots” who had been keeping vigil and waving Trump 2020 flags outside the hospital. He was an adoration junkie getting his fix at whatever the cost to others. He was also somebody still saying that the guidelines did not apply to him, even if more than 200,000 Americans had died, even if thousands were fighting for their lives at that very moment.
“I was fuming,” Taylor said.
Taylor was nonetheless glad to hear the following day that Trump had been discharged and was back in the White House. Taylor took it as a sign that her aunt might also soon be on the mend and back at home.
“It was a feeling of hope,” Taylor recalled. “He’s up in age as well.”
Yet White-Gardner became only more ill as Trump exulted that he never felt better.
“You can’t help but juxtapose the two,” Taylor later said. “He’s in and out in a day or two. She’s in, and every day is a struggle.”
Taylor would have liked Trump to at least acknowledge others who were less lucky than himself.
“Maybe just a little humility for the people who are still in the hospital,” Taylor said. “There are people in there right now, where you just came from.”
As Trump appeared at rally after rally before cheering supporters, White-Gardner’s family could not catch so much as a glimpse of her.
“We couldn’t even go and stand in the parking lot,” Taylor said. “It’s not like there’s windows where we could have seen her. Nobody could see her.”
The evening White-Gardner died, Trump was in Tucson, addressing his second rally in Arizona that day.
“The pandemic, it’s rounding the turn,” he declared. “Vaccines are coming, and I look fine don’t I, you know? And we’ll get back to a normal life.”
As at the earlier Arizona rally and all his other rallies during the pandemic, the crowd was largely maskless and ignored social distancing.
“Why not just be safe?” Taylor asked.
Last Friday, Taylor noted that the country had reported a one-day record of 83,000 new infections. She watched news footage of Trump voting that day in person at the library in Palm Beach, Florida. He did so even though he had voted by mail in the primary, even though his campaign is posting ads urging people to use mail-in ballots to “vote like Trump.”
Taylor spoke of the many people who died in the pandemic before they could vote at all.
“Today’s the day he gets to do that and hundreds of thousands won't be able to,” she told The Daily Beast on Friday.
She said she dearly wished her aunt had been able to walk into a polling place just as Trump had.
“But she voted,” Taylor said.
White-Gardner’s absentee ballot was among some 20,000 that had been received by the Hudson County Board of Elections. A clerk there told The Daily Beast that dead voters are legally disqualified.
“It’s not supposed to count because you're supposed to be alive on Election Day,” the clerk said. “But if we don’t receive notice how are we going to know?”
A second clerk said that in practice it generally does not matter.
“It does but but it doesn’t, as long as the intent of voting is there,” he said.
Taylor noted her aunt had not contemplated giving credence to Byrne’s famous joke by voting from a Hudson County cemetery. She had sent in her ballot in the event she was on a ventilator or otherwise too ill to get her ballot in.
“She was doing that as a precaution,” Taylor said. “At the time, nobody was thinking she wasn't coming out.”
Whether or not her vote joins the tally, White-Gardner will have left us with one final lesson imparted in her way of teaching, by showing, not just telling. Taylor suggested that a ballot cast in whatever way for whichever candidate in this election is a cast vote in honor of Elaine Cunningham White-Gardner.
“If she would have the wherewithal to do that with everything she was going through…” Taylor said.
Her aunt’s final assignment as voiced by Taylor is simple.
“It’s like VOTE!’” Taylor said. “I don’t care who you vote for. I really don’t.”
What is important is that everybody who can vote does vote and that there be an honest final tally. The operative force then becomes what was at the core of White-Gardner’s life.
“That’s where you have the fairness kick in,” Taylor said.