‘Creator let them go together’: Wheeler family remembers elders

Gloria and Larry Wheeler, Northern Arapaho, died from COVID-19 on April 20, 2020. Larry was 78 and Gloria was 74. (Photo courtesy of the Wheeler Family)

Savannah Maher

PORTRAITS FROM THE PANDEMIC

Savannah Maher
Special to Indian Country Today

For Gloria and Larry Wheeler, family always came first. They hosted annual summertime reunions at their home in Ethete, Wyoming. Their grandchildren and great-grandchildren looked forward to fireworks, fish frys, and stunning views of the nearby Wind River mountains.

“We would always meet there,” said their granddaughter Gretchen Nomee. “Food would be cooking, we'd all be around the table visiting and laughing. There was always laughter in that house.”

Relatives of all ages looked to Gloria and Larry for advice, spiritual guidance, and a soft place to land during challenging times.

“They were always running somebody somewhere, to appointments or errands,” their daughter Laurencine Felter remembered. “They would get up, have their breakfast early and then go pick up whoever they were going to help that day.”

“Gloria was our prayer at every dinner, every gathering. They were the elders in our family,” said Regina Antelope, Larry’s sister and Gloria’s sister-in-law. “And it’s like, what are we going to do now?”

On April 20, after a weeks-long battle with COVID-19, Gloria and Larry Wheeler each died of the illness just 40 minutes apart. They were 74 and 78 years old, and had been married for more than 50 years.

On the same day, Gloria and Larry’s eldest daughter Dawn Wheeler also died of COVID-19. Fourteen members of the extended Wheeler family were infected at one time, and five had to be hospitalized. Those who survived have recovered, but some are still experiencing long-term complications of the illness on top of grieving their loved-ones.

Dawn, Gloria, and Larry Wheeler died from COVID-19 on April 20, 2020. (Photo courtesy of the Wheeler Family)
Dawn, Gloria, and Larry Wheeler died from COVID-19 on April 20, 2020. (Photo courtesy of the Wheeler Family)

Both citizens of the Northern Arapaho Tribe, Gloria and Larry met as teenagers on the Wind River Reservation.

“They were always together, going down to the river. He was always fishing then, too, and she would be there with him,” Antelope said

Loved ones describe Larry and Gloria as a loving couple and a good team, especially when it came to feeding the family. Larry was an avid outdoorsman, who took all of his children and grandchildren along on hunting and fishing trips.

“When they’d go fishing or hunting, we’d wait for them,” Cheryl Oldman, Larry and Gloria’s daughter, remembered. “My mom knew how to cook deer and game meat real good. She knew how to cook the fish real good.”

“We'd come home with our fish and grandma would already be ready. She would already have everything to fry those fish up, she would already have her sides ready,” said their granddaughter Cherish Nomee.

Larry served in the Marine Corps for four years as a young man, and made the rest of his career at Ford Motor Corps. Gloria worked as a caregiver for the elderly at Westward Heights Care Center in Lander, Wyoming, until her retirement.

Both were devout Christians and active members of their church. Gloria loved gospel music. As parents they were nurturing but firm, even after their children were grown.

“The way we were raised, we didn’t cuss around them, didn’t smoke around them,” Oldman laughed.

Gloria and Larry Wheeler, Northern Arapaho, died from COVID-19 on April 20, 2020. Larry was 78 and Gloria was 74. (Photo courtesy of the Wheeler Family)
Gloria and Larry Wheeler, Northern Arapaho, died from COVID-19 on April 20, 2020. Larry was 78 and Gloria was 74. (Photo courtesy of the Wheeler Family)

“They still parented us all the way up until they were gone. They still got after us. I'm glad they did, because they had us to where we knew what respect was and we respected them,” Felter said.

As grandparents, Gloria and Larry were more lenient.

“Uncle Larry always held my kids when they were babies and fed them ice cream and sweet stuff before they were supposed to have that,” said Julia Antelope, Gloria and Larry’s niece. “He just loved all the babies in the family.”

Charla Moss, Gloria’s eldest daughter and Larry’s step-daughter, cherishes the relationship she had with them both later in life.

“I got to know my mother really well … she was always there for me when I needed advice on a lot of stuff that was going on in my life and down through the years, she became my best friend,” Moss said. “Same with Larry, my stepdad. When I came for a visit, he said to me 'Charla, whenever you need a place to stay, this home is always open to you. You don't have to worry about anything.’ And I've always held that close to my heart because I knew Larry cared for me.”

Now that Larry and Gloria have passed, their granddaughter Ashley Wheeler, who also lost her mother Dawn Wheeler to COVID-19, says the family has a lot of healing to do.

“They cared about everyone. They cared about my cousins and their kids, grandkids, they adored the whole family and did everything they could for us,” Wheeler said. “They kept everyone together. Now they’re not here anymore. I think everybody just feels lost.”

But Regina Antelope says Larry and Gloria gave their loved-ones the tools they need to make it through this time of mourning: prayer, faith and the ability to lean on one another.

“The creator let them go together. They even waited for Dawn. They took Dawn before the day was over, they took her with them,” she said through tears. “So, God was in control all that time. To me, the way I can look at it to get some comfort is, Larry and Gloria and Dawn sacrificed for everybody to look and start changing their ways and see how serious this virus is. They didn't go in vain.”

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Savannah Maher, Mashpee Wampanoag, is a tribal affairs reporter for Wyoming Public Media and Report for America corps member. She's contributed to New Hampshire Public Radio, High Country News, and NPR’s Code Switch blog. Twitter: @savannah_maher. Email: smaher4@uwyo.edu

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