Indian Country Today
It started in a parking lot at a Firestone auto store in Gallup, New Mexico. Lena Hildreth and Henry Hildreth Sr. exchanged glances while sitting in their vehicles.
Finally, Lena made the first move in what turned into a decades-long relationship full of love and memories.
“My dad would not say anything. He would look at her,” her son Brandon Hildreth said of the couple’s initial encounter. “So my mom was the one who had to talk to him first.”
Lena and Henry were married for 35 years and were the parents of five: Gregory Dodge, Henry Hildreth Jr., Brandon Hildreth, Jerrick Hildreth and Gwendolyn Jones. They also had seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Lena Hildreth, Navajo, was a victim of COVID-19 and died on July 22. She was 65 and less than a month shy of her Aug. 16 birthday.
She devoted her life to her family, such as following her husband to Reno, Nevada, for the 1997 Indian National Finals Rodeo, where he competed in saddle bronc riding. She also passionately cheered on the sports teams at Wingate High School in Fort Wingate, New Mexico, because her husband worked there.
And she was especially a committed, adoring mother.
Every time Brandon Hildreth would come home to visit, he and his mom would go on long walks together in the morning and at night.
“That’s one of the memories I cherish spending with her,” he said. “Most of the time we just talked and just laughed and enjoyed the beauty of where we lived.”
Brandon has been in the military for 19 years, 14 of which were on active duty, and is now in the Army Reserve.
“She’s the one reason why I stayed in because she kept encouraging me,” he said.
He said he and his siblings grew up attending boarding schools and that his mom was very active in his school life. Lena even greeted their friends as if they were her children.
“She would say ‘my child’ to them and then give hugs and encouragement. Just everything that a mother would do to their own child, she would do that to our friends,” he said.
Lena Hildreth worked in different areas of education for many years. She was on the Baca Community School board in Prewitt, New Mexico. She was on the Parent Advisory Council and worked at the St. Bonaventure Catholic School in Thoreau, New Mexico, for about 10 years as a teacher’s aide.
She retired early about five years ago because of knee problems.
“She got along with kids, even parents and everybody,” her husband said.
Brandon said she was the second youngest of 12 siblings and was looked at as the matriarch of her family. When her nieces’ and nephews’ mothers passed away, Lena provided her motherly nature to them.
In turn, Brandon said his mom and dad were aware of all the high-school graduations, funerals and weddings.
“Constantly just being in the know of what’s going on, constantly being around family and just traveling to be with people,” he said.
Brandon said it’s hard to describe her because she was filled with so much kindness and was everything to him.
“She was the most loving person I guess anyone could expect or want from a mother,” he said.
Lena lived in Coolidge, New Mexico, with her husband and son Jerrick when she contracted the virus around early June. Brandon was also temporarily staying with them.
Lena and her son Brandon went to a chapter house in Steamboat, Arizona, to help pack food and groceries for three days. It was the first time she went out publicly.
“She was afraid to go somewhere because she stayed home all the time. She wouldn’t let us go anywhere,” her husband said.
Henry said the week after Father’s Day, Lena said she wasn’t feeling good. She initially believed that she didn’t have the coronavirus and didn’t want to go to the hospital.
But Henry asked their daughter Gwendolyn to talk to her mom and convince her to be checked out. She eventually did go to Indian Health Services at the Gallup Indian Medical Center where health officials said Lena’s oxygen levels were low and placed her on an IV but released her later that day.
A few days later, Lena was notified that she tested positive for the coronavirus and Henry and Jerrick tested positive too. Brandon tested negative and tended to the family.
“He was taking care of us, making breakfast, lunch and supper. And taking care of the horses and the dogs,” Henry said.
About a week and a half later, Brandon tested positive. But Henry felt better and helped take care of him.
Henry and his sons soon recovered.
Meanwhile, Lena was at the medical center and in their last conversation, she asked Henry if she could come home. She told him how they wouldn’t allow her to move and how her body was itching.
He recounted the center wanting to put her on a ventilator and her not wanting to. However, her daughter Gwendolyn and Henry Jr. persuaded her to undergo the process.
Henry said she was flown out that night to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she remained on the ventilator for more than three weeks.
“They keep telling us she’s doing okay, then the next few days she’s not doing too well. Everybody’s just praying for her,” he said.
He said the hospital also gave her medications to help keep her calm.
“She didn’t want to get on that ventilator,” he said.
Then in late July, the hospital informed the family that she wasn’t going to make it. Henry and the children traveled to Albuquerque to see her for the last time.
The hospital wouldn’t allow them inside, so they talked to Lena on Facetime at Gwendolyn’s hotel conference room.
“She was a good woman and got along with everybody on my father’s side, my mom’s side, all the relatives, people at Wingate High School. She was a good person,” Henry said.
Kalle Benallie, Navajo, is a reporter-producer at Indian Country Today's Phoenix bureau. Follow her on Twitter: @kallebenallie or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Benallie was once the opening act for a Cirque Du Soleil show in Las Vegas.
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