When 64-year-old twins Cleon and Leon Boyd became two of the first Vermonters to die after Covid-19 struck a year ago, news of their bittersweet bond echoed from their Deerfield Valley homes of Dover and Wilmington to the farthest reaches of the state and nation.
“They boiled sap at the family farm, groomed the ski slopes and played country music,” The New York Times reported in May.
“In the Boyds’ case, a double dose of tragedy quickly spread,” The Washington Post wrote in September.
“When the coronavirus pandemic hit their small town, it wasn’t just one brother who became infected, but both,” People magazine reported in December.
“We knew they were very friendly,” Leon’s widow, Pam, says today, “but we didn’t realize how many lives they touched.”
Hundreds who couldn’t gather for a memorial service because of pandemic safety guidelines climbed into cars, motorcycles, tractors, police cruisers, and fire and highway trucks a year ago to circle town in back-to-back caravans. The first for Cleon, who died April 3, 2020, took place that Palm Sunday. The second for Leon, who died April 9, 2020, followed last Easter.
“I have never seen so many cars,” local Rep. Laura Sibilia said at the time. “There are some people who make a quiet yet big mark.”
A year later, the memories live on. That can be comforting — and challenging.
“You turn around and everything is him,” Pam says of all the ordinary yet triggering objects she faced at home before returning to her cafeteria job last June. “The first month I went back, it was extremely hard. People ask questions, and you have to tell the story over and over. But I couldn’t sit in the house anymore. It’s been a long time, yet I’m still working to get over it.”
Leon’s high school sweetheart and wife of 40 years isn’t speaking solely of the loss. She and nearly a dozen relatives also caught the coronavirus, making them perhaps the hardest-hit family in Vermont. (Their local per capita rate last spring was more than four times the state average.) Continuing symptoms ranging from coughing to “brain fog” to changes in smell and taste are lingering as long as the grief.
“Everybody’s aftereffects are different, but I think the one thing we all have in common is being extremely exhausted,” Cleon’s daughter Meghan says. “You can wake up some days and not want to do anything, or you can take a walk and feel like you just ran a marathon.”
‘It’s helping people understand what this really can do’
That hasn’t slowed the cycle of the seasons. Take the recent freeze and thaw at the sugarhouse, the last place the family gathered before falling ill. A few members have returned to boil maple syrup, this time with physical distancing and open doors.
“Other than that, we couldn’t do Thanksgiving; we couldn’t do Christmas,” Meghan says. “There’s not really much we’ve been able to do.”
“We’re all trying to be so careful,” Leon’s son Justin says. “Probably a little too careful.”
“We have a lot more fear,” Meghan says, “than people who haven’t experienced it.”
Life was different a year ago. The twins were happily working, having spent decades as equipment operators for several excavating and construction companies and, following in the tracks of their late father, grooming area ski trails.
Then Cleon developed a cough he dismissed as just another symptom of his chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Leon, for his part, felt lethargic but figured he needed to recuperate after receiving a heart stent only weeks earlier.
By April, the twins found themselves in separate hospital isolation wards as two of the state’s first confirmed cases of Covid-19. Only doctors and nurses in hazmat suits were allowed at their bedsides when the brothers died six days apart, unknowing of each other’s condition.
“Cleon would always say he was the oldest,” Leon’s son Justin told the press after explaining his father was the one with the longer beard. “But Dad would say they saved the best for last.”
“It’s been heartbreaking,” Meghan said just after testing positive herself. “But it’s helping people understand what this really can do.”
The obituaries noted the two would be missed by many — their mother, Janice Batchelder; their siblings Buck, Theresa, Carol and Tammy; Cleon’s children Meghan, Christopher, Naomi and Zach; Leon’s wife Pam and children Justin and Jenny; and a growing gaggle of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“I know we’re not the only family to experience this, but it’s hard to wrap your mind around the fact they died from a virus,” Meghan says. “Every time I could take my dad to the doctor or the hospital, he always got better, and this time he didn’t. There have been things that have given me a little bit of comfort, but I can’t say closure. He hasn’t even been laid to rest yet.”
As she awaits a service, Meghan has laminated and framed every press clipping, doing so with a “Boyd Strong” tattoo featuring the twins’ birth and death dates inscribed strategically on her left forearm.
“The reason I did that is because it’s always going to be closest to my heart,” she said.
But even with the constant reminder, Meghan often forgets.
“My dad would call all of us kids every single night, and my time was always right around 5:30. Here we are almost a year later, and there are still days when the phone rings and I jump because I’m thinking it’s him calling me.”
‘That’s where my dad found his peace’
Justin relates. He was trying to fix something in the garage when he grew frustrated at his inability to figure it out.
“Not even thinking, I picked up my cellphone, scrolled through the contacts and found Dad’s. I went to hit it to call and … I sat there for five minutes and I kept telling myself I can’t call him anymore.”
Every family member has a similar story about a moment that brings the twins back to life yet reminds they aren’t here anymore.
“Doin’ what we were taught,” Cleon’s son Christopher recently wrote in a Facebook post from the sugarhouse. “Be happy with what u have while u have it.”
With the recent discovery and distribution of vaccines, the family hopes they’ll eventually be able to hold a service at the farm. There, a shared black marble headstone is engraved with the George Strait song title “A Love Without End, Amen” and the words “Not Too Bad for A Couple of Farm Boys.”
In the meantime, they’re remembering the twins by forming the “Boyd’s Beards” team in the current Vermont Beardies online fundraiser for Make-A-Wish, the statewide children’s charity the family has supported for three decades.
Others in the community are equally creative. The Hermitage Club at Haystack Mountain, for example, recently renamed one of its ski trails “Boyd’s Beard” in recognition of the two working many an overnight to groom the valley’s rough terrain.
“It’s absolutely humbling,” Justin says, “for a big corporation like that to think of a small-town person.”
The family also appreciates the little things. Pam and her daughter Jenny can tell you about spotting a cardinal outside their home after never seeing one there before.
“They say they’re somebody visiting you from heaven,” Pam says. “We aren’t real churchgoing people, but we believe. I just know that’s where Leon is.”
Meghan, for her part, talks of two butterflies that frequented her fields last summer.
“That could have just been a fluke thing, but I’d say, ‘Hey, Dad, hey, Uncle Leon, how you doing today?’ They’d stop and flutter for a minute and then fly off.”
With that, her eyes would gravitate up.
“My dad always loved the sky — the sunrises, the sunsets and, at night, the stars. That’s where my dad found his peace, and that’s been passed down to all of us. When the sun rises and you feel the warmth, I have a lot more appreciation because that brings me closer to him.”