On the surface, these December mornings look a lot like the winter mornings of years past for Jimmy Morrison. He leaves his home in Pelham, Tennessee, around 2:30 a.m. to fight the time change and start work at the Volkswagen plant hours before sunrise. He still pulls long shifts fixing damaged vehicles, a job with hours that get expanded during the holidays.
But, for a 55-year-old man who describes himself as easygoing, a sadness follows him on the long commutes. It is there at work, too.
"I still can't believe he's gone," Morrison said. " ... It's like you got a hole in yourself. Something's missing."
At the start of this month, Morrison was in the final days of recovery from COVID-19. He had been sicker than he could ever remember, he said, worse than when he was hospitalized for pneumonia.
While Morrison's health was improving, though, his best friend at work was getting progressively sicker.
In a 21-county region of Southeast Tennessee, Northwest Georgia and Northeast Alabama, more than 1,000 people have died from the virus since the pandemic began.
Morrison and his friend Andy Geer both got sick with the virus in mid-November. The two worked together at Volkswagen, both decade-long employees. Morrison even trained Geer. They hit it off immediately as friends, Morrison said.
"I don't know. We just stuck together like glue," he said.
The friends kept in communication by phone or FaceTime as the effects of the virus began to appear. Morrison started getting hot flashes, then severe chills. His fever ran up to 102 degrees, he said, but he still felt as though he was freezing.
"I got so chilled I was just shaking, bad. Really, really bad," he said. "So I got in the shower and I turned it on as hot as I could stand it, which was pretty hot, to try and warm up. There's no telling how long I stayed in there. It was a long time."
The temperature swings gave way to nausea, Morrison said. He did not seek medical care partly because his wife works as a nurse. He stayed at home until his symptoms slowly began to improve.
"After the fourth day, I started feeling a little bit better. And a little bit better. And a little bit better every day," Morrison said. "Where Andy, he just went straight down. I just can't believe it."
Morrison's friend, two years younger, was hospitalized. He struggled to breathe.
One night, in the final week of November, Morrision spoke to Geer over the phone. Things were not looking good, Morrison said.
Tennessee cases worsen
Tennessee has spent much of the past two weeks as the worst state in the nation for coronavirus, as measured by the seven-day average of new daily cases per 100,000 residents.
"I said, 'Andy, you got to keep fighting. Don't give up,'" he said, recalling their phone call.
The encouragement did not change the tone of the conversation.
"He said, 'Jimmy, I ain't got no fight left in me. I've given it all to it. ... I just really don't think I'm going to make it,'" Morrison said. "I said, 'Man, I just wish you wouldn't talk like that.' But I guess he knew."
Geer died from the coronavirus on Dec. 1.
Morrision has since returned to work with no lingering symptoms from his infection. Like tens of thousands of residents in Southeast Tennessee and millions of Americans, he is left wondering what to make of a virus that seemingly affects every person in a different way, with a different outcome.
"I just go on. I mean, I don't know how to explain it," Morrison said.
Contact Wyatt Massey at email@example.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.
Chattanooga mental health experts share tips on dealing with grief, stress of holiday season amid COVID-19