'Short Doesn't Mean Nothing'
Fifty-six-year-old Serpil Wilson was on the verge of deleting her online dating profile after a string of bad dates. She had reentered the dating pool years after a divorce. And when her kids went off to college, she figured it was time. But online dating was frustrating.
"I was kind of giving up," Wilson said.
Just as she was about to call it quits, she got a new message. It was from a man named Keith Davis.
"And then he said, 'I really like your profile, can we meet?'" Wilson said.
The day of the date was sort of a disaster. She had to work late, and then her car battery died. She started to panic when it got close to the time they were supposed to meet. She didn’t want Davis to think she was ditching him, so she let him know what happened.
He wanted to help. Wilson actually has a voicemail he left her from that day as they were trying to figure it all out.
Eventually she got to the restaurant and the date. The date she told herself would be her last attempt at online dating ended up being just that. It was clear: The two were a match.
"He was a very determined person, and I am," Wilson said. "He was tenacious. I am. Although we are from two different cultures, we were the same."
Wilson, a medical physicist, grew up in Turkey. Davis, an architect, was a native Charlottean. Their 16-month romance was a whirlwind. They traveled to three national parks, they saw beaches and the mountains.
A year went by, and Keith proposed. They celebrated with friends and family at a small party. The couple loved to dance. In a video from the celebration, they're laughing and smiling as they dance. She's wearing a bright red dress, He's in a black jacket and slacks. They look so comfortable with each other — and very much in love.
They were supposed to be married in April of 2020, but then the pandemic hit. Originally, they planned to tie the knot in South Carolina, where Wilson lives. But then restrictions started to tighten even more.
"'Everything is canceling. I feel I'm married to you; I don't care. You know, we can wait,'" she remembers saying. "And he felt the same way."
Around the time they decided to postpone their wedding, people were starting to wear masks and practice social distancing. Supplies like toilet paper and hand sanitizer were hard to come by.
What made Wilson and Davis such a great couple was that they loved to work on projects together. And they liked to come up with solutions. They had an idea: What if they could produce a hand sanitizer that met CDC and FDA approval and could help with supply demand?
Wilson drew inspiration from her Turkish roots. In the culture she grew up in, it was common for people to wear kolonya, a fragrance that often smells of lemon or lavender — and also includes alcohol to kill germs. Turkey actually saw a rise in kolonya sales in the early days of the pandemic.
With the help of family and friends, Wilson and Davis worked on their own take of the product, which they named kleanYa.
But then, in late May, Davis got sick. It was COVID-19. He had to go to the hospital. His oxygen levels were so low he needed to be placed on a ventilator.
He was in the hospital for weeks and was mostly unresponsive. He was eventually taken off the ventilator and, for a moment, Wilson felt something she hadn’t in a while: hope.
"I used to talk to his mom on the way to work, and we were talking about which rehabilitation center we would choose so I could visit him on my way to work and on the way back," Wilson said.
But that feeling didn’t last long.
Davis took a sudden turn for the worse. His blood pressure crashed. The family got a call to come to the hospital — this time to say goodbye.
Hospital restrictions were tight because of the pandemic. Wilson was on her fiance's approved list to be in the room. But when his son and daughter were able to rush to the hospital, she insisted on swapping out her place for his children. Davis was Wilson's soulmate she says, and she wanted to make sure his children got to say their goodbyes in person.
Keith Davis died on June 25, 2020, at the age of 57.
"I just wanted to continue to do the things that he and I — we would do," Wilson said. "We were going to go learn sailing that September, so I just threw myself into a sailing course. It's not the same. I did as much of the stuff that I was able to."
She started to think about kleanYa again —and the groundwork for the product she had started with Davis.
"I want people to know about him," Wilson said.
With the help of family and friends, a website was built. A logo was created. Working on kleanYa turned into a way for Wilson to process her grief.
But it wasn’t easy. One of the most challenging parts was getting approval from the Food and Drug Administration. And then there was the fact that she was working on a project that was a constant reminder that the man she had planned to spend the rest of her life with wasn’t there.
"There were several times that I was like, I just want to pull the plug now," Wilson said. "You have work, and you have life. And I mean, on top of it, you have this support that you missed."
She pushed through.
She decided one night to stay up as long it would take to finish the FDA paperwork. She hit submit. Within a week, she was notified she could move on to the next step of the registration process. She felt like Davis had been there with her the entire time. When she got the news the FDA paperwork was filled out correctly, she said she looked up.
"I'm like, 'Hey, you're there,'" she remembers saying. "'You're with me.' I felt that way, I mean, so many times."
Wilson's goal is to turn kleanYa into a nonprofit that will support other families who have lost loved ones to COVID-19. She hopes to reach that nonprofit status by Dec. 11, 2021. That will mark the anniversary of launching kleanYa — and it’s Davis' birthday.
Wilson said she knows Davis is still watching over her. One of the ways she stays connected to him is by listening to his voice. She kept all 27 voicemails he left her over the course of their relationship.
"I listen every day," she said. "It's a ritual. Every day I listen to his voice."
Their relationship was short in time, but Wilson says it was meaningful in what she and Davis were able to accomplish together.
"It was very short, but sometimes short doesn't mean nothing," she said. "And he's here in spirit."
When Wilson listens to Davis' voice, when she works on the product she had dreamed up with the person she loves, she says she feels like she can get through another day. She says Davis was a really great guy — and then corrects herself.
He is a great guy, she says. Having known him is part of what gives her the strength to keep putting one foot in front of the other.