Tío Pepe and COVID-19

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Tío Pepe and COVID-19

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Throughout July and August of 2020, my family went through the loss of my great uncle on my dad’s side of the family. We all called him as tío Pepe. Tío Pepe was an essential male figure throughout my dad’s life, and the only one of my grandmother’s brothers (my father’s mom) to maintain a close relationship with us. My grandmother passed away suddenly in 2013; my father and his siblings were not prepared, and it is still a sore subject for all of us to comprehend. Tío Pepe was the bridge that connected me to my grandmother and her history. Tío Pepe shared the same mannerisms, physical features, and life philosophies as her. My tío Pepe really helped my father’s family adapt to living in the United States after they moved from Laredo, Mexico in the mid-1970s. When he passed, the pain cut through generational experiences. It felt like a piece of me that was so deeply rooted, that I could not quite grasp because I was still trying to figure it out, was ripped away. Tío Pepe was in his 70s, so it’s not like he had an exceptional amount of time with us, but we thought it was enough. He was cognizant, independent, intelligent, and showed me new perspectives every time we talked. Losing him was like losing a vital source of my memory, my optimism, and my faith.

This is a little insight into what it’s like to mourn the death of loved one due to COVID-19. I’ve formatted this entry as a loose timeline to capture the dragged-out period of fear, uncertainty, doubt, and mourning. This experience cast a haze onto my family as we tried to navigate an unnavigable disease and global situation. We couldn’t make sense of it all; we couldn’t carry out our customary responses to a death in the family which left us feeling powerless. Personally, it made me feel like I was almost drowning. I felt like I was barely making it over the water to take brief puffs of air, but I was never comfortable nor safe. It was long, painful, and empty. While this process tested our individual emotional strength and optimism, it never weakened our ability to unite as a family. If anything, this experience fortified our family bond.

July 4, 2020 – The mayor and city government sent out several warnings against celebrating the holiday in large groups. I was spending the evening with my parents, brother, and his family when my mom received a text message from a cousin of ours describing how tío Pepe’s daughter, Beth, had tested positive for the coronavirus. Her children and boyfriend also tested positive, and that my tío Pepe and my tía (his wife) were awaiting any symptoms.

July 10, 2020 – We got the news that an ambulance would be taking my tío Pepe to the hospital. At this time, San Antonio was going through its second major spike in cases, with less and less medical supplies available for incoming patients. My family opted for an ambulance just so tío Pepe would have a better chance at getting a hospital bed and being treated quickly.

July 12 – July 18, 2020, tío Pepe’s first week in the hospital: He was unconscious, on a respirator, and kind of keeping steady. We hung on to the ‘no news is good news’ mantra, remaining optimistic, and continued to live our lives. We really did not think this disease would touch our family in any serious way.

On July 17, 2020: I officially canceled my gym membership. I was one of the selfish individuals impatiently waiting for, and incredibly excited by, the announcement that gyms would reopen earlier that summer. I frequented the gym almost every day. I was aware that the risk of COVID-19 was rather high at fitness gyms, but I thought nothing could touch me because I’m young, and I was desperate for some normalcy. And, while if I had contracted the disease my symptoms may not have been severe, tío Pepe’s hospitalization made me realize that I could have lived with the disease and infected someone like my tío and forced them to endure unimaginable pain. I canceled my membership because the reality of COVID finally hit me. It’s sad that it took my tío suffering for me to understand.

July 13 – July 17, 2020: We received news that tío Pepe had woken up from his induced state and pulled out all of the breathing tubes connected to his face, which threw a wrench into the progress he was making. The doctors decided to try to inject him with plasma from individuals who had already recovered from the virus and built up antibodies. The treatment seemed to be going well, and again, we remained optimistic.

July 20 – July 24, 2020, the week of his death: On July 20, a Monday, my cousin Gabby called my parents to let us know that tío Pepe’s health had taken a swift turn downward. Tío Pepe’s organs had gotten infected. Every day leading up to his death ended with a phone call update, further informing us of his degrading state. Gabby earned her master’s degree in Public Health; she knew exactly what to ask the doctors and what their responses meant behind the cushioned language. I knew that Gabby was further sugar coating these messages to her parents and mine. I texted her separately asking her to tell it to me straight. She informed me that things were not looking good at all. She told me not to keep my hopes up. It was cold, but it was the most honest and reliable set of news I had gotten throughout tío Pepe’s time in the hospital. For four days, we were all hanging onto our phones for the next call or text message update. It was quiet; the uncertainty lingered and distracted me from everything.

Tío Pepe passed away Thursday morning July 23, 2020. I had been working as a research assistant for St. Mary’s University throughout the summer. My mother received a phone call from my dad with the news while I was in the middle of conducting an oral history for the research project. My mom cracked open the door to my room but quickly realized that I was still on Zoom and walked away. As soon as I heard my door open I knew exactly what happened. I carried on with the rest of the oral history, closed out my work for the day, and kept to myself. When I clocked out I emailed my supervisors of the situation. I hadn’t told them when he initially contracted the disease, nor the roller coaster of updates throughout his time there. My supervisors were very understanding, and I took the next couple of days to myself.

I went for a rather long run that afternoon to clear my mind. I came home, showered, and tried to distract myself by watching baseball with my parents. My dad came home and hugged us, also acting as if everything was no big deal. My dad frequently shared music with tío Pepe to let each other know that they were thinking about each other. From my point of view, I think this was a way for tío Pepe to check up on his nephew and remind him to keep his head up. My dad had put his phone to charge and began talking to us in the living room. I got up to go to the kitchen and passed by his phone, which was locked. When I passed by, his Pandora started playing “Lead Me Home” by Jamey Johnson. This happened completely by itself; I did not touch it and my dad was in the other room. Here’s a snippet of the song:

I have seen my last tomorrow
I am holding my last breath
Goodbye, sweet world of sorrow
My new life, begins with death
I am standing on the mountain
I can hear the angel’s songs
I am reaching over Jordon
Take my hand, Lord lead me home

All my burdens, are behind me
I have prayed, my final pray
Don't you cry, over my body
Cause that ain't me, lying there

No, I am standing on the mountain
I can hear the angels’ songs
I am reaching over Jordon
Take my hand, Lord lead me home

I am standing (Lord, I am standing) on the mountain (on the mountain)
I can hear (I can hear the angels songs) the angels songs
I am reaching over Jordon, (over Jordon)
Take my hand, Lord lead me home
Take my hand, Lord lead me home

We all started crying uncontrollably. We felt like my tío Pepe was letting us know that he was okay and that he’s still thinking about us.

July 27, 2020: My sister in-law and I were looking for a way to comfort tío Pepe’s daughter, Beth, and his wife. My sister in-law thought shadow boxes with photos of tío Pepe, decorated with cardstock flowers, and a sweet message would be a way for us to honor his memory and share in his family’s grieving process. On the box we made for Beth, the message reads “Dad, Grandpa, Best Friend;” on the box we made for his wife the message reads “Amor Eterno” (eternal love). The shadow boxes took us pretty much all day to make—completely worth it. We spent the evening telling stories about my tío Pepe and just spending quality family time together.

The shadow boxes are pictured in this post. We used pictures from Beth’s Facebook. Tío Pepe was also very active on Facebook, which was kind of surprising for his age. He was very politically active and critical of our public institutions. According to my dad, tío Pepe has always kept up with current events and sympathized with the Chicano Movement; he was pretty about it, if you know what I mean. The last time he reached out to me on the social media platform was to commemorate our “friendiversary.” That was also the last time I engaged in one-on-one communication with him, which really shreds me up inside. He reached out because he knew that I was stuck at home working and attending grad school. He was always thinking of everyone and our individual challenges, reminding us to keep going.

The shadow boxes were a surprise to Beth and her mom. I’ve included the screenshot of our brief conversation shortly after dropping them off. It hurt that I couldn’t get off and hug her. I saw that the just looking at the boxes invoked so much emotion in Beth.

August 7, 2020, the funeral service: Our family had to wait two weeks before tío Pepe’s body could be released from the hospital. Throughout those two weeks it felt like I was floating. When you mourn a death time just stops for a couple of days; everything is really out of its element. But mourning a COVID death, having to wait to properly give your loved one a respectful service and not being able to fall into the arms of your relatives, prolonged this motionless feeling. If felt like a comet was slowly crashing into my core; I could feel every bit of my earth tear apart and float away.

The service was set up like a drive-in movie. The funeral home had a screen outside of the building, a radio station to air the service, and a livestream on their website. We all drove up to the screen and either tuned in or played the livestream to listen. We had the choice to experience the service inside the building with tío Pepe’s daughter, wife, and grandchildren. However, they all had just gotten over COVID-19 so most of us stayed in our cars. I didn’t think the service would hit me as hard because of the physical distance and technological filter. My family is Catholic, I grew up Catholic, but I haven’t been the most devout member of the church. My tío Pepe lived one street over from the church we all grew up with. By “we” I mean three generations of my family. The deacon who led the service has known my family for at least 20 years. To sum up what I’m getting at, our church and Catholic culture is deeply rooted our family history. The service reduced us all to our childhood; we felt vulnerable. I remember every single prayer and recited all of them word-for-word, English and Spanish. The last time I had recited these prayers was for my grandmother’s funeral. Except this time, I had to go through these emotions on my own. It felt like someone was shooting thumbtacks at me, through me. Tío Pepe’s wife, daughter, grandson, and sister each wrote a few words on behalf of tío Pepe. I don’t know which set of words hurt the most. They all spoke from the heart; they were so raw and resonated so deeply with all of us. I wanted so badly to hug everyone. I was so incredibly mad that we were all put in that situation, to have to have our hearts pulled and constricted at the same time. Tío Pepe’s grandson, Joseph, and his girlfriend are expecting their first baby; tío Pepe would have been a great grandfather. Joseph spent a lot of time with tío Pepe, almost every single day, and he really embodies his pensive, mild nature. His words were strong and grounding. One thing Joseph said that I think really describes how tío Pepe carried himself is, “My grandpa always reminded me to do the right thing.” Tío Pepe treated everything and every situation with a level mind and fairness.

No family, no honest and responsible person should have had to experience such ungraspable pain that never really seems to heal. To this day, my family has not physically come together to fill in the gaps in our hearts that this experience left behind.

Late August, a virtual birthday commemoration: A couple of weeks after his funeral, tío Pepe would have turned 71. Gabby, the recent Public Health graduate, decided to make my tío Pepe’s favorite cake and offered one to each household. She scheduled a Zoom meeting for all of us to sit, talk, eat, and cry. My dad and the older relatives in my family brought out old photos of from their early years living in the United States. We each shared our favorite memory of tío Pepe. Here’s mine: before I went off to college Tío Pepe told my dad not to worry about me because he sees me as a ‘visionary.’ He reassured my dad and I that I have a good head on my shoulders, that I’m independent, and that if I really put my mind to it I could do anything. That was the first time anyone had given me words of encouragement going into adulthood—or really treated me like an adult. I snapped a picture of my dad talking to our tía Elda (Tío Pepe’s sister) about life in Mexico and the little arguments they’d get into as my dad was growing up. Although we were separated by a screen, this sort of companionship really helped us reconnect.

I chose to include this story for this archive to humanize the broader health and historical context of the pandemic. This was both the easiest and hardest thing for me to create for this archive. The easiest because I was able to let the words flow out of my heart and be typed onto a word document; the hardest because I’ve realized just how ripe these feelings and memories still are for me. My emotions and memories of late July and early August have not fully healed. It’s been hard to accept someone’s death without physical closure. There were no last goodbyes, no hugs, no close contact of any kind to seal the wound in our hearts. I’m still longing to physically embrace my family; but for them I’d wait as long as I have to in order to do that safely.

I write this as another way to connect with them. To share my deep feelings and let them know that they’re not the only ones who have felt or are feeling this way. Real people, real families exist within the news stories, academic articles, and everchanging statistics. Tío Pepe was much more than a statistic; my family is much more than a statistic.

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November 2020

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