In the year the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic, millions of families witnessed the excruciating rise and fall of the US outbreak – waves of disease that leave countless wounds long after hospitalizations and infections have subsided.
Some endured the tragedy more than others, and several family members lost to covid-19 within a few months.
For the Phoenix Aldaco family, it rocked a generation of brothers.
All three men – Jose, Heriberto Jr., and Gonzalo Aldaco – were lost at different times in the pandemic: first in July, then in December, and finally last month.
More than 530,000 people have died in the United States. Even when millions are vaccinated, families mourn the new loss of a loved one every day.
“These three men drove the family. They were like the strong pillars, the bones of the family. And now they’re all gone, ”said Miguel Lerma, 31, whose grandfather Jose Aldaco raised him as his own son.
To Lerma, her death feels like an epic American story of resilience, courage, and hard work. All three came to the US from Mexico and have made it home for their families over the decades.
“They literally showed that you can come out of nowhere and struggle through it all and still build a life for yourself and your children,” said Lerma. “It just annoys me that your story has to end like this.”
Jose’s daughter Brenda Aldaco said that with so many Americans, the extent of any death and its repercussions are profound.
“If you really think of each and every person, what did that person mean to someone? It’s just overwhelming. It’s overwhelming, ”she said.
A family ready to create memories
Jose Aldaco, 69, when he died, arrived in the southwest in the early 1980s when Brenda was a child, followed by his sister Delia and older brother Gonzalo, both of whom had left Mexico not long before him.
“They came here to have a better opportunity – I don’t even want to say a more comfortable life – but a more attainable, elevated life than what they had,” said Priscilla Gomez, Jose’s niece and Delia’s daughter.
Gomez regards all three uncles as central figures – symbols of strength – for them and the entire extended family.
“They were so consistent, the most enduring male characters for me,” said Gomez.
Large family gatherings were a staple in Aldaco households.
“Those three men, when they were in the same room, it was just a good time,” said Lerma, a dance instructor in Phoenix.
Reunions and holidays often turned into joyful, musical events, with Gonzalo, the eldest, taking out the guitar and the family dancing and singing together until the wee hours of the morning.
“If someone had a birthday they would sing ‘Las Mañanitas’. … They were just always ready to create memories for us, ”recalls Gomez.
Lerma said what Jose most cultivated was a family in which love and affection were the main currency. “He taught us to be so in love,” said Lerma. “He was that warmth. He was that love for us. “
Wave after wave in Arizona
After a calm spring, the pandemic hit Arizona with terrible force – the first of two waves to tear through a state where pandemic precautions were slow to come in and quickly disappear. Lerma said his family heeded the warnings.
“We were a family who accepted that the pandemic was real,” he said. “We took it seriously.”
Jose and his wife Virginia lived at their daughter Brenda’s home, where they raised their teenage grandson.
Brenda’s father worked on his job in a hotel restaurant a few days a week but was mostly retired. “He was perfectly capable – gardening, cooking every day, and jogging in the park three times a week,” said Brenda.
Despite the family’s efforts to stay safe, the virus found its way into their household this summer. Jose was the first to get sick, but soon all four were sick and isolated in their bedrooms.
They waited for test results. Both elders got worse and worse. When the bedroom door was open, Brenda’s son heard his grandfather.
“My son would say, ‘Mom, Abuelo doesn’t sound good … He sounds like he’s dying, “Brenda recalled.
However, she felt paralyzed. Her mother insisted that she didn’t want him to go to the hospital.
Eventually Lerma, who lives separately and had no Covid, put on a mask and came to persuade Virginia and Jose to go to the hospital. Lerma found Jose lying in bed, covered with a sheet, with a sky-high fever.
“He forced quick breaths to try to get all of the air he could into his lungs,” Lerma said. “That’s when I started to freak out and lose it.”
Virginia and Jose were hospitalized. A few days later, Virginia was fine enough to go home, but Jose’s condition only worsened.
The last time Lerma saw him was via FaceTime while Jose was wheeled around the hospital for life support. “To lose my father This is what heartbreak is, ”said Lerma. “That’s what the sad songs are about.”
Three brothers – ‘family men’ – gone
At the time of Jose’s death, the virus had already killed around 150,000 Americans. Like so many other families, the Aldacos were unable to conduct a proper funeral.
“It felt like his death was just swept under the rug, like it was just another statistic,” Lerma said.
Priscilla Gomez said she will never forget how her mother answered the call when she learns of her brother’s death.
“Not being there in person to comfort or stop them when they feel like they just want to throw themselves on the floor and just sob … you feel completely helpless,” she said.
As the pandemic stretched into the winter months, a new wave of infections and deaths hit Arizona and much of the rest of the United States. The US death toll had exceeded 300,000 by the end of December, and Heriberto Aldaco Jr. – the youngest in his late 50s – has now also been hospitalized with Covid.
“You think you’ve gone to a certain point in your grief, and then it’s not done – here it comes again. … Now my father’s little brother is sick, ”said Brenda Aldaco. “Then he dies.”
Less than two months later, the family would receive even more harrowing news.
The last remaining brother, Gonzalo Aldaco, the oldest in his early 70s, was hospitalized with Covid. He died in February.
Brenda Aldaco described her father and uncles as primarily “family men”.
“They were entirely dedicated to the people they loved – always present, always someone you could rely on,” she said.
Sometimes she still expects her father to come home from the hospital: “It was just difficult for me to even understand the concept of ‘he’s gone’ … that the three are gone now and under the same circumstances and within one Period of six months. “
This story comes from a reporting partnership between NPR and KHN.
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