A Reader Writes: Fading asterisms and COVID-19
- By GRETCHEN LAUE
May was a rough month.
We lost four in our constellation of consanguinity and friendship. Not all were COVID-19 related, but the virus doubled the count and has made grieving almost unbearable. We are unable to visit, to touch, to give and draw sustenance from each other. Electronic prostheses attempt to reach out, but texts, emails and Zoom are no match for human contact at the most important moments of love and connection.
Gabriel Romero is family. Every week for the last 10 years he has helped around our small ranch, fixing things and creating watering systems for our desert plants. Indulging our capricious wish list, Gabby has built a raised bed here and a book case there. One day soon he’ll build the treehouse for the grandkids. Gabby gladly helps friends and relatives when they need a drain cleaned, a playhouse built, a wall painted, or some simple but overwhelming “cleaning up.” Gabby always comes with a smile and an idea, his portable radio tuned to El Show de Pioln, listening to romantic songs and raucous, sometimes off color chistes that make him laugh out loud.
Gabby’s brother Fito had been sick for months. In March, he got worse. As the virus progressed, Fito was in and out of the hospital. Sent home one last time, he told his wife she should “start looking for a coffin.” Within a week, on Cinco de Mayo, Fito was gone. Gabby sent us a text: “Ya se nos fue mi hermano en la mañana.”
My husband, Mario, has known the Romero family for close to 50 years. The family has always been close. Over the years, they have met their many trials and joys together. Family members gathered from near and far to say their farewells to their brother. They had heard the coronavirus warnings. Maybe they weren’t loud enough, or perhaps, like many, they didn’t really believe it would make a difference at such an important moment in their lives. They couldn’t let their brother go without being there, without celebrating him. Within a week, two sisters, Carmela and Margara, and one brother, Pierre, were in the hospital with COVID-19. Within 10 days Carmela and Pierre had died. Gabby would text me: “Se nos fue mi hermana.” Then, “Fallecio mi hermano Pierre.” One sister and two brothers in less than a month.
For over 40 years Stephen Matchett has been a close friend. Stephen lived in San Francisco. In January he came to El Centro to celebrate with us at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative luncheon. On a sunny Saturday, he rode his bike from our house to the Old Eucalyptus Schoolhouse where the event was held. Shortly after Stephen returned home, he called and said he was having trouble seeing. Stephen’s trouble was a brain tumor that didn’t respond to radiation or chemotherapy. Within three months he was gone. Three months during the coronavirus shutdown. We couldn’t be with him.
A stroke during the tumor biopsy made speech a struggle for Stephen. Unable to easily converse, and with strict restrictions on visitors, he typed. Using his computer, phone and a website, Stephen provided many friends and family a journal of his last journey – “I wanted to tell you about the wonderful new person on my care team who I met a couple of days ago,” he’d write. And, “The day is done and tomorrow is another. You are a big part of mine, I know that. Love all of you ❤️ Stephen.”
Stephen encountered many obstacles in his life. He coped by giving. He gave until he could no longer, and then, before we could say goodbye, Stephen was gone.
We couldn’t hug Stephen and hold his hand in his last days. We couldn’t be there to comfort and be comforted by family and friends. And Gabriel and his brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews couldn’t not hold each other. COVID-19 is leaving its indelible scars. Gabby will never be the same. Nor will we.
Our losses are multiplied by a 100,000 in the United States, and well over a quarter of a million worldwide. Each loss, each family sphere connected to a community, asterisms of families and friends. The connections, the circles and the losses continue.
Through all of this we wear our masks, social distance, limit our trips from home and have no idea who is next. If there is something good that comes out of this virus it is that it reminds us how precious time is and how important we are to each other.
Gretchen Laue lives in El Centro. She is working on a book about the Community Service Organization (CSO), including its history in the Imperial Valley. She can be reached at email@example.com.