LAS VEGAS — Kenia León kneeled and placed a white silk rose through a crevice at the top of her mother’s mausoleum marker on a mid-October afternoon. She paused for a few seconds and moved it slightly to the left.
“I can hear her voice in my head yelling at me to make sure they are even,” Kenia, 39, said, as she smiled and wiped a tear from beneath her round, black sunglasses.
It was just over six months since her 75-year-old mother, Petronila Maria León, had died of Covid-19.
“She should still be here,” Kenia said, brushing her hand against the engraving on the mausoleum marker. She and her brother had chosen an island scene to be engraved on the granite niche. Born and raised in Cuba, their mother had always loved the ocean.
Kenia turned her head and looked around the cemetery. She wondered how many others laid to rest there had died from the coronavirus. On April 10, the day her mother died, the toll in Nevada had reached 120. Since then, it had grown to nearly 1,700. She wondered how many families, like hers, were still feeling the virus’s impact on their health, livelihoods and futures.
Kenia snipped another silk flower for her mother’s mausoleum marker. The funeral home had not yet installed a vase as her family had requested.
She sighed. It was another piece that remained unfinished.
The pandemic hits
If Petronila, who went by Mery to her friends and family, did not feel well in the week before she went to a doctor’s appointment the morning of March 24, she had not told her three children. She rarely showed weakness, physical or emotional.
Before retiring, she worked at a school cafeteria for nearly 20 years and rarely missed a day on the job. Her children recalled that when she broke her foot in the late 1980s, she still went to work on crutches. When her husband of 51 years, Jose León, died of cancer in 2016, she promptly packed up his belongings, tossing nearly everything. She pushed through hardship by looking to the future.
That morning, her middle child, Rodolfo León, 47, felt nervous as he drove his mother to the doctor. She was scheduled to receive an iron infusion after recent lab tests showed she was anemic — and as the pandemic spread, Rodolfo, who goes by Roy, wanted to make sure his mother was healthy.
Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak had shut down schools on March 15. Two days later, Roy, an elementary school physical education teacher, and his fiancé, Reba Mathai, 30, a second-grade teacher, who both lived with Mery, came down with stuffy heads and lost their sense of taste, Covid-19 symptoms. Kenia, who also lived in the home, felt coronavirus symptoms a few days later, with a cough, fever and chest pains. Mery had no outward symptoms, except mentioning a mild stomachache.
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The family began taking precautions: isolating from one another and wearing gloves and masks everywhere they went, even inside the house. They used disinfectant frequently.
Covid-19 tests were still in short supply in Nevada, and Roy and Kenia were still waiting for their results. Roy hoped that their symptoms were nothing to worry about.
Mery had only been with the doctor for 15 minutes when he came into the waiting room and told Roy they were taking his mother to the hospital by ambulance. She seemed weak, her heart rate was high and he felt she needed immediate medical attention.
Roy grabbed his mother’s walker, her purse and coat and ran outside as paramedics placed her in an ambulance.
“I’ve got your stuff and I’ll meet you there,” he yelled.
But when he got to the hospital, the security guards would not let him inside; no visitors were allowed.
Roy broke down. Unable to drive, he called his sister to pick him up.
It was the last time he saw his mother.
Within the next week, all of the family had been tested and received their Covid-19 results: positive.