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A Conversation With An Arizona Family Coping With 3 COVID-19 Losses

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Yesterday, the U.S. surpassed 500,000 deaths from COVID-19, and that loss of life is fracturing some families more than others. Will Stone brings us the story of one such family in Arizona.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: Sometimes, Brenda Aldaco still expects her father to come home from the hospital. Like his two brothers, Jose Aldaco was, above all else, someone you could rely on to be there.

BRENDA ALDACO: They were family men, totally and completely devoted to the people that they love.

STONE: The Aldaco brothers grew up in Mexico. They all moved to Phoenix, Ariz., with their young families in the '80s and over the decades made it home.

MIGUEL LERMA: Literally show you that you can come from nothing and struggle through all that and still build a life for yourself.

STONE: That's Miguel Lerma. Jose and his wife raised Miguel, their grandchild, as their own son. For all the courage it took his father to come to America, not even knowing the language, Miguel says what he cultivated most of all.

LERMA: he's the one who taught us to be so amorous, hugging and kissing and loving on each other as a family. He was that warmth. He was that love.

STONE: The brothers all lived nearby, so growing up, holidays were big events with guitars, singing, dancing.

ALDACO: We're a very musically inclined family.

LERMA: So when the get-togethers was like those three men, when they were in the same room, it was just like a good time. And it was just all love.

STONE: This was before COVID ripped through the U.S. and the Aldaco family. It began in the summer. Arizona's hospitals were filling up. Jose was 69, retired. He and his wife lived with Brenda and her teenage son. They took COVID seriously, but the virus found a way into their home. All four got sick. Testing was slow, so everyone was isolating in their rooms.

ALDACO: My son would say, Mom, abuelo - you know, which means grandfather - abuelo doesn't sound good. Like, he sounds like he's dying.

STONE: But Brenda says her mother was nervous about sending him to the hospital.

ALDACO: Anything I was saying was just not making a difference.

STONE: After days of this, Miguel put on a mask and came over. His father was lying in bed, covered in a sheet. He was burning up, struggling to breathe.

ALDACO: By the time we got to the hospital, I just know that my dad was not in good shape.

STONE: A few days later, their mother was improving, but not their father. The last time Miguel spoke to him, he was about to go on the ventilator.

LERMA: Losing my dad, this is what heartbreak is. This is what it feels like to be without somebody that, like, you love so much.

STONE: The family wasn't able to have a funeral.

LERMA: His death was just brushed under the rug, like he's just another statistic.

STONE: It was July. The virus had already killed about 150,000 Americans. By late December, the death toll would be more than twice that. So many more families would be grieving. And Brenda and Miguel would replay this loss, this time with their father's brother, Heriberto.

ALDACO: You think you've gone to a particular point in your grieving and then it's not done. Here it comes again. OK, now my dad's baby brother is sick. You know, then he passes away.

STONE: And it still wasn't over. This month, Miguel's other uncle, Gonzalo, the last surviving brother of seven siblings, would end up in the hospital with COVID.

LERMA: Those three men, they were like the strong pillars, the bone of the family. And now they're all gone.

STONE: Miguel says his father and two uncles, all they held up in the world, you can't see that in the numbers.

LERMA: And all that's left is who they leave behind - their family, their wives, their kids, their grandkids.

STONE: But Brenda says, even as the U.S. crosses half a million deaths, she gets why some still don't grasp the magnitude of the pandemic.

ALDACO: Each single person, each person individually - What did that person mean to someone? It's just overwhelming. It's overwhelming.

STONE: So, she says, it ends up being easier, safer to see this as happening to other people, not a generation of your own fathers and brothers.

For NPR News, I'm Will Stone.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: And this story is from NPR's partnership with Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.