A daughter mourns her mom’s COVID death – and tries filling her shoes

23-year-old Dreamer juggles grief with a host of new responsibilities
Jessica Aguilar, right, and her sister Jennifer sit by a photograph of their mother in their Roswell home on Sunday, January 23, 2022. (Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Jessica Aguilar, right, and her sister Jennifer sit by a photograph of their mother in their Roswell home on Sunday, January 23, 2022. (Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Jessica Aguilar didn’t grow up celebrating Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, the Mexican show of love for relatives who passed away.

But the 23-year-old knows she will mark the holiday this year. She is already preparing for it.

Inside Aguilar’s Roswell home, a commemorative altar is taking shape, a cornerstone component of Day of the Dead. On it are photos of Jessica’s mother, in whose arms she crossed from the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas into the U.S. Jessica was just one year old. Maria Angelica Ramirez Ramos, or mamá, was in her early 20s.

In the altar’s photos, Maria Angelica is in a fuchsia frock, celebrating her quinceañera. She is grinning and cooking for her husband, Jessica’s dad, who moved away from the family in 2017.

Maria Angelica died from COVID-19 on Jan. 5. She was 44. Her death thrust Jessica into a new role as de facto head of household in the apartment she now shares with just two younger siblings. Jennifer, a recent high school graduate, turned 19 the day after Maria Angelica passed. Christopher is 14 and autistic. All extended family members live in Mexico.

“I’m old enough to take care of them, but it wasn’t like this last week,” Jessica told the AJC in mid-January. “Last week, my mom was the one cooking for my brother and the one packing school lunches. And now that responsibility has been handed out to me. I have to become his mom now.”

“But, I’m also mourning my mom, you know? So, it’s just a lot of heavy things that have been put on my plate.”

Among the changes that have come to the Aguilar household this year are new sleeping arrangements. Before, Christopher shared a bedroom with Maria Angelica. The two sisters slept together. Now, Christopher has taken Jessica’s place in the sisters’ bedroom. Jessica sleeps on a sofa in the living room. No one goes into their mom’s old bedroom, which has signs of her battle with COVID-19: Alongside Maria Angelica’s personal belongings are the pills she took to manage her symptoms, and an oxygen tank.

“We are having a hard time figuring out what we want to do with that stuff,” Jessica said.

Jessica Aguilar holds up a photograph of her mother from a memorial altar in their Roswell dining room Sunday, January 23, 2022. Besides stills from her mother's life, the altar also held religious candles, and some of her mother's personal belongings, like a hair brush. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Credit: Steve Schaefer

By nature, Maria Angelica tended to worry, an attitude that only grew more pronounced during the pandemic. As a diabetic, she knew the novel coronavirus posed a real threat. Being on high alert over a potential infection came with significant mental health fallout.

“My mom is a very … My mom was a very anxious person,” Jessica said. “Everything scared her.”

Compounding Maria Angelica’s stress over COVID-19 were persistent financial pressures. To cover the apartment’s $1,350 rent — a monthly challenge — Maria Angelica worked in housekeeping. Jessica says her mother’s lack of legal status meant she was often underpaid.

As a beneficiary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, Jessica was able to obtain a work permit, which she used to take a job in the billing department of a medical office. She supplements that income with shifts making smoothies at a health food store and delivering for DoorDash. If needed, she also reaches out to her father for money. He works in construction out-of-state and helps support the family from afar.

Despite the ups and downs of 2021, the Aguilar siblings say they managed to enjoy Christmas as a family, right before the symptoms started. Maria Angelica still felt well enough to prepare one of her favorite recipes for cochinita, a traditional Mexican slow-roasted pork dish.

“Christmas was so nice,” Jessica said with a smile.

It was around New Year’s that Maria Angelica began feeling ill. First, she picked up a dry cough. Then she lost her sense of smell. Unwilling to go the hospital because her only language was Spanish, she stayed home but her breathing deteriorated so quickly that in just four days she became unresponsive. An ambulance came to take Maria Angelica to the hospital, where she tested positive for COVID-19 and was diagnosed with diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), a life-threatening complication of diabetes that patients with viral infections are at a greater risk of facing.

Around 5 a.m. on Jan. 5, Jessica got a call from the hospital. It was time to say goodbye.

“I went into the room while they were doing chest compressions … I was touching her hand. I was rubbing her arm. I was getting close to her ear, telling her, like, ‘Mom, listen to my voice. Please. You’re going to be OK. I just need you to stay,’” Jessica said. “The doctors kept doing chest compressions and it was just not working. So, I just told them, ‘I think this is it.’”

The Aguilar household hadn’t gotten vaccinated against COVID-19. According to Jessica, the family wasn’t opposed to the vaccine on principle; they simply struggled to figure out how and when to get the shot.

“We were going to get it. But with my mom’s work schedule and my work schedule and my sister’s work schedule, we just couldn’t find the right moment.”

Jessica Aguilar (R) and her sister Jennifer and brother Christopher talk about their mother in their Roswell home on Sunday, January 23, 2022. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Credit: Steve Schaefer

In Fulton County, the vaccination rate among the Hispanic population lags behind that of non-Hispanics — 56.5% to 61%, as of Jan. 27. To boost vaccine uptake in immigrant groups and communities of color, health experts say clinics need to be as accessible as possible. Jessica herself wishes a vaccine distributor would visit her sprawling, heavily-Hispanic apartment complex, so that she and her siblings can get their first dose.

“We need to make it so easy to get the shots that people have no excuse for being unvaccinated,” said Dr. Laila Eugenia Woc-Colburn, an infectious disease specialist at Emory University Hospital, and an immigrant from Guatemala. “The more we remove the accessibility barrier, the more vaccines we will be able to give out.”

Unsure at first how she was going to pay for the funeral expenses, Jessica turned to an online fundraiser. Since the funeral, the Aguilar sisters have struggled to help their younger brother, understand what happened. His limited language skills make communication challenging.

“I sat him down and I told him, ‘Mom is up in heaven,’” Jessica said. “I don’t think he understands she is not coming back. He stares at her room when he walks past.”

Jessica says her upbringing prepared her for the rush of responsibility she has faced since losing her mom. Like many immigrant children, she doubled as a full-time translator growing up, helping her parents navigate life in the U.S.

“If all of this would have happened and I was the older sister, I wouldn’t have known what to do,” Jennifer said. “I know that it would have just blown me over.”

In life, Maria Angelica’s preferred topic of her conversation was her hometown in Mexico, and stories of all the relatives she left behind. She dreamed of going back and visiting but, as an unauthorized immigrant, she knew she wouldn’t have been able to return to Atlanta if she left. So, she stayed for her kids, even though it made her lonely.

“My mom sacrificed a lot for us,” Jessica said. “She put her needs and her wants to the side. And I think that’s so sad, and I wish it would have been different.”