VALLEJO, Calif. (KGO) -- Prior to the coronavirus crisis, Alberto Reyes was a Navy retiree who enjoyed woodworking and gardening in his massive backyard in Vallejo. His son, Fernando, worked two full time jobs at the Omni and Ritz-Carlton Hotels in San Francisco. Fernando, the silent type with a goofy sense of humor, was known to shout "Yeehaw!" when a guest from Texas booked a hotel room.
Alberto, 84, succumbed to COVID-19 on April 20, 2020. Two days later, 60-year-old Fernando died of COVID-19 as well.
If the pandemic never happened, the two men would've seen Fernando Jr., Fernando's son and Alberto's grandson, walk at his UC Berkeley commencement ceremony in May.
"I went through a lot of guilt for not graduating earlier so that my father could've seen it," the younger Reyes says. His father and grandfather never finished college and both were so proud to see Reyes finish.
Reyes grew up living in his grandparents' house. His father and mother had divorced when he was 10, but remained a family unit and moved into Alberto's home, each taking separate rooms. Since Reyes' dad worked so much, Alberto took care of him most of the day.
"I spent a lot of time with him in the backyard gardening with him, helping him build stuff," Reyes says. Together they built a large red, wooden porch swing. It was a replica of a swing that stood in Alberto's wife's hometown in the Philippines. "It's still standing today in our backyard, and I'm surprised by its craftsmanship," Reyes says proudly.
On his days off, Fernando Sr. would take his son to the movies or into San Francisco to pick up his paycheck. "I remember the wonder and awe of driving across the Bay Bridge and driving up California Street. I guess he was trying to show me pieces and moments of his own life that he found for himself as an immigrant father," Reyes recalls.
In high school, Reyes was a remedial student. After graduating, he spent years working in retail and taking classes in junior college. Eventually Reyes found focus and successfully transferred to UC Berkeley. "When I would think about what I was striving for," Reyes says, "I thought about my father's journey to America, and my grandfather's, and that was like the light at the end of my tunnel."
Reyes completed the units to graduate from Cal in the Fall of 2019, but stayed at his Berkeley apartment to complete his lease, and planned to walk at the commencement ceremony in May. Reyes' dad had been furloughed from work due to the coronavirus outbreak's impact on the hotel industry, but his mom, a mail handler at the US Postal Service, was considered an essential worker, and remained on the job.
In mid-March, Reyes' mom told him she was getting over what she and her doctor believed was the flu. "I pleaded with her, as an essential worker, that it very well could've been COVID-19, and to get tested as soon as she could," Reyes says.
However, since testing capacity was very limited in the early onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, his mom was denied a test.
In early April, Reyes got a call from family saying his grandpa was admitted to the Kaiser Permanente hospital in Vallejo. Alberto tested positive for COVID-19. In the ensuing two weeks, the family was only able to video conference with Alberto two or three times. The last call was made only to Reyes' aunt, who had to hold up her own phone to another device.
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"I was two screens removed from saying goodbye to the man who raised me, over a FaceTime of a Zoom call," Reyes says. "I don't think I'll ever get over that." Alberto died officially in the morning hours of April 20.
Before Alberto's death, Reyes' dad informed him that he was feeling drowsy, and that Kaiser Permanente set up a COVID-19 testing appointment for him on Wednesday, April 22. That morning, Reyes got a call from his uncle, who said his mom tried to wake up Fernando Sr. for his appointment, but he wasn't responding. Paramedics came and informed her that Fernando Sr. had died in his sleep a couple hours earlier. On his death certificate his official cause of death states acute respiratory failure, COVID-19.
After Alberto and Fernando Sr.'s deaths, Fernando Jr.'s mom finally got tested. She was COVID-19 positive.
Alberto had already paid for his funeral expenses. The funeral home limited the services to the same 10 people. "Not being able to gather and see the people who should be there to comfort you, to tell you that everything's gonna be OK, to just help you out with any of those things...it was an isolating experience. It didn't feel real," Reyes says.
Fernando Sr. did not have a funeral plan or even a will. The family chose cremation, and Reyes has his dad's ashes in his room, still unsure of how to memorialize his father.
Aside from his immense feeling loss, Reyes is also hurt by seeing people and governments prioritizing the economy over public safety.
"Take it seriously," he said. "Be vigilant about public health concerns. More people don't deserve to go through what I went through."
COVID-19 Diaries is an ABC7 Originals limited series that shares personal stories as we work together to cope with novel coronavirus and re-define what it means to live in the San Francisco Bay Area.Take a look at all of their stories here.