On the Coronavirus, Loss, and My Mom’s Tacos
“¡Hijo, ya está la comida!”
My mom shouted from the kitchen of our family home in Oak Cliff that my huevo con chorizo tacos were ready.
It was New Year’s Eve 2020, and I’d been staying at my parents’ house for almost a week so my mom didn’t ring in the new year alone. She’d spent most of the past month and a half by herself. Since November 19, my father had been at Dallas’ Parkland Hospital trying his best to fight the damage COVID-19 had done to his lungs. For the entirety of December, a machine had been breathing for him while tubes lodged down his throat helped feed him and suck bile from his lungs.
I hit pause on Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the video game I was playing in my childhood bedroom, and left poor Link stranded in the clouds while paragliding off a mountain.
In the kitchen, my mom stood over the hot stove and flipped a corn tortilla on her cast-iron comal. She cupped it in her palm and scooped up a sizable portion of huevo con chorizo. The red, greasy seasoning from the chorizo painted the scrambled egg. She laid it next to another taco and handed me the plate.
“Haga una oración, mijo.” We never eat a meal at home without praying first. My dad, the minister, set the rules, and we respected them even when he wasn’t there.
“Dear and heavenly father who art in heaven, we thank you for this day.” I recited the same prayer I’ve been saying since I was 8 years old. “We thank you for letting us be here together this morning and we thank you for this food. We ask that you be with my father today. Help his lungs to recover some of their strength. All this we ask in the name of your holy son and our savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.”
I picked up one of the tacos, pinching it between my thumb and middle and index fingers, and took a bite. The tortilla with just the slightest hint of sweetness first, then the salty egg and chorizo scramble, and a kick from a salsa roja.
My mom looked on with a smile, then bit into her taco. Wrapping love in a warm tortilla and handing it to me, my dad, or my brother always brought her comfort. If you visit her house, she’ll ask if you’re hungry and hand you a plate of food before asking your name. She loves caring for people. A few days earlier, I had told my wife that I was going to stay with my mom so she wouldn’t be alone. But the truth is that I was terrified of what was waiting for us in the darkness of COVID-19. I needed my mom to take care of me.
The previous 43 days felt like a stretched-out panic attack. Every day, we waited for a call from the hospital. We usually got the same disappointing news: “He’s still getting max ventilator support. His lungs are very stiff. We had to flip him on his stomach to help with the oxygenation. We’re worried about bacteria. His blood is starting to get a bit acidic.”
Months earlier, despite the world being on fire, I felt unstoppable. I was a reporter at the Dallas Morning News, my hometown paper. I covered the pandemic and the George Floyd protests. I just had my most successful year yet as a journalist. But the pandemic humbled me. It turned my emotions inside out. I left my job in November to take care of my mental health, just two weeks before both my parents got sick with COVID-19. (My mom fared much better from the start; her symptoms cleared about two weeks after my dad was hospitalized.)
Now, my mother and I sat at this table just as we’d done thousands of times before. Only this time, we were both at the lowest point either of us had ever been.
I tried not to think about how sick my dad was when I didn’t have to. I distracted myself by walking my dog, cleaning the kitchen, or playing a video game about some luscious, colorful fantasy land far away. But being at that table, where my mom had served my family countless meals, was where I felt safest.
I asked her to tell me how she made some of my favorite dishes. I was surprised to learn that she doesn’t use any oil in her picadillo and that the key to good beans isn’t lard, it’s garlic. And how the heck do I keep my corn tortillas from falling apart when I move them from the tortilla press to the comal? But our discussions always came back to dad.
“So the doctor said yesterday that if they can reduce the ventilator support, they can do the tracheostomy and then maybe he can wake up, right?” my mom asked me while reviewing the handwritten notes she scribbled every time we got a call from the hospital. The hope in her voice had waned, but it was still there.
I nodded, with a mouthful of taco. “That’s what they said they’re working on now. Then, maybe he’ll need to stay on it for months or the rest of his life,” I chewed out my thoughts.
“That’s OK,” she said. “As long as they give him back to us.”
We’d taken to planning for the day my dad would come home. We thought about the possibility of him and my mom moving to Mexico, where long-term care might be more affordable. We would hire a nurse to take care of him at home. How much did ventilators cost?
Late last year, I applied for a job at Colorado Public Radio, where I now work. My dad’s continued treatment was going to cost money, so I wanted to provide.
I played out what would happen over and over in my head. I would move to Colorado in February or March. Soon after, I’d get a call from my mom or brother, who would say that my dad was well enough to be woken up. I’d fly back to Texas immediately to see him and tell him about my new job. We’d all sit at the table together again. He’d probably watch in envy as we ate tortillas because the doctors said it would take time for him to learn how to eat again. And we’d laugh. “Sooner or later you’ll get your tortillas, Pa,” I would say.
But my father never woke up. He never got better. The virus had damaged his lungs beyond repair. On February 27, his doctor called. “You know the signs we were worried about? He’s telling us that he’s ready to go.”
Time stopped for my father. He never knew about my new job or my brother’s move to Austin. He never ate another one of my mom’s tortillas. He’ll never visit me and see the beautiful mountains I see most days when I walk outside. He won’t know the child my wife and I are expecting. He’ll never be the grandfather he deserved to be. He’ll never teach me how to be a father.
COVID-19 took him from us, just as it’s taken more than 58,000 other Texans.
But at the table on New Year’s Eve, I didn’t know that. I still thought time was on our side. I still had some semblance of faith that God was listening.
And I had a belly full of my mom’s tacos.
Opening image: Clockwise from left, Jose Manuel, Carlos Manuel, Guillermina Estrada, and the author, Obed Manuel in 2011.
Source: The Texas Observer