It had been three months since his last paycheck.
Alejandro Eduardo Pani Tecuapetla, 64, was forced to stop working at Olive Garden in April 2020 when the pandemic caused the restaurant to close. He was itching to get back to work when a family member at Juannita’s Restaurant called him in late June last year.
We need some extra help, they said. Can you come and work? He said yes.
His daughter, Alejandrina Pani Marquez, was worried. People were being careless, not wearing masks, going to the lake and getting together.
“Just make sure you guys use the masks and wash your hands,” she told her dad.
Two weeks later, Eduardo was in the hospital with COVID-19. A month and a half after that, he was dead.
Eduardo was one of more than 109,000 Hispanic people in the U.S. who have died of COVID-19 as of mid-July. Hispanic people have died at 2.3 times the rate of white, non-Hispanic people from the coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As vaccines bring normalcy back to everyday life in the U.S., Eduardo’s family is one of hundreds of thousands of families still grieving and seeking closure for their loved ones who died from COVID-19.
Memories linger in the spaces he used to fill. “What if” scenarios flash through his daughter’s mind. His son, 30, was just getting to know him. His 21-year-old granddaughter misses his annoying calls.
“This virus really changed our life,” Alejandrina said. “It was like a car accident — you see him one day and the next day he’s gone.”
When he returned to work, Eduardo wore a mask like his daughter asked him to. But one day he served a woman who was visibly sick and coughing. He washed his hands afterwards, but Alejandrina will always wonder if this was how he was infected.
After work on July 4, Eduardo stopped by Alejandrina’s 5-year-old son Alex’s small, outdoor birthday gathering. He told his family he was going to go lie down because he was feeling sick. Two days later, Alejandrina took him to the hospital, and doctors diagnosed him with pneumonia. The hospital tested him for COVID-19, but that early in the pandemic, tests took a few days, so the doctor sent him home.
The same day, Alejandrina came down with a fever. Soon, her mom, Maria, was sick too. Her dad’s health declined quickly. After three more days, Eduardo began struggling to breathe, so Alejandrina took both her parents to the hospital.
It was the last time she would see him alive.
The next month was chaotic. Besides managing her own symptoms, Alejandrina checked in with the hospital every day about both of her parents. She worried about the language barrier for her dad, who knew English but wasn’t fluent. For the first couple weeks, her dad’s doctor would call her often. He was improving and her mom was struggling. On Thursday, July 16, she talked to her dad on the phone. He asked her if she would pick him up the following Monday.
But that weekend, Eduardo took a turn for the worse. He was put on a ventilator and given a new doctor. This doctor didn’t call Alejandrina at all, and instead Alejandrina called his nurses every day.
After nearly a month in the hospital, her mom had improved enough to be sent home on Aug. 9. She still had the virus and had to be closely monitored in her fragile state.
But Eduardo was still on a ventilator in the hospital.
Practically everyone in the Bloomington Latino community knew Eduardo, Alejandrina said. A native of Puebla, Mexico, he grew up in a town of vibrantly colored buildings, a bustling outdoor market and a volcano as its backdrop. Seeking better work opportunities than Puebla or the southwest U.S. could give him, Eduardo moved to Bloomington nearly 30 years ago to work in his friends’ restaurant.
Eventually, he brought his wife and two kids to Bloomington and worked daily to establish a life. More than anything, though, Eduardo wanted to build a Latino community in Bloomington and asked the priests for a Spanish Mass at his church, St. Paul’s Catholic Church. St. Paul’s is now the only Catholic Church in Bloomington with a Spanish Mass.
“He wanted to survive in this country and he wanted the Spanish community to be together and come to church, like don’t just work, work, work,” Alejandrina said.
Customers and coworkers knew Eduardo for his happy and generous nature.
Matt Mulligan was one of Eduardo’s customers at several of the restaurants he served at throughout the years, including La Charreada in Bloomington. On busy IU game days when the restaurant was packed, Eduardo already knew the Mulligans’ orders and put them in before the family even sat down.
“He always made us feel like we were at his family’s table,” Mulligan said. “It was always good to be recognized.”
On Fridays, Eduardo would bring beers for the whole restaurant staff to enjoy together after the hectic night was done. It was something to look forward to, a way to get through the grueling work of running a restaurant.
He would sometimes have a beer on his days off with Alejandrina’s husband and tell him how important it was to stick around for his 5-year-old son, Alex. Eduardo helped raise his daughter’s first two children, whom she had with a previous partner. He filled in as a parental figure when Alejandrina was working and spoiled his grandkids whenever he could
Content warning: This article discusses topics that may be disturbing to some readers, including issues surrounding suicide.
Eduardo had a complex relationship with one of his own sons, Salvador Cuahuizo, 30, whom he had with a partner outside his marriage. Eduardo only got to know Salvador when he was about 15.
But once they were in contact, Salvador said Eduardo was always there and supported him through low points. He remembers his dad as a character, always dancing and trying to lift people’s spirits.
“When someone was serious, he would go up to them and say, ‘Why are you so serious?’” Salvador said.
Eduardo liked to keep himself occupied, always busy fixing his car and doing chores when he wasn’t at work. He lived in the present with no desire to put things off, Alejandrina said. As he got older, she wanted her dad to rest more and eventually go back to Mexico.
“Dad, you are getting old,” she would tell him. “You have to go back so you can relax.”
“No,” he would say, “you relax when you’re dead.”
By the second week of August, Eduardo was not doing well. It had been nearly a month since he was put on a ventilator. Because Alejandrina could not visit her dad due to the COVID-19 rules at the hospital, she would pray for him regularly.
One day, she was praying in her car during a thunderstorm, rain pouring down and lightning flashing around her. Please God, help my dad, he needs you so much, she prayed.
To her surprise, she says she heard a response — not from God, but from her dad.
Let me go, don’t be scared, I’ll be fine, he said.
She cried, not wanting to believe the voice in her head was real. Alejandrina has gotten premonitions since she was little, and she said they are always accurate. She was told her grandmother could also hear voices that told her what was going to happen.
On the night of Aug. 15, Eduardo stopped breathing. The hospital called Alejandrina in the morning, telling her that staff had revived him but he was still having trouble breathing, even on the ventilator. The doctor said the only way they would be able to save him was a risky emergency surgery in Indianapolis that would leave him permanently frail.
Alejandrina’s first instinct was to say yes to the surgery. But when she, her then 20-year-old daughter Gabby, Salvador and her other half-sibling Leticia got to the hospital, he was unconscious, swollen and looked exhausted. They decided together to unhook him from the oxygen and let him go.
Salvador went in first to say goodbye. He pulled up YouTube and searched José José, a singer Eduardo loved. The first hit was “Lo Pasado Pasado.” In English it translates to “The Past is the Past,” lyrics that matched Salvador’s wish to not focus on the time he didn’t have with his dad. He told his dad he loved him for the first time and cried.
Gabby had been away when Alejandrina brought Eduardo to the hospital, so she let her daughter go into the room to see her dad instead of herself. When Gabby stepped into the room, Alejandrina spoke to her father in her head, willing the words to reach him.
I love you, I’m sorry for not doing the right things, not doing what I was supposed to. I just want you to forgive me and I just want you to know that I love you so much, she said.
A feeling of peace spread through her, and she felt as though a breath had been released.
In the hospital room, Gabby had taken off her mask and face shield so her abuelo could see her.
“I’m here for you Papa,” she said, “I’m here.”
He opened his eyes and looked at her, taking his last breath in her arms.
Gabby left his room, crying.
“He’s gone,” she said.
“I know,” Alejandrina said.
After her dad’s death, Alejandrina could not help but wonder: would my dad have survived if he were not an immigrant?
There was the language barrier, which, according to IU Health’s non-discrimination policy should not have been an issue due to the existence of translators. But because Alejandrina wasn’t there, she still wonders whether he understood everything that was happening and communicated his needs to doctors and nurses.
There was also a phone call that made Alejandrina uneasy. During the week before Eduardo died, someone from the hospital called to ask if her dad was a U.S. citizen. She told them no. Eduardo was legally living in the United States with a work visa. When she asked if this affected his treatment, they assured her it did not.
Jonathon Hosea, IU Health’s public relations manager, said via email that citizenship status does not play a role in treatment at IU Health. He said the reason the hospital may need to know citizenship status is for insurance coverage. Even if a patient has insurance, there may be other coverage available that insurance specialists apply for when they arrive, which requires information including citizenship status.
Alejandrina still wonders, though. She knows anyone who loses someone probably has such thoughts, and she does not blame the hospital for Eduardo’s death. But because her dad was not a citizen, her fear is layered with the knowledge of disrespect that many immigrants endure daily.
Alejandrina had Eduardo’s body cremated. Burials are too expensive here, she said, and sending his body back to Mexico was impossible at the time. A small group of family gathered for the funeral at St. Paul’s, a scene so different from what the ceremony would have looked like in Mexico.
Rev. Dennis Woerter, the priest who performs St. Paul’s Spanish Mass and who led Eduardo’s funeral, said the grieving process for everyone in his congregation has been more difficult during COVID-19 because of isolation and the inability to gather. But he said the church has been able to offer small services for people who have died in the past year and he said he thinks this has helped in a small way.
“One of the most cathartic things to witness is the lowering of the casket in the grave or the burial or actually having some kind of service,” he said.
Traditionally in Mexico, the whole family gathers for nine days of prayer after the burial of a loved one. But because extended family members were afraid Eduardo’s family still had COVID-19, the family’s grief dragged on in isolation instead.
Alejandrina’s mother, still delirious from her own brush with death, did not believe her husband was dead for weeks. Favian, Alejandrina’s 15-year-old son, fell into depression and considered suicide. Gabby stopped going to her mom’s house because it reminded her too much of her grandpa. When Eduardo was alive, whenever he would miss a call, he would call Gabby, even if she wasn’t the one who called.
“Hey, did you call me?” he’d say.
It happened so often that it became an annoyance. Now all she wants is for him to call again.
Alejandrina said she had to be strong for her family this year, and that her dad prepared her for it. She was also determined to bring them closure.
The first anniversary of a death is special in Mexican culture. Because of this, Alejandrina wanted to get Eduardo’s remains back to Puebla before Aug. 17. After weeks of planning, they determined that her mother will fly to Puebla with Eduardo’s ashes in late July.
He will be laid to rest in a small plot of land set aside by his father, who wanted his wife and children and grandchildren to be buried around him. He will once again be in the shadow of the volcano, near the bustling outdoor markets and the colorful buildings of Puebla. But he will also be with God, Alejandrina said, waiting to be reunited with all of his family.
“He needs to rest in peace at home,” Alejandrina said. “He was working for too long. He was working every day and he needs to go rest.”
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.