SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (CNS) — At the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, I began scribbling notes, a type of therapy during confinement in my apartment in Washington. One of the entries was about my biggest fears: that my mother would contract the virus, or my friend Father Estefan Turcios in El Salvador, who’s been like a father to me for 21 years.
At 70 and diabetic, I knew Father Estefan would face an uphill battle if he contracted the virus.
On the last day of 2020, while I was out of the country, my sister called to tell me that my mother had tested positive for COVID-19. It brought a high fever and cough for her and days of anguish and tears for me, as I waited to see the toll it would take on her aging body.
The first person I called was Father Estefan, the first person I always called when something good or something bad happened.
“On your knees,” he said, and along with me began praying, listening to my cries for days until my mother, thankfully, got better.
It was a routine that had worked; I had called him each time friends asked for prayers for their loved ones as the virus raged in the U.S. and across the world. It was a task he took seriously. I saw and heard him time and time again, sometimes pronouncing names in English with difficulty, during his daily livestream Mass from his parish near San Salvador.
When I returned to the U.S. in late April, I found Washington, like other parts of the country, heading back to normalcy: vaccines and people dining outdoors everywhere as well as incentives, including booze and marijuana in my area, for those who still were resisting getting the shot.
In early April, I’d asked Father Estefan to return with me to the U.S. to get the single shot of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, since the demands on his time would never allow him to stay away for more than a few days. But the vaccine had been suspended at that time, and he opted on April 14 to get the CoronaVac, donated by China, the only choice available to most of El Salvador.
Fourteen days later and less than a week after I’d returned, I got the call I’d been dreading: “Father Estefan is in the hospital with COVID.”
Though Hospital El Salvador, which specializes in COVID-19 cases, has gotten a lot of good press, some like Father Estefan argued that it was mostly hype. It’s not the place you want to your loved one to end up. That’s because it’s where the most dire COVID-19 patients in El Salvador go, where there are no visits and, if you die, your body is wrapped and sealed in two plastic body bags, your coffin sent off in a caravan of police with a siren. Only two loved ones are allowed to follow it to wherever your final resting place might be.
During a phone conversation from the U.S. at the height of the pandemic, Father Estefan told me about the hospital and he said he’d rather die at home. He said he’d seen reports of an overflowing morgue there and didn’t want his body getting lost. I told him to stop being dramatic and he asked me: “If something happens to me,” meaning if he died, “will you come?”
At the time, around late March 2020, El Salvador had closed its borders, including the airport, in an attempt to prevent variants of the virus from entering. I told him I would make every effort to get in “if something happened,” but told him, “You can’t die when the border is closed.”
Those conversations ran through my head more than year later, as I waited in the U.S. for news that he’d recover. Every day, I would leave him messages via WhatsApp, send him a picture and tell him what we would do and see once he got out of the hospital. Sometimes my voice would break, but I told him I was on my knees, praying that he’d get better.
On April 29, he left me a message, sounding a little confused, telling me he was being sent to the ICU. “They’re going to try to get me up and going again,” he said and hung up.
By that date, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was back in use in the United States. I told myself that maybe I should have left El Salvador earlier and taken him with me instead of allowing him to take a vaccine that’s barely 50% effective. But as someone reminded me in the last few days, he went with the only choice available to the poor. That’s the way he lived. It’s also the way he died.
When my plane landed in San Salvador on May 8 at 2 p.m., I received a text sent while I was in the air that his organs were failing. I left him a message he never heard, telling him I’d landed and that I didn’t want him suffering, but if I didn’t see him this time, I wanted to thank him for everything he’d ever done for me. I told him how much I loved him, which I had done many times during the pandemic. By 4:17 p.m., he was gone from this world.
Three days later, I went with his niece and his parish administrator to pick up his body. We watched as the funeral home staff took the coffin into what seemed like a portable freezer. Though official figures say three to four people or fewer are dying of COVID-19 in El Salvador a day, we must have watched at least a dozen bodies loaded onto hearses in the two hours we were there.
We asked if there was any way he could be dressed in his cassock and alb, but the best they could do, funeral staff told us, was to get plastic wrapped on top of the coffin. With a loud police siren in front of us, we headed into the heavy traffic of the city he loved for a last ride to his final resting place: his parish.