The coronavirus had already killed Nieves Salas Solis’ mother and brother when he called his daughter from a hospital bed with a chilling message: “I’m next.”
Nieves, 62, who grew up in Dallas and in recent years lived in a Mexican border town doing community outreach, had a high fever and shortness of breath. It was mid-August, and he had managed to drive himself to a hospital in Harlingen, Texas, where doctors confirmed that he had Covid-19. But their efforts to clear his lungs were not working, said his daughter, Ana Alonso.
Ana knew her father was grieving his mother, Eva Solis-Salas, 89, who died Aug. 6, and a brother, Ruperto Salas Solis, 67, who died Aug. 10, after their own brief battles with the coronavirus.
IMAGE: Ana Alonso and Eva Solis-Salas (Ana Alonso)
But the thought of losing him, too, was unimaginable. Nieves was a “health freak” who ran up to 5 miles a day and had no underlying medical conditions, Ana said. Decades earlier, he had nearly become a professional boxer, turning down the opportunity only because Eva — a single mother to Nieves and nine other children — was afraid he would get hurt.
From her home in Mesquite, Texas, Ana begged her father to stay upbeat.
“You still have to fight,” she said she told him over FaceTime. “I said, ‘What do you have to say?’ And my dad put his hand up, and he flipped off the camera, and he said, ‘This is what I have to say to Covid.’ He kept saying, ‘F— Covid!'”
Nieves was always joking around, Ana said, and seeing his sense of humor from the hospital gave her hope. But his condition worsened, and on Aug. 22, he succumbed to the illness.
The Salas Solis family had now lost their matriarch and two of her sons. But their heartbreak was not over: On Sept. 15, another son, Raul Salas Solis, 64, also died of Covid-19 after having been hospitalized for more than a month.
The four deaths in less than six weeks, reported Tuesday by the Dallas Observer, shattered the close-knit family, which includes Eva’s approximately 32 grandchildren, 59 great-grandchildren and 13 great-great-grandchildren. One of Eva’s grandchildren, Jahaziel Salas, also experienced another loss from the disease: His father-in-law, Alfredo Nava, died of Covid-19 earlier in the summer.
“It’s been very, very tragic for our family, and I honestly still think that we haven’t fully processed everything,” said Ana, 40, who co-teaches seventh grade. “Somehow, it needs to be turned into awareness.”
That is what their late relatives would have wanted, Ana said. Helping others was in their blood: About five years ago, her father moved from Texas back to his birthplace, Valle Hermoso, Tamaulipas, Mexico, retiring from work as a warehouse manager to dedicate himself to helping families in need of medical care and education.
Nieves lived next door to his mother in Valle Hermoso, while another son, Ruperto, lived with their mother. A third son, Raul, ran a Christian radio station out of his mother’s house — the first radio station the city ever had, said Mariela Salas, Raul’s daughter.
IMAGE: Mariela Salas and Raul Salas Solis (Courtesy Mariela Salas)
“He decided he was going to spread the gospel. He never made any money off of it,” said Mariela, 39, a Verizon business operations manager who lives in Dallas. “It was all sort of whatever he could do to help.”
Previously, Raul had been an entrepreneur, Mariela said, running bridal and quinceañera shops in Dallas.
After moving back to Mexico, Raul would travel to impoverished towns, handing out groceries. On one trip doing ministry work, he and his wife met a teenager who was doing drugs. Raul decided to take him into his house, where the 16-year-old still lives. The only thing he asked in return was that the boy be respectful, focus on his studies and help out at the radio station, Mariela said.
No one in the family knows how Eva, a woman who leaned deeply on her faith during hard times, and her three sons contracted Covid-19. The four were in constant contact with one another, and shortly after one started showing symptoms, the others did, too.
Ana hopes that even in death, her family members will continue helping other people by serving as a reminder of the need to take precautions during the pandemic.
“I’ll go on a walk and I see a baby shower going on down the street or a kid’s birthday party,” she said. “I never see anyone wearing a mask. It makes me upset, because I think to myself it could happen to them, and I don’t want them to feel what I’m feeling.”
Mariela shares Ana’s frustration with people who do not wear masks or socially distance. But the main message she hopes her family’s loss will convey is not to take time for granted. She wishes she had made the trip down to Mexico to visit her dad more.
“I was never able to go and see him at his radio station. I was not able to share the things that were really important to him, because I was just too busy,” Mariela said.
The family has held some small funeral services and plans to celebrate the lives of the four more in socially distant ways in the future.
Not being able to grieve in traditional ways has been hard, Ana said.
“All I want is somebody to sit with me and talk with me about my dad. Watch videos of him. Tell stories and crack up. But we couldn’t do that,” she said. “Sharing our tragedy and creating awareness has made me feel a bit better, because at least we suffered, but it’s not in vain.”