BETHLEHEM, Pa. (AP) — Sick with COVID-19 in a hospital bed, pregnant with her third child and anticipating the worst, Jackie Gonzalez penned a letter to her oldest son.
“My dearest Jacob,” it began. “I thought we would have forever together. But forever isn’t as long as I hoped ... ”
It was early December. Gonzalez, 36, was diabetic, so she had long taken every precaution against COVID. Indeed, she seldom left the house. But she caught it anyway and was admitted to a hospital in her hometown of Jersey City, New Jersey, on the weekend after Thanksgiving. Jacob, 4, and his brother J.T., who was 10 months old at the time, stayed with family.
Gonzalez declined quickly. Not long after writing the letter, she was placed on a ventilator to help her breathe. On Dec. 3, doctors performed an emergency Caesarean section to deliver the baby, Justin. He was two months premature.
The next day, Gonzalez died.
“She never got to meet him,” said Gonzalez’s older sister, Zeneida Torres of Bethlehem, whose grief over the loss remains raw nine months later, even as she moves deeper into a new and unexpected role: adoptive mother to her sister’s children.
It’s an extraordinary change and challenge for a 44-year-old woman who already raised three sons and a daughter, two of whom still live with her. But her nephews’ father is out of their lives, Torres said, and her brother couldn’t take them because of his job demands.
“It was either I take them or the system takes them and separates them and I never see them again,” Torres said. “And I promised my sister — I said ‘If you have to let go, let go. I’ll look after the boys.’ And I can’t break a promise I made her.”
What makes things immensely harder is that Jacob, J.T. and Justin all have serious developmental disabilities. Jacob is autistic, nonverbal and at times hard to control. J.T. is showing signs that he falls on the autism spectrum. And Justin, who suffered brain hemorrhaging at birth, is partially paralyzed on his left side.
“He’s not rolling or turning,” said Torres’ husband, Jose Serrano, though he noted one important thing as the bright-eyed baby’s lips curled in a smile: “He’s the happiest baby ever.”
The demands of caring for the boys means Zeneida can’t work. Nor can Serrano, who just came off the last of three surgeries for a work-related injury. Even with help from Torres and Serrano’s older children, all of whom have their own jobs and responsibilities, there are simply too many tasks.
Their weeks are spent taking the boys to therapy appointments and, in Justin’s case, to periodic appointments at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Their car is a small, old Toyota, so unreliable that they won’t take it as far as Philadelphia. They often have to use Uber instead, a serious drain on what little money they have.
The situation likely would be untenable were it not for the assistance of Youth Advocate Programs, a national nonprofit agency that helps families connect with community resources and develop skills to manage households. Torres was referred to the agency by Northampton County Children and Youth.
“Basically we meet with families and determine what they need,” said Cheryl Hopkins, a family support specialist with YAP in Northampton and Lehigh counties. “We were able to help with things like diapers and detergent. The big need the family had was to get a vehicle so they can transport the children together. What we came up with was the (GoFundMe online fundraiser), but the vehicle hasn’t come through yet.”
It may, in time. The GoFundMe effort has raised just over $1,800 of its $5,000 goal. But other good things have happened, thanks to the generosity of friends and strangers who have learned of the situation through social media or word of mouth — clothes, shoes, baby wipes, toys, a stroller.
“It’s a lot of people coming together to help the best they can,” said Torres, recalling how a woman showed up at the front door recently with boxes of wipes and a big tray of stuffed shells.
“Someone I never met in my life,” she marveled. “The shells were delicious.”
When Torres talks about the boys, and how her family life has changed so abruptly, she moves quickly from tears to smiles to tears again. She and Serrano moved to Bethlehem in November, not long before Gonzalez got sick, because friends had recommended the area as a pleasant, quiet and cheaper alternative to Jersey City. There, Torres said, “you didn’t know if the noise was fireworks or a gunshot.”
Both were working at the time, Serrano in maintenance and Torres at a payroll company. They planned to have what Torres called “a real wedding” and perhaps travel.
“This was our second-to-last stop,” Serrano said, meaning they intended to buy a house and settle permanently.
“God had other plans,” Torres said, balancing J.T. and Justin on her lap as Jacob roamed the living room.
Gonzalez knew the children would be in good hands with her sister. She told Jacob so in her letter.
“I could make sure you’d be safe with Aunt Zeny,” she wrote. “She will protect you. You’ll find the answer to a long and happy life.”