Widows Of The Pandemic: Three South Texas Women Lost Their Husbands But Found Solace In Each Other
Three Texas love stories ended in July.
Ricardo Ramos died on Independence Day.
Ramon Fuentes III passed five days later.
By the end of the month, Andres Arguelles was gone, too.
They were all 45. Loving husbands. Strangers who died with the coronavirus in neighboring South Texas cities.
They left behind young widows who found each other in Facebook groups for mourners and bonded over the similarities in their stories. At first, the women couldn’t make it through a conversation without sobbing. They had a lot of the same fears, the same triggers — “stressors that took us back to that place,” said Delia Ramos, Ricardo's wife.
“There's moments that we wake up feeling complete shock, even though it's been eight months,” said Delia, 39. “There's moments that we wake up hoping that it's been a mistake, and he'll still come back, even though it's been eight months.”
She remembers when she first met Ramon’s wife, Beatrice “Betty" Fuentes, in the wake of their husbands’ deaths. They both worked for local school districts, had middle school-aged kids and were shocked when the loves of their lives died suddenly with COVID-19.
“Wow, there is someone else,” Delia thought.
When they met Ana Flores Arguelles — who was married to Andres — the trio formed a close relationship based on the shared tragedy of having lost a loved one to the virus.
Delia wrote to them both in August to say she was constantly thinking of and praying for them.
“Some moments I feel stable. … Other times I still cry so very, very hard and I wanna yell so very loud,” Delia said in a series of Facebook messages shared with The Texas Tribune. “I would do anything for just 1 more minute with him.”
“Yes, just one more hug, kiss, touch his face and tell him I love him <3,” Ana said.
In one year, the coronavirus has claimed more than 46,000 lives in Texas. It’s killed more than 700 people in their 30s, 7200 in their 40s and 50s, and more than 28,000 age 70 and over. Some 60% of the fatalities have been men, a disparity experts have attributed in part to the tendency for them to be in poorer health or have weaker immune systems than women.
In the pandemic’s wake are husbands and wives, parents and children who arranged funerals and are trying to pick up the threads of previous lives. They’re left with empty beds, silence in once bustling homes and closets full of clothes that are now collecting dust.
In Ennis, Tina Jones used to call her husband Brian each day when she left work. When she got home, they would ride around their farm on a golf cart, surveying the pecan orchard he’d grown from saplings over the 20 years of their marriage.
He was a military veteran with a gruff exterior and the “most tender heart.”
She buried him in January.
“You just feel like you’re never going to be happy again,” Jones said.
Around Corpus Christi, Valerie Villegas met her husband in her 30s after they’d both been married before. They acted like teenagers, love birds sneaking off to grab tacos or go to coffee shops in the early evenings. The mother of six children, Villegas said it took her a long time to find "such a good thing.”
Her husband, 45, became sick with the virus in late December and was gone by January.
“I’m just lost,” Villegas said shortly after his death. “I don't like to go to sleep at night because I don't want to have to wake up the next day” and spend it without him.
Widows interviewed by The Texas Tribune described the sudden isolation and the challenge of explaining to young children that “Daddy isn’t coming home.”
Some face the stress of paying bills without their partner’s income or unexpectedly raising their children alone. Others said they miss the person they were before — more fun, more gregarious or less scared.
“As a widow you lose it all — your whole identity,” said Betty, who has lost 40 pounds since her husband’s death. His passing was so traumatic that she began expecting “worst case scenarios every single day,” she said. She thought she would die next with the virus, or her children would.
“I'm super, super scared. I got severe anxiety because of COVID,” she said.
She doesn’t eat the same or sleep the same or parent the same, she said. She’s not as hungry. She goes on hourlong walks to clear her mind of anxiety and stress, or to cry. She’s trying to be both mother and father to her children — something she hadn’t wanted, as her parents are divorced.
Knowing the loss would be “way beyond something they could cope with on their own” — especially with daily reminders about the coronavirus and more deaths — Betty and her children have gone to therapy. They visit her husband’s grave weekly to try to talk to him.
For Betty, the loss “hit” in October, around what would have marked her eighth wedding anniversary to Ramon, or Ray. He normally made steaks to celebrate because their first date had been at a steakhouse.
She had gone back to work but took a week off. “It was just an uncontrollable anxiety,” she said.
Betty was a few years out of college when she met Ray. He was kind, family-oriented and gave her the confidence to get a professional certificate and pursue a career in school administration.
“He was the type of person that would say, ‘I'll take care of the kids, you go travel to your class or to your conference,’” she said. “He was there for the kids at all times.”
They loved when he picked them up from school because he’d always make it an adventure, she said.
He worked in Edinburg as a project manager for a commercial plumbing company until last summer, when the family celebrated his birthday and realized he couldn’t taste the cake.
In Harlingen, Ana met Andres 11 years ago. He had kids from a previous marriage and “knew a little about everything,” she said. “Everything with him was easy.” Her family adored him. She quickly drew close to his.
He was the youngest of seven siblings, and Ana babied him. When he worked as a truck driver, she was constantly on the phone with him, scouting out reviews for him online to help him find the best rest stops.
Last summer, as the virus tore through south Texas, both Ana and Andres were hospitalized.
Delia met Ricardo, or Rick, on a blind date when she was in her senior year of college. He was a “typical cowboy,” who wore an ironed George Strait T-shirt and boots, drove a truck, opened doors and ordered for her.
She went home and gushed to her mom, “He’s so nice, and I swear I’m going to marry him.” Her mom replied in Spanish, “estas loca" — “you're crazy.” They were engaged in six months, had a son in 2007 and a daughter in 2009.
Delia went on to get a master’s degree and became a middle school counselor. At times, her husband held two jobs and worked hours of overtime. When she had to work long hours, he’d pick up the kids and start dinner.
He was working as a detention officer for a private security company when he started to feel sick around Father’s Day. Not wanting to infect the kids, he quarantined in a hotel while he waited to get his COVID-19 test result back.
Soon, he didn’t have the energy to get up and take a shower.
The deaths were sudden. Unexpected.
Betty’s husband had texted her from a nearby ER, where she took him when he had trouble breathing. He said he was feeling better already; maybe he just needed oxygen. But he was gone within days.
Ana and her husband were hospitalized together once they got sick. They were in adjoining rooms, texting back and forth: “We’re going to be okay. We’re going to get out of here.” Ana was released and thought her husband would be discharged with an oxygen tank. But Andres was found unresponsive in the restroom. She was in her car in the hospital’s parking lot when she learned he had died. She completely lost it, she said.
Delia couldn’t believe it when she heard her husband’s heart had stopped. “If he ever got really bad, someone from the hospital would call me,” she recalled thinking. Hospital workers asked her to make funeral arrangements as quickly as possible because they needed his bed for other patients. They told her she couldn’t come to the hospital to hold him, because of COVID-19 safety restrictions. She doesn’t blame them, but it was traumatic for that goodbye to be denied, she said.
For weeks, the women felt alone. Isolated by the coronavirus and their losses. It felt like no one could quite understand what they were going through.
Delia’s grief was so paralyzing it was like she was in survival mode. At one point, her daughter couldn’t be left alone because she would spend all day crying.
Ana didn’t leave her house at all for weeks. Her sister came to stay with her and her boss let her work from home. She would wake up, do her work, turn it in and go back to bed. She wondered, “Who do I take care of now?”
Betty couldn’t be at her own husband’s funeral because she was sick with the coronavirus. She and her kids, who were also infected, watched from her car. People dropped off flowers and food, but it was lonely. They couldn’t hug anyone. She felt numb for months.
Eventually, each of the women sought out other widows and found Facebook support pages full of mourners. Delia and Betty met online in one of the groups, and when Ana joined and posted her story, Delia sent her a message.
“Hi mama … I also lost my hubby to Covid on July 4.. in such a similar way.. I’m from Brownsville!! Pleas reach out,” Delia wrote in August.
“I’m from Harlingen..we’re neighbors,” Ana responded. “My family and my husbands family give me unconditional love and support but they don’t quite understand what it’s like.”
It was the start of a new friendship. The women began to talk daily. They bragged about their husbands — their likes, their dislikes, why they were so proud of them. They talked about how to honor their partners while moving forward. Sometimes, they confided they were angry at society or the hospital or “with God” for taking them.
“Why does it feel like every day it gets harder?” Betty asked last summer.
“For me I just think it’s because the more time passes everyone around me is getting over my Sweetheart not being here anymore,” Ana responded. “Everyone is moving on with their life and I can’t..everyone is laughing and having a good time again and I can’t get over this pain. The only ones that really understand me besides you ladies is his parents.”
“I miss him so much,” Betty said.
“I miss mine too, everyday,” Ana said.
The months passed and the women met in person.
Betty helped Delia pack up a few boxes of her husband’s belongings after it grew hard to see his clothes hanging in her closet.
They introduced their children. They hoped it would help them to know other kids who have lost their dad.
In February, the women leaned on each other when an arctic blast knocked out power to millions of Texas residents who were left freezing in unheated homes. They shared YouTube videos about how to make fire out of toilet paper and alcohol and how to stay warm using candles. They missed their husbands, who had helped handle the household utilities.
Twelve months after the first cases were detected in Texas, there’s a new optimism that an end to the pandemic is in sight. President Joe Biden has said there should be enough vaccine for every adult by the end of May and that life would be “closer to normal” by July 4. There are some 3,800 people hospitalized with the coronavirus in Texas, down from highs of 14,000 in January and nearly 11,000 in July, when Rick, Ray and Andres died.
For their families — and others who lost loved ones — the developments come too late.
Ana has moved out of the apartment she’d shared with her husband for eight years to be closer to her family. It had been bedecked with camouflage and sports paraphernalia because he was a hunter and a Cowboys fan.
Delia’s kids, ages 11 and 13, have gone through phases of questioning the loss, feeling angry and simply missing their dad.
“I don’t want them to stay paralyzed with fear and I don’t want COVID to be the center of their world,” she said of her children. “Our family will never be the same because of COVID — but we will surpass it.”
Betty said she is “always going to try to talk about my husband.”
“People are going to feel bad and I actually don’t want them to feel bad,” she said. “I just want to remember the memories. I don’t want to forget them.”
The three women are grateful to have found each other.
In late August, Delia wrote to Ana and Betty.
“Our loss is so deep and unique but I am happy I found you both <3 <3 <3 our husbands were wonderful and I know they are cheering us on from heaven… even though at times we feel so alone.”
“I am so glad we have each other too,” Ana said. “Just knowing there is someone out there that understands my pain really has helped me a lot <3 <3”