Throughout this COVID19 pandemic, I always found it odd that only certain COVID victims would be publicized and singled out. How did the media choose which victim of COVID they were going to write about, or talk about? I’m sure they are special, but why them? So I decided I’d write about the angel I lost to COVID on April 6, 2020, my beautiful, caring, ever-loving mother, Gaetana Deserto.
It was February 17, 2019, my wife came downstairs and just stared at me. She just received the call that my 59-year-old father passed away after his battle with Pulmonary Fibrosis. The first thought that came through my head was, I needed to get to Brooklyn, to get to my mother. I needed to be with her. Who knew a little over a year later, I’d lose her too.
I am your typical Italian Mamma’s boy, I’ve never denied it or tried to hide it. I did whatever my mother asked of me, which was not a lot, she was a hard-headed Italian woman who never admitted she needed help. Both of my parents would never show us if they were struggling, I remember as a kid sneaking money back into my mothers' wallet after she’d given it to me, or when I was old enough to be working, I’d always sneak money into the envelope she’d get from the bank after she got paid.
In 2017, I moved away from Brooklyn, I remember vividly my mother sobbing as she said bye to me when the movers were done emptying my apartment. It killed me inside, but I had my own family and I had to do what was best for them. After my father passed away I made sure to be with my mother as much as possible so she wouldn’t feel alone. I worked in Manhattan and during the week I would spend 1–2 nights at her house. Looking back, those are moments I’ll forever cherish, the last year of my mom's life I was able to spend time with her at least 2 nights every week. We’d either get Chinese food and she’d order her “Happy Family” and I’d ask “Ma, da hell is in that?” and she goes “A happy family.” I set up a mini-studio for my comedy videos in my old bedroom, I used to use things she had around the house as props for my videos and she’d always tell me “I swear you only come here to make videos, what are you going to use this time?” My mother didn’t like everyone knowing her business, so it was a little tough for her that I was a comedian who put almost everything out there. She still supported me.
It was January 2020, I was preparing to take a trip to Italy to fulfill a wish I had with my late father to go watch our favorite soccer team Inter-Milan player at San Siro Stadio in Milan, Italy. My mother kept calling me each day before I left; “Rocco, make sure you keep your wallet in your front pocket;” “Rocco did you print out your tickets?” “Rocco, did you get your passport?” “Rocco, don’t travel when it’s too dark, they like to kidnap Americans.” To that particular worry I reminded my mom I was close to 400 pounds, it would really take a true effort for anyone to kidnap me. When I returned from Italy was when we started really hearing about coronavirus. My mom wanted to take the entire family on vacation so we booked a cruise for my family, my sister's family, and my mom to go on the Norwegian Bliss leaving from New York on April 12, 2020.
As the epidemic slowly became a pandemic my mother would text me “Rocco, we need to change the cruise date, this is serious” and I’d calm her nerves and tell her we had plenty of time, we don’t know what’s going to happen, we can reschedule up to a few days before. My kids had the flu twice (Flu A & Flu B), my wife got Flu A, and I got Flu B. Of course when I got my flu, I went to my mothers' house to avoid getting my wife sick and knowing my mom would know exactly how to take care of me.
March started rolling in, and the concerns started to rise, we had my sons 6th birthday party, a few families canceled in fear of being around other people. Before we served pizza we had all the kids line-up to receive a squirt of Purell before eating. My niece and nephew's 7th birthday party at a local bowling alley was to be the weekend after my son's party. My sister was forced to cancel the party due to the number of cancellations and the number of concerns. My sister was still going to have a cake for my niece and nephew with the family, so on March 14th, we headed down to Brooklyn for the cake. It would be the last time I ever saw my mother.
At this point, my job had already had us working from home the majority of the week, the following week it was extended to full time working from home. No one kissed each other hello, which was odd for an Italian family, there were Purell stations around my sister's house. We were all cautious with the information we had. My mom asked me if we wanted to sleep at her house rather than drive all the way back upstate after the party, we chose to sleep at my sisters so the kids could play with each other more. A decision I later wish I would have made differently. To think the last time I saw my mother, and I didn’t even kiss or hug her goodbye.
The following week I spoke to my mother, who was still working as a receptionist in a gastroenterologists’ office I told her I wouldn’t be coming to Brooklyn that week because my job was making us work from home full time so I wouldn’t be going into the city. She told me that someone in her office was showing COVID symptoms, I immediately told my mom to leave the office and go home (in not such a nice way). Long story short, she didn’t go home, the office stayed open the rest of the week. That’s the most I’ll say about that.
Once I heard that a mental countdown started in my head. 14-days, my mother needs to get through 14-days since the last time she saw the person in her office who was sick. My mom’s last day at work was March 20th. I would call her every day “Ma, how are you feeling? How’s everything” and I’d get the same response “Bored” or “Tired, but you know I’m always tired.” It was day 8–9 of my mental countdown when my mom started complaining of acid reflux, something she had issues with in the past. I even had my mom sending me pictures of her thermometer because I didn’t believe she’d tell me if she really felt anything. She didn’t have a fever, her only complaint was acid reflux. It was a couple of days after that I started hearing my mother breathing heavier on the phone, I asked her “Ma what’s up with the breathing?” and her response “You always say I’m out of shape, you know how I am, I’m fine, don’t worry.” Friday, March 27th my mother text me that her computer screen wasn’t working. I asked her to try it again and let me know but she said she was already in bed, she’d try again tomorrow. The next day again I heard the breathing but she insisted she was fine and she only felt bad acid reflux. On Sunday, I texted her and told her if she didn’t tell me about the screen I’d know she didn’t leave the bed and I’d come to Brooklyn myself.” She again insisted she was fine.
Monday, March 30th, I called my mother and I didn’t know who I was talking to. It sounded like my father at his worst with Pulmonary Fibrosis. She sounded drunk, she wasn’t making any sense. I thought she was having a panic attack, ever since my dad died my mom struggled with depression and anxiety. She again kept insisting she was fine, my aunt went up to see her and said she didn’t have a fever but she just looked nervous. I told my mom to go to sleep for a little and if she was still the same after she woke up I was calling 911. I told my aunt to see how she was breathing while she was sleeping, I figured if it was anxiety she would be breathing better sleeping. My aunt told me she was still breathing heavily while she slept. That was it, I called 911. My mom was awake but being unresponsive to the EMS, so much that they asked me (who was on speakerphone) if she had a history of dementia.
One of the EMS said, “Listen you need to let me know if you’re OK or not because if this isn’t coronavirus, you’re going to get coronavirus if I take you to the hospital.” If I could punch someone through the phone, I would have at that precise moment. They took my mother to Maimonides Medical Center, by the next day she was on a ventilator and she’d never wake up again.
When my mom got to the ER they assessed her and put her on high-flow oxygen, I spoke to her briefly and she gave me 3 tasks, “1, tell Zia to open all the windows upstairs and don’t let anyone go up there, 2, my checkbook is near my bed, and 3, call the manager at her job to ensure she was still covered with insurance (the doctors' office put everyone on unemployment after they closed).” That night my mom called my sister, and the doctor told her that my mom signed a DNR. My mother was 63-years-old, no underlying conditions, by everything we’d heard about COVID at that point she should be able to beat this. My mom had heard plenty of ventilator talk when it came to my dad and his disease, but with my dad, it was almost a guarantee if he went on the ventilator there was no chance of him coming off it.
The next morning I spoke to my mom and I told her “Mommy, this isn’t the disease Daddy had, you can beat this, revoke the DNR Ma, listen to me please, I still need you.” My mom revoked the DNR. The last thing my mom told me was “Ro, if something happens cremate me” and she told me she loved me, she told my kids she loved them, with sheer terror in her voice. I’d never hear my mother's voice again.
Each day I sat near my phone, volume to the max, before this I never even knew what my ringtone was. I was taking Xanax every day, and each day the news was a little good, a little bad, and then it was bad, bad, and bad. Her body was failing her, she wasn’t going to make it. She was going to be with the love of her life soon, my father.
On April 6, 2020, at around 7:00 am my phone rang, I knew what the call was going to be. I answered, “We lost Ms. Gaetana Deserto this morning,” I had only one request “Please, please, don’t let my mother be one of those people in those tractor-trailers you have out back, please!” “I’m sorry sir, that’s not something I can promise, I wish I could” was the response I heard.
A little over a week later we had a wake for my mother. My wife, my sister, my brother-in-law, and my aunt, all wearing masks, all staying far away from each other in a big room with no flowers, nothing. Just my beautiful mother lying in a casket, you could see the battle she just endured in her face. My mother did not deserve this send-off, she deserved it all. My mother was the person who dragged me to church my entire life, I couldn’t even bring her to church for a funeral.
After my mom passed we got all the phone calls and social media messages, curiosity cloaked in condolences. People who hadn’t spent 2 seconds thinking of my mother, now utterly distraught at her passing, wanting to know all the information of what a COVID wake and funeral is like. I’m a nice guy at heart, I’ll entertain you, but trust me I know your intentions from the get-go. As expected, my mom and all of us, her family, are already out of the minds of these people.
There was nothing remarkable or attractive for a news outlet to write about her but what this woman did for her family makes her a star, she was everything to us. My father fought Pulmonary Fibrosis for 2-years, my mother was by his side for every appointment, when he was bedridden she was at his side giving him everything he needed. Taking off of work if he just felt a little scared, even if it meant she didn’t get paid. I always told people my mother would walk miles with 2-broken legs for anyone in her family.
I could write about my mother for days, but I’ll stop here. My mother was an amazing woman, a woman who showed nothing but unconditional love for her family. A woman who gave her all for us, and made sure to be there for us at all times. We couldn’t be there for her when she needed us, we couldn’t give her everything at the end. For that, we hurt, but we’ll never forget her.
Rest in Peace Mamma, ti voglio bene.
3 days after my mother passed away, my beautiful Nonna (grandmother) passed away. My Nonna was almost 90-years-old with dementia and Parkinsons disease. She had issues with pneumonia way before we knew what COVID was but because of that she was a “presumed COVID death.” We all know she died of a broken heart, a mother knows when something happens to their child. I could write a whole article on the loving person my Nonna was.