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Malibu Times freelance writer Samantha Bravo (right) with her aunt, Maria Solares, in 2019.

When the pandemic began and the lockdown took place last March, I was laid off from my restaurant job and filed for unemployment. I never thought I would file for unemployment at 26 years old. Since schools switched to remote learning, I found myself staying home most of the time to finish my spring and fall semesters at California State University-Northridge. While it was nice to stay home and complete my courses online, I missed engaging with customers at work and seeing my co-workers. 

In November 2020, I applied for a seasonal position as a cashier assistant at a local big box store, not only to save up for school but to see what it was like working during a pandemic. I didn’t think I would get the job with all the unemployment applications that were being filed, but I did and I started working the following week. When I started, I thought I would see people not wearing masks but, for the most part, almost everyone was wearing a mask and those who refused made sure their complaint was documented and left the store. 

My mom and sister, whom I live with, were also working during the pandemic and whenever we came home, we would share how we felt emotionally. Sometimes it was overwhelming dealing with all the COVID restrictions and non-maskers, but it was fine until my sister tested positive for COVID-19 in late November. Since we both lived in the same household, we both had to isolate and stay home until she no longer showed symptoms. During the week we were self-isolating, we wore masks whenever we left our rooms and we ate separately. Not eating together as a family was difficult because it was the only time we’d connect and talk, as we had all been working or doing school work during the day. She quickly recovered and we were both able to return to work the following week.

The holidays were the hardest to get through. We knew we couldn’t see our families, so we didn’t. We stayed home and only left when we had to work. While working with hundreds of customers per day, we were risking bringing the virus home to our family. The new year came and we hoped 2021 was going to be a year we could begin to see change. Four days later, my aunt, Maria Solares, passed away of COVID-19. She was 52. 

I remember where I was at that time: I was finishing up my last closing duties at work when my dad messaged my sister and I to make sure we got home safe and told us they would be home soon, that they were going to my aunt’s house. I didn’t think it was anything serious. When they got home, around 11 p.m., my mom didn’t speak but my dad did. He said my aunt passed away. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t want to believe it. The first thing that came to my mind were my cousins, her four daughters. She was a single mom and she was their entire world. I messaged them as soon as my dad told me and told them I was sorry and I wish I could be there to hug them. She had been sick with the virus for about a month. The last time I saw or even heard her voice was in November. 

I couldn’t go to work the next day. Emotionally, I couldn’t be around people who were just going about their day not knowing I lost someone close to me. I was able to get a few days off while we were trying to gather our thoughts and feelings. The next day, my mom wasn’t feeling so well. She was worried and went to get a rapid COVID test. She tested positive for COVID-19.

I knew what my mom was thinking—the worst. I was trying to be strong for her because she had just lost her sister and she thought she might lose her battle against this, too. She self-isolated for two weeks and didn’t leave her room. We FaceTimed every morning and afternoon and asked each other how we were doing and feeling. We did our best to sanitize every door knob and counter after every use, but a few days later, I also tested positive for COVID-19. I didn’t want to tell my mom because I knew she would worry and blame herself for passing it to me, but I knew I was going to be OK, that I’d get through this like my sister. 

My symptoms were not as bad as others experienced. I didn’t have a fever or shortness of breath; they were more flu-like symptoms, a running nose and slight cough. My mom, on the other hand, was coughing and felt tired most of the time. She slept and we let her sleep; she needed to rest. Soup and tea were really our savior. We both had that for every lunch and dinner. 

After about a month of isolation, we both recovered and tested negative. It was bittersweet. We were glad we were going to be OK, but we had lost a family member just a few weeks ago; it was hard, emotionally, to know we were recovering from what she passed away from. While my family is organizing our aunt’s funeral, we’re just trying to take it one day at a time. We’ve been FaceTiming every night and saying a prayer and, although we’re apart, we’re helping each other get through this together. The loss of a family member has taught us how fragile this life is and how important it is to take care of our loved ones.

I returned to work a few days later and when people asked where I went, I said I was sick. My co-workers asked me how my symptoms were, where they think I contracted the virus and how I was able to recover. It is hard saying I recovered—it’s not something I’m proud of, since many people are losing this battle. I feel extremely lucky to not have experienced the worst of COVID-19. 

When my seasonal position ended, I was somewhat glad. I don’t think I’ll be able to work anytime soon, not until I finish school. Anyone working through this pandemic, frontline workers or essential workers, are risking their lives every day. My advice would be to respect the simple request of wearing a mask, and stay home as much as possible. It’s the least someone can do while we fight through this pandemic.

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