Infection rates. Drive-thru testing centers. Hospitalizations, ventilators and intensive-care units. It’s a very different sort of holiday season for Southern California.
Welcome to the pandemic Thanksgiving. This is the year our leaders asked us not to travel, dine away from home or gather in big groups — essentially, Thanksgiving’s tentpoles. So for many, that seat at the table for a beloved mom, a treasured uncle, a lifelong friend, a revered grandma … is empty this year.
“We don’t have a lot of extra stuff, but I can’t think of anything we really need. I have so much to be grateful for.”
That’s the voice of Tanya Doby, 41, a business owner and the first Black city council member in Los Alamitos.
Amid the tragedy and the turbulence, Doby is deeply grateful.
She’s not alone.
She’s one of many folks we spoke to who reminded us that even amid a year steeped in disrupted traditions and heartbreaking headlines, there is still reason for gratitude. And hope.
“On Monday, I drove by a food bank in Anaheim with a long line of cars,” she said. “It occurred to me, I don’t have to be in one of those lines. I have food and clean water. My children are healthy, my husband is well.”
Los Alamitos City Councilwoman Tanya Doby poses for a photo at Laurel Park in Los Alamitos on Wednesday, August 26, 2020..(Photo by Kyusung Gong/Contributing Photographer)
Amen to that.
Others will mark the day having lost much this year, and yet, still are finding fortitude to push through. And many found ways to help those who weren’t so fortunate.
Twelve days in May
Julian Ramirez, 63, stares out at his yard. He and wife, Saramaria, planted and nurtured that mango tree.
It’s a symbol of a robust life the El Salvadorian L.A. couple lived. He proudly holds up a picture of Saramaria. Wide smile, lots of teeth. Lots of love.
Julian Ramirez shares a picture of him and his wife Saramaria in his Arleta home on Friday, November 20, 2020. Saramaria, 36, died of COVID-19 after catching the virus at the convalescent home where she worked as a nurse said Ramirez. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)
The two met in El Salvador in the 2000s, but by then Julian, much her elder, had already long been settled in Arleta. So he helped her get a visa to come to the U.S. She arrived in 2005, and they would soon marry. They had a son, also named Julian. He’s 10.
It wouldn’t be long before Saramaria would earn her nursing degree, studying at L.A. Mission and L.A. Valley colleges in the San Fernando Valley, Julian said, adding it was the culmination of a life devoted to helping people.
Then, devastating news in 2018: Cancer.
“When we heard that.. believe me, everything just fell apart,” Ramirez said. “Not economically.. but in spirit everything just fell apart. We knew that it was an uphill fight.”
Julian Ramirez thinks of his wife at the mango tree he surprised her with in the garden she nurtured at their Arleta home on Friday, November 20, 2020. Saramaria, 36, died of COVID-19 after catching the virus at the convalescent home where she worked as a nurse said Ramirez. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)
She battled hard. She continued her work as a nurse, still wanting to help people. Who was Ramirez to stop her from her mission, he asked.
But by May 2020, the pain in her back grew too severe. She’d see doctor, who ultimately diagnosed her with the coronavirus.
Saramaria, 36, never came back home — back to “la casita.”
In 12 days she was gone, leaving lasting memories of Facetime connections with a mom, a sister, a wife, a son and a husband she could not see in person.
Ten-year-old Julian Amani Ramirez holds a picture of his mother Saramaria and her wedding rings with his father Julian in their Arleta home on Friday, November 20, 2020. Saramaria, 36, died of COVID-19 after catching the virus at the convalescent home where she worked as a nurse said Ramirez. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)
Much of her family — Julian’s father-in-law, mother-in-law, his brother-in-law, lives with Julian now — as they raise his 10-year-old together.
As Thanksgiving arrives, the memories of the year are still raw. But he said he finds strength to be thankful that his family has health and offers thanks to a country that has enabled him to have a life to provide for a family.
He continued his gaze at the mango tree, with a few tears, and the flowers the couple planted around it.
“Everything reminds me of her,” he said, remembering the best of times.
“Many times, I felt like I am feeling like the happiest man in the whole world, from my head to my toes,” he added.
“I breathed it in.”
‘A harder Thanksgiving’
Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia will hunker down on the holiday, at home with his husband.
“…Just the two of us,” he said.
Mayor Robert Garcia (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)
But it will be unlike any previous holiday for the 42-year-old mayor, now in his second term.
Garcia’s mother and father-in-law died from COVID-19.
Greg and Gabriella O’Donnell Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia’s stepfather, Greg O’Donnell died from coronavirus complications — two weeks after the mayor’s mother passed away. (Courtesy of Mayor Robert Garcia)
The mayor’s mother, Gabriella O’Donnell, who immigrated with Garcia from Peru when he was 5 years old, died July 26. She was 61 years old. Then, Greg O’Donnell, 58, her husband, died on Sunday, Aug. 9, one day after Gabriella’s memorial service.
The death of the Whittier couple came at at time when Garcia himself was — and still is — working around the clock to lead the city of more than 460,000 people through the pandemic.
As Thanksgiving arrives, he’s got both things on his mind.
Mayor Robert Garcia outside city hall in Long Beach, CA, on Thursday, Sept., 10, 2020. Garcia lost his mother and stepfather to COVID-19.(Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)
“This is going to be a harder Thanksgiving for me, and quite frankly a lot of families across the country, who will be experiencing their first Thanksgiving, or their first Christmas, without members of their family — and for me, for my mom and my step dad,” he said this Monday. “I am still thankful that I have other members of my family who are healthy and alive.”
He hoped everyone would just try to stay safe, stay home this year for the holiday, as the surge threatens to put more stress on the region’s hospitals.
“I’m still thankful for all the blessings we still have in our life, and hopeful that there is light at the end of the tunnel,.” he said. “If we can just continue to sacrifice and keep each other safe, early next year in January we are going to start seeing people getting access to the vaccine… .”
The pandemic and the protests against racial injustice have exposed not just racial inequities, but also the fact that the country has a long way to go when it comes to battling systemic racism, said Pastor Samuel Casey, senior pastor of New Life Christian Church in Fontana and executive director of Congregations Organized for Prophetic Engagement.
Rev. Sam Casey, Executive Director of Congregations Organized for Prophetic Engagement, at his home in Fontana on Tuesday, July 14, 2020. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)
“I’m thankful that even though we have some rough seasons this year, things are getting better, and we had the opportunity to fight for justice in new ways,” he said. “Through Black people and other people of color, it has been brought to national and global attention that America still has work to do.”
This has also been a year of reconciliation, which despite widespread division and polarization, has been taking place in pockets in communities across the country, Casey said.
“It has opened up courageous dialogue,” he said. “Proximity does breed empathy. And this year has really brought us together whether we wanted to be together or not.”
A new life
It was Sept. 9, and the time had come. After months in and out of the hospital, Janet Udomratsak was ready to give birth.
It had been a rocky road.
Janet Udomratsak with her family, James, 2 months, husband, Chris and Henry, 5 in Sylmar, CA November 25, 2020. James was born in September after a harrowing pregnancy that included complications. The family will celebrate Thanksgiving her parents and siblings who are in thier “bubble” with time. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)
Pregnancy complications landed her in the hospital throughout the year. Not only was her pregnancy at risk, but so was the beginning of the school year for a Sylmar woman who’s been in the business of teaching for 11 years.
Up until three days before the delivery date, during a 10-week stay, she was teaching her elementary-schoolers from the confines of her hospital room at Providence Holy Cross in Mission Hills.
But things got extra complicated at birth. Bleeding in her uterus during the planned caesarean section turned an expected 30-minute delivery into an hours-long surgery that involved tense moments, concern, multiple blood transfusions and the ultimate removal of her uterus.
Even for Udomratsak — long braced for the unexpected after such a difficult year — the tension was clear as the pre-delivery banter and anticipation turned to serious silence.
She was forced to make a life-changing decision in the matter of moments. But what mattered most was making sure the her baby was born.
Janet Udomratsak with James, 2 months. James was born in September after a harrowing pregnancy that included complications. The family will celebrate Thanksgiving her parents and siblings who are in thier “bubble” with time. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)
Meet James — all 3 pounds, 11 ounces and 16 inches of him at birth.
“When he came out, I was in shock,” she said. “I was like wow, he’s here. He came out, kicking and crying when he came out. The whole room was in tears. They knew the struggle. They were with me from day 1.”
This Thanksgiving, the family will be together — little James, mom, dad Chris, and Henry, 5, who loves bringing toys to show his little brother.
“Knowing it could have been worse, it makes me that much more thankful, I am more aware of everything now. I want to enjoy my time with everybody,” she said.
“And, with that, I also want to take care of myself so I can be around for everyone.”
Staff writers Deepa Bharath, Susan Goulding, Martin Wisckol and Steve Scauzillo contributed to this story.