After 51 years of marriage, Jesus and Maria Piña were what their family would describe as the epitome of commitment, love and compassion.
They conquered life together, with all its trials and tribulations, and stayed dedicated to one another, their family and their community until their last breaths. The Tucson couple died of COVID-19 just eight days apart last month, leaving behind their three adult children and seven grandchildren between the ages of 1 and 19.
“We miss them and we cry because we’re human, but we have hope,” said their 48-year-old son Jesus Piña. “We have hope that we’re going to see them again in heaven.”
Maria, 78, and Jesus, 75, met while attending church in their hometown of Tampico, Mexico. They quickly fell for one another through their shared faith and started a family. By 1989, the couple moved to Tucson after their eldest daughter, Elizabeth Piña, started her college education at Pima Community College.
“They both love God,” said 50-year-old Elizabeth. “And when you have that kind of relationship with Jesus and with God, then you automatically express the same love and respect to your spouse. They were a great example of commitment and choosing each other everyday.”
Maria, described by her children as “the glue that kept us all together,” worked as an early childhood educator in Tucson for 20 years. But even after retiring, she continued to help raise and care for children out of their home, sharing homemade Mexican recipes with them and even teaching them Spanish.
“Her reputation followed her because after she retired, there were still parents who kept growing their families, and they wanted her to continue to watch their kids while they were working,” said their youngest 41-year-old daughter Raquel Fareio. “So, even though she retired, she continued to watch little kids out of her home and she and my dad became Nana and Tata to a bunch of little kids who weren’t even related.”
For the last 10 years, Jesus served as a part-time pastor for a small, southside church for the Spanish-speaking community. Even during the pandemic, Jesus continued helping the community by leaving food boxes on doorsteps for families who were struggling financially and lacked transportation. He was adored by his congregation and was best known for his sensitivity and dedication to service.
“I recall sitting with him not long ago at their house and we began talking about the state of the world, and his eyes filled up with tears at the injustices that we are seeing and at the sense of helplessness that we felt, then he quickly reminded me and himself to simply pray,” Raquel said. “They loved their community. They weren’t just Christians in name, they actually showed it in their actions. And they didn’t need to let the whole world know.”
On Sunday, Jan. 10, their children and grandchildren joined them for their traditional family lunch, a gathering labeled as “mandatory” by both Jesus and Maria. They ate Maria’s chicken vegetable soup and the grandchildren played — a familiar family routine that would soon become a memory.
By Wednesday, Jesus was experiencing extreme fatigue and wasn’t able to walk. After suffering a subdural hematoma, or bleeding in the brain, two years ago and having brain surgery, they worried that it may have returned.
While in the emergency room that day, Jesus developed a slight fever, which led doctors to test him for respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19. Within hours, his test came back positive for both the virus and pneumonia, and he was immediately transferred to the coronavirus unit. Even under these circumstances, however, his children said he stayed positive.
“He was always a jokester, right up until the end,” Raquel said. “The day I took him to the ER, he was joking around with the nurses. He loved to talk and loved telling every detail of every story, he couldn’t just get to the point of the story, he had to take you through the ‘journey.’”
Two days later, Maria was also tested for COVID-19. By Monday, Jan. 18, she was experiencing extreme shortness of breath and was admitted to the hospital before even knowing what her test results were.
When Liz, Jesus Jr. and Raquel were finally able to see their dad, he was almost completely unresponsive, unable to swallow and follow commands. The virus was significantly affecting his brain.
In his last visit with his mom, Jesus Jr. said Maria asked about her husband. Knowing that his dad didn’t have much time left, he simply told her that he was still fighting.
“I was able to speak to her,” he said. “She recognized me, she spoke to me for a little bit. But I didn’t want her to get exhausted. They had put a full mask of oxygen on her. I was just with her for about an hour and a half. And they explained to me that if she did not make any more progress, they would have to transfer her to ICU.”
And the next day, they did.
“That was the last interaction I had with her,” he said. “I think it was a week after I saw her that she moved to heaven with my dad and with the Lord.”
After fighting a long battle with the virus, Jesus died on Jan. 30. Maria passed away on Feb. 7. They both had diabetes, which is considered a high-risk underlying condition when it comes to COVID-19.
“My mom never knew that our dad had passed away and my dad never knew that my mom had been admitted into the hospital,” Raquel said.
For Liz, Jesus Jr. and Raquel, living without their parents has been heartbreaking, but they rely on their relationship with one another and their faith to keep them going.
‘If anything, this whole situation has really united us as siblings,” Raquel said. “I’m just really glad that I have my sister and my brother and that we’re going through this together. I wouldn’t want it any different. We have grown even closer, if you can imagine it.”
The siblings said they want to bring hope to many other families who may be experiencing the same pain. They hope to continue honoring their parents legacy through service and continue being the best spouses, children, siblings and parents that they were taught to be. If they could speak to their parents one last time, they would simply say “thank you.”
Contact reporter Jasmine Demers at email@example.com
On Twitter: @JasmineADemers.