To the Starbucks worker without gloves and a mask below their chin, to the college students throwing parties and to the man too close behind me in line — please stop.
I write this with a heavy heart, as when someone told me “everyone will lose someone from COVID-19,” I didn’t believe it. I never even imagined I would lose two.
On April 10 at around 4:40 p.m., I heard my father begin crying in a way I had never heard before. I’ve only ever known my father to cry at sad movies or the casual Adele song, but this day was different.
He gasped for air at the news, sobbing and blaming God for taking away his best friend: a son, a father, a husband, a godfather and my uncle — Mike Ortiz.
My father grew up in the Bronx, where he struggled through poverty and isolation to survive. His friends, the 205th street boys (as they called themselves), helped each other live and escape the ghetto they’d known for too long; they wanted their families to live different lives. This group of men treated my family as if we were blood, and every one of them became my uncle the day I was born. Each with their own nickname — my dad was “Little Frank,” while my uncle was “Fat Mike” — that stuck.
My entire life, anytime we went to go see the boys, I knew it was a day of “soda pong” with my cousins and a lot of ice cream, laughs and yelling. But the yelling was always positive, always from the bottom of their hearts, and ended up being some of the funniest things I had ever heard.
My uncle Mike had a sense of humor that would stop the room, and he loved the smiles he spread. When I was about 12 years old, I sat outside his brother’s house, my Uncle Joe, with Mike’s two daughters and Joe’s two daughters.
He was a few beers deep, as was obvious, but Mike walked out with the biggest smile, and a box of fudge pops. To be funny, he slurred the word “fudgesicle,” making it sound more like “fushicle,” garnering laughs from all the girls in the backyard.
He was a dad who loved his girls with everything he had, like any parent would — but his support was immense. His daughters began playing softball, and as I had played for most of my life and was older than them, Mike came to my dad and I for advice.
Soon, the two girls were playing tournament softball, and Mike was their number one fan.
One of my fondest memories is when I was playing in a tournament in New Jersey, and my uncle Mike showed up with his chair (with an attached visor, of course) and sat down on the sidelines of my first game. Then he moved for the second, and the third. In the blazing sun of July, I heard him non-stop screaming, telling me I could do it and to not back down.
A few years ago, Mike was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of plasma cells where cancer cells overcrowd healthy ones in bone marrow. This cancer is the reason my uncle didn’t have a fighting chance against COVID-19, and although he remained strong through chemo and pushed to survive, he still lost his battle. I’d hoped things would be different, but this morbid reality we now live in is all too real.
A day later, my mother learned that her friend, Jeff Scalf, a Gulf War Marine Corps veteran and an NYPD Detective, had passed due to COVID-19. His wife, her best friend since high school, was distraught at the news. Jeff left behind his son, Alex, and daughters, Maria and Charlie.
Jeff was a southern guy from Tennessee who was “sweet as pie,” as he is described by many, who seemed the polar opposite of a New Yorker. My mom reminisces that after he tried Italian sausage and peppers for the first time, he was hooked.
I knew Jeff since I was a baby, attending nursery school with Maria and forever having random family barbecues. I look back now and yes, everyone gets busy when they go to college, but I feel as though I didn’t get to spend as much time recently with Jeff as I would have liked to.
This new lens has allowed me to see the light in everything. The importance of driving to your grandmother’s house just to wave from the driveway, and accepting what we simply cannot change.
I say rest easy to two men who impacted my family with pure positivity. This world isn’t as great without you, but I know you’d want everyone you love to keep moving forward.
To anyone reading this, reminders to stay home, wear masks, wash your hands and stay six feet apart are no joke. Lives are at stake, and there isn’t anything that can be done to stop this from happening to you. Do your part — it is our most important responsibility.