COVID-19 took the lives of Johalmo Lemus’ parents only 18 days apart.
The Hempstead resident said the deaths of his mother on Feb. 26, and his father on March 16, led to an outpouring of supportive messages that consoled him but also compounded his grief.
"You have the days you cry all day," said Lemus, 22, a junior studying biology at Farmingdale State College. "I’m getting all these texts again, 'I’m sorry for your loss.' "
The incalculable loss of both parents — leaving behind Lemus and his sister, Sandra, 18, a freshman at Nassau Community College — has also been felt by many friends, some of them customers at Spaghettini Pizza Trattoria in Mineola where their dad was a beloved chef.
As of Wednesday night, a GoFundMe account launched last week with a goal of raising $100,000 for the family had collected 919 donations for $74,430 so far.
On Feb. 18, Lemus and his sister drove their mom, Sandra Lemus, 49, and separately their dad Ernesto, 52, to Nassau University Medical Center after both fell ill. When he said goodbye, Johalmo Lemus was not thinking it would be the final time he would see his parents alive.
"I dropped them off at the hospital, my mom and dad," Lemus said. "I told them, ‘Let me know and I’ll pick you up, what time and day.' It just didn’t happen."
Despite the agony of losing his parents so close together, Lemus said he’s gained strength from their story. It's a quintessential American story: Immigrants, in this case from El Salvador, arrive in the United States searching for a better life, and finding one for themselves and their children.
The outpouring from Long Islanders, especially by those who knew his dad as a chef, also has helped.
"Everyone had so much respect and love for him," Lemus said of his father, known affectionately as "Ernie." "He wasn’t a neurosurgeon or a lawyer. He was a guy who made pizzas. But he had his priorities right. He was a beautiful human being."
Spaghettini’s owner, Pasquale Vetrano, 45, of Mineola, said those who work there were devastated at hearing about the death of Ernie Lemus.
"A lot of guys try not to think about it," Vetrano said, "because if they do, they’ll break down."
Vetrano said Ernie Lemus was often the first employee to arrive at the start of the work day.
"You would always see him in the window. If you came into the store he’d be the first one you’d see making the pies and serving the pies as well," Vetrano said of Lemus, adding that he worked there for more than five years.
The restaurant, which is near NYU Winthrop Hospital, stayed open during the pandemic because customers from the hospital needed it open, Vetrano said.
"He was the pizza man, and he made every pie that went" to Winthrop, he said of Ernie Lemus.
Of his father, Johalmo Lemus said: "He was so happy to be able to feed people that were saving lives."
Lemus said his parents were raised in Santa Ana, El Salvador. The two never met in their native country, despite Ernie Lemus' friendships with his future wife's brothers on the soccer field.
Lemus’ mother moved to Hempstead as a teenager to join her mother. Lemus’ father moved to Hempstead in his 20s. Once on Long Island, Ernie Lemus learned his soccer pals from back home had a sister in town. The couple married in 1998, Johalmo Lemus said.
His parents had an amazing bond, and looked at their two children as "miracles," he said, because they once struggled to have a family.
The deeply religious couple made a pact that if they were to ever have children, Sandra Lemus would stay home to raise them while Ernie went to work.
"They showed us what real love was, what real care is," Lemus said. "I can’t be more happy about that."
Growing up, Lemus said, he could always count on his mom to always be attentive to him and his younger sister. Lemus said his mom built a home filled with joy and love that extended to their three cats, a dog, a bunny and four birds.
"My mom was super funny," he said. "She spent most of the day with us."
Lemus’ father worked six days a week. When he first moved to the country, he worked odd jobs in construction and landscaping, but eventually found himself in a kitchen at a now closed pizzeria in Hempstead, where he worked for years mastering the craft of making pizzas, Lemus said.
"He learned English working as a cashier," Lemus said, noting his father spoke almost flawless English before his death. It was his gift of gab, in two languages, that made him so popular, Lemus said.
Lemus said his father will be buried Monday at the Queen of Peace Cemetery in Old Westbury, next to his wife.
Although there are times when he cries all day, Lemus often stops to reconsider: His parents wouldn’t want him to be sad.
"They’re not here, but it’s not the last time I’ll see them," he said. "I’ll see them in heaven. It’s less of a goodbye, and more of a see you later."