Weeks before she was diagnosed with COVID-19, Vanessa Cardenas Gonzalez picked the name “Heaven” for the child she would soon deliver — her first girl.
That name now comforts the husband she left behind, who cares for the daughter Vanessa never held.
“The name is prophetic of what was about to happen to mom,” Alfonso Gonzalez told USA TODAY. “Mom was about to go to heaven.”
Vanessa — the mother of two boys and newborn Heaven — died Dec. 14 in Los Angeles at the age of 33 after battling COVID-19 complications for about a month.
Heaven was born in November, before the worst of Vanessa’s illness. But because Vanessa was positive for the virus at the time, the only interactions she had with her daughter were through video calls, family friend Desiree Vera — who has organized a crowdfunding campaign to benefit the family — told USA TODAY.
Vera, who became close with Vanessa and Alfonso through a church small group, knows the story is “heartbreaking.”
Vanessa was a healthy young mother, who spent months eagerly awaiting the birth of her first daughter. She even began buying items for a baby girl before they knew the baby’s gender.
In July, Vanessa wore pink as she and Alfonso popped a confetti-filled balloon in a live-streamed gender reveal, which was held virtually due to the pandemic. When the confetti that exploded was also pink, the two laughed and smiled with joy. Vanessa dabbed her eyes before ending the livestream.
But when Heaven was delivered in November, doctors and nurses whisked the baby away to prevent Vanessa from infecting the newborn. When she returned home, Alfonso had more bad news: Vanessa would still need to isolate from the child at home, even though she longed to be in the same room as Heaven.
“It can’t happen like that; I’m sorry, Vanessa,” he remembers telling her.
Soon her condition deteriorated. After a heart attack, she spent her final days on life support with Alfonso virtually by her side praying, reading and playing music to comfort her.
But amid the tragedy of her death, Alfonso speaks of gratitude and hope.
He’s grateful for a church family that has supported him at every turn — buying groceries, helping him navigate Vanessa’s medical care, raising funds to help his family.
“I’m so blessed to have a family in church — they’re so selfless,” he said of close friends from New Beginning Community Ministries. He credits his faith with giving him the strength to carry on and begin to rebuild.
As Vanessa’s story gains attention, he hopes she will be remembered for more than her final days.
“I just want people to remember her as a loving mother, a loving wife and a loving friend,” he said. She was the kind of person who would “stop in her tracks and give” — and he hopes her memory will encourage others to do the same.
Vera remembers Vanessa as shy but giving — someone who fed the homeless and loved teaching her children.
She hopes Vanessa’s story will help others better understand the devastation of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 325,000 Americans so far — including Vera’s father.
“This virus is very, very real to us.”