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Married for 52 years, William and Diana Gutierrez died of COVID months apart

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Over the past year and a half, we have been remembering some of the more than 750,000 people who've died of COVID-19 in the U.S., and we've asked you to share their stories with us.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Today we wanted to take a moment to remember two people, a husband and a wife who were married for 52 years and died just months apart - William and Diana Gutierrez of Austin, Texas.

MELISSA GUTIERREZ: They were inseparable always. When you saw one, you saw the other. And that even went to death.

CHANG: That is Melissa Gutierrez, their daughter. She says her parents have always been her best friends.

GUTIERREZ: So this is going to be hard to do without crying.

KELLY: William and Diana grew up in Austin in the 1950s and '60s, and as Mexican Americans, they faced discrimination everywhere.

GUTIERREZ: They weren't allowed to speak Spanish at schools. They would get reprimanded. My dad's name was actually Guillermo. He legally formally changed his name to William so that he could attend school. White students were put on the college track, and Mexican students were on a trade track.

CHANG: Neither went to college as a result, though Melissa is proud that they both ended up earning college credits later in life and that they made every sacrifice to make sure that she and her siblings got a college education.

GUTIERREZ: They said, we'll do whatever we have to do to put you through college. We want you to have all the opportunities that we didn't.

KELLY: Melissa is now a teacher. She says her mom would probably have been one, too, if she'd had the chance.

GUTIERREZ: They worked five jobs to put me through college and never complained. And when I earned that diploma, I gave it to them. And I said, this is yours, too. And it still sits in their living room because that was a shared accomplishment.

CHANG: One day in November of last year, Melissa got a call from her dad, telling her that he had just tested positive for COVID. This was before vaccines were widely available, and both William and Diana had underlying medical conditions.

KELLY: Eventually, they both had to be hospitalized. No one could visit them in person, and they had to be kept in separate rooms.

GUTIERREZ: We did a lot of FaceTime. My dad never left the hospital. Eventually he FaceTimed me. He told me that he was getting put on a ventilator, and that was the last time I talked to him.

CHANG: William passed away at Dell Seton Medical Center on December 4, 2020. He was 72 years old.

KELLY: When Diana heard about her husband's death, she wanted to join him. But Melissa could not bear to lose both her parents at once, so Diana held on.

GUTIERREZ: Anything, anything for her family but especially her kids. She would do anything.

CHANG: Finally, after three months and countless procedures, the doctors told the family that Diana had irreversible lung and heart damage.

GUTIERREZ: You know, she just got back, and she was like, just take me home. I just want to go home. I'm tired of being in the hospital. They said if she goes home, it's going to be the hospice care. And so I made sure that she understood that. And she was like, OK. I got to touch her on the way in, but I never got to hug my dad.

KELLY: Diana died a few days after going home on February 6, 2021. She was 73.

CHANG: William and Diana are survived by Melissa and her brother, William Jr. In honor of their parents, they have set up a scholarship in their names in the same district where her parents went to school many years ago.

GUTIERREZ: We called it the Guillermo and Diana Gutierrez Abriendo Puertas Scholarship. Abriendo puertas means open doors. But I kind of saw that as a way to bring Guillermo, the name Guillermo, back into the district, a name that was stripped of him.

(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO'S "BLACK SANDS")

KELLY: If you would like us to memorialize a loved one you've lost to COVID-19, find us on Twitter at @NPRATC. There's a pinned tweet right at the top.

(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO'S "BLACK SANDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.