Voices of grief: mourners gather for candlelight vigil on one-year anniversary of Cuomo’s nursing home directive

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Mourners broke down into a fit of tears during the vigil.
Photo by Dean Moses

Voices for Seniors hosted a candlelight vigil in Foley Square on Thursday evening, allowing family members of deceased nursing home residents to express their grief on what marked the one-year anniversary of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s nursing home directive.

A parent is a symbol of love, protection, and a reminder of childhood. However, that fuzzy, warm feeling has been tarnished for the families of 15,000+ New Yorkers who lost their mothers and fathers to the COVID-19 pandemic. For many of the individuals filing into Foley Square on March 25th, the word parent evokes vastly different emotions. For them, when they think of their parents they hear the dry, rasping of lungs struggling for air and see the rapid movement of an exhausted chest inhaling its last breaths. But above all, they recall what it was like to say goodbye to a loved one through a computer screen. This horrific memory has bypassed happier times, leaving only sorrow.

Those in attendance wept at the stories shared. Photo by Dean Moses

Still mourning, these sons, daughters, and grandchildren are clinging onto their sorrow and weaponizing their grief. Gripping signs with the faces of their lost family, they are telling their stories to the world in hopes of bringing the one they feel responsible to justice.

Theresa Sari lost her mother, Maria Sachs, on April 13, 2020, in an Island Park nursing home. Her mother’s last moments are forever embedded in her mind. The shrill beeping noises from machines, labored breathing, and the feeling of helplessness constantly invades Sari’s dreams at night. 

“This was the last time I saw my mother,” Sari said, holding up a picture on her phone, “This is what negligence and this guy signed a book deal for. This is me saying goodbye with her grandchildren. The woman could hardly breathe. We didn’t get to hug her or kiss her. Yet we watched her suffer!” 

Like many others in attendance, Sari wondered why Cuomo’s family was given priority in being tested for COVID, and their families weren’t. 

“Why was his mother a priority and not my mother? Why was his brother tested on March 31st and not my mother? She should have gotten priority testing along with the thousands of others who were showing COVID symptoms at the same time,” Sari said. 

Theresa Sari shows the way in which she was forced to say goodbye to her mother. Photo by Dean Moses

Sari says she made a promise to her mother that she will not let her death be in vain. Her grief has fueled a deep and unwavering fire, and she adamantly says she will not stop until Cuomo is held accountable for his actions. 

“I don’t care if anyone is on our side or not. I will stand there in front of his office every day and I will hunt him down—and I’m not threatening just stating facts—and I will let him see that video and these photos that haunt me for the rest of my life. I see this in my dreams every night,” Sari said holding up a photo of her mother on a respirator.

Feeling that the Governor’s executive order granting nursing homes immunity sent their loved ones to an early—and sometimes a mass—grave, those at the rally say the time for an apology and mere accountability has passed, now they are seeking punishment. 

Joann Rodriguez’s father, Anthony Rodriguez, passed away in a nursing home in Westchester County. She says that last year, around the time of Cuomo’s directive, she had called the nursing home her father was residing in to see how he was doing. For two weeks no one at the facility answered her call. She feared the worse, and then she finally got a call back that her father had a high fever. 

Some clutched their heart, feeling it shatter inside their chest. Photo by Dean Moses

He was rushed into the emergency room. It was there that a medical worker called her on Facetime. It was the first and last time she saw her father. He died two hours later. Since then she has been advocating for her father and the thousands of others who perished. 

“In the beginning of all of this, I was just looking for an apology. But now, a year later, I still haven’t at least got that. So at this point, it’s beyond an apology. I want justice and I want to see Governor Cuomo step down. I want to see him put away and held accountable for what he did,” Rodriguez told amNewYork Metro.

In addition to calling for Cuomo’s impeachment and, in turn, justice, the event was also about releasing built-up emotions. Mourners let out audible sobs while others broke down in a fit of tears and had to be whisked away from the vigil as speakers shared stories of loss. Weeping into crumpled-up tissues and yanking down their masks for air, reliving these moments proved to be too much too soon for many attendees. Still, they powered on holding electric candles and looking upon gigantic numbers that had been erected in Foley Square that together read 15,000—the number of lives lost in nursing homes due to COVID-19.   

Mourners brought photos and signs to the vigil. Photo by Dean Moses 
Mourners looked for the comforting embrace of loved ones. Photo by Dean Moses
Electronic candles and photos of the lost filled Foley Square. Photo by Dean Moses