Long Beach mayor loses mother, stepfather to COVID weeks apart. He wants people to learn from it
The first openly gay mayor of Long Beach talks about what the Biden-Harris ticket means for California, Long Beach’s role in the nationwide protests, and speaking at the Democratic National Convention.
When 61-year-old Gaby Elena O’Donnell died July 26 of complications from COVID-19, her son Robert Garcia honored her on Twitter, posting photos of his mother at her job as a medical assistant at a clinic. She dutifully wore a mask and scrubs.
Two weeks later, on Aug. 9, his stepfather, 58-year-old Greg O’Donnell, who had been fighting for his life on a ventilator, also died of COVID-19 complications.
But for the Long Beach mayor, this was no time to stop.
Garcia powered through news conferences and pleaded with the public to wear masks and maintain their distance. He presented the 2021 city budget proposal amid the greatest economic crisis in decades and pressure to defund police agencies after the historic protests over the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.
Garcia gave media interviews about his family and Long Beach’s COVID-19 plans as nearly 10,000 residents became infected and the city’s coronavirus death count reached 187.
On Twitter, vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris expressed her condolences and told him, “Mothers are irreplaceable but I know yours will continue to be a guiding force throughout your life.”
Garcia has no doubt about that.
“My mom taught me to be really strong,” the mayor said in an interview with The Times. “When you get elected mayor of your community, that’s a hard job that requires a level of toughness and knowing what you signed up for. I signed up for a job regardless of hard moments in my personal life.”
For the entirety of Garcia’s term, Gaby Elena O’Donnell had been a fixture in Long Beach city affairs, beloved by the many who knew her. During council meetings, city events and other engagements the mayor was involved in, there she was to support her son.
“I think sometimes she still thought I was 18 years old in her head,” Garcia said.
During a July 30 news conference, Garcia regaled his audience with memories of his mother.
He was a 5-year-old boy when he left Peru with his mother, father and grandmother in search of the American dream. They fled domestic terrorism and economic uncertainty.
Together, Garcia and his mother learned English and made a new home in California. His mother worked at thrift stores and as a housekeeper, eventually landing a job at her most recent workplace, a clinic where she was a medical assistant for more than 25 years.
A couple years after arriving in the U.S., Garcia’s parents divorced. Eventually, Gaby met Greg O’Donnell on a night out at a disco bar in the San Gabriel Valley. He remained loyal to her and his family ever since.
O’Donnell was a quiet but also gregarious man who loved simple things in life, Garcia said. He worked hard to start and maintain his contracting business for about 30 years. He liked to host barbecues and spend time with his family. Garcia’s mother and O’Donnell eventually had a son together.
“He was just a good dad and good grandpa to my brother’s son,” Garcia said. “He was a hard worker and took care of the family really well.”
“He was very humble and the strongest person I have ever known,” Garcia’s brother Jacob O’Donnell wrote in a public Facebook post. “He had a heart of gold.”
And he and Garcia’s mother were “just totally in love. They were always happy.”
A few years ago, Garcia went back to Peru with his mother. She hadn’t been to her homeland in decades.
They went through the neighborhood she grew up in. She pointed to the window of her old barrio apartment, her favorite anticucho cart, a stand selling various types of meat dishes. They visited other landmarks of her life.
“It was amazing to see Peru through her eyes,” he said.
But one of the most joyful moments of Gaby O’Donnell’s life was the day she became a U.S. citizen, Garcia said. She instilled in her son an appreciation for their adopted home. Garcia would become an American citizen a year after his mother.
“I think about, during these times, my mother’s optimism in us building a better future and a better community,” he said. “She always said to me and to my brother that we’ll never be able to give back to our country what our country has given to us.”
It was that belief system that led him to be a public servant, he said.
Now, in the midst of this pandemic and the loss of his mother and stepfather, he wakes in the early morning, turning on his computer by 6 a.m. He checks with his staff. Then he checks in with his mourning family.
In between his duties as mayor, he plans his stepfather’s memorial service. Garcia is also preparing to give a speech at this week’s Democratic National Convention after he was selected as one of 17 civic leaders to address the gathering.
“The days go pretty late,” he said.
On social media, Garcia has remained active, sharing some of the messages of support from Gov. Gavin Newsom and presidential candidate Joe Biden. He shares snippets about his mother and stepfather sprinkled in with pleas to his city — the second largest in L.A. County.
He does this, he says, because he knows that his job requires him to be transparent with the people of Long Beach. But he also hopes that maybe, if his constituents hear his story, they will realize how deadly real the virus is.
Maybe people will think twice about taking a stroll, without a mask, along Bluff Park or the beach. Or anywhere, really.
Even before his mother and stepfather died, it angered the mayor how many people didn’t wear masks or take the precautions necessary to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
“It’s incredibly irresponsible,” Garcia said. For some people “it doesn’t really matter how many times you say it. They’re making a personal, irresponsible choice. And I don’t understand that choice.”
As recently as Wednesday, the mayor posted his latest plea to the public. In a short video on Twitter, he first thanked the many who have showered him with support and tacked on a reminder: “Please remember COVID-19 is real.”
“I hope that my family’s story inspires other families to not just stay safe, but to spend time with each other and to know they have a family they should check in on and love and spend time with and that it could be gone instantly,” he said.
He’s still reeling from his mother’s death.
It wasn’t that long ago that Gaby O’Donnell was urging him to take care of Long Beach from her hospital bed.
“I’m fine, just focus on the city,” the mayor recalled his mother saying to him via FaceTime or phone calls. “Make sure you’re telling everyone to be safe and wear a mask.”
On Aug. 8, the mayor attended his mother’s memorial service organized with the Long Beach health department’s guidance. It was a small service, with family and friends sitting on chairs lined six feet apart.
The following day, doctors informed Garcia’s brother, Jacob, that his father had died.
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