He became a wrestler because his father was a wrestler. He planned to work at the same power plant as his dad when he graduated from high school.
It seemed fitting that they shared the same name: Anthony Michael Reyes.
Then, last summer, COVID-19 swept through the Reyes family. Within weeks, Anthony Sr. was dead.
Anthony Jr. rarely slept. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw his father in a hospital bed. He kept the lights on in his room. He held in his tears so he could console his mother and two sisters.
He had wanted to be his dad his whole life. Now, at 17, he was thrust into the role. If his younger sister wasn’t feeling well, he’d stay with her. If his mother had an appointment, he wanted to be there.
Even before his father’s death, the teen had written a school paper on the pain of life during the pandemic.
“The whole coronavirus affected me in many ways, and the way the pandemic affected me the most was through my mental state,” he wrote in August 2020. “With everything being closed, it was becoming increasingly harder to stay home with my depression.”
The pandemic, which has seemed to drag on for a lifetime, has worsened a mental health crisis for youths across the country.
In a public health advisory issued last month, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy wrote that “the pandemic era’s unfathomable number of deaths, pervasive sense of fear, economic instability, and forced physical distancing from loved ones, friends, and communities have exacerbated the unprecedented stresses young people already faced.”
The advisory is to call attention to a “youth mental health crisis” and recommend resources to call on and actions to take.
About 167,000 children under 18 have lost a parent or other in-home caregiver to COVID-19, according to a December report by researchers from the COVID Collaborative and Social Policy Analytics. Black and Latino children experienced more than twice the rate of loss of white children.
“American youth have lived through one of the most historic, unprecedented increases in mortality that our country has seen in literally decades,” said Emily Smith-Greenaway, an associate professor of sociology and spatial sciences at USC who last year co-authored a study on COVID-19 and parental death.
“We clearly need interventions and programs and services to really address young people’s poor mental health as a result of all that they’ve endured.”
Anthony Jr., known to his family as Papi, hated quarantining.
The bright-eyed boy had to stop wrestling. It was a big blow for the teen, who had placed second in his last tournament. He couldn’t see his girlfriend, “and that was torture for him,” said his mother, Stephanie.
The family had to be careful as the pandemic worsened. Anthony Sr. had a heart condition, Anthony Jr. had asthma and Stephanie had lupus and rheumatoid arthritis — all health conditions that made them more likely to get severely ill if infected by the virus.
When Anthony Sr. returned to their home in Riverside County from his work as a power plant operator, he’d take his clothing off in the garage, throw it into the wash and then shower. The family went through loads of hand sanitizer and Lysol.
At the start of the pandemic, Anthony Jr. would roll out of bed minutes before Zoom classes started. Students were supposed to still wear their uniforms, but at times the teen showed up in pajamas, recalled Cheryl Bennett, an instructional aide.
“Coronavirus was mainly a burden for me because it forced me to distance myself from my friends and my girlfriend,” he wrote in the August 2020 paper. “That’s what caused my depression but then I luckily got better and thankful that I am a happy little boy today.”
Anthony Jr. returned to in-person classes at Santa Rosa Academy in August. He had watched his sister Marissa, who is 13 months older, miss out on her senior year with classmates and he was excited he’d return to school for his.
“He was so happy, because now they were ‘top dogs,’” Stephanie said. The only regret among the three siblings, who included 15-year-old Reyna, was that they had missed their chance to attend high school together.
In class, Anthony Jr. — who was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder — was a “big ball of energy” but respectful to his teachers. He received one-on-one help from Bennett, which helped him stay on track.
Although the teen stood only 5 feet 5, he was quick to defend anyone in trouble.
When a classmate’s mother died of COVID last February, Anthony Jr. offered his support. When Bennett’s brother died during the pandemic, the teen messaged her asking if she needed anything.
“He was very, very, very empathetic and caring,” Bennett said.
As he navigated a new school year, his parents finalized their purchase of a five-bedroom home in Menifee. His sisters would each have a room of their own. He was going to help his dad fix it up.
On Aug. 27, Anthony Jr. attended the first sports pep rally of the 2021 school year. Soon after, the family received a notice from the school: One of their children had been in contact with someone who had tested positive.
They received the keys to their new home four days later. By then, they all had COVID.
The family was not vaccinated, holding off because of concerns over their health conditions and fear of side effects on their children. Experts say COVID-19 vaccines are generally safe for people like them, who have all the more reason to get the shots because of their vulnerability to serious illness.
Despite feeling sick, Anthony Sr., 46, continued packing up the U-Haul truck in the driveway, desperate to realize their dream.
Within a week, he was put on a ventilator.
On Sept. 11, 2021, Anthony Sr. died.
Anthony Jr. and his father were best friends.
If his sisters teased him, their father jumped in on his son’s side and vice versa. It was always girls against boys. Father and son shared the same contagious smile and laugh.
“He was just like Anthony,” Stephanie’s sister, Nicole Mulgado, said. “It was like a copy and paste.”
When the hospital allowed just two people to see Anthony Sr. in the COVID ward after he died, Anthony Jr. pleaded to go. That’s when the teen saw blood pooled in the corner of his father’s eye. He could never erase the image from his mind. Some nights, he went to his mother’s room so she could hold him.
Every morning and every night before he went to bed, Anthony Jr. would kiss his father’s urn.
“All my kids, they lost their dad. I can’t make that pain for them go away,” Stephanie said. “But my son, he was more worried about us than he was worried about himself.”
Suicide prevention and crisis counseling resources
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, seek help from a professional and call 9-8-8. The United States’ first nationwide three-digit mental health crisis hotline 988 will connect callers with trained mental health counselors. Text “HOME” to 741741 in the U.S. and Canada to reach the Crisis Text Line.
Now a family of four, they moved into their new home. They used a staple gun to hold up the living room curtains. They didn’t fix the fence as they had planned.
Anthony Jr. decided not to wrestle. He couldn’t do it without his dad, who had been at every match cheering him on.
As days turned into weeks and weeks into months, the family started to rebuild. They began to fix up the house — their way of honoring Anthony Sr. Reyna and Anthony Jr. went to homecoming. In December, Marissa wrestled with her younger brother, and their laughter echoed through the house like old times.
“We were starting to mend a little from after losing my husband,” 37-year-old Stephanie said.
But at times, Anthony Jr. would blame himself for getting sick at school and bringing it home.
Other days, he would yell at the photos of himself and his father that were printed on a blanket given to him by his grandmother: “Why did you leave us?”
Stephanie tried to get her children help, but wait times for therapy stretched for months.
On Dec. 27, Anthony Jr. went to the gym with his best friend. He made it home just in time for his 8:30 p.m. curfew. He thanked his younger sister for switching his bedding to the dryer, said goodnight to his mother and told her he loved her.
A showcase for compelling storytelling from the Los Angeles Times.
At 4 a.m., Stephanie jolted awake. As she walked downstairs to get water, she spotted the light underneath her son’s door. She knocked and then went in.
Inside the bedroom, decorated with his father’s Dodgers caps, a cross from the funeral service and pillows that still held his dad’s scent, Anthony Jr. had taken his own life.
Anthony Jr. did not leave a note explaining his despair. But he had endured a pandemic, the loss of his father, the pain of isolation and the heartaches that come with being a teenager.
For Stephanie, the only person who would have understood the pain of losing her son was her husband.
“Five months ago, I had my whole family together, safe,” she said, her body shaking with sobs. “The pain of losing a best friend is bad. But losing my baby is the worst pain I have ever been in.”
A grieving mother has so many questions after her son takes his life. ‘I don’t understand,’ she says.
Inside the Reyes home, framed collages from Anthony Sr.'s funeral service were propped up in the entryway.
There were father and son at the power plant, both in hard hats and grinning.
There was Anthony Sr. with his arms around his girls during a father-daughter dance. He had been on a work assignment and was unable to get a flight out. He drove seven hours so he didn’t miss it.
Young people are experiencing an alarming increase in mental health challenges, the U.S. surgeon general has said. Here’s what you should know.
“My dad was my best friend as well. When he passed, Anthony became mine,” Reyna said. “I had Anthony with me to take on that role, kind of like my dad. Now that he passed, it’s going to be a little harder.”
After Anthony Jr.'s death, Stephanie’s mother, Carmen Amador, spent hours on the phone trying to get counseling for her daughter and granddaughters. She estimates that she talked to about 50 people before she found someone with availability.
Stephanie, Marissa and Reyna are now meeting with a therapist once a week. After the first session, Reyna said she felt better than she had before.
The family is now preparing for a second funeral service. Stephanie expedited the delivery of her son’s class ring, which he had designed with his father. On one side is the Mexican flag and on the other, two wrestlers.
The grieving son had requested that his father’s name be added to the inside of the ring, so he “would be with him all the time.”
She plans to slip the ring onto her son’s finger. So he can wear it just once.
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