Social gatherings in close quarters have returned, and mask-wearing is almost a distant memory for many as life swings back into pre-pandemic norms.
But there’s one place in Kern County to collectively remember and grieve how COVID-19 changed this community forever. On Saturday, around 100 people gathered at the Kern County COVID-19 Memorial Wall at American Fabrication & Powder Coating for an unveiling of 88 new names.
“Everybody has a story, and none of them (are) good,” said Kevin Russell, the owner of American Fabrication & Powder Coating, who created the structure with his employees.
Glancing across almost 530 names etched into metal sheets provides just a glimpse of Kern County’s fallen. One person has the nickname Batman, another Boogie. A few rose to the rank of sergeant in their branch of service.
Applause sounded from the audience as the tarps covering the wall were flung back Saturday morning. The reflective material spelling out names mirrored the audience’s grieving faces, and allowed them to reunite.
Families snaked across the American Fabrication property, waiting to pick up a flower and find the names of their loved ones. Some exchanged stories about who died, while laughing and crying. Others stood in solemn silence just watching. And remembering.
“It makes it more real,” Corina Chilton, 39, said of seeing the hundreds of names.
For Chilton, COVID-19 was an unknown beast when it infected her father-in-law, Victor Ramos, and then he died in October 2020. His name is the first on the memorial. Russell saw it as a way to honor his best friend.
“Everything happened so fast,” Chilton continued. “And when he passed away, nobody had answers.”
Chilton has been to the previous unveilings and said each one allows grieving families to understand they aren’t alone. During times of isolation, it was easy to forget others felt the same.
“You know that there’s other people out there (who were) just as confused as you are,” Chilton said.
Russell has witnessed at least a thousand residents coming to his company to pay their respects during unveilings and other times to see the memorial, which is open to the public at any time or day of the week.
That doesn’t mean it gets easier, he said.
Russell talked to one attendee, clutching pictures, who lost five people to COVID between her siblings and children.
“I ask (them), ‘How do you go on?’” Russell said.
Larry Dominguez, 71, knows of roughly 20 people who died from COVID-19. He and his family scanned the deep brown memorial walls for Ronald S. Dominguez, who died April 28, 2020. Some touched their hands to their mouth as their faces creased in pain.
“It’s a struggle because it came so unexpectedly,” Dominguez said after finding his brother Ronald on the wall. The 65-year-old went to Memorial Hospital and died a few days later.
“We didn’t get to say goodbye,” Dominguez said.
“They do this for wars and everything,” Larry Dominguez said. “(COVID-19) is war. It’s a disease that happened, that came upon us from nowhere.”
Patricia Baldenegro, 46, took a deep breath before answering a reporter’s question about seeing her brother’s name, Frank Martin Gonzalez, 55, etched into the wall.
A long pause passes as Baldenegro’s eyes remain teary. Mixed emotion, Baldenegro finally says of the experience. Hurt. Pain. But, happy knowing he’s in heaven.
“It’s never been the same (after he died),” Baldenegro said. Tears fell as she gazed at the wall.
COVID-19 isn’t just a virus for her. It’s a monster, she said.
Ishani Desai can be reached at 661-395-7417. Follow her on Twitter: @_ishanidesai.