Lives Lost: Beloved aunt would ask: ‘Where’s the party at?’

For family and friends, Lydia Nunez always had jokes, hugs and lots of love.

She was the “glue” that brought people together, the one who remembered birthdays, spoiled her nieces and nephews and brought a spark to any room she entered. “Where’s the party at?” was one of her favorite phrases.

So when she died at 34 from the coronavirus, her devastated older sister, Erika Banks, went shopping, just as they used to. For Nunez to wear in her white casket, Banks bought a red dress at Macy’s; a wig, so Nunez’s hair would be long, as it had been before she cut it; and a favorite lipstick, Ruby Woo.

Getting everything perfect for her baby sister gave Banks one last chance to take care of somebody who had always lifted the spirits of others despite battling her own health problems.

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“I wanted her to be the standout, to be the pop of color” at the funeral, said Banks, 41. “I wanted her to look amazing, to look her age, to look as fabulous as she was.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of an ongoing series of stories remembering people who have died from the coronavirus around the world.

Banks had always wanted a younger sibling. Despite a 6-year age gap, she and Nunez grew up very close. They took turns sharing the television, as they liked different shows, and hung out with other children in their Los Angeles neighborhood.

At age 8, Nunez was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes. While managing it meant she had to do things differently from her friends – such as frequently pricking herself to check her blood sugar – she didn’t let it define her. One of her biggest worries in elementary school was making sure other kids knew they couldn’t “get” diabetes from her.

Perhaps it was that self-awareness that helped her see others.

Nunez’s mother, Lorraine Nunez, remembers how her daughter, while in high school, once asked for extra money to throw a surprise birthday party for a classmate who wasn’t going to have a celebration because his parents were divorced.

“Everybody loved Lydia,” said Lorraine Nunez.

When Banks married and had her first child at 22, Nunez, then 16, embraced being an aunt. After school, she would come home, do her homework and then take care of the baby boy, Jesse, so that Banks, then in nursing school, could study.

When some years later Banks and her husband moved to their own place, Nunez would come over and spend the weekends. As Banks had more children and they grew up — today there are four between ages 12 and 18 — “auntie,” as they called Nunez, helped raise them and enjoyed spoiling them.

Sometimes that would come in the form of funny gifts, like a Disney bikini for a niece when she was only three months old, and other times, as the kids got older, she would periodically slip them cash, an auntie “allowance” of sorts.

More than anything material, she was always there for her two nieces and two nephews, whose names she tattooed on her left arm (her sister and some cousins were tattooed on her right).

Eris Banks, 12, recalled how her aunt would come over on New Year’s Eve, the day before Eris’ Jan. 1 birthday, and play board games because Eris didn’t like to go out and see fireworks.

“She would listen to you, whatever you had to say,” said Eris Banks. “I would tell her about my mom, and she was always on my mom’s side, would always say mom was right.”

Nunez loved to dance and cook and was always ready to help get celebrations going. A quick wit often had people laughing.

“Stop telling all my business, woman!” was something she would tell her mother at family gatherings.

After finishing high school, Nunez wanted to become a social worker and began classes at a community college. She also slimmed down, getting into Zumba classes and closely managing her diet. But in her early 20s, she was diagnosed with gastroparesis, a condition in which the stomach doesn’t properly process foods.

Over the next 10 years, she would suffer a constant cycle of stomach pains, medicines, surgeries and hospitalizations. Things would improve and then something would trigger another wave. Once, after Nunez vomited all over the couch and living room floor in the middle of the night, she woke her mother up. Writhing with stomach pain, she lamented that she had become a “burden.”

“God gave you to us. I’ll never get tired,” Nunez’ mom recalled telling her daughter. “I know sometimes you wake us up in the middle of the night. It’s OK. I want you to come to me and dad first. You are a part of both of us.”

Early this year, before the coronavirus took hold in the U.S., Nunez was enjoying a long spell of good health. Things were going so well that she went on a vacation to Oregon with her mother, her sister and Jesse. When they returned from the trip in mid-February, cases of coronavirus were beginning to emerge in the U.S. The family took every precaution, knowing that Nunez was fragile.

On May 23, the fear the family carried for months about Nunez came true: she got sick again, this time rupturing an intestine that required a major surgery. There was no way to keep her at home, no way to keep her from hospitals where people were being treated for coronavirus.

After surgery, she steadily recovered, until late June, when was diagnosed with the virus. She died July 5. The family wonders if they could have done something differently, but mostly they just miss Nunez.

“I don’t even know how to tell people that I only have one child now,” said Lorraine Nunez, who spends some time sitting in her daughter’s room, holding a favorite headscarf to feel closer. “At some point in the day, I have to cry.”

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